By By Orion Demame
Tigrai Onlne - April 27, 2014
It has been about five months since one of the great sons of Africa, the long serving prisoner who ended being the first black president of South Africa passed away. The world has said much good things about him both as a person and as a leader. I happened to be one that speaks a lot good about him, as Mandela the person and not the leader Now that the dust has settled down and South Africa (SA) is preparing to elect its president, I may start wondering why so much has been said about Mr. Nelson Mandela, perhaps undeservingly. As an African who is proud of its colour, culture and astounding African history, I always had the burning desire to see a SA free from apartheid as well as Mandela and his inmates released from Robben Island prison. Consequently, I have shown my keen support in many of the gatherings, discussions, seminars and events in the struggle years where ever and whenever I could. The purpose of this piece is not to criticise Mandela the person. How could I when I had the highest respect and admiration for him as a revolutionary freedom fighter that, in the formative years of the African National Congress (ANC), was highly committed to bring about lasting and appreciable changes to the majority of South Africans. My intention here is to look his leadership contribution in the prism of the media outlet that the world was bombarded with.
It is true that Mandela had a significant role in the fight against apartheid, and as such, he deserved credit for his courage and resolve. But to portray him as the one and only that has brought down apartheid to its knees is utterly upsurd and hurting. As I see it, Mandela was one among the very many that ended up in prison. But the greatest of them all, Walter Sisulu was also in prison. So were Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Joe Slovo and many others. Soon after the arrest of most of the ANC leadership, there were those who decided to remain in the country and continue the struggle from within including Mrs Winnie Mandela and the late Steven Biko. Some found it untenable to live in SA and left instead to wage the political struggle from a foreign base. The greatest among these was the late Mr Oliver Tambo. In order to put the discussion in perspective, I would like to briefly outline the way the anti-apartheid movement walked its way to victory, of course, as I understood it.
The struggle within
After Messrs Mandela, Sisulu, Kathrada, etc. were sent to a long prison sentence, the movement was effectively circumcised. There was no mention of Mandela and ANC for some considerable time. Winnie Mandela tried to fight back but to no avail. She even became a target herself by the apartheid government who harassed, beaten and raped her. She was then taken away from Johannesburg, kept under house arrest and forbidden to involve herself in all sorts of political activities. It was only after her return from house arrest that she started the "Amanda, Free Mandela" movement. She came out leading demonstrations after demonstrations demanding for the release of Mandela and advocating equal rights for all South Africans irrespective of colour or creed. This strategy effectively popularised the "Mandela" name among the youth that did not know him. So "Mandela" became a household name with which they associated South African race-equality struggle and ANC leadership. Walter Sisulu had earlier been a leader and could have been a household name in SA as well. But he did not have Winnie to popularise and promote his name. The same is true with Kathrada, Govan Mbeki and others for that matter. It was sad that Mandella was imprisoned thus limiting his freedom and movement. But Winnie was at the receiving end of the apartheid brutality on a daily basis for 27 long years. So, as I see it, Winnie's selfless and unflinching dedication to the struggle was immense that dwarfed the contribution made by Mr Mandela.
The Diasporas movement
As mentioned above, Oliver Tambo left to continue the struggle from outside. Of course, he chose to do a task that was even harder. He had to start from absolutely nothing and fight a formidable apartheid government that was prepared to spend enormous amount of resources on security and espionage if it meant to decisively crush the movement. When Tambo started the journey, he neither had the financial means nor an international diplomatic support. But with dedication, hard work, wisdom and some support from some African quarters, he was able to build one of the most sophisticated political organisations in the world. He managed to open closed doors of the Western countries and also international organisations. He succeeded in changing public opinion in favour of democratic SA free of apartheid rule. He travelled to all corners of the world knocking at closed doors and made their leaders aware of the cruelty of his country's system of government. He even succeeded in bringing Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, the ex-prime minister of the United Kingdom who had earlier pronounced ANC to be a terrorist organisation and illegitimate, to his side that recognised it as a legitimate one.
