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'Mr President...South Africa is free'

Mandela leaves behind a principal that doesn't need the flesh and blood of the man to survive, says veteran Fairfax journalist Neil McMahon. Producer - Tom McKendrick

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In the years after Nelson Mandela's release from prison, Australian journalist Neil McMahon observed the Mandela phenomenon up close as a foreign correspondent. Here, memories of the man, the myth -  and the powerful moments that marked his journey from prisoner to president.

He's gone and hearts are broken - from Mvezo, village of his birth, to other places near and far, where queens and commoners alike are wrestling tears. The world loved Nelson Mandela, who has died aged 95, and will pause in its sadness, honour his story, store its memories and move on. South Africa is nursing a deeper wound, and bearing deeper worries.

As the man himself once wrote: “I could not imagine that the future I was walking toward could compare in any way to the past that I was leaving behind.”

Mandela was recalling the death of his father when he was nine, but the analogy seems apt. What now, for life at the foot of Africa in a land without the father of the nation? But just as the bereaved Mandela had done as he left his childhood home with his widowed mother in 1930, today with its worries amid a tide of mourning, South Africa perhaps underestimates itself - and in a way it underestimates Mandela.

He had, in his way, long prepared the country and the world for this moment.

Through bitter but profound experience, he had come to understand the value of silence, the potency of absence and the power of the symbolic - and the power of himself as a symbol. He seemed to know that for all else that he was, his life had come to represent an idea - and that the idea, well-planted, could thrive without him. His potency as a symbol could be traced back to his long prison years, when he was voiceless and faceless - but never powerless. The idea of him took care of that.

In the decade of intense public life after his release, Mandela seemed to wear the world’s affections lightly, and to treat its assumptions about him indulgently and with good humour. Flesh and blood he was - “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying," he once joked. But if the people needed the myth, the saint, the symbol, he was willing to don the cloak. In life, it helped him achieve great things. In death, it was something to leave behind.

The symbol is the whole man now, and few men understood the power of symbolism like Nelson Mandela.

April 27, 1994. It wasn’t my first or last time with him, but it was easily the most  profound and, in keeping with Mandela’s life after prison, it was all about the majesty of the moment, the opening act in a presidency in which it was decided that the man would often be the message. On this day, how could he not be? The leader of the African National Congress, the prisoner now a candidate for president, was to cast the first vote of his life in South Africa’s first democratic elections.

We - the media pack granted access to this moment - rose early, though not as early as Mandela, whose years on Robben Island had cemented pre-dawn hours as the natural start to a day. As ever, he was beaming and gracious, and never was his natural delight at an encounter with the new and the novel more aptly displayed. The ballot paper was deposited with boyish delight; for the first but not the last time across 15 astonishing days, from the start of voting to his inauguration, those watching could only gape and mark the memory.

It wasn’t his real first vote, but it was close enough: he’d actually cast his vote [for himself, as president] inside a school hall earlier. The image relayed to the world was his second vote, for local government, and done outside for the cameras. We thought this was surely the moment of the day, the symbolism was rich. We were at a school started by a former president of the ANC, John Langalibalele Dube, whose grave was close by. Mandela stood at his grave and said: “Mr President, I have come to report to you that South Africa is free today.”

It was certainly on its way. There had been years of civil war talk - indeed, a run on the shops for household staples just days before suggested a pessimistic populace - but that morning, Mandela’s first vote did what it had to do. It suggested confidence and hope, pride and progress, of a most unlikely kind. It wasn’t until we were on the road back to Durban that we heard the news from Johannesburg: right- wingers had detonated a bomb at the airport, the latest atrocity in their attempts to derail democracy at its birth.

This was Nelson Mandela’s lot in the years after he was freed. Two steps forward, one, two or three steps back, but he never wavered. For more than two years prior to election day, the country’s political parties had been locked in negotiations for a post-apartheid settlement, talks that were at times ferocious, at others numbingly dull. The white government wanted power-sharing, the ANC wanted full democracy, the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Movement - the ANC’s opponent in an undeclared civil war in the townships - was for compromise, in keeping with its long dealings with the apartheid regime.

