JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - South Africa's first post-apartheid president Nelson Mandela formally bowed out of public life Tuesday with a crisp message for those making demands on his time: "Don't call me, I'll call you."
The Nobel Peace Prize winner, who turns 86 next month, joked about keeping a punishing schedule despite having retired from active politics in 1999 when he stepped down as head of state.
Mandela has hardly strayed out of the public limelight, raising millions of dollars for his Mandela Foundation to build clinics and schools in South Africa's rural heartland and to battle HIV/AIDS, or mediating in Burundi's civil war.
Former South African President Nelson Mandela. South Africa's most famous son, Nelson Mandela, will begin a new phase in his life, announcing that he is scaling back the busy schedule he has kept up since his historic 1990 release from jail. (AFP/Javier Soriano)
In November Mandela was the center of attraction at an international pop concert he organized in Cape Town to raise funds for the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Last month Mandela flew to the Caribbean to campaign for South Africa's bid to host the 2010 soccer World Cup. He returned home for just a brief pause to bury his first wife, Evelyn, before heading to Zurich where many believe his imposing presence helped South Africa clinch the hosting rights.
"When I told one of my advisers a few months ago that I wanted to retire he growled at me: 'You are retired.' If that is really the case then I should say I now announce that I am retiring from retirement," Mandela told a news conference.
"I do not intend to hide away from the public, but henceforth I want to be in the position of calling you to ask whether I would be welcome, rather than being called upon to do things and participate in events," Mandela said.
IN "VERY GOOD HEALTH"
Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison for fighting apartheid, said he was in "very good health" despite appearing increasingly frail and walking with the help of a cane or an aide.
"I am turning 86 in a few weeks time and that is a longer life than most people are granted," he said. "I am confident that nobody present today will accuse me of selfishness if I ask to spend time, while I am still in good health, with my family, my friends and also with myself."
Such has been the demand on Mandela's time since stepping down from the presidency that he said Tuesday he has at times longed to be back in prison where he had more time "for reading, thinking and quiet reflection."
Mac Maharaj, a fellow anti-apartheid crusader who spent 12 years with Mandela in Robben Island prison off Cape Town, said he believed Mandela had a genuine desire to sit back and reflect, if only the public would let him.
"I think from our side of the public, we're all very sympathetic -- South Africans and people around the world -- and really wish that he had the time," Maharaj told Reuters.
"But at the same time all of us want a piece of him even now," he said after attending Mandela's news conference.
Maharaj said Mandela's plea was his own way of saying: "I don't know how to say no when people keep asking me. Let's have a little bit of understanding so that I don't feel obliged to fulfil public commitments."
"It will work out if both sides play the game," he added.
But Bantu Holomisa, a former fellow leader with Mandela in the ruling African National Congress, said Mandela's nature was such that he could not keep still in retirement "unless they're going to lock him up in his house."
"That's not Madiba," he said, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
"It's his medical doctors and family but Madiba, no. He's going to tell them: 'I want to visit so-and-so'... nobody's going to say no to him," Holomisa told Reuters.
Mandela said he would now give his "urgent attention" to writing a memoir about his presidential years, the second volume of his autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom."
© Reuters Ltd 2004