Mandela's release and ascend to presidency
It should be known that the anti-apartheid struggle was not waged by ANC alone. ANC is an umbrella organisation advocating a non-violence struggle to which Mandela, Sisulu, Kathrada, etc. ascribed. But there were also other groups that waged armed struggle. The latter intensified the struggle as a result of which they inflicted heavy damage on the apartheid government. Towards the end, it reached to a point where the apartheid government could not bring down the groups under control. This intensified activities by the armed groups sent fear among the white minority and the government that it may end up like Zimbabwe. If so, the white minority could lose everything that the apartheid system worked for. They desperately needed to maintain all power including the economy and security. It is well known fact that almost all Western countries' multinational companies (mostly British and American) had mines, manufacturing, financial services, and etc. interests in SA. So, a situation like Zimbabwe meant that their economic interests may be nationalised and lost. This situation for them was really unthinkable event to imagine. The fear of losing influence and strategic interest was imminent as well. In order for these interest groups to safeguard their interests, it was necessary to devise a way that would keep the status quo except for two issues that the white minorities were prepared to relinquish. These are the release of Mandela and allowing Black South Africans the right to vote. The architects of the design thought that these two issues would make the black majority happier and make them think they had won the struggle. While this was good achievement by itself, I don't think even for a second that this was what ANC fought for. As long as voting right is not translated into bread, in other words, as long as South African (SAn) blacks have not become equally beneficiaries of the economy, it seems to me that the struggle has not attained its objectives.
We know that the prisoners including Mandela were political prisoners. We also know that governments don't just release political prisoners without certain form of agreements or deals. So Mandela's release can't be any other than conditional on honouring a deal on his part. The minority government could have made a deal with Sisulu as well. But as mentioned above, Sisulu did not have Winnie to popularise his name. Besides it is highly unlikely that Sisulu would do what they wanted him to do. As such, he could not be their choice. Same is true with the others including Kathrada and Mbeki. We have to remember that Winnie had already done the ground work in building Mandela's image that the government had taken notice of. ANC leader Tambo and his associates in the Diasporas also used Mandela as an ANC leader. So the authorities had to go for Mandela. I am not trying to say that he should not be an ANC leader in their long and arduous campaign. Of course, he should be the leader as long as the SAn people wanted him. But my concern is why the West's media highly inflate his image and his contribution to the struggle beyond imagination when his contribution was minimal. Some would argue that he was in prison for 27 years and, therefore, is a winning card. I don't think that long prison sentence should be a necessary and sufficient condition to unreasonably boost one's image. But so were the other ANC members in prison for that length, some even for longer.
Mandela's contribution while in freedom
So why is the media euphoria around him? Some even went as far as equating him to Jesus Christ? What did he do to SA and SAn people? Is there any contribution he made to Africa and the world at large?
At independence, people had very high expectations both within the minority whites and among the majority blacks. Then the question that follows is what positive changes have his leadership brought to SA. One important contribution was that there was a peaceful transition to an all inclusive SA. This has remarkably been achieved as seen from the political side. On the economic side, there are now a handful of very rich black SAns. They have made their wealth either through corruption or cutting deals or by associating themselves with the ANC and government big guns. The great majority are, however, still very poor. Soweto is still Soweto. There is chronic poverty among blacks. Infrastructure such as roads, schools and health services are still problematic. In fact, most blacks openly argue that the change did not bring any visible benefit to them other than voting rights and the right to reside in an area of their choice in the country as opposed to the previous "homeland" system. The latter was not meant for them though as it is a choice that required significant amount of money.
Criminality in the country has also reached to high levels. The government is incapable of bringing down the level of criminality in certain areas in SA. For instance, Johannesburg is often referred to as one of the unsafe cities to move around freely. So, it can't be said that Mandela has brought material and social well being to the SAn blacks that they desperately needed.