There were three men to be reckoned with, all proud and claiming high principle - F.W. de Klerk on behalf of the ruling nationals; Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi; and Mandela, global icon and a man of steely will. He could be terse if he felt his integrity was being impugned. His deputies did the grunt work, but Mandela was always the trump card - when the leaders were called in to seal a deal, his grace and bearing helped command the room, but Mandela the moral symbol was the real force that did the business.

“It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die,” he had said of his beliefs in 1963. By 1993 he wasn’t for turning, though he wasn't averse to some timely dealing. And nor was he averse to turning the screws on De Klerk, his public partner in peace. De Klerk was a charmer and liked a tipple. Over Christmas drinks, a stiff spirit on ice and a lot of cricket talk were the weapons deployed on this Australian. When he and Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, he gathered the media for a chat. He and Mandela had raised a Scotch together at the news, he said - and you could hear the tension in the description of this notional celebration.

Mandela had F.W.’s number - morally, historically, globally, symbolically. And, symbolically, he had De Klerk’s job long before any democratic votes had been cast. As an optimist that the process would work, the single moment I recall having a crisis of doubt was on Easter Sunday, 1993, when Mandela ally and SA Communist Party leader Chris Hani was assassinated by white racists. The democratic castle these men had been building seemed set to topple, amid popular fury and grief expressed en masse on the streets.

That night, De Klerk, the president, effectively surrendered. It was Mandela, leader of a movement banned as a terrorist group only a few years earlier, who took to the airwaves for a national address. He appealed for calm. He appealed across racial boundaries. He eschewed revenge. He counselled patience and hope.

For me, it was the moment that the symbolic idea of Mandela fully joined the flesh-and-blood man. The man-and-monument Mandela adored by the rest of the world had found that same voice on home soil. The Hani moment secured the authority that would help him carry most of his compatriots - of all races - through the darker emotions that always threatened to intrude.

He was often at his best in such moments of gravity, but the ephemeral was his playing field, too. He’d sometimes let on that he was in on the joke about his supposed beatitude and celebrity, and that in their service he often had to do very silly things. For a time after the apartheid boycotts ended, there was a flood of visiting foreign stars. Madiba, with a country to sell abroad, usually obliged with a photo op. When a coked-up Whitney Houston staggered across the country on tour in 1994, he gently mocked her political credentials, jesting that he wasn’t fit to lick her boots. He posed with the Spice Girls. He went along to see Michael Jackson perform in Cape Town, surely amused at Jacko’s on-stage claims to be a soldier for all humanity. And in March 1997, he met with one of his few rivals for lighting up a room with a mere smile. The lady blushed, awed. Even Princess Diana couldn’t compete with Mandela on high beam at a photo call.

Diana was not alone in being out-shone; the great and the good came to pay homage, to bask in the glow, not to compete. His inauguration in 1994 was a case in point. It was a classic Madiba moment: the largest gathering of world leaders since JFK’s funeral in 1963. Who else but Mandela could gather Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, Muammar Gaddafi and Hillary Clinton in one place - and have them happily there as his supporting cast.

A memory that lingers: that night the US Embassy in Pretoria hosted a celebration. Hollywood stars mingled with African heads of state. Corretta Scott King had come, a living link with civil rights struggles past.  Clinton spoke, powerfully, off the cuff; Al Gore and Jesse Jackson, too. Then they asked the crowd to link arms and sing a song for Madiba: "We Shall Overcome". Mandela wasn’t there, but his spirit overwhelmed the room.

Two years earlier, I visited Robben Island, the prison off the coast of Cape Town where Mandela had spent most of his years as an inmate.  I was taken to a small cell, barely a closet. This was where the Mandela of legend grew, as Mandela the man endured his deprivation with a dignity and stoicism that remains a thing of wonder.

It’s a tourist attraction now, but then it was as it had been before they let the prisoners go. If you want a memory of Mandela, go to Robben Island. You can stand there in that cell and sense him with you. You can leave inspired, humbled and even hopeful.

Madiba doesn’t need to be there; the idea of him is all you need.