Let’s not canonise Nelson Mandela – and let’s not demonise other African leaders

via Let’s not canonise Nelson Mandela – and let’s not demonise other African leaders – Telegraph Blogs By Colin Freeman  December 11th, 2013

Barack Obama was in appropriately forgive-and-forget mood yesterday, shaking the hands of both Cuba’s Raul Castro and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as he attended a memorial service in Johannesburg for Nelson Mandela.

Such was the Mandela feelgood factor that these were proper handshakes too, not one of those sneaky ones where Mugabe wanders up from the sidelines and pumps unsuspecting statemen’s hands before they can react.

But while Mr Obama basked in applause worthy of a successor to Mandela, yesterday was rather less fun for the real inheritor of that title,  Jacob Zuma.

The serving South African president found himself roundly booed by the audience, turning what was supposed to be sombre memorial service into a kind of Pop Idols for international heads of state.

True, Mr Zuma’s record isn’t terrific. Only a minority of South Africa’s black community have prospered under his time in office, and he himself has faced allegations of corruption, though never proven.

But watching the glib way this was reported yesterday was a reminder of the blinkered way the world still sees African leaders: either as unquestioned saints, like Mandela, or as nasty  ne’er do wells like Zuma.

There is no in between, and seldom any recognition that as politicians go, these people have among the toughest briefs anywhere on the planet, where even the best efforts can seem mediocre.

Mandela, it should be remembered, was the exception to the rule in more ways than one. While clearly a statesman of rare skill, the apartheid system he dismantled was an obvious, glaring injustice, and a cause behind which the rest of the world could easily unite.

There are no such straightforward goals for his successors, who have the much knottier and longer term task of trying to push South Africa’s impoverished black community into genuine prosperity.

There are no clenched-fist style victories in that particular battle, just a long hard slog over which one has only limited control, with no shortage of grumblers saying that nothing like enough has been done.

But it isn’t just South African politicians who are excoriated for not living up to some impossible standard. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard leaders in Africa and other parts of the developing world lumped together as corrupt, selfish brutes, whose governments let down the fine, decent people they serve.

If only it were that easy. The reality, as I have seen from numerous reporting trips through Africa and the Middle East, is that to expect clean government in very poor countries is to expect miracles that really would be worthy of  sainthood.

Take official corruption, for example. This is rightly taken very seriously in the West, where taking back-handers or doling out jobs to cronies is fairly rare these days. What we forget, though, is that in lands with very weak economies, a position in government can be one of the few decent jobs around, and is therefore far more highly-coveted than, say, being a clerk in a town hall in Britain

Especially if one has a sideline in taking backhanders for fast-tracking bureaucratic procedures, which, again, is pretty much a way of life in many such places. Sadly, in countries where there has traditionally never enough of the state pie for everyone, the temptation is to grab what one can, when one can.

So when new ruler comes comes in – let’s call him Leader A – it doesn’t matter how much rhetoric he spouts about fighting corruption. There will still always be pressure to dole out government positions to party loyalists – not so much a “jobs for the boys” culture as a “jobs for everyone” culture. And if there aren’t enough to go around, then a few extra ministries may just have to be created.

Fine, one might say. If Leader A is really serious about tackling corruption, he”ll have the guts to put a stop to all that. But it isn’t necessarily that simple. Doing so may risk alienating his support base, and in unstable, coup-prone countries, this can lead to more than just a few grumbles among the backbenchers.

Alternatively, many of the people now expecting state jobs may be acolyties of the provincial warlord with whom Leader A has just brokered a fragile peac. If he wants to stand up for his anti-corruption principles now, fine. But that nasty local insurgency might just kick off again.

Of course, this is not to suggest that Leader A should not at least try to tackle corruption, or that he may do a better job  than leader B, who uses his time in office to buy Ferraris and Paris flats. But we should acknowledge that corruption – in developing countries anyway – reflects not just the people in government, but the countries they rule over.

Take Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, for example, who is constantly being taken to task by his Western backers for failing to rein in corruption there. What exactly did the West think would happen, though, when it tried a rebuild a dirt-poor country with a history of strong tribalism and virtually no concept of central government?

Blaming President Karzai for that is like blaming him for fact that Afghanistan is mountainous. The problems come with the territory, and sorting them out is a project that takes decades, well beyond any one individual’s normal term of service (although that may explain why some of the better leaders, as well as some of the worst, are reluctant to give up power).

So next time you hear an African leader booed as a corrupt, incompetent idiot, bear in mind some of the very real obstacles they face. For the easiest possible way to ignore the underlying problems is to blame it all on the people at the top.



  • comment-avatar

    Of course we should demonise those who deserve it, leaders are generally chosen by the people and we expect them to govern for the people not for their bank balances and their mates.If they are not strong enough to make the right decisions they need to make way for those who are.

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    holy moyo 8 years ago

    Your comments are foolish and short sighted..You want to encourage thieves and murderers and brutal dictators and.
    wife stealers like Robbery Mgabi
    He stole Grace from her husband while his own wife Sally was ill.
    Now they have 14 farms. CHOmbo owns property in every corner of Zimbabwe.A demon is a demon..There is nothing good about any despot..who rules by brute force for 33 years..Unless you are in their pay

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    Mandela was in a “class” of his own. Mugabe is in an “a r s e ” of his own

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    mark longhurst 8 years ago

    your pathetic attempts to prop up dictators like Mugabe is symptomatic of the ‘turn a blind eye’ to the cronyism and tribal problems that beset a new Africa and if your attitude continues and is supported by people who benefit from these regimes,one party states will bleed Africa dry.

