Pool photo by Themba Hadebe
Nelson Mandela at the inauguration of
President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria in May.
Nelson Mandela with his wife, Graça Machel,
and his grandson Ziyanda Manaway during
Mr. Mandela's 91st birthday in July.
By CELIA W. DUGGER
JOHANNESBURG — The icon is a very old man now.
His hair is white, his body frail. Visitors say
Nelson Mandela leans heavily on a cane when
he walks into his study. He slips off his shoes,
lowers himself into a stiff-backed chair and lifts
each leg onto a cushioned stool.
His wife, Graça, adjusts his feet "so they're
symmetrical, and gives him a peck,"
says George Bizos, his old friend and lawyer.
To Mr. Mandela's left is a small table piled
with newspapers in English and Afrikaans,
the language of the whites who imprisoned
him for 27 years. Family and old comrades
sit to his right, where his hearing is better.
His memory has weakened, but he still loves
to reminisce, bringing out oft-told stories
"like polished stones," as one visitor put it.
"There's a quietness about him," said
Barbara Masekela, his chief of staff after
his release from prison in 1990.
"I find myself trying to amuse him, and
I feel joyous when he breaks out in laughter."
Mr. Mandela, perhaps the world's most
beloved statesman and a natural showman,
has repeatedly announced his retirement
from public life only to appear at a pop concert
in his honor or a political rally.
But recently, as he canceled engagements,
rumors that he was gravely ill swirled
so persistently in South Africa that his foundation
released a statement saying he was
"as well as anyone can expect of
someone who is 91 years old."
Yet even as Mr. Mandela fades from view,
he retains a vital place in the public
consciousness here. To many, he is still
the ideal of a leader — warm, magnanimous,
willing to own up to his failings — against which
his political successors are measured
and often found wanting.
He is the founding father whose values
continue to shape the nation.
"It's the idea of Nelson Mandela that remains
the glue that binds South Africa together,"
said Mondli Makhanya, editor in chief
of The Sunday Times.
"The older he grows,
the more fragile he becomes,
the closer the inevitable becomes,
we all fear that moment.
There's the love of the man, but there's also
the question: Who will bind us?"
There is a yearning for the exhilarating days
when South Africa peacefully ended
white racist rule, and a desire to understand
the imperfect, big-hearted man who
embodied that moment.
Because of this, various historians
and journalists are at work on a
new round of books about Mr. Mandela.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation agreed
last month to sell publishers in some
20 countries the rights to a book,
"Conversations With Myself," based on material
from Mr. Mandela's personal papers — jottings
on envelopes, journals, desk calendars,
drafts of intimate letters to relatives
written in prison and documents from
his years as South Africa's first
democratically chosen black president.
"He was and still is an obsessive
record keeper," said Verne Harris, who has
been Mr. Mandela's archivist since 2004
and will knit together the excerpts with
Tim Couzens, a biographer.
"The oldest records we have in that collection
are his Methodist Church membership cards,
the earliest one dated 1929.
So he was 11 years old then."
There are telling nuggets in unexpected places.
In his prison years, the authorities gave him
a South Africa tourist desk calendar each year.
He typically recorded facts in it — his blood pressure,
or whom he met that day — but occasionally
he noted a dream, like one in which
his daughter Zindzi, whom he was not
allowed to see from when she was 3 years old
until she was 15, "asks me
to kiss her & remarks that I am not warm enough."
The book will also draw on 71 hours
of taped conversations that Mr. Mandela
had with Richard Stengel, who
collaborated with him on
his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom,"
and Ahmed Kathrada,
Mr. Mandela's prison comrade.
"One of the amazing, uncanny things
was his memory," said Mr. Stengel,who is
writing a memoir of his time
with Mr. Mandela, called "Mandela's Way,"
to be published in March.
"It was like he was watching a movie
of his life and then narrating it,"
Mr. Stengel, Time magazine's managing editor,
continued. "He would do voices
of his father, of his teachers, of his prison guard."
Eventually, after a team at the foundation
has catalogued the entire archive,
the foundation plans to digitize it
and put it on the Internet.
The vast bulk of it is not yet public.
Historians say they are not expecting
major surprises about Mr. Mandela's generally
well-known views, but hope to find
rare glimpses of the man.
Mr. Mandela is looked after by his wife,
Graça Machel, 64, the widow of a former
president of Mozambique and
a humanitarian activist.
"They behave like young lovers,"
Mr. Bizos said. "They hold hands."
Here in Johannesburg, it is not unusual
for residents of his neighborhood,
Houghton, to gossip about how
he is doing. Mr. Harris, seeking to douse rumors
that Mr. Mandela was deteriorating,
said he was still healthy but tired
of small talk with strangers.
"He can reminisce at great length
about things that happened years
and years ago," Mr. Harris said.
"But you know what old age is like.
Short-term memory starts
to malfunction and you have bad days."
His oldest friends, stalwarts of
the anti-apartheid struggle, still visit.
Mr. Bizos, who went to law school
with Mr. Mandela in the 1940s, said
Ms. Machel worried that Mr. Mandela
would be alone when she was out of town,
and eat too little without company.
So from time to time, Mr. Bizos
gets a call from their housekeeper
to come for lunch.
Mr. Mandela sits at the head of a large table,
with Mr. Bizos to his right.
They relish their favorite dish — oxtail
in a rich sauce — and talk about old times.
Mr. Mandela tells how he walked into
a law school class and sat next
to a white fellow with big ears,
who promptly changed seats to avoid
sitting next to a black man.
Mr. Mandela had wanted to invite
the man to their 50th reunion at the University
of the Witwatersrand in 1999,
but the man had already died.
"He repeats it from time to time,"
Mr. Bizos said. "He regrets he did not
have the opportunity to meet him.
He would have said to him,
'Do you remember what happened?
But please don't worry.
I forgive you.' "
Like a grown child for whom each goodbye
to an aged parent feels as if it may be
the last, South Africa seems to be
preparing itself for the final farewell
to its epic hero.
And Mr. Mandela seems to have
readied himself, poking fun at his infirmity.
Mr. Harris recounted a joke
he had heard Mr. Mandela tell and retell.
"When I die, I'm going to get up
to the gates of heaven, and they're going
to say to me, 'Who are you?'
" Mr. Mandela says. "And I'll say,
'I'm Madiba,' " he said, referring
to his clan name.
"And they'll say, 'But where do you
come from?' And I'll say, 'South Africa.'
And they'll say, 'Oh, that Madiba.
You've come to the wrong gates.
You see the ones down there that
are very warm?
That's where you have to go.' "
Mr. Mandela's wish is to be buried
alongside his ancestors in Qunu,
on the eastern Cape, where
he spent the happiest years
of his boyhood.
In his autobiography, he describes it
as a place of small, beehive-shaped huts
with grass roofs.
"It was in the fields," he wrote, "that
I learned how to knock birds out
of the sky with a slingshot, to gather
wild honey and fruits and edible roots,
to drink warm, sweet milk from the udder
of a cow, to swim in the clear, cold streams,
and to catch fish with twine
and sharpened bits of wire."
Sent from Kigali, Rwanda