Mandela's adaptability makes him forever relevant
There is a note of Mandela fatigue creeping into the public debate as we celebrate Madiba's 94th birthday and mark International Nelson Mandela Day.
We hear it on radio phone-in programmes in which some complain that revisionist history suggests Mandela single-handedly saved the country from apartheid, and in conversations arguing he is not the saint that popular memory suggests.
FW de Klerk, with whom Mandela shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, often felt the sharp edge of his negotiating partner's tongue and the sting of strategic defeat in the years between his own 1990 speech announcing Mandela's release and his resignation from Mandela's government of national unity in 1997.
"I do not subscribe to the general hagiography surrounding Mandela. He was by no means the avuncular and saintlike figure so widely depicted today," De Klerk said in April.
De Klerk did not play down Mandela's achievements. He merely acknowledged that he could be a hard man to deal with.
The late Parks Mankahlana, the president's spokesman, also hinted that there was a different side to Mandela's personality when he was at work. Clearly, from the rare personal insights Mankahlana shared with reporters during the long hours we waited in Mandela's antechamber, it wasn't all "Hello, how are you?" and a friendly hand on the shoulder.
If we are to honour the legacy of this man whom many still regard as the greatest living statesman properly, and not in mythology, gold coins and tacky clothing labels, we need to acknowledge his whole history and full character.
Many of us lost our hearts to Mandela when he walked out of prison after 27 years of lost life and shook the hand of the first white person he encountered, journalist John Battersby, as I recall.
Mandela told his black compatriots, who had suffered generations of indignity and racial subjugation with him, that the struggle would go on until they were truly free, but convinced whites they would not have to pay in kind for the oppression that happened in their name, if not at their hands.
His passion for rugby may have been contrived, but his delight in the company of children was obviously genuine and endeared him to many.
Anyone he speaks to knows they have all of his attention and all of his concern. It is a gift that worked for Betsie Verwoerd when he visited her in the white enclave of Orania, for the ANC foot soldiers he would greet on the way in and out of countless stadiums and for the pilots, waiters and security guards he meticulously acknowledges wherever he goes.
The only person I saw who visibly detested that side of Madiba's presidential style was Robert Mugabe, whose mouth puckered like a prune when he was dragged across the lawn of the Cape Town residence, Genadendal, to be made to shake hands with three government gardeners waiting on the edge of a photo opportunity.
Helmut Kohl, the then German chancellor, seemed a bit sulky when Mandela dragged him across the Tuynhuys garden to shake hands with tourists and pedestrians clustered at the Government Avenue gate - a ritual Mandela imposed on many of his guests - but he played along.
But anyone who thinks that is all there is to Mandela would be missing the real strength of this amazing man.
Mandela today is the same man who said during his trial for treason in April 1964: "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 achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
Execution was a real possibility when he made that speech.
Later, as his life ticked away on Robben Island and then in Pollsmoor Prison, he spurned approaches that could have seen him released into exile among the Eastern Cape hills he has now made his home if he would just have promised to stay out of politics.
He is, as Julius Malema likes to point out, a founder of the ANC Youth League and a co-architect of the decision to launch the armed struggle. He is, as his name Rolihlahla suggests, one who tugs at the branch of the tree or a "troublemaker".
In political terms, Mandela appears to have been born with perfect pitch. From a meeting with a recalcitrant Afrikaner farmer to a television address to the nation in the wake of Chris Hani's assassination, he has known just how to play it.
In that latter case, Mandela rescued the transition from a bloody collapse that could have set the country back by years.
His political genius has been to know how to play each moment in the history he has helped to write. That, I believe, is the best lesson we can take from his 67 years of active service to South Africa.
He has dared to be different people in different times.
Above all, he has sought to analyse his country's needs at each of these different times and to adapt himself to them - even to the point of stepping down from the presidency when he recognised that the seeds of reconciliation he had planted needed accelerated social and economic transformation if they were to take root and grow.
If we understand Mandela's legacy, we need never tire of it.