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    Although I am a victim of political intolerance and violence in my own country I still honestly hate all the lies, false praises, deliberate distortions that I now hear about Nelson Mandela. Just like some people who attended the funeral had nothing to do with his values as Malema supporters deployed themselves in the stadium to embarass Zuma, opportunists of all sorts suddenly became comrades of Mandela. It had nothing to do with the impoverished majority. Did the ANC receive support from 90 countries during the struggle? A country that supported apartheid and openly labelled the organization “terrorist” became the guest of honor. Honestly this is a JOKE! No reference to Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, Agostino Neto
    the Ugandan President who gave bases to MK, Muammar Kadhafi(may his soul rest in peace) and Fidel Castro. These are the people who stood by the South African black majority as they struggled against apartheid and white dominance. Instead this has provided an opportunity to demonize those who have dared to oppose racial supremacy. Its the whites now who freed the South African blacks. The prophetic song of one South African lady “NOT YET UHURU” resonates in many hearts of not only South Africans but the people of the whole continent.

    • comment-avatar
      Bunguse Tauyawo 8 years ago

      Need I say anything? Aptly covered my friend

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      Mthwakazi 8 years ago

      @Bazu WaKumuzi

      No man. Politics is not a lenear progression man. Politics is not static and political dynamics are not static. If you are static in you politicl views, as a person or a nation you will be left behind and you will never progress. The world revolves around the sun,; seasons change; the years go by and life goes on.

      You were my enemy yesterday, you are my friend and comrade today. Thats just how it is in politics. Are you trying to say just because the US bombed Nagaski in Japan, these two countries should continue being enemies and not relate or trade with each other more than half a century later? Thats being crazy man – thats Mugabe thinking!

      China and the US are poles apart in their foreign policies; but they invest in each others’ economies; they have diplomatic relations; America buys Chinese soverign securities etc, etc.

      Lesson number one – the Mugabe politics of permanent enemies does not work; has never worked and will never work in this world!!

  • comment-avatar

    Colin Freeman doesn’t live here so he is clueless. He wouldn’t know what a tyrant/dictator was if he woke up next to one. This guy lives in a democracy: whatever that is!

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    munzwa 8 years ago

    to true guys, call a spade a spade. Perhaps Colin Freeman can write about individual Leaders… Start with Mugabi and explain the reasons for his actions over these last 34 years.

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    Mike Nyathi 8 years ago

    no excuses for mediocrity. Pasi ne dictators and thieves.

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    cahallgren 8 years ago

    Agree with the comments made before me. How dare you make excuses for the bloody dictators who will not step down but cling to power at the expense and misery of the people they are supposed to serve.

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    INJAYINJA 8 years ago

    Inja yinja mani, so is a dictator !

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    sunshine 8 years ago

    It matters not what we the citizens think or wish for, if we had oil and gas reserves the west would be banging down the door and sorting out the problem. Wait and see what happens if and when those reserves are suddenly discovered in Zim. As for the Diamonds how many rich people in the world need any more they already have plenty.

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    Mthwakazi 8 years ago

    Mr Colin Freeman, I dont agree. There is nothing impossible in this world. Its not as if one gets forced to become a leader of a country; it is a choice one makes.

    If one has a conscience and makes a choice to leader a country out of poverty, corruption; and towards a higher moral ground and principles of honesty and integrity – should this prove impossible along the way, you simply step aside with your morals and conscience intact and spell it out the nation in an open and no holds barred manner.

    You dont join them in the usual “if you cant beat them join them” fashion. This is what makes our countries the dust bowls they have become. Man of high moral integrity are lacking; even many of our Church leader are simply a laugjing stock of big pretenders!!

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    MikeH 8 years ago

    Don’t praise Nelson(Madiba)Mandela and don’t condemn robert (amoeba) mugabe ….. what planet is this character on !!! He certainly seems to have no concept at all of what the latter is capable of doing to his own country and people ??? Frankly, I would have thought a ruined economy and 20000+ deaths in Matabeleland alone should have been a big clue.

    Definition of amoeba (pronounced a-me-ba) … single cell organism, the lowest form of life.

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    Nonsense, the Zuma insident has nothing to do with the world, but a simple case of what South African feel about JZ. The world learders never demonised JZ or any other African Pres. Its simple that these african Pres reffered to are demons themselves.

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      Mthwakazi 8 years ago

      Its what “SOME SOUTH AFRICANS” feel about JZ, not what “SOUTH AFRICANS” feel about JZ!!

      Wait for the elections in 6 month’s time, I will be proven right when JZ and the ANC romps to undisputed victory – just wait and see!!

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    Mthwakazi 8 years ago

    These people who keep talking about imperialists of yesteryear, I guess they are the same people who drive some Zimbabweans to keep harping about the 1800s tribal wars. How can you be expected to be enemies and fight forever – thats stupid, if you ask me!!

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    Lamiodendron 8 years ago

    After really Collin Freeman’s foolish title, I didn’t bother to read the article. Perhaps he was trying to be thought-provoking…for those without a brain.

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    farai 8 years ago

    The true story of who Mandela was is beginning to unravel. I predict pretty soon, the diamond won’t look so bright. Why this pathetic need to compare, can’t his iconic status stand up on it’s own merits. I sense panic!