tribute Desmond Tutu

God must love South Africa especially to have given us so many wonderful people: Beyers Naude, Bram Fischer, Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi, Mangaliso Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Walter Sisulu, Yusuf Dadoo and many others. And then, to top it off, God gave us this truly remarkable man, Nelson Mandela, who has become a legend in his lifetime. Without him we almost certainly would not have made the near-miraculous transition from repression to democracy so relatively peacefully.

I met Nelson Mandela for the first time in the early '50s. He was adjudicating a debating contest between those of us from the Bantu Normal College (presumably for normal Bantu whose student residences were rondavels, no doubt to help us develop along our own lines!) and the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work. He probably was a good judge because our team won. My next encounter with him was in 1990 when he was released from Victor Verster Prison and came to spend his first night of freedom at Bishopscourt, the Archbishop of Cape Town's official residence, when I was the incumbent. The government had refused me permission to visit either Robben Island or the other maximum-security prisons. Mandela did write to me to thank me for whatever it was that I had, in his view, done for Winnie and the children. In 1988 I had addressed a huge crowd of about 250 000 at Hyde Park Corner, London. Many had come as pilgrims from every quarter of the British Isles at the invitation of Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, then chairman of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, to celebrate Madiba's 70th birthday.

Most of those present had not been born when he was sentenced to life imprisonment. They had not seen nor heard him speak and yet they came in their droves to celebrate what Archbishop Trevor declared must be Madiba's last birthday in prison. Not bad, for two years later he was a free man.

On February 11 1990, the day Mandela was released, we saw little of him at Bishopscourt because he was closeted with his ANC colleagues - and frequently interrupted: "There's a call from the White House" or "State House in Lusaka". Quite a few people were worried that his reputation while in jail had become that of a moral giant and that it would turn out that he had feet of clay. There were those who did not want him released lest we all suffer from a monumental letdown when it turned out that he was but a fallible mortal. We need not have worried.

He was, like many of us, deeply distressed at the carnage that was happening in the black community - the so-called black-on-black violence. Many of us believed it was being fuelled by a sinister force intent on scuppering the delicate negotiations for transition from repression to democracy. The situation was particularly desperate in the killing fields of KwaZulu-Natal and on the East Rand, in the horrendous bloodletting between the ANC and the IFP.

Madiba was firmly convinced that FW de Klerk could have stopped the violence but was callously indifferent because black lives were of little value to him. His rare flashes of anger were reserved for De Klerk's apparent indifference and led to the suspension of the Codesa talks after the Boipatong massacre.

Madiba was ready to do virtually anything within reason to stop the carnage. Then it happened that the Bishop of the Methodist Church, Dr Stanley Mogoba, and I convened the Kempton Park Summit between Madiba and Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the leader of the IFP, who had announced that his party would boycott our first democratic elections. You did not need to be clairvoyant or too bright to predict that the intended boycott would almost certainly lead to a huge loss of life, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal.

I was amazed at the concessions that Madiba was prepared to make. The IFP demanded that it be recognised as a legitimate liberation movement and not continue to be vilified as an ethnic Bantustan collaborator with the apartheid regime. Buthelezi wanted to address political rallies together with Madiba. Many in the ANC regarded that as anathema, as something that would give the IFP a credibility it did not deserve. And it would create the impression that the two leaders were equal in stature. The IFP also insisted on the right to carry traditional weapons. Madiba gave in on all these points. He even went on to say that although he had not consulted his colleagues on this particular point, if the ANC won the election he would appoint Buthelezi to a very senior political profile Cabinet position such as minister for foreign affairs.

All he was asking for in exchange was that the IFP agree on the proposed election date and to participate in it. The response was negative on both those points. That summit showed me the lengths to which Madiba was prepared to go to achieve a goal he considered important.

