ONE year after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela has become the embodiment of the peace process he sparked by opening a dialogue with South African's white leaders more than two years ago. ``There is no doubt in my mind that Mandela should have been released,'' says Foreign Minister Roelof (Pik) Botha. ``This country was enabled to begin a new era.''
After occupying the position of a legendary symbol for 27 years, Mr. Mandela the myth has become Mandela the man - an equally powerful symbol of commitment and moral integrity.
``He has demonstrated since his trial in 1964 a devotion to the ideal of national unity - one nation with one future - and he has upheld that in a most creditable manner,'' says Zach de Beer, head of the liberal Democratic Party.
In his first year of freedom - one of the most tumultuous years in the country's history - Mandela has been an international statesman, national figure, and party leader. He has guided the African National Congress during the awkward transition from a revolutionary liberation movement to a political organization.
He insists that his role cannot be personalized: ``As far as our political activities are concerned, I am not an individual - I am part of a team.''
Before he was released in February last year, a document in which Mandela set out his objectives for the future was leaked to the media. Its focus was the need to achieve a compromise between the black demand for majority rule and the white demand for structural protection.
A year later, the country is closer to achieving such a compromise and Mandela can take much of the credit. ``I still support the idea that it is the duty of the liberation movement to address the genuine fears which the whites have,'' he said. ``But it will not be easy to compromise on one person, one vote.''
The peace process has bogged down in recent months over the issues of defining ``armed struggle'' and carrying out agreements on amnesty for prisoners and exiles. Mandela said Feb. 8 that talks could not continue until these issues had been resolved. An all-party conference designed to lead to negotiations could be held up by the impasse, but analysts expect the conference to take place in May or June.
Because Mandela has built a following that reaches far beyond the confines of the ANC, he has been able to guide that organization through landmark decisions.
These decisions include the suspension of the ANC's armed struggle against the South African government; a broadening of the negotiation process by endorsing a multiparty conference; rapprochement with the Inkatha Freedom Party and the Pan Africanist Congress; and edging away from nationalization to a more realistic economic policy.
Mandela has faced pressure from within his own ranks with both humility and sternness. But he has put the continuation of the negotiating process above party goals. ``He has risen above the passions of the moment to keep the ultimate goal in sight,'' says a Western diplomat.
``The real quality of the man is his ability to see things in their historical sweep, to stand outside them and identify the mainstream,'' says Stanley Uys, a veteran South African journalist based in London. Mandela's unique contribution is acknowledged by many who have met him. ``We have to face the reality that if De Klerk disappeared from the scene the process could continue without him,'' says a senior Western diplomat. ``But if anything befell Mandela, it is quite likely that the negotiation process would be derailed.''
A government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says De Klerk would not have legalized the ANC had it not been for the relationship of trust which Mandela had already established with top government officials.
``It was knowing that the most important figure in the ANC was committed to a process of peaceful negotiation and political compromise that gave him the confidence to move,'' the official said.
Mandela's public statements have sometimes contained contradictions which have frustrated the expectations of those hoping for a more conciliatory line.
``I think he has often been pushed to make statements by the ANC's radical wing and the South African Communist Party,'' says veteran human rights campaigner Helen Suzman. ``If he had unfettered authority, I think he would take a different line.''
Mandela's critics insist he could have done more to encourage a culture of democracy and tolerance. ``De Klerk has been prepared to confront the radicals head on,'' says Rommel Roberts, a civil rights worker involved in running a leadership program. ``But one cannot say the same for Mandela. At times he appears to have confused the spirit of compromise with power strategy.''
As the ANC's deputy president, Mandela has had to strike a delicate balance between the militant tone of the ANC rank-and-file and the expectations of whites.
``After the release of Mr. Mandela there was a euphoria,'' says Minister Christoffel Van Der Merwe, a senior government official in charge of black education. ``People thought: `Well now, the hero is out of jail and everything is going to happen.'''
But doubts soon set in as it was perceived that Mandela's authority had severe limitations. His calls for militant youths in Natal province to discard their arms and for black youth to return to school nationwide had little impact.
Reflecting on his first year of freedom this week Mandela conceded he had made mistakes.
``When the pupils explained what they were going back to I realized I had taken a superficial view of the matter,'' he said.
When faced with an ultimatum by the ANC's militant consultative conference in December to end ``secret'' meetings with De Klerk he strongly defended his confidential meetings and vowed to continue them.
Perhaps Mandela's most abiding contribution has been his pivotal role in altering the balance of power in favor of the black community, restoring the sense of human dignity of his fellow citizens and giving them real hope.
``I am hopeful that we will be overcome our problems,'' says Mandela.'' I am optimistic about the future.''