A Stain on Mandela's Sanctity

The British press has been reaching for sacred metaphors to describe Nelson Mandela, whose 90th birthday was celebrated with a celebrity-festooned Hyde Park concert in London last Friday night. The "icon of freedom" has acquired "Christ-like" status in our time. On stage he was "a beatific presence among his disciples", according to the London Times. Who disagrees? Mandela us surely up there with Gandhi and Martin Luther King in the galaxy of witnesses to the power of non-violence and hope and freedom. But last weekend I could not resist feeling disappointed in him. The eyes of the world were on Mandela that evening. He is the great elder statesman of Africa, a secular saint, one of the few leaders whose moral authority is unquestioned. And yet on the greatest issue of the moment – the election stolen by Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe amidst horrific beatings and tortures, happening at precisely the moment that the Sugababes and Simply Minds and Joan Baez and Annie Lennox were strutting their stuff in Hyde Park – he was entirely silent. Just think of the impact his words might have had. It wouldn’t have needed many. "Mr Mugabe, you are a tyrant who has lost all right to govern your country," he might have said, gently, in that curiously high-pitched voice of his, as the world sat silent at his feet. "You have brought a great African nation to its knees. You have brought shame on the African anti-colonial movement. You rule by force and terror, and the people of Zimbabwe can no longer endure another day of your beatings and your tortures. On behalf of all Africans, and the world community, and all who believe in freedom, democracy and justice, I say, ’enough!’" But he didn’t. And that is why I cannot quite accept the Christ-like analogies. It is not enough to point to Mandela’s mild and muffled references to Mugabe’s "failure of leadership" at a dinner in London last week. (Failure of leadership?) The birthday concert – relayed to the world, watched by millions in Africa and elsewhere - passed without a mention of Zimbabwe’s entirely man-made agony. Why? Many years ago Mandela and Mugabe were friends. They are close in age - Mugabe is 84 to Mandela’s 90 - and were university students together. Both served long prison sentences and were seen as their countries’ liberators. (But while Mandela’s leadership was characterized by forgiveness and reconciliation – and he chose to walk away from power to allow democracy in South Africa to develop – Mugabe has traveled the darkest of all paths, seeking to retain political power through state-sponsored murder and tyranny.) It is the anti-colonialist omertà which causes old political colleagues to cling together – and to mute their criticism of each other. Hence South Africa’s scandalous unwillingness to call time on Mugabe, something easily achieved (given Zimbabwe’s dependence on its neighbor’s electricity) with a flick of the light switch. It is sad to see the same moral cowardice afflicting not just his ANC colleagues, but Mandela himself. Perhaps he thought that to make such a call from the country that once ruled Zimbabwe might only entrench Mugabe still further. Perhaps he did not want the message of his AIDS campaign to be overshadowed. Perhaps he prefers to exert pressure from behind the scenes, fearing bloodshed. Perhaps he thinks that if the ANC does not move on Mugabe, he cannot do so without undermining the South African government. There may be many reasons. But there is no justification. Mandela’s bold and forthright condemnation, synchronized with South Africa’s withdrawal of support, had the power to liberate millions of Zimbabweans from the cruelest of dark nights. It would be far easier than ending apartheid in South Africa, and the moral case for doing so is at least as compelling. History asked one thing of Mandela on Friday night, and he refused it. He refused, amidst the adulation of the world, to say what needed to be said -- at the very moment it needed to be said. History will judge him for it. And for me, his sanctity will always be tarnished. Austen Ivereigh
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10 years 6 months ago
At first, I was in total agreement that Mr. Mandela's silence was uncharacteristic and questionable. However, upon further reflection I wonder if his silence was the result of a sort of horrendous ''Sophie's Choice'' situation, born of the assumption that if he had stood on the world stage at this moment in time, feted as the venerable and honored stateman, and lambasted Mugabe, as the world's villain (which surely he is)hundreds might have immediately paid with their lives in hideous and tortuous ways as Mugabe might well have sought blood retaliation against his former colleague's statements. On the worst and grandest scale, this represents the same predicament we all face when we see or hear a parent treating a child cruelly; we know we are bound to make a report, but if we say something directly to the parent, will we make things worse for the child or for any other children in the home? Mandela has seen enough of torture and suffering. Perhaps we should leave the question of his sanctity to God, after all.
10 years 6 months ago
I couldn't agree more. Mandela missed a golden opportunity on Friday to increase his stature as a global statesman. And if early reports coming from the African Union meeting in Cairo are any indication, the AU also won't call Mugabe to task for his fraudulent (and violent) re-election as president of Zimbabwe. All of this is a painful reminder that the development of democracy in Africa has many years to go.
10 years 6 months ago
I agree that Mr Mandela, for all his good points, missed what should have been one of his biggest moments of moral leadership. "...the anti-colonialist omerta..." - what a brilliant statement of unfortunate fact. We see this all too often, not only in nations with a legacy of colonization by other powers, but in our own country, where it is more important to retain solidarity with the group than it is to see justice done (consider the "stop snitching" campaigns that force misguided and fearful inner-city residents from cooperating with the police to rid their neighborhoods of drugs and violent criminals). I hope Mr Mandela can look at himself in the mirror after this cowardly squandering of his moral authority.


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