THE hall resounded with songs of adulation as Nelson Mandela suddenly left his chair among the African National Congress leadership to sit among ordinary folk.
As he descended from the podium to join the 3,000 party faithful in the gallery at last week's ANC national conference, he paused to joke, shake hands, and dance with delegates. ``Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela. There is no one else like him,'' they spontaneously cried out, a derivation from a spiritual chorus. (ANC tries to follow, not lead, Page 6.)
The scene spoke volumes about South Africa's first black president. Venerated by fans as a saint, criticized by detractors for being too conciliatory to former white oppressors, one thing about Nelson Mandela is clear: he has not lost his charismatic touch after seven months at the helm.
Foreign leaders, party officials and even his rivals agree that Mandela's air of moral authority and almost naive warmth are just as strong as before he won the presidency last April and led South Africa into a peaceful age.
They also agree on another matter - that his unique brand of conciliatory leadership sets an example in the new South Africa but will be difficult to replicate by even his heir apparent, the urbane but decidedly less-popular Deputy President Thabo Mbeki.
Sleeps like a president
``He [Mandela] eats like a president, he walks like a president, speaks like a president,'' said ANC Secretary General Cyril Rama-phosa about Mandela's regal air. ``I am one of the lucky few who have seen him sleep - and he even sleeps like a president.''
The dignified figure embodies a blend of a Victorian gentleman and a traditional chief - the role he was groomed for in his native Transkei. A missionary education and 27 years in prison for his struggle against apartheid taught him self-sacrifice, a trait that commands immediate respect.
Like a traditional leader, Mandela treats even humble party members as clan members, personally choosing gifts for junior office staff and shaking hands with all those present when he enters a room.
Every Monday is reserved for visiting Shell House, the drab ANC headquarters in central Johannesburg, where he deals with party matters, including petty fund-raising or individual complaints. Blessed with a prodigious memory, Mandela will ask after people's families and problems, teasing them about neglecting their spouses if they work late.
But also like a chief, he grows angry when his followers do not play by the rules. Repeatedly he has scolded youths at rallies for resorting to violence.
At the closing of the ANC conference in Bloemfontein on Wednesday, Mandela was livid about a group of youths who had harassed female delegates at a dormitory during the meeting, and said they were no longer ANC members.
``It would be discourteous to the audience to describe what they did. Such disgraceful behaviour is an indictment against the organization,'' he said. ``People who behave in this way are not fit to be members of the ANC.''
The hands-on tribal elder style - being firm but fair - extends to Mandela's leadership of the government of national unity. The Cabinet includes two of his former foes who defer to him with respect - his white predecessor Frederik de Klerk, with whom he shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, and his main black rival, Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose Inkatha Freedom Party was locked in a decade-long war with the ANC that killed 10,000.
At Cabinet meetings Mandela is polite but makes digs at Mr. De Klerk - reminding him that the white minority no longer rules. But Mandela will go out of his way not to alienate Mr. Buthelezi whose appointment as Home Affairs Minister he saw as crucial for ending the violence in the divided Zulu region.
When Buthelezi provoked a row by storming into a live television show several months ago to interrupt an interview with a rival Zulu leader, Mandela avoided meting out harsh punishment. Cutting short a holiday to call a crisis Cabinet meeting, Mandela sat coolly as he listened to all views, including demands that Buthelezi resign. Buthelezi offered to step down, but Mandela ordered him to apologize instead. The proud Zulu chief did just that, looking like a chastened schoolboy while his master looked on sternly.
But while Mandela possesses an almost-instinctual statesmanship - which has won the respect of world and especially regional leaders, who turn to him to resolve problems in neighboring countries - he is stubborn and loyal to a fault. His doctors and confidantes express exasperation with the way he pushes himself with 17-hour workdays.
``He just doesn't know when to stop,'' muttered one ANC official, after Mandela greeted yet another minor foreign visitor at his offices in Pretoria. ``He makes time for everyone - except himself.
Loyal to a fault
Mandela's judgment is often clouded by his loyalties to people, including his estranged wife Winnie, whose myriad scandals he refrains from criticizing publicly. He has also rewarded with high-level posts members of the older generation who were with him at the start of the struggle, passing over arguably more competent younger officials.
His choice of state visits abroad sometimes seems to be more geared toward repaying favors than a coherent foreign strategy. Mandela also has an embarrassing tendency to unilaterally announce a policy which his aides are then forced to contradict - such as a notorious incident during the election campaign when Mandela announced that the voting age should be 14.
That time Mandela retreated under pressure by his lieutenants, but he often digs in when put on the spot. One of his most damaging faux pas occurred several weeks ago, when he accused the United States of giving only ``peanuts'' in aid - 600 million rand ($171.4 million) over the past three years. He refused to back down even when told by diplomats that the figure was actually 3.5 times as much - he had confused rand with dollars.
Mandela was impervious to frantic calls by the US ambassador and suggestions by his aides that the timing - just before the United States elections - could lose South Africa some much-needed support.
Despite his authority, Mandela has been challenged within the ANC on various occasions. The latest was at the conference, when the majority of delegates rejected his proposal that a committee - rather than direct voting by all - decide the new leadership. Heated debate included an accusation by one senior party official that Mandela was acting ``like a Communist.'' He agreed to withdraw the proposal.
``Mandela realized that his proposal was undemocratic - and that he had to let it go and let the people decide,'' said one Cabinet minister.
But Mandela's spontaneous warmth and air of uncorruptibility make him the party's most popular asset both at home and abroad. Thousands of delegates crowded into a dusty hangar, abandoning the buffet dinner to hear Mandela's anecdotes about prison days - a period he often harkens back to almost nostalgically.
At the opening night of the conference, even the white Afrikaner catering staff stood in rapt attention. Mr. Mbeki, tipped as Mandela's successor and other ANC officials were ignored.
Political analysts warn that making a myth of the man sets the country up for instability when he leaves the scene. Mandela himself worries about that, and stressed to the public during a recent radio program that he was just another mortal.
``I would like to be treated as an ordinary man,'' he said. ``Like all others.''