The icon is a very old man now. His hair is white, his body frail. Visitors say Nelson Mandela leans heavily on a cane when he walks into his study. He slips off his shoes, lowers himself into a stiff-backed chair and lifts each leg onto a cushioned stool. His wife, Graca Machel, adjusts his feet “so they’re symmetrical, and gives him a peck,” says George Bizos, his old friend and lawyer.

To Mandela’s left is a small table piled with newspapers in English and Afrikaans, the language of the whites who imprisoned him for 27 years. Family and old comrades sit to his right, where his hearing is better. His memory has weakened, but he still loves to reminisce, bringing out oft-told stories “like polished stones,” as one visitor put it.

“There’s a quietness about him,” said Barbara Masekela, his chief of staff after his release from prison in 1990. “I find myself trying to amuse him, and I feel joyous when he breaks out in laughter.”

Mandela, perhaps the world’s most beloved statesman and a natural showman, has repeatedly announced his retirement from public life only to appear at a pop concert in his honour or a political rally. But recently, as he cancelled engagements, rumours that he was gravely ill swirled so persistently that his foundation released a statement saying he was “as well as anyone can expect of someone who is 91 years old.” Yet even as Mandela fades from view, he retains a vital place in the public consciousness. To many, he is still the ideal of a leader — warm, magnanimous, willing to own up to his failings — against which his political successors are measured and often found wanting. He is the founding father whose values continue to shape the nation. “It’s the idea of Nelson Mandela that remains the glue that binds South Africa together,” said Mondli Makhanya, editor in chief of The Sunday Times. “The older he grows, the more fragile he becomes, the closer the inevitable becomes, we all fear that moment. There’s the love of the man, but there’s also the question: Who will bind us?”

There is a yearning for the exhilarating days when South Africa peacefully ended white racist rule, and a desire to understand the imperfect, bighearted man who embodied that moment. Because of this, various historians and journalists at work on a new round of books about Mandela.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation agreed last month to sell the rights to a book, Conversations With Myself, to publishers in some 20 countries, based on material from Mandela’s personal papers — jottings on envelopes, journals, desk calendars, drafts of intimate letters to relatives written in prison and documents from his years as South Africa’s first democratically chosen black president.

His oldest friends, stalwarts of the anti-apartheid struggle, still visit. Bizos, who went to law school with Mandela in the 1940s, said Machel worried that Mandela would be alone when she was out of town, and eat too little without company. So from time to time, Bizos gets a call from their housekeeper to come for lunch.

Mandela sits at the head of a large table, with Bizos to his right. They relish their favourite dish — oxtail in a rich sauce — and talk about old times. Mandela tells how he walked into a law school class and sat next to a white fellow with big ears, who promptly changed seats to avoid sitting next to a black man. Mandela had wanted to invite the man to their 50th reunion at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1999, but the man had already died.

“He repeats it from time to time,” Bizos said. “He regrets he did not have the opportunity to meet him. He would have said to him, `Do you remember what happened? But please don’t worry. I forgive you.’”

Mandela’s wish is to be buried alongside his ancestors in Qunu, on the eastern Cape, where he spent the happiest years of his boyhood. In his autobiography, he describes it as a place of small, beehive-shaped huts with grass roofs. — © 2009 The New York Times News Service

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