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Mandela up close: A journalist's view

In 1996, the South African president outlined an ambitious economic-development plan.

NELSON MANDELA moved cautiously down the steps leading from the veranda to the front lawn of his private residence, where a group of reporters waited for him.

He looked relaxed in a floral print shirt that he wore untucked over a pair of slacks. Despite his halting gait and casual attire, his bearing was as regal on this October day in 1996 as it had been on that day in 1990 when we watched him walk away from 27 years in prison, into a leadership role of a morally bankrupt nation.

He was 78 when we met him, in the middle of a five-year term as the first person to represent all South Africans. From freedom fighter to founding father, he had spent a lifetime serving his country. It would be two more years before he'd be allowed to retire.

I remember thinking: This is too much to ask of any man.

But I had thought that six years earlier. I had watched the coverage on that triumphal day when he stepped from the clutches of his enemies into the arms of his people. The government gave him a full pardon. But the needs of his people had turned it into a work-release program.

"I place the remaining years of my life in your hands," he told an expectant crowd.

It wasn't fair. He should have been allowed to absorb the adulation of a nation that was grateful for the work he had started. Instead, he was pledging the rest of his life to a job they couldn't finish with or without him.

He gave his youth to start a movement, his middle years as its sustaining symbol. After 27 years in captivity, hadn't he already given his life? He was from a royal family, a brilliant scholar, and one of the first black lawyers in South African history. He was being groomed for a life of privilege.

But Mandela couldn't get comfortable with his people's agony. He would never get caught in the contradiction of the "If I made it, you can make it" lie that separates the fortunate few from the more typical masses.

He was the face of the anti-apartheid struggle for 40 years. Even before prison, he had spent months on the run and two years in exile in Algeria.

All that only earned him more work. As president, he forged a coalition from two dozen feuding parties, including some who had been at war for years. He was the one man with the moral authority to advocate for reconciliation rather than revenge.

He would say that his crowning achievement was the ratification of a constitution in 1996 that guaranteed equal rights for the same white minority that had presided over the systemic subjugation of South Africa's nonwhite majority.

But he didn't want to talk about any of that on the day we met him. He wanted us to see the South Africa that he envisioned, not the one he had endured. He outlined an ambitious economic-development plan to help alleviate the stifling poverty that plagued his people. More than 20 years after the end of apartheid, 24 million blacks still struggle to subsist in "the new South Africa."

They would be justified in rising up against their oppressors. History is replete with the heroic accounts of oppressed people who took up arms against their tormentors.

But there were no Mandelas in those bloody sagas.

Two of his grandchildren were waiting for us to leave that day so they could have him to themselves. He had spent part of the day in Mozambique with Graca Machel, the woman who would become his third wife. We had met her a week earlier in Maputo. She was the widow of Samora Machel, founding father of the republic of Mozambique. She was an internationally known anti-war activist.

She smiled coyly when asked about news photos that showed her and Mandela walking hand in hand outside his villa. She denied the rumors that they were planning to marry.

"Where would we live?" she asked playfully. "I belong to my people. He belongs to his people."

But two years later, on his 80th birthday, they were wed. For the next 15 years, she was at his side. She was there with him at the end.

A chronic lung ailment that finally took his life resulted from the ravages of his captivity. The world had kept a vigil for months, hoping he could overcome it, as he had every other vestige of his prison years.

But in June, South Africa's Sunday Times ran a headline across its cover to prepare his people for life without their liberator:

"It's time to let him go," the headline counseled.

I remember thinking that years ago.