Madiba 90

An 'impossible act to follow'

2008-07-15 14:01

Special Report

Mandela: SA needs good leaders

Now as much as ever, South Africa needs disciplined leaders, Nelson Mandela has said at birthday celebration in Pretoria.

Johannesburg - As the country celebrates Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday this week, the shadow cast by the anti-apartheid colossus looms ever larger over the leaders who followed his giant footsteps.

Crime, xenophobia and Aids have combined to tarnish the shiny self-image of the rainbow nation since Mandela stood down in 1999 after a single term as president, with many crying out for a sprinkling of the old "Madiba Magic".

"We miss an inspiring leader who is a moral giant and we are feeling a little rudderless," Mandela's fellow Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu told AFP. "He is an impossible act to follow."

Support for Mandela's aloof successor Thabo Mbeki has rarely been lower, with an economic downturn and his handling of the crisis in Zimbabwe adding to a list of complaints that also includes one of the world's worst crime rates.

Meanwhile Jacob Zuma, the leader of Mandela's beloved African National Congress (ANC) and the man most likely to become the country's third black president next year, is facing a trial for corruption and money-laundering.

Insistence on reconciliation

Although a decade has passed since he departed office, his successors' woes have served to enhance the reputation of Mandela who first attained iconic status among the majority black population during his 27 years in captivity.

As president he left much of the day-to-day running of the country to Mbeki and critics say he did little to deliver on a pledge of a "better life for all" or root out corruption.

But his insistence on reconciliation rather than revenge, epitomised by his donning of a Springbok shirt in the 1995 rugby World Cup final and Tutu's truth commission, won over even whites who had feared a violent backlash.

Veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Helen Suzman, who celebrated her own 90th birthday last year, said the country really could have done with another term of Mandela as president.

"We needed more of his attitude of reconciliation and his desire to get South Africa really firmly on the road to democracy," she told AFP.

Suzman, who was the first lawmaker to visit Mandela in prison, said Mandela possessed qualities that others could not hope to match. "He is a very special man and his leadership qualities are obvious to all ... and he's a darn difficult thing to measure up to."

Like many observers, Suzman draws an unflattering comparison between Mbeki's equivocal stance on issues such as Aids, xenophobic violence and the post-election crisis in Zimbabwe and that of Mandela.

Last month, as Mbeki continued to refrain from public criticism of his counterpart Robert Mugabe, Mandela used a speech in London to speak out against "the tragic failure of leadership in our neighbouring Zimbabwe".

The moral voice of South Africa

And while Mbeki denied that a wave of deadly anti-immigrant attacks in May was motivated by anti-foreigner sentiment, Mandela lamented "the outbreak of violence against fellow Africans in our own country".

Kader Asmal, a former education minister, said his old boss had a clear moral compass, recalling his falling out with the military leadership in Nigeria over the execution of the environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa.

"He is the moral voice of South Africa - no doubt about that," he told AFP.

Asmal said it was inevitable others suffered by comparison with Mandela.

"As Thabo Mbeki himself said (at his investiture) in 1999, I am not stepping into Nelson Mandela's shoes because they are too big. The fact is that Nelson Mandela's shoes were too big for anyone," he said.

Unlike Suzman however, Asmal says that one of Mandela's greatest triumphs was to stand aside after one term when he could have easily carried on.

"I would have loved him to carry on ... but that was true heroism," he said.

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