African media outlets have also been echoing the West in promoting Mandela. For instance, ERTA has given huge coverage over many weeks. What did ERTA see in him that some of us did not see? It is true that Mandela has visited Addis soon after his release. It seems to me that his arrival in Addis was to thank the then Ethiopian President Mengistu for his significant contribution to the SAn struggle both materially, diplomatically and politically. That is it. I can't even remember Mandela taking part at the African Union Annual Heads of States meetings at the headquarters in Addis. Well then, if he had a leadership quality that the West tried to impose on him, why didn't he come to the major African forums including the AU and make convincing and intelligent speeches? Leadership qualities require one to be a thinker and a visionary that, unfortunately, Mandela didn't have. Obviously, he was a lawyer by training but was neither a thinker nor a visionary. No matter how much the media tried to give him qualities that didn't belong to him at all, he miserably failed Africans in as much as he failed SAns.
I applaud him for sending peacekeeping troops to Burundi and Sierra Leone but the Darfur, Ethio-Eritrea, Djibouti-Eritrea, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan (north-south) conflicts all took place under his watch without doing anything. What did he do to bring peace in these conflict areas if he really was a peace maker and a true leader? Absolutely nothing. He was there when the Rwanda genocide as well as Burundi's, albeit in smaller proportion, happened. Again, nothing came from him. He may have tried but as long as his efforts did not materialise, I can't say he had a good leadership quality. Emperor Haileselassie, in spite of his cruelty to his own people, was a true son of Africa who was concerned about African culture, freedom, history, peace and security. When the border conflict between Algeria and Morocco escalated, he found it distasteful to let foreign peace keepers come and interfere in Africa for the simple reason that foreign troops specially those of the West would erode Africa's culture, religion, and way of life. Most often, they introduce prostitution, drugs, illicit transactions and irregular relationships including rapes in the countries where they are assigned. Besides, they never solve conflicts. If they do, the Belgian and French contingencies as well as the UN peace keeping mission that were in Rwanda at the time wouldn't have allowed the genocide take place in front of their eyes. So Haileselassie quickly brought the conflicting countries together and solved their differences. They did and that peace has lasted so far. He brought peace to the internal conflict in Sudan that lasted long until the North who calls themselves Arabs broke the Addis Ababa peace treaty in favour of imposing islamic Sharia law in the country including on the Sothern Christian majority. Similarly, he brought peace between Cameroon and Nigeria in their border conflict. He also did his best for the Nigerian-Biafra conflict to come to an end and alleviate the suffering of Nigerian people. I can mention many more but that is not my point. My point is to show leadership at its best that Mandela terribly lacked. For instance Ethiopia and Eritrea, in their so called border conflict, did not need to go to Algiers, to present their case to the Arabs and for the Arabs to bring Arab solution to an African problem. It may have comforted the Eritrean leadership as the Eritrean project has always been an Arab, primarily Egyptian project rather than Eritrean peoples' project. But going to Algiers was distasteful for the Ethiopians, and it seems Ethiopia has been there as a result of arm twisting, blackmailing and threats of withdrawing project support by the West. So, if Mandela was a wise leader concerned with African peace and security, he could have tried to bring amicable African solution to these brotherly people rather than being onlooker.
Is there anything put forward by him that would benefit Africans that they can associate his name with as a legacy? Practically nothing. Even while out of office, as an old respectable statesman that amassed fame and respect, he could have bridged the gap between the contesting Zimbabwean leaders. Some speculate that the opposition leader obviously was a hungry man for power who would compromise the interest of Zimbabwe. Mandela could have called him to give him a piece of elderly advice on how to bring peace between him and his rival, the president. Thanks God Mr Morgan, after a long and arduous fight, accepted shared responsibility. Mandela may have been behind the settlement but I am not aware of it. Ex president Mbeki has worked hard and demonstrated far better wisdom though. So how can the African media make mass euphoria and noise for a man that virtually did little at best and nothing at worst to Africa?
