Mandela is that rare thing: a man
turned into statues in his own lifetime
South Africa's first black president got the big questions
so right that even cool heads forgive his elevation from man to superman
The BBC triggered an avalanche with its 100 Greatest Britons poll, won
by Winston Churchill, in 2002.
Other countries copied the format.
The 10 greatest South Africans as voted by the public were,
in alphabetical order, Dr Christiaan Barnard, F W De Klerk,
Mahatma Gandhi (who was politically active there),
Nkosi Johnson, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela,
Gary Player, Jan Smuts and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
As in the BBC edition, there was then a series of programmes
to rank the top 10.
Each week presenters would put the case for their favourite candidate.
But the broadcaster, SABC, decided to make only nine programmes,
because the winner was a foregone conclusion.
Nelson Mandela had received tens of thousands of votes more
than anyone else in the initial poll.
To make the final competitive,
it was changed so "the public could vote for who
they thought should stand next to Nelson Mandela".
Is there any other country in the world where the title of
greatest would be so automatic,
with the rest of the pack trailing in several laps behind?
And does any nation have such a champion still alive in 2009?
South Africa's first black president is that rare thing,
a man who has been turned into statues in his own lifetime.
"Hey, just look at us, which other country has a moral colossus
to match Nelson Mandela?"
asked Desmond Tutu. "We are the envy
of every single nation on earth."
Mandela turns 91 this week.
To spend any time in South Africa is to understand
he has rescued the phrase "living legend" from cliche.
He has joined Gandhi and Martin Luther King
in political Valhalla.
Yet whereas the mystique around such figures
accumulates posthumously, he possesses it and lives.
Perhaps it was at risk, and he was in danger of mere celebrity,
in the days of endless photo opportunities with Naomi Campbell
and the Spice Girls. Bridges, squares, stadiums
and theatres were named after him.
But now that Mandela – affectionately known by his clan name,
Madiba – is retired, he has rarity value, making
every public appearance a major event
that brings the nation to its feet.
On Saturday I was at Johannesburg City Hall
for the seventh Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture.
At first I was surprised that Professor Muhammad Yunus,
pioneer of microcredit and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize,
should command such a big police and media presence.
Then I understood.
As we waited in the rows of seats,
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela among us,
a tall, stooped figure entered stage right
with fragile but determined steps.
The audience rose as one in a standing ovation.
Mandela, leaning on a stick with one arm,
and on his third wife, Graça Machel, with the other,
looked out at the auditorium and beamed under
his shock of white hair.
He was helped painstakingly into an armchair
and he raised his hand in a familiar wave as the applause
and whoops continued.
A shiver ran through me as I absorbed the theatre of it all.
The anti-apartheid movement was much bigger
than one man.
But there is no doubt that Mandela has become
A history of suffering and struggle has crystallised
on his shoulders.
Every human being is flawed, and Mandela is no exception,
but he got the big question of his life so right that
even cool heads forgive,
just this once, the elevation of a man to superman.
Yunus, for one, was overwhelmed to the point of gushing.
"I stand in awe," he said, his voice quivering.
"Standing in front of the most wonderful person on earth today."
The current South African president, Jacob Zuma,
has also made ostentatious shows of reverence
But I suspect that Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison,
retains a mantle of humility.
When the national anthem was announced,
with a request for all to stand,
I watched Mandela's expression harden with resolve,
and his hands press on the armrests in an effort to rise.
No one, after all, is bigger than the nation.
But he was quickly assured that he could rest easy.
Lately I've been reading and hearing that Mandela's mental faculties
are failing in his old age.
He looked on good form to me.
Wearing headphones, he seemed to follow Yunus's speech intently,
nodding and applauding, smiling at moments of levity.
At times Mandela, in a trademark batik silk shirt, and his wife,
resplendent in yellow, exchanged words and held hands
like any elderly couple in the theatre stalls.
At the end, when another speaker gave a short message,
the former president made a point of inviting him over
to shake his hand and thank him personally.
It is tempting to believe that Mandela is literally immortal,
and await the million dollar shot of his shaking hands
with President Barack Obama at next year's World Cup.
But all things have an end.
Away from polite company, journalists speak in low voices
about their preparations for his death,
the supplements already written, the vantage points secured
near the family plot in Eastern Cape.
Mandela's grandson was last month forced
to deny press reports that he had sold the rights
to televise the funeral for £230,000.
Funerals are not really about the deceased so much
as those who are left behind.
Mandela's death will be a national trauma,
a moment of critical soul searching for the post-apartheid republic.
It will be South Africa's Princess Diana moment.
And she finished only third in the BBC's Greatest Britons.
Series: David Smith's letter from Africa
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