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On a continent where so many leaders cling to power at all costs, Mandela’s one-term presidency was remarkable, says Peter Fabricius.
Pretoria - Has the example of leadership that Nelson Mandela set had any impact on other leaders, especially on this continent?
It has been instructive to see the reaction from Africa to his death. Many ordinary Africans and opposition leaders praised him, especially, for retiring from office after only one term.
On a continent where so many leaders have clung to power at all costs, that by itself was considered remarkable.
The leader of the Nigerian opposition, Bola Admed Tinubu, said: “Mandela’s death signals the end of an era of the generation of African leaders who never coveted power, but used power for the good of the greater number of their people.”
Tinubu seemed to be suffering a little from nostalgia in his recollection of past leaders. But he made his point nonetheless.
Incumbent leaders, unsurprisingly, emphasised different qualities, those, perhaps, which they thought they shared with Mandela.
For Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, already in power for 33 years and newly installed for another five, Mandela’s one-term presidency did not get a mention. Instead, Mugabe hailed Mandela as a “champion of the emancipation of the oppressed” and “an unflinching fighter for justice”.
There was no mention in his tribute of the forgiveness and reconciliation which most other commentators – certainly Western ones – have focused on.
In a documentary in May, Mugabe had said that Mandela “had gone a bit too far in doing good to whites, sometimes at the expense of blacks”.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan similarly praised Mandela “for his immense contribution to the dismantling of the apartheid policy”.
For Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta the lesson that Mandela imparted was “never to backtrack in our journey to chart our destiny”, perhaps an oblique reference to his own battle to defeat charges levelled by the International Criminal Court of committing crimes against humanity by orchestrating violence against political opponents after the 2007 elections.
Malawi’s President Joyce Banda seems to have been the only African leader who explicitly acknowledged having been personally inspired by Mandela’s gentler qualities.
She said she had borrowed the virtue of forgiveness from Mandela in forgiving the members of her own government who “completely abandoned” her when she was vice-president.
She appeared to be referring to the late president Bingu wa Mutharika and his cronies who schemed against her, including hatching a plot to prevent her succeeding Mutharika, as she was constitutionally entitled to, after he died in office last year.
Banda said she had taken a leaf from Mandela’s book and forgiven her tormentors as he had forgiven the apartheid regime.
So it’s good that at least one African leader got the full Mandela message – that there is a time to fight and a time to make peace.
Banda seems to be one of a new generation of African leaders who are also getting the larger message of Mandela’s life – of dedication to the service of their people rather than themselves and their own families and communities.
One cannot help but wonder how a leader like Mugabe regards the immense global outpouring of love, honour, respect and reverence for Mandela over the past few days. Does he consider it to be the predictable, self-serving sentimentality of the kith and kin or kindred spirits of white South Africans, ever-grateful that Mandela and the ANC did not wreak revenge on them?
Or is it possible to imagine that he might feel just a twinge of regret that he too did not use – and more particularly, bow out of power as gracefully as Mandela did – and thereby perhaps secure for himself a place in history and in the world’s heart as Mandela has?
Wishful thinking, probably. For a hard man like Mugabe, reverse psychology is unreliable. The only way to ensure respect – or at least the appearance of it – is to enforce it, and to keep doing so until you die. That’s why he has to die in office.
* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.