Also on the international arena, is there any contribution of significance that we can remember him for other than his dancing, smiles and his signature designer shirts? I can't think of one. As far as I am concerned, two significant contributions come to my mind. His first greatest achievement is that he is the first black president of a country that has moved on from its apartheid past. His second achievement, perhaps most significant, is that he saved the status quo albeit in different form. But that must have been in the design for his release so nothing to be surprised about. This latter achievement, I suspect, may be the main reason why they gave him much praise perhaps out of gratification.
How do I compare him with the grand African leader, Meles
On the other hand, Ethiopia in particular and Africans and the world have been proud over the late Meles Zenawi, prime minister of Ethiopia. He has achieved so much in his short life and had surely much to give to the world had he lived longer. He, together with his comrades, at the outset of the revolution had to think deep. The question they had at that time, it seems to me, was where and how to wage the struggle. Mandela and his comrades looked for a quick fix and chose to start their fight from a township and were in no time apprehended and sent to prison at the initial stage of their struggle. Meles and his comrades understood that their struggle would be long and protracted so they were determined to pay the ultimate sacrifice. I am talking here about young people with beautiful minds and great potentials. They didn't choose to be lawyers, engineers and doctors. They never aspired to live comfortable life in New York, London or Paris knowing the sufferings of the Ethiopian people at the hands of the remnants of a handful elite feudal lords and a brutal military junta. So they started their struggle from remote mountains with empty hands and with no support from anybody. The only commodity they had was confidence and courage, and they had them in abundance. This was the confidence that moulded Meles a fighter, a leader and world statesman serious.
Again there were no resources at hand when he as a leader of the ruling party resumed government in Addis. He received empty coffers and had, therefore, to start from zero. In fact for lack of resources and knowing that he lived in a turbulent region, he had to dissolve the armed forces including the police (the police was brought back soon after) without giving any form of compensation. He even dissolved a significant number of his fighters. This was really a bold decision that mesmerised the world and was done by none other than Meles. This is what I mean by a quality and confident leadership. Evidently, there were some hiccups at the initial stage before development started in earnest. It then started on massive infrastructure developments. Roads, schools, health centres, clinics, and hospitals were built throughout the country. Telecommunication network, clean water and electrification also started to reach the remote areas. Agricultural development became the central tenet of the government policies and, as such, it boosted production and productivity. Moreover, it improved food security and the livelihood of farmers. Recognising the future labour market demand being skilled and trained labour force, investment in higher education became the mantra and, therefore, many new universities throughout the country were opened.
School attendance grew significantly. Even the gap between male and female school attendance almost closed up. Health coverage has significantly improved. As we know, Meles was an ardent advocate of gender equality since he was 19 and even earlier. As such, women's participation in all walks of life grew very fast. They haven't achieved equal shares in government and parliament yet but they are definitely on the right track and will be there soon. Women's right and children's right are all enshrined in the constitution. Mandela had significant deficit in most of the aforementioned achievements.
Speaking of women, Meles was a loving, affectionate and stable family man with deep belief in the value of a nucleus family. Unlike some of us, he believed in one man one woman principle. He did not need to change women like shirts. What this tells me is that he had good character and reasonable manners that are expected of spouses. According to the enormous media coverage that appeared during the weeks following his death, Mandela, however, did not have a good name in this front. He was known to have abused women. It is said that his first wife, Evelyn, had reported him to the police alleging that she feared he would kill her with an axe. Winnie herself was abused by him repeatedly. Besides, he did not have a good relationship with his children in general and with his late son in particular. Even after his release, he couldn't understand what Winnie went through in the 27 years he was in prison. Yes, he was in prison but that is it. As I mentioned above, she was the one exposed to all abuses and what not. Sadly, he unashamedly abandoned her to take another woman soon after he ascended to the presidency. The woman he chose is not any woman either. She happens to be the wife of an ex president of a foreign country. Love is blind, of course. But he is a president as well. This tells it all. That the man had less regard for family values to say the least. I don't even understand how women adorn him.
