Mhambi has been redeployed.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Is Nelson Mandela's silence on Zimbabwe OK?

Much is currently being made in the British Press of Nelson Mandela's visit to the UK for the concert celebration of his 90th birthday.

Not because of the planned star studded line up mind you. But because Mandela has not condemned Robert Mugabe's government of late. There's even talk on a mini protest by the likes of activist Peter Thatchel. Thatchel wrote in the UK Independent that Mandela's "silence is connivance". Christopher Hitchens has joined the chorus in Slate, asking, why the Lion has not roared.

I recently had the chance to speak to George Bizos, the heroic South African attorney who was Mandela's lawyer in the bad old days and who more recently has also represented Morgan Tsvangirai, the much-persecuted leader of the Zimbabwean opposition. Why, I asked him, was his old comrade apparently toeing the scandalous line taken by President Thabo Mbeki and the African National Congress? Bizos gave me one answer that made me wince—that Mandela is now a very old man—and another that made me wince again: that his doctors have advised him to avoid anything stressful. One has a bit more respect for the old lion than to imagine that he doesn't know what's happening in next-door Zimbabwe or to believe that he doesn't understand what a huge difference the smallest word from him would make. It will be something of a tragedy if he ends his career on a note of such squalid compromise.

Hitchens is wrong. A word or two, or a torrent of condemnation would make no difference whatsoever.

Mugabe has no time for Mandela. The Mbeki government, which has some influence over Mugabe, detests Mandela's interference more than it detests human rights abuses.

In 2000, at the the time of the first Zimbabwe farm invasions Mandela was trying his best to go quietly into retirement. But events in Zimbabwe and Mbeki's Aids madness proved too much. Mandela spoke out.

In May 2000 when Mbeki controversially embraced Mugabe at a trade fair Mandela attacked 'tyrants' who cling to power: 'We have to be ruthless in denouncing such leaders' he said.

Mbeki was livid.

Mbeki's disagreement with Mandela over foreign policy and quiet diplomacy had gone some way back. In 1995 When Mandela was president Mbeki persuaded an outraged Mandela not to condemn Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha (who wanted to execute writer Ken Saro-Wiwa) and give quiet diplomacy a chance.

When Abacha went ahead and executed Saro-Wiwa, Mandela, his voice quivering with anger, pledged that South Africa will lead the campaign to isolate Nigeria.

Mbeki thought that Mandela had made a mistake. What's more he was just pandering to the West. To Mbeki this condemnation by South Africa would only serve to loose influence with Nigeria. It turned out that Mbeki was wrong. Nigerians resented South Africa's silence. Abacha's regime would not last long.

There is no doubt that Mbeki resented Mandela deeply, and not just because of him being in the right. But because Mandela was larger than life. And because Mandela enchewed Mbeki's racial Africanism for reconciliation in South Africa.

As a result Mbeki tried to ignore Mandela during much of the time of his presidency. Mandela would joke that he had no trouble speaking to any president in the world but his own.

According to Mark GeVisser, many of Mbeki's acolytes believe that Mandela took up the issue of Aids in order to break with his quiet retirement and join battle with Mbeki. This he did at an Conference on Aids in July 2000 in Durban, saying the dispute over the cause of Aids was distracting the battle against it.

Apart from this comment Mandela refrained from publicly criticising Mbeki, instead he wanted to meet the President. After being fobbed off my Mbeki's government for over a year, Mandela took action.

In December 2001 while visiting a treatment center during World Aids Day he said Mbeki was "in dereliction of duty".

Finally in early 2002 he was granted a meeting, but according to GeVisser Mbeki was so dismissive that Mandela decided to take the most provocative action to date.

The Mbeki government was just busy appealing a court ruling compelling it to distribute an Aids anti-retro viral drug called Nevaparine.

On the night before Mbeki was supposed to give the annual state of the nation address, Mandela gave a prize for two South African doctors championing the drug. At the awards after loosing his place and stumbling over his words Mandela looked up and said: "At least I am willing to admit when I have made a mistake."

This was serious.

So serious that matter was duly debated in March 2002 at the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) with Mandela present. 'Speaker after speaker stood up to admonish the former president for being "undisciplined". No one came to his defence.

But although chastined, Mandela had won the Aids battle. In April 2002 the government, forced by the party changed it policy.

This, combined with his increasing frailty, says GeVisser made Mandela take his foot of the throttle. In July 2003 came the reconciliation between Mbeki and Mandela.

In a draft message for Mandela's 85th birthday Mbeki lauded Mandela as an example of "the triumph of the human spirit". When Mandela read this his eyes welled up with tears and he asked his assistant to get 'my President on the line.'

Should Mandela break the truce and speak out on Zimbabwe again? In Southern Africa there's little doubt where Mandela stands on the matter. His voice is unlikely to carry any weight with Mugabe, and serve only to antagonise Mbeki - the only person outside Zimbabwe that could lean on Mugabe.

I hope Mandela does say something Friday, but if he does not, I for one won't hold it against him. He has done far more than his fair share.

Mbeki and the South African government is the one that deserves the opprobrium. If there is a protest it should be outside the South African embassy and not in Hyde park.

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Prixie said...

true true.... pity the tickets are so for the concert are so expensive. i really wanted to go

Mike said...

Amen Wessel. Amen.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this relevant insight and background!

Reggie said...

I agree with boer...Good post, I also wondered because it simply didn't sound right for Madiba to be so quiet. He simply had to say something. Your breadth of knowledge on this issue astounds me- good research. It's also in line with the behaviour of the prez around stronger men than himself. He simply has to fade into the sunset..we cannot afford this type of leadership.

Wessel said...

Thanks, but most of what I wrote is just truncated bits of Mark Gevisser's biography of Mbeki (A dream deferred).

Which I can really recommend for its outstanding research.

Reggie said...

Of course, you know that broke his silence, and spoke out last night, on 'the tragic failure of leadership in our neighboring Zimbabwe'...