AFTER the death of anti-apartheid icon and democratic South Africa’s first president Nelson Mandela –– whose story hogged worldwide media for 10 days, except on ZBC and Zimpapers of course –– I skimmed through a wide range of television and radio channels, as well as newspapers, online news and social media platforms to see how this momentous event was covered.
By Alfred Shumba
The bottom line was that everybody generally agreed Mandela was a towering and extraordinary historical figure. Even his most rabid critics also agreed with this conclusion, albeit grudgingly.
However, there was some useful criticism from certain quarters, pointing out contradictions and outright hypocrisy as well as vain attempts to rewrite history. In Zimbabwe there were attempts to compare Mandela to President Robert Mugabe from a partisan perspective.
Africa produced many great liberation struggle heroes, from Kwame Nkrumah to Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda and Mugabe, who played critical roles in defeating colonial regimes. However, Mandela was exceptional.
Apart from bringing down the strongest colonial/apartheid regime on the continent, Mandela did many other things, including unifying a deeply divided society, reconciliation and laying a strong democratic base for the country and a framework for transformation. He also ensured South Africa did not become a one-party state with the attendant economic ruin prevalent in many other African countries, which sets him apart from the others.
Although Mugabe did not, like Nkrumah, Nyerere, Kaunda and others introduce a de jure one-party state system and declare himself president-for-life, he was stopped from doing that in his tracks through a coalition of political and civic movements towards the end of the first decade of Independence.
Although it would be rather unfair to compare Mandela and Mugabe given the different historical, social, political and economic dynamics in South Africa and Zimbabwe, one cannot help but observe similarities in the circumstances and issues that propelled them into liberation struggle politics from which they emerged as heroes.
Furthermore, Zimbabwe and South Africa share common historical and cultural backgrounds, which, without downplaying the differences, provide a useful basis and framework for analysis and comparison.
When Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, Mugabe became its first prime minister at the age of 56 and has remained in power for 33 years. Mandela became the founding leader of a democratic South Africa at 76 but quit five years later.
This on its own explains the different styles of leadership between the two; one believes in being president-for-life, while the other believed he played his role to ensure the political struggle was won and younger people must continue the economic struggle for emancipation and empowerment.
While it is true Mugabe and Mandela had a vision of building better societies in which their people enjoyed liberty and economic empowerment, their paths later became different.
After initially proclaiming reconciliation and forming a unity government, as Mandela was to do 14 years later, Mugabe soon waged a fierce campaign of vengeance against his rivals, particularly then Zapu leader, the late Joshua Nkomo and his party. Some of Zimbabwe’s illustrious freedom fighters, including Zipra supremo Dumiso Dabengwa, Lookout Masuku, Swazini Ndlovu, Tshaka Moyo, Gilbert Nkomo, Misheck Velaphi, and many others were rewarded for their role in the struggle with arrest, detention and torture. Masuku died as a result of the incarceration on false charges of a coup plot.
Even though Dabengwa was acquitted in the early 1980s, he remained in detention until the Unity Accord in 1987.
In a bid to crush Nkomo and Zapu, Mugabe’s government also launched a fierce crackdown in Matabeleland and Midlands provinces, with the massacre of about 20 000 people, using the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade.
Up to this day Mugabe has not apologised for the Gukurahundi massacres, only conceding that it was an “act of madness”. Besides, Mugabe resented dissent as shown by his brutal suppression of his former close ally, the late Edgar Tekere’s Zimbabwe Unity Movement. He was later to use even more brutal methods against the MDC formations after 2000 as he fought a rising wave of popular discontent against his misrule.
During the first decade of his rule, Mugabe, through his socialist policies in a command economy, focused on improving access to education, health, water, electricity, and transport. Great strides were made and Zimbabwe achieved the highest literacy rate in Africa partly due to that.
However, Mugabe’s reign degenerated into a tale of power, violence and plunder –– turning him from hero to villain.
The land reform programme, which came 20 years after Independence, because Zimbabwe, like South Africa, emerged from a negotiated settlement, helped to redeem his legacy. However, the reality is that Zimbabwe is now far poorer than it was in 1980 when it emerged from the liberation war amid full United Nations-backed sanctions.
Research by Zimstats, the official government statistics agency, shows that the overall poverty rate has reached a record high of 63% with Zimbabwe’s estimated population of 13 million vastly classified as poor and 16% living in extreme poverty. The poverty rate in Matabeleland North province is now the highest in the country at a shocking 81,7% followed by Mashonaland Central with 75,4% and Mashonaland West 72,4%. Bulawayo has the least poverty rate in the country at 34,5% while Harare has 35,7%.
But just how did we get to these alarming levels of poverty, having inherited a relatively prosperous economy at Independence in 1980? Zimbabwe is endowed with vast mineral resources and yet poverty is increasing every year as the economy regresses. Corruption and bad governance, which Mugabe has allowed to flourish in his successive governments, have given way to policies that created limited employment opportunities and ruined infrastructure resulting in poor resource exploitation.
Because of Mugabe’s seeming reluctance to punish corrupt officials over the years, a culture of impunity has developed and created a society with a small influential, rich and powerful political elite and a poor majority.
The lack of transparency in the mining sector and sale of diamonds from Marange is a case in point. Everything is done in secrecy with only a privileged few in the know. Political violence, intimidation and the absence of the rule of law have also contributed to economic decline, rising poverty and social decline in the country. Unemployment has reached an estimated 85%, tourism has declined and hospitals and schools function on shoe-string budgets.
This is the reality of Zimbabwe under Mugabe. No wonder millions of Zimbabweans have fled to other countries in search of the proverbial greener pastures.
Even though both Mugabe and Mandela used violence to liberate their people, the former never stopped using it as an instrument of politics and power up to this day.
Instead of reforming the former settler colonial state, Mugabe inherited its repressive apparatus and used it to suppress opposition and dissenters, including his comrades during the liberation struggle.
Although land reform was one of the key liberation struggle grievances, it only came 20 years later largely due to social pressure from the poor and the emergence of the MDC in 1999. If Mugabe had gone after five or 20 years in power, the issue would have remained unresolved.
Mandela in merely five years in power had massive social programmes to address housing, water, education, health and other problems. They went a long way and that is why the South Africa of today is vastly different from that of the apartheid era. However, myriad problems remain in South Africa, not least economic inequalities. Mandela said when he quit the presidency in 1999 that younger leaders must come into the fray to address new challenges facing South Africa. He could not redress inequalities created over 350 years of apartheid in five years.
Mandela’s “rainbow nation” project remains work-in-progress.
Those claiming Mandela sold out need to refer to the Lancaster House agreement for perspective on power dynamics and negotiated settlements.
For all these and many other unstated reasons, Mugabe is nowhere near Mandela who was in a class of his own as widely acknowledged by all rational people around the world, friends and foes alike.
Shumba is a Zimbabwean political commentator based in the Scandinavia.