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The Twilight of a Living God

May 1, 2010

The world’s favourite elder statesman is about to turn 90. Every month, his foundation receives over a thousand requests for his help. Adam Roberts watches Nelson Mandela in action and talks to those closest to him …

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Summer 2008

Double acts don’t come much better. Nelson Mandela enters grinning from a door on the right and shuffles forward, one hand clasping an ivory-white cane, the other arm held by a blonde assistant. His eyes are twinkling but watery, his ankles are permanently swollen, and his knees hardly bend–the result of an accident in prison with a pile of seaweed. “Madiba!” murmurs an excited crowd, using his clan name. “Tata Madiba.”

He makes it to the centre of the room and is met by the one person who can upstage him. Anyone sensitive to bright colours should look away now. As usual, Mandela is a tropical pensioner: white hair with a touch of grey; a white vest under a shirt of shimmery blue, gold and brown; a pair of gold pens in his top pocket. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, also smiling, bounces up. He is resplendent in full-length purple and his head is smooth, shiny, a contrast to Mandela’s shock of white. Around Tutu’s neck swings a golden cross, the size of a ping-pong bat.

Politicians and veterans of the struggle for democracy have gathered in Johannesburg to launch the celebrations for Mandela’s 90th birthday, which falls on July 18th. The launch is in March: the festivities will take months, and will include a charity concert in Hyde Park, London, featuring Queen, Annie Lennox and leading African bands. Film crews and cameramen pack the room and late-summer sunshine pours through the windows as the two old men hold court. Tutu stands with his back straight, palms pressed together in front of his face, looking not so much like a bishop as a schoolboy imitating a bishop. Mandela steps forward as Tutu bows deeply from the waist and holds himself low, showing off his bald pate. Somehow he makes the gesture both respectful and slightly mocking.

Mandela: “I am a sinner.”
Tutu (standing back up): “I will absolve you!”
Mandela: “If you clear the way, I can knock on the doors of heaven!”

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