It all paled in comparison with what he was to show the world as President. Many had expected that the advent of a black-led government would be the signal for an orgy of retribution and revenge. Instead, the world was awed by the spectacle of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), where the victims of atrocities and gross violations of human rights revealed a remarkable nobility of spirit and magnanimity in their willingness to forgive their former tormentors. We were richly blessed that Madiba was at the helm of our ship of state. He showed us the way by example and thus established his place in the world as an icon of forgiveness and reconciliation with unassailable moral stature. Who will ever be able to calculate what his various conciliatory gestures contributed to the process of nation-building and unity?

He invited his former white jailer, as a VIP guest, to attend his inauguration as President. He invited to lunch Percy Yutar, the prosecutor in the Rivonia Trial who had asked for the death sentence to be passed on Madiba and his comrades, and he visited Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect and high priest of apartheid. In a gesture that would have been gauche from anyone else, he wore the Springbok jersey during the Rugby World Cup final in 1995. And when we beat the All Blacks, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years before took place: black South Africans celebrated the victory in the townships, victory in a sport that for so long had been identified with their arch-oppressor.

Had a lesser mortal been our President, perhaps we might not have made the transition so relatively peacefully and the TRC might not have happened - or it would have had an even rougher ride than it actually experienced. This is a truly great man who believes fervently that a leader exists for the sake of the led. I had lunch with him once in Houghton and at the end he saw me to the door and called out "driver!", meaning my driver. I said I had driven myself from Soweto. He said nothing. A few days later he rang me to say he had not consulted me but had been concerned that I was driving myself, so he had asked one of his rich business friends who had agreed to send me a monthly grant to pay for a driver.

It is this passion that makes him work tirelessly to raise funds for schools and clinics. It is second nature to him and so he keeps up a punishing schedule. He believes so fervently that people really matter that he stops to shake hands with people, however lowly their station. For him they count. The people warm to his love for them and they reciprocate with compound interest. They love him in return.

You just have to see the reception he gets everywhere, the adulation and hero worship. He enjoys it like a little child and seems so surprised that people should react in this fashion.

I could pick up the phone to raise whatever issue was causing me concern, especially with the TRC, and he would say, "Come over for breakfast or lunch" and we would sort it out. Maybe he likes me a bit - even when I criticised his lack of sartorial taste over those shirts and he retorted that I was one to speak when I, as a man, wore dresses in public. He asked me to be his envoy to try to persuade the Nigerian President, Sani Abacha, to release his political opponent, Moshood Abiola. I failed in my mission, although I was permitted to see Abiola under house arrest. When a TRC commissioner was being investigated by a judicial commission for alleged complicity in a gross offence, Madiba wanted to save him the misery of waiting for the report. I told the President's secretary that I should be the first, as TRC chairman, to know the contents of the report. A few minutes later the President was on the line. "Yes, Mpilo (my Xhosa name, which means ‘life'), you're quite right. I'm sorry." Perhaps it is only the truly great who have the humility to say sorry. Most politicians avoid it like the plague.

He loved Winnie deeply. They visited our Soweto house soon after his release to enjoy Xhosa cuisine and you could see how he followed her every movement with his eyes. It was a huge blow to him when the break happened. He admired her for all she had accomplished despite harassment from the state and for how she had single-handedly brought up their two daughters. It was wonderful when Graça came into his life. He blossomed and was like a teenager, in love for the first time. Both of them deserve the joy they bring to each other. He is good; when I hauled him over the coals for "shacking up" with her and giving our youth a bad example, they promptly got married. They have become a wonderful advert for love and marriage.

At Transport Minister Jeff Radebe's wedding, I caught Graça removing perhaps an imaginary piece of fluff from his shirt. When he was alone for a bit, I went over to him and said: "Yu 'ndoda lamfazi uyaku thanda he (I saw her dusting you off)." He retorted excitedly: "Did you see that?" I was thrilled for them.

What a magnificent gift. The best we can do is to emulate him and make a scintillating success of our land, caring especially for the most vulnerable and seeking to be as altruistic as he is.

Thanks be to God for giving us such a superb gift, the father of our rainbow nation. May He continue to bless Madiba richly.