By GENE MUSTAIN and MICHAEL O. ALLEN, Daily News Staff Writers | Sunday, April 3, 1994

JOHANNESBURG—He carries himself like he was born to power—and he was, 75 years ago, in a hut at the bottom of the African continent.

His family ran the village; a cousin, with whom he lived while a teen, was chief of the surrounding region. Under a stand of eucalyptus trees that was the tribal courthouse, they prepared Nelson Mandela to follow in their footsteps.

“The genesis of my ideas is under these trees,” said the Old Man, as he is known among his followers, during a homecoming last month.

Mandela the young man wound up making his own path. With additional tutoring from missionaries, he became an activist lawyer, a revolutionary and, after he was thrown in prison, the world’s most famous living martyr.

Today, four years after emerging from nearly three decades in prison, he is on the threshold of his last and greatest destination _ first democratically elected president of a country in the throes of wondrous and violent change.

His middle name, “Rolihlahla”—which in the language of his tribe means “someone who brings trouble upon himself”—was never more apt. But rarely has history produced someone so symbolically apt for the mission at hand.

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and equal opportunities,” he said, when he was imprisoned. “If need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Symbolism alone doesn’t get the job done. But since his release, Mandela has been more than a martyr and an idealist. With his regal, grandfatherly bearing, he has proven to be a master, if occasionally peevish, politician.

“South Africa has got robust politics, and sissies should not address political meetings,” he said recently, after his main election rival, F. W. de Klerk, complained about Mandela supporters disrupting his speeches.

Such needles sting well in the nation’s townships, or ghettos. But Mandela has also built many bridges to the white power structure that imprisoned him.

“What’s most amazing about Nelson is his lack of bitterness,” said his good friend, former mayor David Dinkins, who hosted Mandela’s memorable 1990 visit to New York and his emotional parade up the Canyon of Heroes.

“If ever a man was dedicated to a purpose, it is him. And what really helps is that he is a very intelligent man.”

His acuity, and the solid majority his African National Congress party has in most of the country, has enabled him to stay a few steps ahead of the other players in the complicated chess game that has preceded the election.

The white minority hoped to hold onto power when they released him in the face of international economic sanctions and announced a will to negotiate the terms of an interim constitution and government.

But Mandela saw that once the freedom genie was out of the bottle, the white negotiators would have to come to his and the ANC’s terms—and they have. In the new South Africa, vote totals will determine power.

Mandela’s toughest challenges lie ahead. His country is a lifeboat with too many people standing to one side. He must steer a course through dangerous shoals of ethnic rivalry, black anger and white anxiety.

So far, while unyielding on the bedrock constitutional issues of freedom and equal opportunity, he has shown a willingness to compromise on political issues and to offer old enemies the shade of his eucalyptus stand.

“He’s a man strong enough to bring together a nation of different races and views,” said Rev. Leon Sullivan, whose “Sullivan principles” evolved into the sanctions that made South Africa a pariah among nations.

The travails of socialism seem to have made him a free-market thinker. He no longer talks about nationalizing industries as a way to share wealth, but producing more wealth by stimulating South Africa’s Western-style economy.

“He is a very pragmatic man who is not ideologically driven,” said Steven McDonald, an official of the African-American Institute. “He will try to make the system work.”

He faces the future alone because he and his nearly equally famous wife, Winnie, are separated. And recently, assassination rumors forced him to cancel an appearance. But the Old Man plows on, his eyes on the prize.

“If you are in harmony with yourself,” he likes to say, “you may meet a lion without fear.”