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Mandela at ease on world stage

Published Aug. 31, 2005

On a 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 an elegant 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 with relish 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 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 a rare person who doesn't take his calls, and everyone from Bill Clinton to Yasser Arafat has made the pilgrimage to Mandela's former prison cell. U.S. diplomats in South Africa admit to nervously bracing themselves for his regular disdainful critiques of the possible U.S. invasion of Iraq. Mandela tells friends he loves the freedom he has to speak his mind, now that he is no longer South Africa's president.

And like the pope, when Mandela does speak 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 still keenly reassuring in a society that so recently moved beyond apartheid. People worry aloud over 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 greatest number of HIV/AIDS sufferers in the world.

"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 past few years tirelessly visiting AIDS clinics and orphanages, and adding his voice to the call for the broad availability of antiretroviral medications that can allow AIDS sufferers to lead productive lives and prevent transmission of the virus to infants.

Mandela has become 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 to provide neviropine to HIV-positive pregnant women, Mandela called for people who desire the drugs to get access.

Mandela lent his image to posters and fliers for a march held a few blocks from Mbeki's annual State of the Nation address last month by activists demanding a national policy on AIDS. The former president's foundation publicly repented the choice, clarifying that 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 own five-year presidency, which ended in 1999. He told an interviewer in an upcoming British documentary that he was preoccupied with nation-building and afraid of offending conservative black South African sensibilities regarding sex. But this history is widely ignored, as when he smilingly donned an "HIV positive" T-shirt in solidarity with AIDS sufferers.

"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 between Mbeki and Mandela go beyond the issue of AIDS.

While Mbeki has repeatedly opposed an attack on Iraq, it was Mandela who made world headlines in January when he accused Bush of "wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust." But Mandela also drew rare criticism when he accused the U.S. president of disregarding Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the issue because the U.N. leader is black, declaring: "They never did that when secretary-generals were white."

Even in South Africa, where his message of racial reconciliation is viewed as key to building a new society, even some of his closest friends expressed chagrin at language seen as divisive. Mbeki's arrival to the opening of the World Cricket Cup a few weeks ago drew polite applause, but the crowd erupted with joy when Mandela showed up. When Mandela appeared at the ANC convention during Mbeki's speech in December, delegates danced and sang in a standing ovation so rapturous that the current president finally deadpanned: "Hurry up and sit down, Tata," employing a term meaning old man or "uncle" that can be affectionate or dismissive.

"Thabo Mbeki is always compared with Mandela," said A.M. Kathrada, a 26-year political prisoner who was an intimate friend of the former president at Robben Island and has a good relationship with the current leader.

"(Mbeki) says, "What do you expect me to do? Must I grow taller? Must I go to prison for 27 years? Or must I start wearing strange shirts?' " Kathrada said.

Regardless of who is running the country _ and many say Mbeki did a lot of the hands-on administration even when Mandela was president _ there is little question who is South Africa's reigning face and figurehead.

"I still call him president," shrugged Patricia de Lille, a respected member of Parliament, of Mandela. "He's just such an icon."