Africa

Mandela’s African legacy: more symbol than substance (but what a symbol!)

By Simon Allison 17 December 2013

Nelson Mandela’s relationship with the rest of his continent was never as straightforward as you might think. His stature intimidated other leaders, and foreign policy was never his strong suit. Attempts to use reconciliation and democracy to right Africa’s wrongs, while brave, met with limited success. But, despite a lack of tangible results, his legacy in Africa is nonetheless profound. By SIMON ALLISON.

Robert Mugabe, famously, did not like Nelson Mandela.

The Zimbabwean leader – president long before Mandela was released from prison, and president after Mandela’s death – is thought to be unhappy with all the attention Mandela received when he was released from prison. Prior to this, it was Mugabe who was the African success story; the “star of the region”, wrote the Economist, who could no wrong and was feted internationally as an anti-apartheid activist, a reconciler of races in his own country, and the mastermind of Zimbabwe’s economic miracle.

How times have changed.

But the pair’s tense relationship is symptomatic of a deeper ambivalence about Mandela’s relationship with Africa, and the role that he played on the continent as a whole. No one questions what Mandela achieved for his own country, but his African legacy is a little more difficult to pin down.

Partly, this was a reflection of a general unwillingness from many African leaders to welcome Mandela with open arms. Jealous of his enviable reputation, and mindful of the unflattering comparisons being made between the values he stood for and the rot and corruption in their own governments, some African leaders treated Mandela instead with suspicion and distrust; his very success seen as a threat to their own power.

But the relatively unspectacular (by his standards) record on the continent was also partly Mandela’s fault. He was, at times, a hands-off president, and nowhere was this more evident than in the foreign policy sphere.

The curious thing about Mandela is that I don’t think this was a thing that really pre-occupied him,” observed Peter Vale, Professor of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg, in an interview with the Daily Maverick.

You have to remember that essentially Mandela’s foreign policy agenda on a daily basis was set by Thabo Mbeki. Thabo was the specialist; he was the person who pointed Mandela in certain ways.”

Nonetheless, in 1993 Mandela put his name to a seminal paper published in the prestigious Foreign Affairs journal which outlined a bold, idealistic vision of what South Africa’s foreign policy should be in the future (whether we have subsequently lived up to these ideals is a matter for debate). It argued that human rights should be central to international relations, and that lasting solutions to humanity’s problems could only be achieved by promoting democracy worldwide. It also emphasized South Africa’s responsibilities to Africa as a whole.

South Africa cannot escape its African destiny,” he wrote. “If we do not devote our energies to this continent, we too could fall victim to the forces that have brought ruin to its various parts.” He pledged to reflect “the concerns and interests of the continent of Africa” in South Africa’s foreign policy choices.

Mandela had mixed success in putting these ideas into practice. He struggled to make any headway in his mediation of the of the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the late 1990s, for example, with some critics arguing that he badly misread the situation as a civil rather than transnational war. And in Burundi in 2000 (the only major diplomatic effort he engaged in after his presidency), his stature was enough to get the government and the rebels to sign a peace deal, but it was his key lieutenants (Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma) who did the hard work to make it stick, and get most of the plaudits.

Two situations in particular tested both his principles and his power in the international arena. The first was Nigeria, where Mandela had to contend with a military dictatorship led by General Sani Abacha which was exactly the opposite of the kind of state that South Africa would become.

Dr Adekeye Adebajo, executive director of the Cape Town-based Centre for Conflict Resolution, explained the tensions: “[Mandela] embodied his people’s aspirations for a democratic future. Under Abacha’s autocratic rule, it was Nigeria, and not South Africa, that was now facing mounting criticism over its human rights record. Having abandoned its apartheid past, South Africa was widely acknowledged to be the most likely political and economic success story in Africa. The nadir of relations between the countries was reached after the hanging by the Abacha regime of Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his fellow Ogoni campaigners, during the Commonwealth summit in New Zealand in November 1995. Mandela believed he had received personal assurances from Abacha of clemency for the ‘Ogoni nine’.”

This was a turning point as far as Mandela was concerned, a betrayal that made the fall of the Abacha regime personal. “Abacha is sitting on a volcano,” Mandela told the Sunday Independent in 1995. “And I am going to explode it underneath him.”

But Mandela’s vigorous campaigning for economic sanctions to be imposed against Nigeria, and for the country to be expelled from the Commonwealth, went unheeded, exposing the limits of Mandela’s influence. The promised explosion never came – Mandela couldn’t make it happen.

Then there was Mandela’s strange relationship with another dictator, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. The pair made for unlikely allies, but Mandela’s support for Gaddafi was unwavering. He caused international controversy in 1997 – long before Gaddafi had been welcomed back into the international fold – by conferring on Brother Leader South Africa’s highest honour, the Order of Good Hope. Some reports, unconfirmed, suggest that this was payback for Gaddafi’s historical financial support for the African National Congress; and that Mandela was hoping to raise even more Libyan money for the party’s 1999 election campaign.

The late Jakes Gerwel, who worked in Mandela’s office during his tenure as president and was his point man on Libya, suggests a more subtle motivation (and one that’s more in keeping with Mandela’s image).

It was part of Mandela’s strategy. The mistake that many people make about Gaddafi…is that you’d rather keep him at your side than treat him as this crazy lunatic who doesn’t know politics. Mandela knew that perfectly. Gaddafi has a naïve side to him. His whole politics are based on this Don Quixote character. So his being decorated by Mandela meant a lot to him. He trusted us. Doing this was to let him know that we respect you, but then you must keep your word with us, and you must act honourably.”

Mandela’s investment in this relationship paid off handsomely, giving him one of his most significant foreign policy coups – negotiating the handover to an international court of the two Libyan intelligence officers suspected of masterminding the Lockerbie bombing.

This, perhaps, was the high point of Mandela’s role as an African statesman – at least as far as tangible results are concerned. However, Mandela’s intangible influence as a global African icon was much more profound. As a symbol of reconciliation, compassion, peace, forgiveness and stability, he represented so many things that were not yet part of the African narrative, which at the time he was released from prison was almost exclusively negative.

Mandela emerged as a cypher, as an icon of a positive image of Africa,” commented Professor Vale. “After the bleak assessment of Africa with its wars and coups, he showed that something good can come out of Africa. He became an image of a better Africa; an Africa that would no longer be mired in corruption and presidents that go on forever.”

It’s hard to understate how detrimental its poor image has been, and continues to be, for Africa. If you’re perceived as a basket case, you’ll be treated like one, and for decades that has been the approach of foreign diplomats, donors, international institutions and investors. Mandela, on his own, was never going to turn this around by himself.

But his example was the starting point of a slow but steady rehabilitation of the continent’s image, a transformation that is already beginning to pay dividends in terms of investment and international attention. It was also a powerful spur for Africa’s own self-belief and empowerment, evident in the enormous strides made by many African countries over the last two decades in terms of good governance and economic progress.

These ephemeral concepts are hard to measure or quantify, so it’s hard to pinpoint just significant the symbolism of Mandela’s story is to Africa. After his passing, however, we can perhaps comfort ourselves with the knowledge that although men die, symbols don’t – and Mandela’s contribution to Africa has a long way still to go. DM

Photo: Nelson Mandela raises the hand of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi at the Tuynhuis at Cape Town in 2004. (Reuters)

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"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall

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