Mugabe, Mandela: Same Beginnings, Different Destinations, By Usha Anenga
The names Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela and Robert Gabriel Mugabe need no introduction to any studious African. From the southern part of Africa, both were revolutionary leaders for their respective countries, South Africa and Zimbabwe. They both had similar beginnings, attended the same institution, University of Forte Hare, and took similar paths of political activism and struggle with the same purpose. However, along the line after attaining power, both went separate ways and took actions that ultimately determined their destination; One as a hero and the other, a villain.
Mandela and Mugabe, born just six years apart, shared the same political ideology to liberate their respective countries from the shackles of white minority rule, albeit under slightly different circumstances. South Africa was colonised by both the Dutch and British. During the later years of this arrangement, racial discrimination and segregation of the black majority was institutionalised such that there were deliberately substandard provisions for the indigenous black community ranging from schools, to settlements, markets, parks, buses… you name them! It is against this backdrop that Mandela, brasking in the euphoria and confidence of a young lawyer teamed up with other like-minded contemporaries to reverse the undesirable status quo. As co-founder and leader of the African National Congress, ANC, Mandela conducted incessant anti-colonial campaigns against the government for which he was arrested and imprisoned.
Zimbabwe, on the other hand, is a peculiar case. Then called Rhodesia, it was also colonised by the British but somewhere along the line, members of the British leadership in the country, in a bizarre twist, declared independence from the central British adminstration in Britain. This development infuriated the indigenous people who were suing for complete freedom from the white-rule and resulted in agitations that led to the Zimbabwean war of liberation; a guerrilla war that lasted 15 years. Foremost amongst the freedom fighters was a young teacher called Mugabe. He also led pro independent black-led state protests that earned him a conviction and imprisonment.
Mandela eventually spent 27 years in prison while Mugabe spent 10 years, and after their release, both were seen as heroes who fought for the emancipation of their people. Mandela, participated and won election to become the first black President of South Africa while Mugabe also contested and won elections in his country to become the first black Prime Minister, later President of Zimbabwe.
As expected, both leaders inherited broken system laid with the brittle foundation of racial discrimination and segregation, and had the challenge to rehabilitate the society in order to pave the way for sustainable development. Mandela took the path of social change, emphasising reconciliation between his country’s discordant racial groups including former colonialist communities. He maintained the British and Dutch economic framework while introducing measures to encourage land reform, combat poverty, and expand healthcare services.
Mugabe idea of change was different. He sort a more physical and vindictive reversal of the legacies of white rule. Consequently, he ordered the removal of colonial statues, renamed parks and roads named after prominent colonial figures. He initially made commitment to racial reconciliation even appointing two white ministers but as time went on, his disposition towards the whites began too change. In 1981, after a bomb went off at his party’s headquarters, Mugabe blamed the white community for it and soon he criticised and blamed them for every negative thing in the country.
Another wrong move was the forceful seizure of farmlands from the white farmers with which he planned to resettle homeless back families. These developments led to a mass exodus of the whites who controlled considerable property and dominated commerce, industry, and banking in the country, with many migrating into neighboring South Africa. Soon, Zimbabwe’s loss became South Africa’s gain, all down to the choices of their leaders.
While Mugabe held age-long resentment over wardens who supervised his incarceration in prison, Mandela forgave and recruited some of the prison wardens he served as soon as he became president, also regularly visiting the prison which has now become one of his countries biggest tourist attractions.
Perhaps the proverbial “straw that broke the camels back, the albatross of Mugabe’s choices as a man and leader of his people was his decision to cling unto power. His insatiable appetite for power made him unpopular amongst his people who once hailed him as messiah. Amidst intense protests, the 93-year old was forced to resign shamefully yesterday, bringing an end to 37 years of rule as the world’s oldest President and sparking jubilant celebrations in the streets of Zimbabwe. His South African counterpart, Mandela on the other hand, left the stage when the ovation was loudest. At the peak of his reverence despite calls to rule for life, Mandela bowed out of office after just one tenure becoming the first and only African leader to do so.
The lives of two fine gentlemen who shared similar beginnings, passion for their downtrodden kinsmen ended in two contrasting destinations. Mandela, though dead, will be remembered as a revolutionary leader, hero and world icon with fond words such as rendered by Former US President, Barack Obama, “the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages.” while Mugabe will be remembered as a man whose end contradicted his beginning and as simply put by Bishop Desmond Tutu, “a cartoon figure of an archetypal African dictator who destroyed a beautiful country”.
1. We are products of the choices we make. Choices determine much more who we become than our abilities. Both Mandela and Mugabe had almost equal beginnings and abilities but their choices made the difference between success and failure for themselves and the nations they led.
2. Maintaining a successful life is sometimes more challenging than attaining the height of success. Both Mandela and Mugabe fought for freedom and attained the leadership of their respective countries but their management of this successful feat was even more challenging. One managed it successfully while the other faltered.
3. A freedom fighter doesn’t always make a good leader. Many are very good at criticising and pointing out what is wrong but struggle badly when given the opportunity to lead. Mugabe as well as Mandela were proficient freedom fighters but the former was not as good a leader as he was a fighter, clung unto power and perpetrated the very acts he fought against.
4. Be observant and recognise when it’s time to quit. Too much of everything, even a good thing, is bad. Some say, “it’s best to leave the stage when the ovation is loudest”. Mandela probably was aware of this and took advantage to remain relevant for life and even in death, while Mugabe was oblivious to this fact and overstayed his welcome.
5. Success without a successor is failure. Mandela ruled for a single term and handed over the mange of leadership to Thabo Mbeki, his fellow comrade in the struggle. Mugabe on the other hand struggled unsuccessful to install his wife, his former typist as his successor. That is failure!
6. Forgiving doesn’t make you weak. It’s rather a virtue of the strong. Mugabe showed his power by resenting the former colonialists, his seizure of their farms resulted in a massive food crisis and dip in the economy of Zimbabwe. Mandela forgave and moved for racial reconciliation which is still an ongoing process but has done his country a lot of good.
7. Nothing is totally bad and nothing is totally good. While taking measures to dismantle the social impact of institutionalised racial discrimination and segregation in South Africa, Mandela was careful not to destroy the economic framework of the colonialist. Today South Africa is the actual largest economy in Africa.
8. Change must not just be physical to be reckoned with. Mugabe sought after dismantling and renaming buildings and other physical structures giving little attention to the non-tangible aspects of change; attitude, organisation, policy and how the people felt about his leadership. Most times, leaders are more concerned about physical structures and buildings, figures spent on projects rather than the non-tangible social impact, or not, of these interventions on the common man’s standard of living.
Usha Anenga is a Medical Doctor and sociopolitical commentator. He writes from Makurdi, Benue State.