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The Mugabe Mandela fight for regional domination

By Hopewell Chin’ono

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s verbal barbs on Nelson Mandela have a historical context, which both men helped accentuate.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's verbal barbs on Nelson Mandela have a historical context
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s verbal barbs on Nelson Mandela have a historical context

South Africa’s first majority and black President Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in apartheid jails whilst Robert Mugabe spent 11 years in Ian Smith’s jails, both men were fighting for black majority rule and both men became the founding fathers of the independent state in their respective countries.

The first thing one needs to understand is that Robert Mugabe and his ZANU PF party were aligned to the radical Pan African Congress of South Africa (PAC) not Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC). Just like ZANU, the PAC came out of the ANC and ZANU came out of ZAPU. Both parties had a shared history of militancy and rebellion.

ANC was aligned to Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU political party due to language proximity amongst many other things but not specific. They were both funded by the Soviets, whereas ZANU was trained and funded by China.

At Zimbabwe’s independence, the western alliance, a group of powerful western countries led by Britain and the USA chose Robert Mugabe as their man as they saw him as the bulwark against Soviet influence in Southern Africa especially being geographically next to Apartheid South Africa.

This process was started by the then American Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger in the 70s. (Read Henry Kissinger’s Years of Renewal for full story).

The Apartheid regime indirectly encouraged and supported Robert Mugabe’s persecution of Joshua Nkomo in the 80s because Nkomo was close to the ANC and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

This to Mugabe was mere expediency not deliberate or conniving, it has always been with Mugabe, who unlike what many believe, is not dogmatic in real life but very practical hence his unprovocative relationship with the Botha and De Klerk governments.

It is true that Mugabe was the political poster child of the region if not Africa and was popular in the West, he had seven academic degrees, spoke English better than the Queen of England, had transformed his country’s educational fortunes, was even knighted by Elizabeth Windsor, then in comes Mandela, a man who animated the whole world and had global icons like Oprah Winfrey and Richard Branson eating from his palm, a man who took all the newspaper inches from Cde Bob.

Naturally, there was resentment and political tension but I don’t believe what Mandela said when he accused Mugabe of wanting him to rot in prison.

Mugabe was pushed by the Front Line states to postpone his land reform program in order to support the negotiations in South Africa and he duly complied. He made some significant sacrifices towards South Africa’s emancipation regardless of his support for the PAC.

The issues that Mugabe regularly brings up about Mandela are not new at all, both men had been strident in how they explained their rivalry to the world.

Nelson Mandela mocked Robert Mugabe and Mugabe also mocked Mandela in a way that ingratiated himself with the majority black South Africans in the same way that Ian Smith was seen as a hero at a South African Rugby match in September of 1976 for opposing Henry Kissinger’s plans for black majority rule in Rhodesia, plans which South Africa’s Prime Minister Balthazar Johannes Vorster supported.

Fast forward to 2017, Mugabe finds himself with his Vice President (VP) Emerson Mnangagwa, a Vice President who Mugabe doesn’t want to take over from him.

His VP has allegedly made an alliance with South Africa’s VP Cyril Ramaphosa, a man who was part of the negotiating team in the early 90s for a document that ushered South Africa’s transition from White rule to majority rule.

A document which Mugabe and the majority black South Africans feel that it didn’t address the central issue in Apartheid South Africa, black economic emancipation.

Cyril Ramaphosa and Emmerson Mnangagwa have been characterised by their foes both in Zimbabwe and South Africa as being too close to white business interests, an area which Mugabe has been consistent about in his political rhetoric.

Then there is Jacob Zuma, the current South African President who is pushing his ex-wife Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma (NDZ) to succeed him, a NDZ whose economic transformation credentials are solid as far as Mugabe and his people are concerned.

NDZ has also fought in Mugabe’s corner for years during her ministerial tenure in South Africa’s government when she was Foreign Minister and as the Africa Union (AU) Chairperson.

Zimbabwe has always been on either the AU or the Southern African Development Community SADC) agenda since 2000 due to the tussle between Mugabe and the country’s main opposition party, the MDC led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

NDZ has always sympathised with Mugabe’s political positions, which she sees as rooted in ideology, something that I witnessed in 2013 during Zimbabwe’s election when NDZ had a massive clash with Morgan Tsvangirai.

Mugabe has a presidential election in 2018 and as with all Zimbabwean elections, the 2018 election will end up on South Africa’s lap due to disagreements and accusations of rigging. So Mugabe’s denigration of Mandela’s black economic empowerment legacy should be seen in that prism too.

He is indirectly asserting his support for NDZ’s presidential bid, that is why the only person to make an issue about Mugabe’s Mandela rants is Gwede Mantashe, a lame duck ANC Secretary General who won’t be on either of the main ANC presidential slates of Ramaphosa or NDZ in December.

Mugabe’s rants are hugely popular in South Africa’s black communities and indeed in the rest of the African continent.

That is one area that Mugabe has beaten his local opposition on the propaganda war front.

Mugabe has characterized his fight to be against white dominance, something that is appetizing to a black South African who faces crude racism everyday.

The fight between Cyril Ramaphosa who is perceived to be the poster child of Mandela’s legacy and NDZ who is perceived to be the candidate for the so called radical economic transformation will be fought on the central issues of corruption and black empowerment, real or imagined.

In his biography of Cyril Ramaphosa, Anthony Butler recounts an incident in 1999 in which Robert Mugabe called Ramaphosa “a white man in a black man’s skin” which is a theme that has continued being interchanged between Mandela and Ramaphosa in Mugabe’s vitriol towards the two men who were central to the South African independence agreement.

If Robert Mugabe’s regime will have anything to do with the ANC leadership elections in December this year, Nkosazana Dhlamini-Zuma will emerge triumphant.

Zimbabwe has always sought to influence events in the region with a degree of success as seen in Zambia with the current president Edgar Lungu and in Malawi with again the current president Peter Mutharika.

So the Mugabe rants against Nelson Mandela’s role in failing to secure a better deal during South Africa’s negotiations also known as Convention For A Democratic South Africa (CODESA) should not be seen outside historical events and shouldn’t be seen as rants of a deluded old man, there is a method and historical purview to what Mugabe is doing. It is also about the future relations between Mugabe and a new South African administration if Mugabe’s bet pays off.

That Robert Mugabe is an unpopular leader in his country is a given, but unlike his competitors both at home and abroad, he makes sure that his main base is constantly energised, a trait he shares with Donald Trump.

Instead of the middle amd business classes sneering at Mugabe’s desecrating of Mandela’s legacy, they should be debunking the myths, myths that are reinforced by people like Robert Mugabe who have political street credibility with the masses in both South Africa and Africa in general, an inconvenient point that we chose to sidestep at our own peril.

Hopewell Chin’ono is an award winning documentary filmmaker and television journalist.

He also writes for The New York Times and is a Harvard University Nieman Fellow.

He was the 2008 CNN African Journalist of the year.

He can be contacted at [email protected]