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Mandela ’s iconic stature earned, not demanded

By Nevanji Madanhire

It seems the death of Nelson Mandela has been rather problematic for the Zimbabwean government. This is seen in the very subdued manner in which the news was received in Harare with something like a blackout on state radio and television. 

Mandela ’s iconic stature earned, not demanded
Mandela ’s iconic stature earned, not demanded

President Robert Mugabe issued a condolence message almost 24 hours after Mandela’s death had been known. And, when it came, many wondered what difference it would have made if the message had been issued at break of day on Friday when everyone else from across the globe issued theirs.

The reason for the lack of grief from Harare may not be too difficult to figure out.

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Of late there has been debate in Zimbabwe on Mandela’s legacy. South Africa is our neighbour and Zimbabwe contributed not little to the emancipation of that country and the rise of Mandela to the throne, but in comparison to Robert Mugabe, he has been seen as a great let-down to the African fight against colonial domination.

Those in power in Harare have been less than charitable in their assessment of him accusing him of having been too lenient with his country’s former oppressors in a way that left the oppressors better off than the black people they enslaved for 500 years.

But those who accuse Mandela of having sacrificed his own people on the altar of reconciliation fail to appreciate the circumstances in which he rose to power. South Africa had been a deeply racially divided nation since the National Party came to power in 1948 and introduced the system of apartheid that was based on white supremacist thought.

Between 1948 and the demise of the apartheid, a bitter civil war had ensued. When it ended in 1990 a leader was needed who could reconcile the entrenched positions that polarised the country. The policy of national reconciliation he adopted was hardly new, having been propounded a decade earlier by none other than Mugabe himself when he became Zimbabwe’s first black Prime Minister in 1980.

In the policy of reconciliation Mandela averted a civil war which many in South Africa and round the world thought was inevitable. His major achievement in the four years he was in power was to cool the tempers of a deeply divided nation. That in itself is a legacy that many post-colonial governments have failed to bequeath to their countries.

But Mandela was also an iconoclast; he attacked cherished beliefs about African leadership. Before his advent African leadership was about strongmen with a mafia-like grip on their countries and peoples as epitomised by Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko (1930-1997) and the generals of Nigeria.

Mandela set out to break that image of the African ruler. Not only did he demonstrate that a leader could be compassionate to his own people and his erstwhile enemies as a way of nation building, but he also began to challenge other African leaders to follow his example.

He set the tone when he condemned the execution of Nigerian dissident novelist Ken Saro-Wiwa leading Nigeria to, in a fit of anger, withdraw from the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations tournament held in South Africa.

Another image of the African leader he destroyed was that of a despot who dies in power. When he retired from office after one term, when he could have continued without hindrance, he turned topsy-turvy the superstition that leaders should die in office.

This did not endear him with the African strongmen who had helped in the anti-apartheid struggle.

When we look at the ideal that Mandela set out to achieve, we see it doesn’t go beyond the achievement of freedom. He says, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”

His long walk was a long walk to freedom, which was achieved with the end of apartheid. That equal opportunities did not necessarily materialise in his lifetime — for such is the nature of ideals — cannot be held entirely against him alone. Mandela showed the way in which countries should be governed; that’s as powerful a legacy as they come.

Christians believe that God sent his only son to die for humanity’s sins and when he was crucified Jesus Christ had only defined for his followers the ideal to eternal life. He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.

No one comes to the Father except through me.” Millions of people live by that doctrine but they are under no illusion that the way to eternal life is going to be easy. That was Jesus’s legacy, not the abolition of sin because sin thrives unto this day.

Many heroes die before their struggles end and are apotheosised when the struggles posthumously come to fruition. Zimbabwe boasts of tens such heroes who did not make it to the Promised Land. Josiah Tongogara, Herbert Chitepo and others easily come to mind.

If Mandela had died at Robben Island, his legacy would still have been cast in stone as an uncompromising freedom fighter.

Mandela’s detractors in Harare want the world to think that there cannot be two African heroes living contemporaneously. For them, there can only be one hero, the one who fought against colonialism and gave his country’s natural resources back to the indigenous people.

That hero is Robert Mugabe. True, Mugabe is a hero to millions of Zimbabweans and to millions others on the African continent disillusioned with their own leaders who succumbed to the trappings of power while their people languish in poverty.

To these millions of Africans who worship the ground Mugabe walks on, he is a beacon of hope that every African leader has to emulate. To them Mandela falls desperately short in comparison because indigenous South Africans still yearn for land and other resources that their country possesses.

But does Mandela’s iconic status diminish Mugabe’s heroism? That seems to be the fear in the corridors of power in Harare, hence the reluctance to celebrate Mandela’s indisputable achievement. The truth of the matter is that it’s up to the world to judge.

Is Mugabe going to have the same international stature that Mandela had as demonstrated by the outpouring of global grief on his death? It’s a stature that one can only command, like Mandela did, not demand, as others would like to do for Mugabe.

Nevanji Madanhire is the editor of the weekly Zimbabwe Standard and this article was initially published under the Editor’s Desk