At the sub-regional level, Meles helped recreate and galvanise the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD) so that it played a more prominent role especially in peace and security issues among the Eastern and Horn of African countries. At the continental level, he realised that the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) had already achieved what it was designed to do. He then proposed to reform the organisation from OAU to African Union (AU) with new mandates that reflected the current and future needs of the continent. This was achieved together with South Africa's Mbeki and Nigeria's Obasanjo. As Mr Gordon Brown the ex Prime Minister of the United Kingdom once said, Meles almost single handily established the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) that aimed at bringing African countries together through various forms of integration including trade, energy, telecommunications and transport networks. Meles underscored the importance of Africans to speak in one voice in their dealings with the powerful in issues of common concern. He subsequently represented Africa in various important world forums such as G8 and G20 that showed results. What did Mandela do? I have no answer to this million dollar question except to say that he was not there for Africa in matters of important continental issues.
The Western media tried to tell us that peacemaking with the enemy (in this case with the apartheid government) was unique in Africa only attributed to Mandela's leadership. They even went further to give credit to Mandela as the originator of "peacemaking" concept itself. To me that is non-sense. Peaceful change can have been adopted from great leaders such as Mahatma Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King and nothing else. But what Mandela did was not peacemaking. The so called "peace and reconciliation" scheme was meant not to embarrass the white SAns. It was meant to break the rule of law and free the murderers, torturers and culprits of innocent SAns. Those white South Africans who were murdering, torturing and raping black South Africans are still in high offices and on the streets. So I for one see his "peacemaking" deal nothing other than "legitimising the tools of apartheid".
On the other hand, it has been revealed that Meles and his comrades were peace makers even while he led the revolution. As a leader he always opted for a peaceful negotiated solutions to differences with the enemies (they were many). He used force to wipe them out only in retaliation to their attacks on him. Once in Addis, he called all opposition and interest groups to a conference to make peace and reconciliation. He tried hard to bring a peaceful resolution with various armed groups in the country and has markedly succeeded. He tried to settle the border conflict in the north of the country peacefully before it escalated to an all out war. But a negotiated peaceful solution required two to agree. One man couldn't do it alone. Out in the continent, he helped bring peace in Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda and Sieraleone. He played a significant role in the 2005 peace agreement between the South Sudanese SPLA and Sudanese government that gave way to the 2011 referendum. He worked tirelessly to help the Somalia people to have a stable government so that the Somalia people can lead peaceful day today life. He has remarkably achieved in this most complicated front.
All these achievements were worth a Nobel Peace Prize (NPP) and much more. We have seen Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela get it, never mind the others including Kissinger, etc. The NPP Committee went out of its way to award Ms Tawakkol Karman for taking part and shouting slogans in anti-government demonstration in Yemen that lasted few weeks. I don't even understand why President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was busy making money in Washington during those difficult times in the history of Liberia, was a candidate leave alone win the prize. She returned home only after the dust had almost settled. The Committee even awarded Obama not suspecting that he would turn out to be a warrior emperor. If the Economist magazine in connection to the current South Sudan conflict reflected that "the world misses Meles", why is it then the NPP Committee did not award him the prize when he has accomplished a long list of items that are within the framework of the committee? It seems to me that it lacks objectivity and I, therefore, have reason to believe that its decision is random and most often swayed by opinions and false allegations. The lack of recognition for Ethiopia's outstanding services in promoting peace and security in Africa is not new though. The late Emperor Haileselassie was also deprived of the prize in spite of his success in bringing peace to the then conflict spots in Africa such as Algeria-Morocco, Sudan's internal strife, etc.
