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Next Step : Mandela's Magic: New Tests Ahead for S. African Leader : Still extremely popular, the South African hasn't been the savior many hoped for. Now his road may narrow as his followers grow more militant amid calls for dialogue and compromise with Pretoria.

April 02, 1991|Scott Kraft | TIME STAFF WRITER

SOWETO, South Africa — For a quarter century, he languished in apartheid's jail, his famous face hidden from all but his closest relatives and a handful of friends. Now, a year after his walk to freedom, millions upon millions around the world recognize the gently lined features of Nelson Mandela.

And still the Mandela magic, spun by his 27-year absence from the public eye and nurtured for the past year by his regal presence, shows no signs of waning.

The black liberation leader has held dozens of news conferences, yet reporters still cram into the airless conference room at African National Congress headquarters in Johannesburg to hear him. He has addressed hundreds of rallies and meetings, from Los Angeles to Tokyo to Soweto, yet he still packs the world's halls and stadiums.

The ANC facsimile machine hums with invitations from world leaders and requests for Mandela interviews and speeches.

Black and white South Africans, as well as tourists, approach Mandela in airports, elevators and on the street, surprised at his willingness to chat and even pose for souvenir photographs.

"He is so receptive, such a gentleman," marveled Bill Bubier, a tourist from Satellite Beach, Fla., who introduced himself to Mandela in the Durban airport last month. Bubier and his wife took turns with their video camera.

When Mandela first walked into the Johannesburg courtroom for his wife's kidnapping and assault trial, four black bailiffs, broad smiles on their faces and guns on their hips, approached to shake his offered hand.

"Hello, how are you?" Mandela said, smiling at men who would be considered tools of a repressive system by most ANC supporters. Although he was only a spectator, he worked the courtroom like a presidential candidate.

Mandela was heralded by many as the savior of the 28 million voteless blacks in the heady days after his release, Feb. 11, 1990. Mandela's freedom, many of them believed, would assure their own freedom from decades of repression.

It has not turned out quite that way. Mandela was not the savior many had hoped for. But he has managed to hold onto his broad support among blacks. At the same time, he has earned the respect and admiration of the white, Afrikaner-dominated government.

"I find Mr. Mandela a gentleman I can relate to," said Adriaan Vlok, the government law and order minister who put many thousands of Mandela's followers in jail without trial during the 1980s. "We have a good working relationship. If we differ, we say so."

Now, as Mandela begins his second year at the center of South Africa's political stage, he faces his greatest challenge -- how to balance the militancy and raised expectations of his followers against the need to negotiate and compromise with the government.

If his health holds up, Mandela could well be the next president of South Africa. President Frederik W. de Klerk and his Cabinet ministers say they would have no difficulty serving under a President Mandela, although they favor a power-sharing arrangement that would strip the presidency of much of its power and prevent the ANC from dominating the government.

Mandela deflects questions about his own political aspirations, saying he would follow the decisions of the ANC.

"What I may be in the future is not in my hands," Mandela said recently. "That question should be put to the men around me because they control my movements and determine our policy."

If the ANC "is fortunate enough to form a government," Mandela added, "it will determine who should be the president and form the Cabinet. It's not for me to say."

But that day may be at least several years and exhaustive negotiations away. Associates of Mandela and de Klerk say both men hope to be part of the new government of South Africa.

Mandela's release opened a new era in South Africa. And in the coming months the ANC deputy president will be the glue that holds together the fragile peace pact between angry blacks and the government that caused that anger. Without him, most white and black South Africans agree, their country's future would indeed be very dim.

"There is a kind of heightened sense of pride that we have him," said Barbara Masekela, a former English teacher at Rutgers University and now the administrator of Mandela's office. "He symbolizes all the sacrifice, the courage, the resilience and the peace-lovingness of our people."

Outside his two-story home on a hill in the middle of Soweto, children gather every day to play soccer in the street. A favorite song of these youngsters, and others across the country, goes: "Nelson Mandela. There is no one like Nelson Mandela."

Mandela has become much more than a symbol for the black liberation movement. He is a tough negotiator, a skillful politician and a charismatic leader. He effectively guides the ANC, and his leadership is undisputed.

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