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As Ex-President, Mandela Retains Aura

March 09, 2003|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

ROBBEN ISLAND, South Africa — On this wind-swept spit of an island, where penguins stood sentinel beside the road as guests pulled up in tuxedos and gowns, Nelson Mandela presided over dinner at the infamous prison where he was once held -- and enjoyed a little joke at the expense of President Bush.

People had flown in from London, Cyprus, New York and Paris last month to dine with Mandela, and they smiled as he recounted how he had just called British Prime Minister Tony Blair to dress him down like a schoolboy for supporting the American president on Iraq.

Next on his speed dial was Bush. But the White House brushed him off, according to Mandela, saying the president was "on the West Coast."

"The West Coast? There must be some means of communication. The West Coast is not a desert. What is his telephone number?" Mandela mock-demanded, as the black-tie crowd roared with laughter. "It was clear to me that Tony Blair had told him what I said to him and [Bush] didn't want to talk to me."

When Mandela speaks, he expects the world to listen. And it does. Like Jimmy Carter, Mandela has taken to the world stage on issues such as Iraq and the AIDS crisis. But unlike Carter, Mandela can lay claim to a stature left vacant by another former political prisoner, Mohandas K. Gandhi.

It's the rare person who doesn't take his calls, and everyone from former President Clinton to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has made the pilgrimage to Mandela's spartan former prison cell.

U.S. diplomats in South Africa admit to nervously bracing themselves for his regular disdainful critiques of a possible U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Mandela tells friends that he loves the freedom he has to speak his mind now that he is no longer South Africa's president.

And as with Pope John Paul II, when Mandela speaks on weighty issues, people pay attention.

But if he sometimes ruffles feathers abroad, at home Mandela remains a vital consensus figure whose message of forgiveness and reconciliation is keenly reassuring in a society that so recently moved beyond apartheid.

People worry aloud about who will play this peacemaker role when Mandela, 84, is gone.

"In a way, morally, he's still at the helm here of this ship we're steering through difficult seas. He's a treasure beyond price," reflected Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize-winning South African novelist.

If Mandela's stature imbues his words with the power to rattle even the most powerful Western leaders, at home his overwhelming charisma dwarfs anyone in his presence -- most conspicuously, the younger, more worldly but less publicly poised President Thabo Mbeki.

Nowhere has Mandela overshadowed Mbeki more than in the push for greater action in the AIDS crisis. Mbeki once famously said he doubted the link between HIV and AIDS -- prompting howls of disapproval around the globe and deep unease in South Africa, which has the world's largest number of people living with AIDS or HIV.

"For heaven's sake, it's been proven a million times," Gordimer said. "It shows you're a big enough man to say, 'I was wrong, and now I've changed my mind.' But he doesn't do it. He will not give us what we need and put himself in the leading role in fighting AIDS."

Mandela, by contrast, has spent the last few years visiting AIDS clinics and orphanages and adding his voice to the call for broad availability of antiretroviral medications that can allow AIDS patients to lead productive lives and prevent transmission of the virus to newborns.

Mandela has come to be viewed as a potent critic of his government's AIDS policy, a role many say has cooled his relationship with Mbeki. Last year, as the government appealed a court decision requiring that it provide the drug nevirapine to HIV-positive pregnant women, Mandela called for people who desire anti-AIDS drugs to have access to them.

"My view is that a perception has been created that we [the government and the ruling African National Congress party] don't care for lives, we don't care that babies are being born almost every day by women with HIV," he said.

Mandela lent his image to posters and fliers for a march held a few blocks from the site of Mbeki's annual state of the nation address last month by activists demanding a national policy on AIDS. Then the former president's foundation publicly repented that decision, saying he had not meant to undermine the government and would not be joining the protesters.

Mandela says he regrets that he neglected the seriousness of acquired immune deficiency syndrome during his five-year presidency, which ended in 1999. He told an interviewer for an upcoming British documentary that he was preoccupied with nation-building and afraid of offending conservative black South African sensibilities regarding sex.

"AIDS is a war against humanity that I have committed to fight," Mandela explained when asked why he chose the disease to be, perhaps, his last crusade.

Comparisons of Mbeki and Mandela go beyond the issue of AIDS.

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