JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- When most politicians tell a crowd, "I love you," you may check your wallet. When Nelson Mandela says it, you may put a handkerchief to your eyes.
Usually that declaration would come at the end of his stump speeches to stadiums of enthusiastic admirers during his campaign before South Africa's first democratic elections.
Understand that Mr. Mandela is not an inspirational public speaker, coming across as formal and stilted. He can lecture his listeners, sounding like a stern headmaster of a high school who has been disappointed by his students' behavior. Sometimes he drones on about the technicalities of the African National Congress' position on some point or another.
Indeed, often the unrestrained, unbelievable glee that greets his arrival -- think of the Beatles at Shea Stadium -- dissipates when he speaks.
But, almost invariably, he would finish by making his declaration of love to the masses of people. And considering the path he has trod to get to tomorrow, when he will be formally elected president of South Africa, few doubt that he means it.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela fulfills South Africa's equivalent of America's born-in-a-log-cabin myth. But, despite his clear belief in unfettered democracy, his background also answers the strong call of royalty in much of the country's population.
He comes from the Transkei, born July 18, 1918, in a kraal of the small village of Qunu, sharing a rural background with most of South Africa's blacks.
He gets his widely used nickname "Madiba" -- others call him simply "The Old Man" -- from the name of his sub-clan. His family is part of the Xhosa royalty, but Mr. Mandela was not born to the first wife of his father, but to the second, so his future in the hierarchy was not certain.
When his father died in 1930, he was placed under the care of a local chief who saw to his education, grooming him for a place in the Xhosa government. But that education opened the young Mandela's eyes to a world wider than that of the Xhosas.
In 1941, after he was expelled from Fort Hare University -- where he first met Oliver Tambo -- for participating in a student strike, he made his way to Johannesburg. There one of his first friends was Walter Sisulu.
Those three -- Mr. Mandela, Mr. Tambo and Mr. Sisulu -- founded the African National Congress Youth League in 1944 and used that organization to rejuvenate the ANC, leading the liberation movement into its modern era.
As Mr. Mandela's education continued at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, his vision widened further. He shed initial problems of working with non-Africans as he learned from Indian protest movements and joined with white Marxists.
In 1952, after completing his legal degree, he and Mr. Tambo formed the country's first black law firm. For the next 10 years he was constantly harassed, arrested, banned and jailed for his anti-apartheid activities.
He was one of 156 activists charged with treason in 1956. All were acquitted in 1961 after a 4 1/2 -year trial. The next year he was convicted of leaving the country illegally and of incitement, receiving a five-year sentence.
Turn to armed struggle
By that time, after watching the brutal repression of peaceful protests, Mr. Mandela had decided that an armed struggle was the only way to change South Africa. He was the first commander-in-chief of the ANC's army, Umkhonto we Sizwe.
While he was in jail, police conducted a raid on an ANC underground headquarters in the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia. Mr. Mandela was charged along with those arrested there -- including Mr. Sisulu -- with sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government by revolution and invasion.
The Rivonia defendants were convicted in 1964, given life sentences and shipped to Robben Island, South Africa's Alcatraz off the shore of Cape Town. It was there that Mr. Mandela's reputation grew until he became one of the world's most famous political prisoners.
It is not completely clear why Mr. Mandela was singled out for stardom among compatriots whose struggle and suffering were
equal to his. But it probably can be attributed to a charisma that is evident when you meet him in a small gathering even if it does not always communicate to large crowds.
Reports from the '50s say that there was always a certain excitement when Mr. Mandela entered the room, a tall commanding presence with the trim, imposing physique of the boxer he once was. For almost a year and a half before his 1962 arrest, he eluded capture, popping up at ANC meetings and then disappearing. The press dubbed him "The Black Pimpernel."
Another factor is that when he disappeared into jail, he left behind a young, articulate and equally dedicated wife, Winnie Mandela, to take his case to the world.
Growth of legend
His legend was magnified by his statement to the court just before his conviction in the Rivonia trial. It put to rest the government's contention that they were dealing with a crazed revolutionary. In its passionate reason, its detailed chronicling of the evils of institutionalized racism, it made clear to all that the defenders of apartheid were the irrational ones.
"The complaint of Africans is not only that they are poor and whites are rich," he said, "but that the laws which are made by the whites are designed to preserve this situation.
"There are two ways to break out of poverty. The first is by formal education, and the second is by the worker acquiring greater skill at his work and thus higher wages. As far as Africans are concerned, both these avenues of advancement are deliberately curtailed by legislation."
But somehow he was even more eloquent in the years of silence, an imposing dignity that raised his moral ground higher and higher above the self-serving pronouncements of those who sought to defend their racial hierarchy.
Prison allowed Mandela admirers to make him into what they wanted -- whether that be a saintly martyr or a radical revolutionary. In the 1980s, he became a focal point for all those concerned about political repression, a superstar who packed stadiums around the world with those who came to hear the entertainers that supported his cause.
What makes Mr. Mandela unique is that when he finally emerged from prison Feb. 11, 1990, he managed to live up to the expectations that had built up over the previous 27 years.
Mr. Mandela was able to negotiate with President F. W. de Klerk, acknowledge the debt that progress in South Africa owed to this enlightened leader, but still make it clear that anyone so sullied with apartheid could never rise to his level.
Not that there haven't been some splotches on the Mandela image. The biggest was when he became estranged from Winnie Mandela after her conviction on kidnapping charges that arose out of the death of a Soweto youth.
Indeed, one wonders what would have happened if Mr. Mandela's personal life had ever been subject to an American-style scrutiny. His first marriage ended, it is generally acknowledged, because as a young, attractive political leader he often gave in to temptation while on lengthy trips away from home.
These days such questions are moot, not just because Mr. Mandela commands such a moral authority, but also because it is generally acknowledged that tearing him apart would also tear South Africa apart.
One historian called George Washington "the indispensable American" because he was the only person who could unite the disparate factions of his nascent nation, in large part because he did not seek his lofty position, but had it thrust upon him.
Indispensable South African
Similarly, Mr. Mandela seems to be the indispensable South African, a man whose dedication rouses respect in all but the most hard-hearted whites.
He is extraordinarily punctual, as well as unfailingly polite, a fact that gives even more power to his attacks on his enemies.
At his last campaign appearance in Soweto on the Saturday before the election, his attack was directed at the ANC supporters who fired off guns to celebrate his introduction. He called them criminals whose actions mocked the ANC's position on gun control.
He then recalled the words he had spoken 30 years before, virtually quoting what he had said from the dock in the Rivonia trial:
"During my lifetime, I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. 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 to see realized. But, my lord, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
As he spoke in the Soweto stadium, he was on the verge of seeing that realized.
"I wish I had bigger pockets," he told the crowd. "Pockets that were big enough to put all of you in so I could take you home with me."
You could feel all of the 70,000 people there wishing that were true, too, that this man was their grandfather, that they could go home with him.
8, "I love you," he said. "I love you all."