Fit to be king of the world

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 June, 2004, 12:00am

The bombshell fell on Tuesday and I still have not recovered. I rubbed my eyes a few times, checked that I did not have a fever, made sure that my hearing was not defective, but it was all no good - Nelson Mandela really had said that he was retiring.

This is a disaster. The former South African president is the world's foremost icon, a revered statesman with no equal. His mere presence in a room makes longtime enemies shake hands and sign peace pacts, people dig deep into their pockets for charities, and sporting organisations hand over the rights to their next international tournament.

Hearing Mr Mandela say that he was scaling back his public schedule to enjoy 'a much quieter life' was akin to hearing that Elvis Presley had just woken up from a longer-than-anticipated nap, felt a mite peckish and wanted half a dozen fried chickens, a bucket of fries and a crate of cokes to go. Or to localise the analogy, a bit like Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa agreeing that democracy was being eroded in Hong Kong and that something should be done about it right now, with a few sharp words with the lads in Beijing.

Elvis and Mr Tung do not even come chest-high to Mr Mandela's stature, though. When it comes to integrity, intelligence, wit and understanding, there is no equal.

What other person would fight a racist regime, spend 27 years in prison for his trouble, emerge victorious and be elected president - only to step down after a single term to devote his life to honourable causes?

That is what makes Mr Mandela special - he knows when to quit, which is more than can be said for every other politician in office in the world. He lacks the desire to control, yet is still able to shape history.

Just as importantly, he has a wonderful collection of bright-coloured shirts which Mr Tung would do well to take note of. Hawaiian Shirt Friday at the Central Government Offices would add humanity to what is otherwise a grey and cheerless operation.

Thoughts of Mr Tung in purple and pink pastels aside, the world faces a dilemma following Mr Mandela's decision: who could possibly step into his shoes? A quick scan of my remaining brain cells comes up with no likely candidates.

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is a possibility, although not being able to leave her house in Yangon because of the country's military junta does make her attendance at important international events problematic.

East Timor's Xanana Gusmao rose to his country's presidency along an almost identical path, but lacks Mr Mandela's outgoing nature and ability to articulate quotable quotes in English.

Former United States president Jimmy Carter and his South Korean counterpart, Kim Dae-jung, would probably jump at the chance, but are simply not up to it. A host of sporting and entertainment figures would put their names forward for the sake of their flagging careers or video sales, but they are also out of the running.

Pop star Britney Spears, wearing a skimpy outfit, would cheapen the role; movie tough guy turned California's governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would try to mix the job with abseiling down lift shafts; and footballer David Beckham would be too busy dribbling.

Which leaves only one option - Mr Mandela cannot turn his back on the world. That is not to say that the anti-apartheid hero should not be allowed time to himself. After all, he turns 86 next month.

With a little persuasion, however, Mr Mandela would get to slow down while maintaining a high public profile through taking up the not-so-taxing job of honorary king of the world. He could catch up on his reading and make the occasional media appearance for the sake of global sanity. Besides, we would all be spared Britney, and there is always the chance that Mr Tung will pick up a few tips.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor]'



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