Since being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in April last year, Dr Mario Oriani-Ambrosini has suffered immensely, and in the early hours of Saturday morning, could endure the agony no more. He took his own life, bringing to an end a colourful career. A myriad of tributes poured in, praising his life’s work. But Oriani-Ambrosini was also a controversial character in South African politics, which many people prefer not to speak of now. The passage of time can purify many political legacies but it can also destroy outstanding careers. With the ageing of a generation of eminent political leaders, how will and how should they be remembered? By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
South Africa really had an extraordinary case with Nelson Mandela. His life was truly exceptional, such that it is extremely difficult to pay tribute to his contribution to the world adequately. His role in the liberation struggle, in the transition, his remarkable leadership as the first president of South Africa, and then his global activism on Aids, human rights and education during his retirement made for a life story like no other. Madiba was unsullied by his mistakes and weaknesses, and also had the strength of character to acknowledge them. When he passed on in December 2013, there was no need to declare his greatness to the world. His life and legacy was there for the world to celebrate.
History remembers people by what made them extraordinary, by their achievements and by their failures. When former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died in April last year, there was divided opinion on how she should be remembered. She was both admired and reviled, mostly for her anti-labour posture that gave rise to the “Thatcherism” ideology. When she died at the age of 88, she was weak, confused and frail – a sharp contrast from the powerful figure she cut as Britain’s first female Prime Minister, dubbed the Iron Lady. Her funeral was therefore something of an egg dance to commemorate her life and avoid the controversies.
So it is for many political leaders of our time, with chequered histories. Former US President Bill Clinton’s time in office can never be separated from the scandals that tainted his presidency. After leaving the White House, he went on to become a formidable and respected global leader, championing worthy causes particularly in the area of healthcare. His reinvention has made it possible for Hillary Clinton to now probably make a successful bid for the US presidency in 2016.
South Africa will someday have to contend with how we remember prominent political leaders with chequered pasts. PW Botha, who was responsible for indescribable oppression and violence during his time as head of the Apartheid regime, was left to die quietly without much fuss in 2006. There seemed to be more contempt for Thatcher when she died than when Botha did. In recognition of his status as former state president, flags were flown at half-mast. Then-president Thabo Mbeki attended the private funeral.
The person who seemingly has a more contested legacy is Botha’s successor, FW De Klerk. De Klerk was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993, and is commended for his role in the transition to democracy. But many people struggle to forget De Klerk’s role in upholding Apartheid in earlier years and the state-sponsored political violence that occurred during his presidency. There is currently a controversy raging in Cape Town over a plan by the council to rename Table Bay Boulevard after De Klerk. The ANC in the city council said it would oppose the move because they did not believe he deserved the honour.
When it comes to ANC politicians, it seems their legendary roles in the liberation struggle tends to come undone by their deeds post democracy. The accumulation of wealth, greed and abuse of political power and state funds has seen many ANC leaders fall from grace and defile their noble histories as struggle heroes.
After his recall from office in 2008, Mbeki was in danger of going down in history as the fallen prince of the ANC. He was Oliver Tambo’s protégé and the heir apparent of the liberation movement. His rise to power seemed predestined; the man Nelson Mandela entrusted his beloved country to.
Mbeki’s controversial position on HIV and Aids earned him global disparagement, and counteracted his outstanding work in championing Africa’s development. But it was the factional battles in the ANC that led to the unravelling of his presidency. Since leaving office, Mbeki has reinvented himself as a mediator in conflict resolution on the continent and has stayed out of the muddle of domestic politics. In contrast to the litany of disasters under President Jacob Zuma’s watch, Mbeki’s failings have receded into memory and he has developed into a respected and popular elder statesman.
Who knows how history will remember Zuma? His political life, and, in recent years his presidency, has been plagued by controversy and scandal. There is no telling what may happen during the remaining years of his presidency and what might happen to define his legacy. Zuma’s re-election as state president has given him the opportunity to try to negate the controversies of his first term and build a respectable legacy based on the goals he has set for his government through the National Development Plan.
However, Zuma is still haunted by the allegations of corruption against him, with the Spy Tapes saga threatening to reopen the matter. The more recent controversy over the security upgrades at his Nkandla home has also cast a dark shadow, which he is struggling to escape from. Such scandals eclipse the achievements of his government and are bound to cause lasting damage to his legacy.
