It's hard to match Nelson Mandela's magnanimity. When he's receiving an award, he defers to his mentors, to his allies in the struggle against apartheid, to his hosts.

If the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP had hoped to honor him Monday night with its lifetime achievement award, he handed the honor right back in equal measure, praising the 90-year-old civil rights organization for its fight for equality and justice and against racism.

During his nearly three decades in prison, he said, "the NAACP served to remind us that there were others like ourselves fighting against the primitive practices of racial discrimination. It inspired us to know that we were not alone."

Mandela, 82, the former president of South Africa's first post-apartheid government, made his remarks at the Freedom Fund Banquet, the NAACP chapter's annual fund-raiser, at the Minneapolis Hilton and Towers.

As he entered the filled room, the crowd of about 2,000 greeted him with a spontaneous and affectionate standing ovation.

He was the consummate guest, and his deference and generosity to those around him shone as bright as the silvery shirt he wore.

There were heaps of praise - from Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, from national and local leaders of the NAACP, and from local business leaders.

Said Ventura: "It angers me that in the 21st century people would still be judged by the color of their skin. Mandela is a perfect example of what one individual can do to protect the rights of the oppressed."

Said Sayles Belton: "The bitter vials of racism continue to leak their poison all over our community. . . . Don't give up hope. Work together for real change. The inspiration [Mandela] is with us tonight."

Rickie Campbell, president of the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP, spoke of Mandela's "indomitable will." Frank Humphrey, a member of the organization's national board of directors, hailed his "robust spirit." Douglas Leatherdale, chairman and CEO of the St. Paul Companies and honorary chairman of the Freedom Fund 2000, praised Mandela for "bridging a great divide."

`Never give up hope'

But Mandela dished the praise right back, with wisdom - and a little humor.

"There is one question put to me on several occasions since my arrival here," he said. "I would like to preempt any one of you from asking me this question."

There was a pause, then a burst of laughter when he said:

"The question is, `What do you think of the American presidential elections?' "

The United States is accepted as the leader of the world, he said, and therefore the matter does not concern Americans alone. Nevertheless, "My answer is a simple one: That I do not wish to make any statement or observation which might be interpreted directly or indirectly as interference."

The audience chuckled ruefully at Mandela's subtle reminder of the West's reluctance to intervene against apartheid.

`Don't give up hope'

Mandela had high praise for his partner in the fight against apartheid, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who also was a recipient of a lifetime achievement award.

"During the darkest period in our struggle, [Tutu] had the courage to stand up alone, with his strong weapon - the Bible - and spoke out and condemned all forms of racism," Mandela said.

Tutu's daughter, Naomi Tutu, accepted the award on behalf of her father, who is recovering from surgery.

Mandela, still strong of voice but slow of gait, was sober about his own country's achievements. He lamented a recent case of police brutality in South Africa and the stubborn nature of racism.

"We recognize that we have a long way to go," he said. "We do trust the theme of your event tonight: `Never give up hope.' "

He offered this benediction: "May the NAACP go from strength to strength and may we collectively as humanity progress to a world where race, gender and other social markers of our rich diversity
no longer serve to mark a person's station in life."

Pipe of friendship

NAACP leaders presented Mandela with a parting gift: a ceremonial Indian pipe carved by Robert Rose Bear, a Chippewa Indian from Red Lake, Minn. The pipe is a "symbol of our friendship" and a way to "establish a closer relationship between our countries," the leaders told Mandela. He held the pipe to his lips.