FROM his prison home in the scenic Cape wine lands, Nelson Mandela is playing a pivotal role in paving the way for a political settlement in South Africa. ``There is no doubt that Mandela is calling the shots,'' says policy analyst Fanie Cloete of the independent Center for Policy Studies in Johannesburg.
Through their words and actions government officials have conceded that the man they imprisoned for life more than a quarter century ago has made them as much his hostage as he is theirs.
Unlike their earlier efforts to find a way of ``demythologizing'' Mr. Mandela, the authorities have decided to fortify his statesman-like image to advance government plans for interracial negotiations.
``It could be functional to build on the myth surrounding Mandela to advance us to a peaceful democracy,'' says Stoffel van der Merwe, a senior government official.
Mandela, the world's most famous political prisoner, is also the most extraordinary prisoner in South African history.
After 20 years on the Alcatraz-style Robben Island prison off Cape Town, his authority on the island became so pervasive that he had to be moved in 1982 to the mainland Pollsmoor Prison and kept in isolation. When he fell ill last year he was transferred from a state hospital to a luxury private clinic to recuperate for three months.
Since then he has been held in the three-bedroom home of a white prison warden at Victor Verster Prison. Here he entertains dignitaries, anti-apartheid leaders, tribal chiefs, and friends.
A devoted white warden, who defers to him respectfully and calls him ``Mr. Mandela,'' serves three-course meals and is constantly on call.
Mandela has been invited to tea by a former president. Cabinet officials call on him. He has access to decision-makers which would make most Western ambassadors envious.
But, to most South Africans he remains a myth. Incredibly, there is no recent photograph of him. Only a recent artist's impression - published on a ``Release Mandela'' poster - gives a hint of what he looks like today.
The most penetrating insight into the private life of Mandela is given in the recently-published book, Higher than Hope, by his friend Fatima Meer, an Indian sociologist who was granted unlimited access to Mandela and his prison correspondence.
The book portrays him as a man of integrity and humanity with a great sense of loyalty to his extended family and his origins in the royal Tembu tribe of Transkei.
The letters to his wife, Winnie, convey the constant sense of pain and deprivation he felt being separated from his family. ``Sometimes I feel like one on the sidelines, who has missed life itself,'' he wrote to Winnie in January 1979.
``Traveling with you to work in the morning, phoning you during the day, touching your hand or hugging you as you moved up and down the house, enjoying your delicious dishes ... These are things I cannot forget.''
However, Mandela was reportedly deeply saddened and angered by his wife's increasingly unpredictable and politically inept conduct in recent years.
The matter came to a head early this year when a group of black youths loyal to her - known as the Mandela United Football Club - allegedly beat to death a young anti-apartheid activist. The row that ensued resulted in anti-apartheid leaders distancing themselves from Mrs. Mandela, effectively ostracizing her from their ranks.
Mrs. Mandela has begun attending major anti-apartheid functions. But she no longer makes public speeches and hardly ever speaks to the media.
Mandela's image has not been affected by his wife's indiscretions. If anything, understanding for his position of helplessness behind bars increased public sympathy.
Generally, his visitors have been impressed by his commanding presence, his authority, and his intellect.
The first American granted permission to visit Mandela was Samuel Dash in 1985. A professor of law at Georgetown University and a director of the International League of Human Rights, Dash wrote, ``He appeared vigorous and healthy with a calm, confident manner and dignified bearing that seemed incongruous in our prison surroundings.
``Indeed, throughout our meeting, I felt I was in the presence not of a guerrilla fighter or radical ideologue, but of a head of state.''
Before the release from prison of eight prominent black leaders last week, Mandela was consulted by all parties and had his first meeting with senior black leaders in the Mass Democratic Movement, a broad coalition of anti-apartheid groups.
President Frederik de Klerk acknowledged the key role being played by the jailed ANC leader. ``Discussions were held with him and he confirmed yet again that his release was not now on the agenda,'' Mr. de Klerk said.
Months of negotiations with senior government officials, which preceded the release of the prisoners, give an insight into Mandela's influence over his white rulers.
``He has become a kind of senior statesman,'' says Prof. Sampie Terreblanche who was part of an unofficial Afrikaner delegation which recently held talks with ANC officials in London.
As the symbol of black defiance, Mandela's release has become synonymous with the ending of apartheid and the creation of a political system in which blacks would have full political rights.
In a statement from the dock of the court in which he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 for his role in a plot to overthrow the government, Mandela said, ``I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.''
The international and domestic chorus for Mandela's release has made it clear to the government that only one scenario would be worse than not releasing Mandela: releasing him and trying to maintain the status quo.
Since 1973 the government has been making Mandela conditional offers of release. First, it was on condition that he be confined to the tribal homeland of Transkei. Since 1985 the offers have been conditional on his disavowing violence. Mandela has rejected them all.
In 1961 Mandela founded the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe, after nearly half a century of peaceful resistance to white rule had failed.
In his statement from the dock at his 1964 trial, Mandela - who describes himself as a socialist - said, ``I am not a communist and I have never been a member of the Communist Party. We count communists among those who support our cause.''
In 1985 he told British human rights campaigner Lord Nicholas Bethell, ``I appreciate the Soviet Union only because it was the only country that long ago condemned racialism and supported liberation movements. It does not mean that I approve of their internal policy.''
He represents perhaps the only man who can unite warring factions within the black community. ``Nelson Mandela's greatest service to his people may yet be as a conciliator among them 30 years later - and a peacemaker across the racial divide,'' wrote South African columnist Gerald Shaw last week.
Mandela rules out any negotiating role for himself until he is freed. ``Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.''