Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Beloved Mandela Defends Presidency

DZINGIDZINGI, South Africa -- The crowd already had trampled the fence and climbed every tree in sight when President Nelson Mandela's helicopter landed in this remote northern village of thatch-topped huts.

Children literally sang his praises as he opened their new school. Grinning broadly, the 78-year-old leader began to dance. "This event is the biggest event in the history of big events!'' a local official gushed to the crowd.

A day on the road with Mandela showed that his magic clearly has not waned. Indeed, the world's most popular politician was met with similar awe and adulation on recent state visits to London and Paris.

But the euphoria is fading for the government Mandela has headed since the first democratic elections ended apartheid in April 1994.

Allegations of mismanagement and arrogance increasingly plague his administration. Delivery of desperately needed services, from housing to health care, lags hopelessly behind schedule. The country's currency, the rand, has plummeted in value. And violent crime has become endemic.

Mandela, meanwhile, has effectively become a part-time president. He typically spends only three days a week running the government and three days running the ruling party, the African National Congress. In a rare interview, Mandela was defensive and at times visibly angry when asked about the problems halfway through his five-year term.

He conceded that crime has reached "unacceptable levels'' and vowed that police efforts would soon produce measurable results. "We are absolutely confident that we are on top of the situation,'' he said.

But he added that criminals alone are not at fault. "It appears there are certain political parties that do not want investors to come,'' he said. "Because if crime is out of control, then they think people will vote them back into power. ... And many of you [reporters] are lapping it up.''

To be sure, the media highlight high-profile crimes. Recently, the nation's top judge and his wife were robbed at gunpoint in their home, the justice minister was forced to flee his house in fear of vigilante attackers and police reported that thieves had stolen everything from computers to curtains inside parliament.

Mandela also complained that "the press doesn't cover our successes.'' He cited little-noticed progress, for example, in reducing political violence in KwaZulu-Natal province. Until recently, massacres and other internecine battles between members of the ANC and rival Inkatha Freedom Party left about 100 dead there each month.

But a major police effort since January has produced dramatic results: Fewer than 50 people have died in the last two months. "[The media] are not talking about that,'' Mandela said.

He confirmed what every South African is talking about: his love life. Mandela plans to share his home two weeks each month with Graca Machel, the dynamic 50-year-old widow of Mozambique's first post-colonial president, Samora Machel. The couple have had a secret romance since last year.

Despite his criticism of the media, much of Mandela's private life is kept out of the public eye.

One reason is that most weeks, he spends only three days -- Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday -- running the government, according to his spokesman, Parks Mankahlana. He said Mandela spends most Mondays at Shell House, the ANC headquarters, and tries to devote weekends to party affairs and meetings. Friday is his day off.

Tom Lodge, a political analyst at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the president's schedule is less alarming than it sounds given a political tradition in which the ruling party becomes synonymous with government.

Mankahlana said Mandela plans to spend even less time as the nation's chief executive after he steps down as president of the ANC in December 1997, well before the next national election in April 1999. The goal is to let the deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, Mandela's heir-apparent as leader of both the ANC and the country, gain more hands-on experience and prepare the public for the eventual change.