But perhaps a person’s inevitable death is the best way to sanitise their chequered past. It is rare that when prominent figures pass on, their obituaries dwell on their failures and misdeeds. Even former political opponents step up to pay their respects and honour their contributions to society.
The death of Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) Member of Parliament Mario Oriani-Ambrosini at the weekend was greeted with sadness across the political spectrum. Oriani-Ambrosini made public his battle with terminal lung cancer and also championed a campaign for the legalisation of medical marijuana while he was seriously ill. It was sorrowful to see a once vibrant and charismatic MP waste away and also use his illness to fight for the use of alternative treatments to ease the suffering of the critically ill and dying. By killing himself when he could no longer bear the pain and wanted to end the suffering of his family, he also put the issue of euthanasia for the terminally ill on the agenda.
In tributes this week, Oriani-Ambrosini is also being remembered for his activism in Parliament. He is particularly credited for single-handedly fighting through the courts to allow MPs to introduce private members’ bills in Parliament. He was also a vocal opponent of the Protection of State Information Bill.
MPs from all political parties paid tribute to Oriani-Ambrosini for his robust and animated contributions to the parliamentary process. Many were emotional as they spoke during a special debate in his memory on Tuesday, quoting from the Bible, Shakespeare and great poets. IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi gave a particularly moving tribute to his former advisor and friend.
“We in the IFP feel this loss deeply. Dr Ambrosini was a national treasure, but one firmly rooted in the Inkatha Freedom Party. His loyalty to me and to our party never wavered. This was his home. We were family. Today, I weep for the loss of a son.”
Buthelezi went on to say: “I count it the greatest privilege of my life to have had Dr Mario Ambrosini at my side, as my friend and advisor. I therefore ask only what he asked himself; that in the years to come, those of us who were blessed with his friendship will find ways to bless his son. Let us tell Luke what a wonderful man his father was. Luke, your father was South Africa’s greatest adoptive son.”
While the ANC is also mourning Oriani-Ambrosini’s death, it is difficult for many of the party leaders, particularly the old guard, to forget his role in frustrating the transition to democracy. In the midst of political violence between the ANC and IFP, and great difficulty in reaching consensus in the multiparty negotiations, Oriani-Ambrosini had great influence over his leader’s belligerence at the time. The 1994 elections could have been disastrous if the IFP went ahead with their threat to boycott it; they eventually agreed to participate just a week before the poll.
Buthelezi and Oriani-Ambrosini fought a long-running battle over the issue of provincial powers, which spilled over into negotiations on the KwaZulu-Natal constitution. For years after, when the country had long moved on, they accused Mandela of reneging on an agreement to have the issue resolved through international mediation.
It was left to the ANC’s John Jeffery, the Deputy Minister of Justice, to convey the party’s mixed feelings towards Oriani-Ambrosini. “We, in the African National Congress, often crossed swords with Dr Ambrosini, especially during the negotiations in the 1990s and possibly even more so when the IFP threatened to pull out of the Constitutional Assembly, as well as in the negotiations for a provincial constitution for KZN. More recently, in Parliament, we often didn’t see eye-to-eye on various pieces of legislation either,” Jeffery said.
“But despite our political differences, we in the African National Congress, held him in high regard for his constitutional expertise and remarkable experience on governance matters,” he said.
Oriani-Ambrosini’s affable character could have helped expunge the resentments of the past, or perhaps South Africa’s reconciliation process made old hostilities pointless. Oriani-Ambrosini was also the great brain in the IFP, but not directly involved in fermenting violence like many of the other party leaders were. Perhaps this is why, in death, it is easier to release him from his past deeds.
History might not be so kind to other ageing leaders with notorious pasts. The march of time is unstoppable, and generation after generation of leaders, losers, winners and sinners, all eventually come to the end of the road. Their road is sometimes less travelled, sometimes is covered in blood, sometimes it is a road to nowhere. South Africa is a country of kind people that have learned how to forgive and live remembering the best. But we should never forget. DM
Photo: Dr Mario Oriani-Ambrosini.