Most importantly, Meles saw how the world at large and the African continent in particular were being hit by climate changes on a daily basis. He did not need a witness for he was there himself seeing it happening. In order to reverse the vagaries of climatic change, he vigorously advocated a change of course and gave ideas on how to tackle the problem at global forums. He urged Africans to follow on a green economy path and also advised them to opt for a green renewable energy alternative. He contributed significant inputs on world food security at world economic forums. Meles was very much concerned about the world poor, children and women. That was, perhaps, why Prime Minister David Cameron said "the world poor have lost their advocate" (paraphrased) on the day he heard of the formers passing away.
On the economic sphere, Meles had a clear vision and he knew very well what he was talking about. He much earlier saw the doom and gloom that was coming before any other economist dead or alive did. As confident as he was, he never shied away to tell the proponents of capitalism that the neo-liberal approach to economic growth had problems. More so, it posed harm than benefits on poor developing countries and, therefore, the Washington consensus was not for him. That challenge against the powerful was unseen and unheard off before, never ever. As is customary, Washington always got what it wanted in one way or the other. So somebody confident had to go to Addis to get the papers signed. The man to do the job was none other than Professor Joseph Stiglitz, the chief economist of the World Bank at the time. Nobel Prize Laureate Stiglitz is highly respected economist globally and is considered by some to be one of the very few authorities in macroeconomics and growth theory, among others. He went confidently to lecture Meles and make him sign there and then. As we all know, that was not what happened. Instead, Meles was at the giving end and Stiglitz was at the receiving end. In other words, Meles lectured Stiglitz on the "developmental economic democracy" as an alternative to neo-liberal economic approach. So the latter returned home short of what he went for. Miserably unsuccessful this time around but much wiser than when he left Washington to Addis. I understand Stiglitz has written a book, probably basing extensively on the valuable lectures he received from Meles. I haven't read it myself but if he hasn't given tribute to Meles in his acknowledgement for the latter's original ideas, then shame on him.
We heard Meles saying that he wanted to retire. We also heard him that he had a lot of ideas to write about. It seems to me that he most probably wanted to write on his new economic theory he developed. As we remember, John M. Keynes lived during the economic depression period following World War II. He understood that the then existing tools had no power to explain the war-time economic problems and, therefore, devised theories and models that became major contributions to economic thought. Similarly, Meles may have wanted to do his contribution to the current economic turmoil as Keynes did in those difficult times. Had that taken place, then the world would have been forced to accept a major change in economic thoughts as Keynes did. But would the powerful who are benefiting out of the current system abandon the status quo? Definitely not. Remember what Professor Akbar Noman of Columbia University said in the speech he made at Meles' memorial ceremony. He said "Meles' knowledge of economics was so profound that the world would have been saved from its current economic problems had the international community listened to him". The professor also mentioned that Meles was the only leader of a country that published an academic paper while in office. I, for one, see him both as a theoretician and practitioner. I believe economists and students of economics will start studying his contribution to the new economic theory. They will look into the man and his thoughts and once they get sufficient understanding, they will elevate his name and his work to great heights. Not only that. His work could also be fertile ground for scholars who would look it from the perspective of history of economic thought to the likes of Karl Popper, Mark Blaug, etc..
People had high expectations and hope of Mandela. I had mine too. Then looked back and asked myself, how do I remember Mandela? Unfortunately, I could not find anything of substance that originated from him. Neither from his leadership nor his speeches. As I mentioned above, I can only remember his dances, smiles and what appears to be Mandela-signature shirts. Sadly, unlike Meles, he left the people he fought for still in unmitigated misery. Few selected blacks within the ANC ranks have made great wealth though. So I don't see any reason for African media in general and ERTA in particular to misinform their population and tell them fairy tales about Mandela. They need to be truthful and instead tell the world about the great visionary African leader, Meles, however cocksure prime minister may have been. He was there when Africa needed him and gave his service with distinction, not only to his beloved country Ethiopia but also to the sub-region, Africa and the world. Most importantly, he emancipated not only his country but also Africa at large. And Mandela never had ideas of this sort in his mind. So as South Africans go to the poles soon, they need to think hard and elect not just a president but the president that will bring social and economic justice to all South Africans.