This month sees the anniversaries both of the first free general elections in South Africa (27 April 1994) and independence from white minority rule in neighbouring Zimbabwe (18 April 1980). And in coming months the sun could likely set in each country on the lives of two major African leaders whom history will remember very differently.
Nelson Mandela is 93 years old. The anti-apartheid icon retired over a decade ago after serving as post-apartheid South Africa’s first democratically-elected president. The contribution his leadership and example have made to that country’s longer-term prospects for racial harmony and social cohesion is generally seen as incalculable. The anxiety following his brief hospitalisation in February signalled the levels of respect and affection in which he is held in South Africa and around the world: his death and funeral will undoubtedly be significant global events.
Zimbabwe’s current president Robert Mugabe has been in office, in effect, since 1980. Last week he walked unaided off a flight from Singapore. Reactions to reports in early April that the 88-year old was dying in a foreign hospital provide further proof—if more were needed—of the considerable political uncertainty prevailing in contemporary Zimbabwe. Mugabe is widely held responsible for that country’s descent, especially after 2000, from post-conflict African success story to so-called “pariah state,” a by-word for democratic misrule, corruption and human rights abuse. His articulate rants against what he portrays as the West’s “imperialist” designs, misdeeds and hypocrisy have a far greater resonance across Africa than is commonly understood. His cynical policies on land reform distorted history and impoverished most Zimbabweans, but also manipulated uncomfortable truths about the incomplete economic emancipation of black Zimbabweans. However, his unnecessary and destructive behavior have also entrenched unfortunate stereotypes of inherently flawed African leadership—much to the frustration of many on the continent, especially its younger people.
Comparisons with Mandela particularly irk Mugabe, but they are neither all unfair, nor inaccurate. The abundant hostility towards Mugabe at home and abroad is partly a function of general disappointment, given his early record after 1980 directing the country’s post-civil war recovery. Zimbabwe’s achievements in education, healthcare and economic growth made for admiring donors and envious neighbors; as he begins to fade, he understandably feels entitled to greater credit for the principled stances he took opposing apartheid rule and on racial reconciliation towards white Rhodesians in the new Zimbabwe. In this sense he somewhat preceded Mandela, but the public memory will certainly prefer the Mandela narrative to the Mugabe one.
Mugabe cultivates the current political uncertainty and unease in Zimbabwe, including by refraining from naming any preferred successor in the ZANU-PF party that, despite everything, he continues to dominate. His political exit has been the subject of decade-long speculation, has invariably been called too soon, and he prefers it that way. However, most observers doubt that he will live into his 90s; he will hope that his epitaph will be “freedom fighter, socialist, and true African nationalist” but history is far more likely to simply label him “dictator.” Zimbabwe’s post-Mugabe transition may yet prove less chaotic than many fear, but he will be given little credit for any broader recovery.
In South Africa, during its current centenary year the ruling ANC party—and its alliance partners—continue a painful, factionalised and highly public period of soul-searching over the former liberation movement’s trajectory. Pending party leadership elections in December are distracting its leadership from policy actions as the country’s high-potential economy drifts along. For a party that draws so readily on its history, Mandela’s death will both unite the ANC in grief and leave something of a vacuum in which the organisation’s messy intrigues may appear more starkly. Contests over the “true” interpretation and rightful inheritors of the Mandela leadership legacy will drag on. It remains to be seen whether the sheer force of Mandela’s legacy will be enough, along with the many resilient features of the party and country’s democratic commitments, to help the ANC leadership govern that complex and important country in the spirit expressed in its much-admired constitution.
2011’s “Arab Spring” in North Africa threw a spotlight on long-time leaders south of the Sahara, from Angola to Zimbabwe. Coming after the recent sudden death of Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika, the recent rumours of Mugabe’s pending demise have served to highlight the widespread uncertainty about what lies in store for Zimbabwe. In South Africa, time will tell if the country has yet to really confront its difficult history in the “honest” ways that Zimbabweans have recently been forced to. For those looking to South Africa for principled leadership on the continent, and for South Africans worried (mostly unduly) about the “ZANU-fication” of the ANC, Mandela’s eventual passing will be mourned for more than just the death of a great man.