April 18th, 2012
07:33 AM ET

Mandela and Mugabe: Two African legacies

Editor’s note: Jolyon Ford PhD is senior Africa analyst at the consultancy Oxford Analytica, and a senior consultant to the Institute for Security Studies, South Africa.

By Jolyon Ford - Special to CNN

This month marks the anniversaries of the first free general elections in South Africa (April 27, 1994) and independence from white minority rule in neighboring Zimbabwe (April 18, 1980). In coming months, the sun could 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 hospitalization 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 this its centenary year the ruling ANC party - and its alliance partners - continue a painful, factionalized 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 organization’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.

Jolyon Ford is a senior analyst at Oxford Analytica, the global analysis and advisory firm.

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Topics: Africa

soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. 100% ETHIO

    "His cynical policy land reform distorted....". What kind of Political-paranoia propaganda Mind-set, kept stretched from the West to anywhere. I don't respect the one who do support the murderers, but how did the West managed to colonized and Slaved Zimbabwe, particularly, Africa? Was it by propaganda and Weapon?
    So, now the West criticized Zimbabwe, because Mugabe took some land from the Slave owners and gave it to the Slaves (whose land belongs to).

    Who could be convinced by this propaganda tools? Not me.
    If Zimbabwe economy booms like China, the West will criticized it anyway. So, one way or the other, whether you are poor or Rich, you will never skip the Western criticism and political propaganda machine.

    Do you know who are the beneficiaries? Not the U.S Armies, but others who tell them what to do, to protect their interests.
    However, if the U.S Armies stop listening them, it will be the end of them.

    April 18, 2012 at 9:12 am | Reply
    • Kaycee

      Do you live in Zimbabwe Bro ?

      April 18, 2012 at 9:59 am | Reply
    • Garry

      Ethio you are still enslaved, not by white colonialists, but by a black dictator that has used colonialism as an excuse to first of all gain power over you, then ruthlessly destroy anyone who challenges his dictatorship.
      He and his family rule you all and only his friends and family have prospered, at the expense of others black and white.
      Open your eyes and look at the people suffering under him.

      April 23, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Reply
    • daniel mace

      Slavery in the British Empire was abolished in the 1830s, while the colonisation of Zimbabwe didn't happen until the 1880s/90s, so explain to me how there were 'slave owners'.
      Slavery was carried out by those on the African continent before the arrival of European colonisation so to put all the blame on Europeans is a bit short sighted.

      June 20, 2012 at 10:56 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    There's a saying: "Behind every strong man, there gotta be a strong woman". The same applies for dictators. It seems every hated leader has its femme fatale, the Lady Macbeth figure. France's Queen Marie-Antoinette, former first ladies like Tunisia's Leila Ben-Ali, Egypt's Susanne Mubarak, the late Elena Ceausescu of Romania, Philippines Imelda Marcos etc.etc. Zimbabwe has Grace Mugabe. Her husband Robert, who has been known to silence his opponents, is apparently under her spell to such an extent that he would do anything she asks him to do. She's alleged to be behind the corruption and collapse of Zimbabwe's economy, by seizing farms, empting shelves and the country's coffers and securing her siblings vast assets etc. Nelson Mandela divorced his controversial and radical Winnie and spared himself an embarrassment.

    April 19, 2012 at 6:11 am | Reply
  3. mark longhurst

    the two men are completely different and have always had different approaches, Mugabes main problem is he has consistently lied to his people, the world ,the a.u etc etc , why don't they get rid of him? because he owns the army ,police.air force and a separatemob called the green bombers who do his dirty work without ever being brought to book .This man is a definite contender for the 'worse than pol pot ' prize, 4 million zimbabweans have left since he has been in power , if they were all getting fair distribution of ex colonial assets why would they leave?BTW they are black Zimbos that have left necause they are not closely related enough to the man who holds the gun.....

    April 22, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Reply
  4. Garry

    Mugabe is a dictator, and has killed and brutalized his own people black and white.
    Like all dictators he can't bear to give up the power.
    Very different to Mandela who fought not for power but for justice for all his people.

    April 23, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Reply
  5. Lyno

    I m Zimbabwean n has lived in Zim most of my life and lived in South Africa for 2years and what i will tell is Mugabe is a great leader a visionery. Today Zimbabwe has the highest litracy rate in Africa. Zimbabweans live in proper houses and own land. The black man in Zimbabwe is far better than he was before independence and before 2000. A black man in Zimbabwe is powerful. Compare that with our South African counterparts they live in shacks most of them, the whites own the economy and are the bosses n most respected n powerful earn way more than a black man. Blacks are not educated and own no land. Mandela brought freedom to South Africa but thats not all that was required to do, he left a lot not done. And nothing but trouble is looming in that country worse off than Zim coz South Africans are very violent and a lot of blood is still to be shed in that country to fullfil the freedom liberation journey by redestributing wealth. Mandela was afraid to get his name tainted by fullfilling total indepedence for South Africa and left the job 1/2 done. Mugabe will die fighting to provide leadership in reversing what was done to Zimbabwe in the 100 yrs of colonilization. He will make black Zimbabweans the powerful people the once were during the days of Great Zimbabwe b4 white invasion. Long live Bob.

    April 9, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Reply
    • Amanda

      Love your response. No one in the world questions the Jews when the have their stolen wealth and artwork seized from former Nazis. No reason for black Africans to do the same. I do think people are being to hard on Mandela. He had already sacrificed 27 years in prison. He cannot be expected to do everything. It will be up to his successors.

      December 8, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Reply

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