Gift Phiri 11 September 2017
HARARE – The increasingly threatening rhetoric between Zimbabwe and South
Africa over the legacy of Nelson Mandela – who guided his country from the
shackles of apartheid to multi-racial democracy – risks triggering a
conflict that could escalate to the annihilation of fragile diplomatic
relations between the neighbours.
President Robert Mugabe has accused ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe
of “stupidly” telling him to stop attacking the former South African
president’s legacy in an angry rant to captains of commerce and industry
at State House in Harare on Thursday.
In provocative remarks, the 93-year-old leader has repeatedly claimed that
Mandela – imprisoned for 27 years for his fight against white minority
rule and used his charisma to bring down apartheid while avoiding a civil
war – sold out the liberation struggle by going to bed with the architects
of apartheid rule.
Mugabe, who was educated by Jesuits and went on to become a teacher before
joining the liberation struggle, also spent 11 years in prison and
becoming Zimbabwe’s first leader in 1980.
Both Mugabe and Mandela are hailed as African liberation heroes and both
preached, and were praised for, messages of reconciliation and unity when
their respective countries threw off the shackles of white minority rule.
But while Mandela, now late, retired after serving only one term as South
Africa’s first black president and is posthumously basking in glowing
world tributes, Mugabe, 93, represents a type of African independence
leader who fought successfully for independence, then drifted toward
tyranny by clinging to power and is vilified as a cold-hearted despot who
crushes civil liberties and steals elections to stay in power.
The nonagenarian Marxist ruler is contesting an election next year that
could extend his 37-year rule, spitting defiance at a country that has
vilified his appalling economic stewardship and hosted Zimbabwean economic
refugees streaming into South Africa, insisting that Mandela left an
economy still owned by the white minority, while black people languished
Way back in 2000, Mandela levelled an unusual broadside at Mugabe, urging
Zimbabweans to depose leaders who enrich themselves at the expense of
their countrymen by “picking up rifles and fighting for liberation.”
The Nobel Peace laurete was responding to Mugabe’s drive which saw his
henchmen beat and kill opposition-party supporters and violently seize
Mandela also lamented “the tragic failure of leadership” in Zimbabwe. In
an interview in 2013, an angry Mugabe slammed Mandela’s halo of global
icon of racial harmony, saying he had “gone a bit too far in doing good to
the non-black communities.” Mugabe has repeated this accusation ad
nauseum, ad infitum.
It seems at the root of this conflict is a desire by Mugabe to be seen as
the region’s best liberation hero and to strike back at Mandela for the
loss of the mantle of icon of peace and reconciliation who came to embody
the struggle for justice around the world.
Is it not time for the 16-nation Sadc bloc to step up to its primary
responsibility under its charter: the maintenance of regional peace and
South Africa President Jacob Zuma – who assumed office as Sadc chairperson
for the next year – is obviously conflicted and cannot mediate his own
This means his deputy, Namibian President Hage Geingob, must step in, or
the Sadc Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation chaired by
the new Angolan leader Joao Lourenc,o, elected president of sub-Saharan
Africa’s third-largest economy last week.
Given that Lourenc,o is new in the job, perhaps the troika’s deputy
chairperson, Zambian President Edgar Lungu, must mediate and de-escalate
this intensifying row.
Sadc must recommend both Zimbabwe and South Africa reach agreement by
diplomatic means, helping with mediation if needed. Sadc has the channels
to promote a dialogue between the two feuding countries.
Sadc governments must take steps as a bloc or individually and together to
diffuse this unnecessary tension.
Although prospects for cooperation with the current South African
government led by Zuma are not promising, other leaders in the ruling ANC,
in opposition parties, and in civil society might be more receptive to
proactive approaches to averting this row and dealing with the
complexities of this stand-off.