Sunday, July 29, 2012

Mugabe and Mandela: Exploring the Legacy of Two Great African Leaders

Author: Edson Charikinya

Former United States President, Bill Clinton (right)
with former South African President, Nelson Mandela,
on his 94th birthday (July 18th, 2012).
The international community joined South Africans in wishing Nelson Mandela a happy 94th birthday on July 18th. World leaders sent birthday wishes, with others, such as former U.S. president Bill Clinton, jetting into South Africa on the eve of the great man’s birthday to convey their wishes. But not all Africans feel that Mandela is the greatest African leader of the past century, as he is often portrayed in reverence. There are others who feel that president Mandela, by not addressing the question of economic freedom in South Africa, “sold out” the same people he spent a greater part of his adult life fighting for. Comparisons are quickly drawn between Mandela and Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, with some praising the latter’s determination in confronting his country's difficult history at the expense of his international reputation. Mandela and Mugabe are both equally two of the greatest living African leaders, even as the world’s media and political pundits’ attempt to portray Mandela as the better of the two.

A young Nelson Mandela
Mandela’s contribution to Pan-Africanism is undisputed despite being in prison for the greater part of Africa’s fight for independence. In 2004, in a New African poll of 100 greatest Africans, Mandela polled first ahead of even Kwame Nkrumah, the founding father of the African Union (UN). Mugabe came in at number three. The same magazine and issue described Mandela as “A living legend. The symbol of Africa. [A] Freedom fighter.” While Mugabe was described as a “[A] Fearless pan-Africanist …who is fighting for [indigenous Africans’ right to] Land.” For Nelson Mandela to have come out on top against the likes of Kwame Nkurumah is a great achievement. The late president Nkrumah was Ghana’s first black president and an early Pan-Africanist leader, who is largely accredited with having assisted – directly, in most cases - in the liberation of many African countries. Mandela is well known for dedicating his life to fighting for democracy and the equality of all races and his dream of a peaceful nation, free of racial bigotry.

But eighteen years on, after Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) got into power, there is still a huge gap between the rich and the poor. In some nations such a disparity of wealth could be “normal,” but in South Africa’s case the wealth inequality is a direct result of South Africa’s apartheid history. In its recent report on South Africa, the World Bank stressed the need for South Africa to “tackle economic inequality in order to create jobs.”  It is this point that has led to many disgruntled South Africans in poor townships taking to the streets to protest against the national unemployment rate - currently at 25 percent - and the persistent poverty they are faced with daily. The call for equitable distribution of wealth has been growing louder with this increasing gap in inequality. Various alternatives are being considered by the ANC but none seems popular with those who’ve benefited from apartheid, especial politically well-connected black South Africans who’ve been dolled huge segments of the national economy. This has led to questions of whether comprehensive economic empowerment in South Africa is possible without authoritarian, “Mugabe-type” government action?

A younger Robert Mubage
The struggle for Africa’s independence and right to self-rule was never about political freedom only. It was also about addressing the economic injustices of the past that led to Africans being disposed of their land. Delivering political freedom to Africans has proven a much easier task when compared to the task of achieving economic freedom. Kwame Nkrumah‘s famous slogan was "Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all else shall be added unto you...."  It was this message that defined most African liberation movements.  Now that the political kingdom has been found there is a great expectation by the previously disadvantaged African that in this new Kingdom the injustices of the past will also be addressed.

The manner in which Mandela and Mugabe decided to tackle these injustices is quite different. Mandela’s methods although internationally applauded have not been utterly successful, as highlighted by the inequalities that still persist in South Africa today. On the other hand, Mugabe attempted to directly confront these injustices with some measure of success. A recent article that appeared on the front page of the New York Times written by its Johannesburg bureau chief, Lydia Polgreen, drew fierce criticism when she suggested that there was a “golden lining” to Mugabe’s policies of addressing colonial injustices.

Former South African President, Nelson Mandela (left), 
with Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe (right).
When future Africans look back years from now Mugabe will be remembered by his people for his efforts to empower them and will be loathed by the West for the methods in which he achieved this, regardless of the negative consequences from his efforts. Both leaders have sacrificed a great deal for their people. Mandela “cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.” Mandela at 94 deserves a rest. The burden of responsibility is now on the next generation of South African leaders to “realise Mandela’s dream.”

Edson Charikinya is a Zimbabwean born Chemical Engineer based in South Africa. He is the founder and Operations Director of Innovartis Technology Systems, a Pan-African technology group ​​delivering technology solutions and services to African communities and small-to-medium sized enterprises. He holds an MSc in Chemical Engineering and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Stellenbosch.

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