Nelson Mandela

NELSON Mandela joins us for a working breakfast though, at 8am, he has already eaten. He does not look his 75 years, and he speaks to the journalists, with energy and conviction, for more than an hour. Our breakfast sits unnoticed on the side table.

There are a few pleasantries. He watched the big fight the night before and thinks the draw was probably fair though Benn was the spoiler and Eubank the scientific boxer. And then, sipping a white coffee, he begins to talk about the extraordinary and painfully difficult journey of which he is the helmsman, South Africa's transition to democracy.

You had a good press this morning, somebody says. I do not really have time to read the papers nowadays, he replies. He also regrets, in particular, that he no longer has time to read literature. When he was in prison, he thinks, he was better informed.

Surely he has no nostalgia for prison? Well, in Victor Verster, the last of the three prisons in which he was detained in conditions of relative comfort, he had some of his pleasantest moments and when he decided to upgrade the house in the village of his birth, Qunu, near Umtata in Transkei, he based it on the plan of his prison quarters. ''And so, whenever I go to my village, I think of my days in Victor Verster.''

Does he find people well informed about the situation in South Africa? Well, yes and no. In some parts of the international community, it is impressive. But he is irritated that in some Western quarters President F. W. de Klerk is seen as the sole architect of the current process.

In fact he (Mandela) began it in 1986 when still in prison. His first conversations were with ex-President Pieter de Botha. When de Klerk became President in 1989, matters remained difficult. It was not until February 1990, when de Klerk finally agreed to legalise the African National Congress, that negotiations could begin and he was freed.

He found a good understanding of this in the United States, where Bush if anything had had a better grasp than Clinton; in France, with President Mitterrand; and in the Nordic countries.

What about Britain? Of Mrs Thatcher he speaks with some affection. She stood firmly against racial oppression but he was unable to budge her in her opposition to sanctions -- most of which the UN General Assembly decided to lift on Friday as soon as the Transitional Executive Council (TEC) takes over, which it will do perhaps as early as next month.

But he found her motherly. When he visited her she had gone to great trouble not only to brief herself politically but also to find out what food and wine he liked. She told him, for the sake of his survival, to cut down his programme which she thought too much for a man half his age.

John Major, whom he will meet later this week, he finds very helpful and accessible though apparently under the impression that de Klerk initiated the negotiations. Mention of Mr Major brings him on to the clearly exasperating topic of Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and his Inkatha Freedom Party.

On Friday the Inkatha party formed a ''Freedom Alliance'' with black and white conservative groups. It said it would shun the multi-party negotiations and seek bilateral talks with the ANC and de Klerk's Government.

This, Mandela insists, is completely unacceptable. He denies that the ANC made a secret deal with de Klerk but says under the deliberative mechanism bilateral negotiations precede reports to the multi-party democracy talks. He deplores the fact that the TEC's creation is being regarded by the Freedom Alliance as a call to arms.

The British Government cannot be made to accept that Buthelezi is not a major player in the negotiating process or that he, Mandela, has made every reasonable effort to negotiate with him. ''There is no-one on whom I have spent as much time.'' Their two meetings have been fruitless.

He senses that Buthelezi is reluctant to go ahead with Mandela's proposed visit to the Inkatha homeland because of the strength there of ANC support. He has enlisted every diplomatic means of persuasion but ''I say at last: Tell him to shut up''.

Buthelezi he clearly finds an infuriating mixture but blames the chief's upbringing for some of his characteristics. In his childhood, in the traditional way for the son of a clan chief, Buthelezi was removed from his parents and sent to his uncle, King Solomon, who was very attached to his own children and treated Buthelezi as an outsider. This lack of parental affection, Mandela feels, was very damaging psychologically.

Mandela acknowledges that he owes Buthelezi a great debt. Through the years in prison Buthelezi never forgot him, could be relied on to remember his birthdays and to be concerned about his health.

He is also a man of great personal charm and polish but Mandela has the sense that even when he phones him there is nowadays enormous reserve. When he picks up the receiver, Mandela senses, he is very tense and will thaw only if Mandela addresses him by his clan name, showing that he comes as a friend.

He has asked Mr Major to speak to him, to explain that his desire for federalism is completely unacceptable. They have made considerable concessions. They have been prepared to agree considerable powers to the proposed regional governments.

But the central government has to retain sovereignty: they must resist any concept based on ethnicity; and the demand for federalism, masquerading as partition, is as unacceptable for Buthelezi as it is for the white conservatives who want an Afrikaner homeland.

Even for them he has tried to be flexible. Give me a map, he told them, and I will see what I can do. The trouble is, he adds with a chuckle, that their map is of the whole of South Africa.

Of de Klerk, he says: ''You would like him.'' In negotiation he is relaxed and confident, but on occasion pressures from his own National Party have led him to breach agreements and forced Mandela to repudiate him.

Will the transitional process disintegrate into civil war? This is not a serious proposition. He cannot believe that the generals would ever yield to it.

He has pointed out the pointlessness of any more slaughter. They have tried the tactic of oppression; it has failed. He feels they realise that they had better settle their differences now rather than later. As for the extreme right, it represents racism, Nazism and fascism and in the international community there is little support for it except among a few conservative groups.

He recognises the impatience and anger of younger members of the ANC; but it is natural for the young to be impatient and angry and daily they are losing friends and family to the bloodshed. But he feels he can count on their ultimate loyalty.

Finally he seeks to reassure white opinion. Their fears, though groundless, are understandable and in the prevailing uncertainty have a certain justification. Yet South Africa, an advanced country with an advanced economy, stands in desperate need of European skills; the creeping loss of white brainpower is tragic.

Asked if he expected to be the first black President of South Africa, he demurs, but says he'd be prepared to act as a ''night watchman'' and ''wear a helmet'' if required.

He leaves us with a tribute to Scotland. He has been swept off his feet by the warmth of his reception and has been forced to revise his opinion about British reserve.

Mrs Janey Buchan, MEP, who has helped to organise the meeting, makes a speech of thanks. He receives a highly unusual round of applause from the Scottish press.

As he leaves he signs autographs for the hotel staff and shakes each one by the hand. Now he's off to Dublin en route to Birmingham and London. He carries the burden of many hopes and fears but he carries it with grace.OBJECT_ID:=CATEGORY:=HEADLINE:=Smeddum might have made 'em