Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Regret of Having Nelson

South Africa’s former President, Mr Nelson Mandela is in critical condition. Mr Mandela had been hospitalized with a lung infection on the 8th of June, 2013. By the 23rd of this month, Mr Mandela had slipped into a coma and his condition was described as being “critical.” While there are reports of Mr Mandela taking a turn for the better since then, it looks quite likely that Mr Mandela’s time is up.
Mr Mandela’s passing is be an event that unites the world in mourning for one of its few political heroes. Mr Mandela spent 27-years in prison for his struggle against the “apartheid” regime that ruled South Africa. Despite suffering at the hands of his oppressors, Mr Mandela emerged from prison to negotiate a ‘peaceful’ end of apartheid and preached forgiveness and reconciliation between the various peoples who inhabit South Africa.

There’s no doubting Mr Mandela’s greatness and his passing should be mourned. This man stood for everything that humanity considers to be good. He was, as they say, a moral compass for the world.
However, as saintly as Mr Mandela has been, it’s probably a good idea to look at his failures as well as his success when we examine his legacy. What was Mr Mandela’s greatest failure? I’m going to argue that his greatest failure was that he failed to prepare his political party, the ANC and the South African Nation to live beyond him.

Let’s put it very bluntly, Mr Mandela has reached an age where dying any moment should be expected. The man is 94 and despite the good health he’s enjoyed since being released from prison nearly 20-years ago, Mr Mandela has gone way beyond his three score-year and ten. The world, South Africa and the ANC should have been preparing for his passing during the last twenty-years.

Let’s start with the African National Congress or the ANC, the party that Mr Mandela ran for so long. When Mr Mandela was in prison, the ANC was a by word for a wonderful independence movement that embraced all sections of South Africa’s diverse society. It was a movement that had blacks (Zulu, Xhosa and so on) and whites (English and Afrikaners). When the ANC won South Africa’s first ever multiracial election in 1994, there was a sense that the good guys had finally won.

To be fair to the ANC, it’s not the only party that has had a difficult transition from being an independence movement to a normal political party. If you look at election results, the ANC is an exceedingly successful political party – it has overwhelmed everyone else in elections since 1994.

While the current President of South Africa, Mr Jacob Zuma has apparently made remarks that the ANC’s continuous rule is ordained by God, political parties that don’t face opposition usually suffer from the very human malaise of stagnation. After a while, the people who run the party forget that there is a line that separates government and party.

One of the closest examples can be found next door in neighboring Zimbabwe, run by the ANC’s fellow freedom movement – the ZANUPF. Today we think of ZANUPF and its leader, Mr Robert Mugabe as by words for tyranny and abuse. Think of Zimbabwe and you have the instant picture of a country going from bad to worse. However, there was a time when ZANUPF was a party of hope and Mr Mugabe was once regarded as a saint, pretty much like Mr Mandela.

To be fair to Mr Mandela, he has recognized his own frailty while Mr Mugabe has not. Mr Mandela saw to it that he served only one term as President (1994-1999). Even during his presidency, Mr Mandela made it a point to leave the day-to-day running to his duty, Mr Thabo Meki. The way he played out his role as President has been described as being more like a constitutional monarch than a politician – one only has to remember the image of Mr Mandela in a Springbok Jersey (South Africa’s National Rugby Team – a symbol of “White Afrikaner” Pride) handing the Rugby World Cup to Francois Piennar, the captain of the world cup winning Springbok team in 1997.  

You could say that Mr Mandela saw to it that he would never get the chance to indulge and become addicted to institutionalized power of political office. To his credit, Mr Mandela preferred to use his “moral authority” rather than the powers of political office.

While Mr Mandela was exemplary in his ability to give up political office (something few politicians are good at and African ones being particularly bad at it), his two successors proved to be quite different. If anything Messers Mbeki and Zuma have proved to be more like “anti-Mandela’s” in their behavior. Both men have been accused of being intolerant of dissent and of using the powers of office to silence critics. While both men have been relatively benign when compared to many of their counterparts on the continent, their behavior has been contradictory to the “hope” given out during the Mandela era.

One of the worst examples of how Mr Mandela’s successors have behaved can be seen on the stance both men have taken against HIV/AIDS, which afflicts a good portion of South Africa. Mr Mbeki was quite public in his quest to prove that there was no link between HIV and AIDS. He went as far as to delay the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs to public hospitals. While Mr Zuma has yet to officially harm AIDS patients, his public example hasn’t been much better. We’re talking about a man who takes precautions like having a shower after he has sex with a woman he knows to be HIV Positive (he allegedly rapped her).  
What went wrong here? It seems quite obvious that the politicians that succeeded Mr Mandela didn’t have his passion for working for the people. There is a sense that Mr Mandela could have done more to sell his vision to his followers in the ANC and gone as far as to institutionalize non-corruption and power abuse in both the ANC and South Africa. Mr Mandela, as they say, had both the institutional and moral power to do so.

There’s no doubt about the good things that Mr Mandela has done. It’s just such a pity that he didn’t get his party or nation ready to go beyond the “founding father” 

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