As Nelson Mandela transitions to the ancestral realm, the past weeks bring into sharp relief the enormity of his achievements and those of his generation of freedom fighters in South Africa. And why he has already become a mythic figure in Africa.
Watching the increasingly bloody and polarised transition now taking place in Egypt, it is possible to appreciate the miracle that delivered a free South Africa. In the two African nations, you had an entrenched elite with enormous economic, military and political power (the army in Egypt controls over 40 per cent of the economy). They were abetted by dubious ideologies (military anti-Islamism and apartheid) that were certainly overlooked, if not tacitly supported, by the West.
How do you wrest control from two such dictatorial cabals, while guaranteeing stability, ensuring the economy delivers, as well as muting opposition voices? Especially as the ANC and Muslim Brotherhood had suffered at the hands of those cabals grievous violence, torture and imprisonment against them and the forces they represented. This was the task that was facing the two M’s – Mandela and Morsi. Mandela managed a soft landing, Morsi so far, in Act Two of the ongoing Egyptian revolution, has been overthrown – and amidst a crisis of legitimacy Egypt is facing chaos or even a civil war.
Morsi’s failures were heightened by the entrenched power of the military and resistance to him at every turn, and a bankrupted economy that needs an annual $20 billion subsidy just to stay afloat. But perhaps his greatest failure was not to abandon his Islamist ideology.
Admittedly Mandela, unlike Morsi, had some factors going for him – a country with strong institutions; an industrial economy with great wealth beneath the ground; the fact that the constitution was agreed ahead of elections – all unlike Egypt. But he also needed great skill in reassuring and keeping everybody on side – one forgets the bloody resistance from Chief Buthlezi and his Zulu-led Inkatha movement, as well as the armed crazies on the Afrikaner right. Most profoundly, he did this by jettisoning an important core of the ANC’s ideology – about land and economic redistribution.
However, not everybody is as generous about Mandela’s role. A few years ago during discussion about black leadership, the subject of Mandela came up. Some African nationalists were incredibly hostile. They believed the reason he was being so lauded by the West was because he had sold out on the key issues of land and the economy, and nobody ended up in The Hague or in jail for crimes committed under apartheid.
There was something very hard about this analysis – even if one accepted the premise. The idea that on a human level, there was no appreciation of the human suffering of Mandela and the generation who went to prison for 27 years, was a sobering one. The purists (especially the ones who sit in Western capitals pontificating and taking no personal risks themselves) say the only non-sell-out African liberation leaders are the dead ones like Lumumba and Malcolm X.
Lumumba’s death has not saved the Congo its tragedies. Mandela’s transition did for South Africa. At independence, over 90 per cent of the South Africans voted for the settlement on offer.
The only significant party to vote against it was the Pan African Congress. And yet the settlement may yet unravel, because, I believe, it is not sustainable. But Mandela bought people time to reconfigure it in a peaceful way. The people, as they have done in Egypt, will eventually tell us when they are no longer happy.
In the meantime, when he finally arrives there we wish Mandela well in the land of the ancestors, which the ancient Egyptians dubbed the land of Osiris after the first great ancestor. From there, we hope the great conciliator and peacemaker will continue to watch over us all in Africa. And to point to a different way to resolve problems.