Nelson Mandela was an extraordinary politician but as he repeatedly told anyone who would listen, he was not a saint.
His political skills, honed during 27 years in prison, were pivotal in the transformation of South Africa from the apartheid pariah to the rainbow nation that hosted the World Cup in 2010.
Madiba, as he was popularly known, might not have been able to build a paradise in South Africa but he certainly stopped the country being a living hell for its majority black population.
Thirty years ago, South Africa, like Israel-Palestine, was one of the longest-running and most intractable political problems facing the world.
Now, South Africa is a country like any other. No wonder then that Mandela is often described as ‘the father of the nation’.
In the mid-1990s, I was veteran author Anthony Sampson’s researcher. After Anthony was commissioned to write Mandela’s authorised biography he instructed me to trawl through Madiba’s career: ‘Who did he knife on the way up? Nobody gets to the top without climbing over others.’
As I worked my way through Mandela’s long life it was clear that although there were political opponents in the African National Congress (ANC) and in other parties, there were none of the usual political betrayals or cruelties.
I was surprised – as was Sampson - by the number of people in South Africa and Britain who feared that the authorised biography could reveal secrets that would hurt Madiba.
Nelson Mandela had already started to mean something more than the usual political leader or liberation hero. He was the politician who was supposed to restore our faith in the power of politics.
As the subject of research, Nelson Mandela was a joy. He responded to drafts of the book with hand-written comments that often corrected errors in other’s accounts.
Of course, Mandela, the African elder, would never discuss his feelings. Such areas were off limits.
In 2002, a BBC associate producer was insistent that I wrote questions for an interview with Madiba along the lines of ‘How did you feel when you were released from prison.’
I replied that he would not understand the question. Mandela was a man from a more dignified age: a man for whom emotion was a thoroughly private matter.
Nelson Mandela possessed numerous gifts that made his long walk to freedom possible.
The Afrikaner intelligence chiefs who negotiated with him in prison testified to his calm determination and the consistent manner in which he approached the treacherous task of creating a space for dialogue.
Following his release from prison in 1990, Mandela entered into the agonising second wave of negotiations that lead eventually to the elections of 1994. He guided during the negotiations, intervening only when necessary.
Nevertheless, Cyril Ramaphosa, the lead negotiator noted that:
He knew when to compromise but he also knew when to hold his cards close to his chest.
In April 1993, the Communist leader Chris Hani was brutally murdered by a Polish assassin and the negotiations seemed to be on the verge of collapse.
Mandela emerged as the de facto leader of South Africa, addressing the nation on television. The predicted bloodbath did not materialise.
If there was a weakness during his presidency it was the failure of the ANC government to provide a powerful response to the HIV-AIDS pandemic.
In retirement, Mandela seemed determined to compensate for this failure. He raised substantial funds through the 46664 campaign – 46664 was Mandela’s prison number – and he spoke at AIDS conferences. In 2005, he announced that his son, Makgatho, had died of AIDS.
To watch Mandela in action was to witness a political master-class.
In 2002, he visited the HIV-AIDS campaigner Zackie Achmat to encourage him to abandon his refusal to take anti-retroviral drugs.
Achmat had declared that he would not take the drugs until they were widely available to all South Africans. During the press conference outside Achmat’s home in Cape Town, Mandela put his arm around the activist’s shoulder.
I was struck by the fact that any normal human being would have removed their arm after a few moments. For an 84-year-old to keep his arm around Achmat’s shoulder for three or four minutes demonstrated either a complete lack of self-consciousness or some deeper purpose.
What was not obvious to those of us standing in the throng was how this simple gesture would speak through the crowd, through the hungry television cameras and enter directly into South African homes with a simple message: ‘All South Africans are my children.’
It has often been said that Nelson Mandela was South Africa’s Gandhi and Nehru: the spiritual and the political liberator in one.
It is probably more accurate to conclude that Mandela was a nineteenth century politician in the twenty-first century. His 95 years seemed to encompass worlds of transformation.
At his birth in 1918 – although recent research has suggested that he may have been born as early as 1914 – life in the Eastern Cape for a young African of noble birth was almost pre-colonial.
By the end of his life on 5th December 2013, Mandela was a global figure and Johannesburg, where he died, was a genuinely international city.
To have lived through colonialism – and the ‘special type of colonialism’ that the ANC believed apartheid represented – into a world of 24-hour news and the internet was remarkable. To have achieved this feat as a political communicator was incredible.
The key to Mandela’s politics is that he had a total understanding of political theatre. In a little known essay on Black Consciousness written by Mandela in prison, he explained the importance of performance and image in his political method:
In recent years, despite Mandela’s great age and occasionally wandering mind, the performer never quite disappeared.
As he was ushered onto the stage at yet another function – a charity pop concert in London or the World Cup Final - for a moment the twinkle would appear in his eye and the old stager would re-emerge.
Nelson Mandela experienced a connection with audiences and crowds that can only be described as electric. This must have been the ultimate prize for the performer-politician.
Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom (1995) has been an extraordinary bestseller.
Anthony Sampson told me in 1996 that our task as the ‘authorised’ was to fill in the gaps in Long Walk and ‘to squeeze blood out of the stone’.
By 2013, the number of books devoted to Mandela numbered more than forty: there has been a cookbook, children’s books, even a comic book.
Mandela has been portrayed in feature films by: Sidney Poitier, Dennis Haysbert, David Harewood, and most recently, Morgan Freeman and Idris Elba. But no actor has ever captured the quiet dignity and the playful knowingness.
If the real Madiba hidden behind the iconic mask ever watched the films he must have found the whole strange business of how he was represented rather bemusing.
Nelson Mandela was the master-politician who helped construct a passage through the South African racial minefield. He was also the political performer who made the South African story comprehensible to millions around the world.
Finally, he became an icon of integrity and compassion: perceived by many to be the last honourable politician in an increasingly chaotic world.
It is often said that there are only two stories left to write about South Africa: Mandela dies and South Africa falls apart. The greatest tribute that the new South Africa can pay to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela would be to demonstrate that the country has no intention of falling apart.
Over the years, I hadn’t bothered getting a photograph of myself with Nelson Mandela and indeed I thought the whole ‘touching the hem of the garment’ culture was a little disturbing. In 2005, I spoke with Madiba and others at a memorial celebration for the late Anthony Sampson in Johannesburg.
As Mandela was leaving the stage, he leant across to the writer and actor, John Matshikiza, and me, and said: ‘You boys, keep causing trouble, OK.’
To be instructed to cause trouble by the greatest of all troublemakers – his name Rolihlahla means ‘tree-shaker’ or ‘troublemaker’ - was a moment to treasure. I was surprised by how much it meant to me.
Farewell Madiba and thank you.