'It's in our hands'

2008-07-01 00:00

There were remarkable moments on the evening of Friday, June 27. Two striking events were taking place simultaneously. One could watch them both on television by flicking from one channel to another; on international news bulletins one could catch large glimpses of both of them.

In one of these events the main actor was Robert Mugabe. The polls had just closed in his sham election. We saw a flashback of him in his immaculate suit casting his vote grandly as if the action had some significance, and then we saw him, with his tight obsessed face, saying that he was feeling “optimistic,” “upbeat” — all manifestations of the vicious delusion that he has been living in and trying to foist upon others. At the same time news reports were flowing in: we were reminded again of the murderous violence and intimidation that had characterised the run-up to the “election” and forced Morgan Tsvangirai to withdraw, and we heard that Zanu-PF thugs had threatened that they would deal with those who showed, by not having red indelible ink on their fingers, that they had abstained from voting. We heard too that, in a remarkable show of near unanimity, almost the whole world and all its institutions — even the African ones (but with the exception of the South African presidency) — were condemning every aspect of Mugabe’s performance. Zimbabwe is a small country, but it has been in the forefront of the world’s headlines for some time. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, having arguably produced a world record for inflation and rapid economic and socio-political collapse, Mugabe himself was and is — with the opportunities brought about by global communication — the most unpopular person in the world. What a disaster for Africa.

In the other simultaneous event the main actor was Nelson Mandela. His 90th birthday 46664 charity concert was taking place in front of 50 000 people (and reportedly a television audience of a billion) in Hyde Park in London. I am not sure that any politician has ever enjoyed the universal popularity, love and respect that is showered on Madiba. There were so many top performers present that they often had to appear in twos rather than singly. And the innumerable statements of real affection and gratitude, both from the performers and presenters and members of the world’s public (flashed up on a large screen), showed that people understood very well what Mandela’s contribution has been to the world’s store of experience and wisdom: magnanimity, justice, fairness, firmness, forgiveness, patience, generosity. He is an amazing person, and he has given hope and he has offered a vision to many millions of people. We saw his warm open relaxed smile. In his statement to the gathering he said: “Twenty years ago, London hosted an historic concert that called for our freedom. Your voices carried across the water and inspired us in our prison cells ... as we celebrate, let us remind ourselves that our work is far from complete. Where there is poverty and sickness, including Aids, where human beings are being oppressed, there is more work to be done. We say tonight it is time for new hands to lift the burdens. It is in your hands now. I thank you.” He was speaking to the world. What a great day for Africa.

So we have this extraordinary juxtaposition, these two starkly contrasting visions and traditions. Both Mugabe and Mandela could claim, and have claimed, to represent African traditions, and they are both right, for in Africa, as elsewhere, there are bad traditions and good traditions. On the one hand, authoritarianism, stubbornness and the resort to violence; on the other hand, ubuntu and co-operation and open-mindedness. (As I say, other places have dual traditions. In Europe, for example, there is a good tradition of collaboration, compromise and common sense, but there is also a bad tradition of wars for power and colonial exploitation of those less advanced technologically. In the United States too there is a good tradition of democratic openness and freedom and a bad tradition of supposedly patriotic coercion.)

As we consider all these things here in South Africa, one can only regret, as many others have done, that, in their rash statements about killing for political purposes, Julius Malema of the ANC Youth League, Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi and a few others appear to have chosen the Mugabe option over the Mandela option. Let us hope that they come to their senses before they try to push the country down the wrong path. It is up to all of us to do what we can to steer South Africa, and the world, in the right direction. The message sent out by the Mandela concert was clear: “It’s in our hands.”

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