On The Go In His Golden Years

I would like to rest, and welcome the possibility of reveling in obscurity," Nelson Mandela told a farewell breakfast for the press in Pretoria last May. He said he was ready to spend his 80s amid "the valleys and the little hills" around his rural home village, Qunu. Mandela, soon to be the world's most revered ex-president, left the door to a statesman's role open a crack. He would serve, he said, if it was truly in the interest of world or regional peace. But he noted that negotiations he had just concluded to end the deadlock between Western powers and Libya over the 1988 Lockerbie bombing had taken seven years. "I don't want to reach 100 years," he said, "while I am still trying to bring about a solution to some complicated international issue."

He must have meant it at the time. But practically the moment his successor was inaugurated, Mandela plunged into a hyperactive nonretirement. Several times a month he takes South African CEOs on tours of poor rural areas--and then invites them to build a school or clinic on behalf of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. He has hosted a stream of visiting dignitaries. And he's slipped easily into the role of global statesman. The latest of his five foreign trips as ex-president took him to the United Nations last week. There he addressed a special Security Council session devoted to the 20-year-old ethnic clash in the tiny central African nation of Burundi--a monumentally bloody conflict that Mandela last month agreed to mediate. To be Nelson Mandela, it seems, is to apply a towering moral authority to an apparently hopeless cause.

He has had some practice. While still in office, Mandela was preoccupied with reconciling South Africans after four decades of bitter racial strife. Still, he took on a few overseas assignments. In addition to the Libya mediation, he pressured Indonesia's President Suharto in 1998 into letting him meet with the jailed leader of the East Timorese resistance, Xanana Gusmo. Mandela didn't always succeed. Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha ignored his plea for the life of dissident Ken Saro-Wiwa. And during the fall of Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, rebel leader Laurent Kabila spurned his mediation efforts.

Not many others have. He can get anyone on the phone. "When Mandela calls, the president takes the call, no question," said a White House spokesman. Now Mandela is taking on international diplomacy's main event: peace in the Middle East. In October he visited the leaders of Iran, Syria, the Palestinian Authority and Israel, and flew to Washington to brief President Clinton on his three-point peace plan. Israel quickly rebuffed his mediation, but that didn't slow Mandela down. Just before Christmas, he flew to Seattle on the private jet of Bill Gates--a prospective donor to the Mandela Foundation. After that it was off to Orlando, Fla., to meet again with Clinton, then home to Johannesburg. A U.S. congressional delegation led by House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt met him there. Though Mandela went to the meeting practically straight from the plane, the delegation found him fresh and full of plans for an international commission to oversee a Mideast peace settlement.

The fired-up Mandela was a natural choice as mediator in Burundi. "He's very, very impressive," says Berhanu Dinka, special U.N. representative to Africa's Great Lakes region. The Burundi civil war has taken some 200,000 lives since 1994 as the minority Tutsi government staves off the Hutu majority. Last week the military government, bowing to pressure from Mandela and human-rights groups, abandoned a cantonment policy for Hutus living near the capital.

Can one man make that much of a difference? Some people think the fascination with Mandela epitomizes a wrongheaded view that Africa can be saved by charismatic leaders. "I think people should leave him alone," says George Ayittey, an American University Africanist. "People's expectations of him are unreal." But it's equally fair to say that Mandela, 81, hasn't stopped expecting the impossible of himself. Devoting his energy to a cause is the habit of a lifetime. After all, he turned negotiations with his own jailers into freedom for a nation. Clearly it will be a while yet before he settles down to watch his grandchildren play in Qunu.