Nelson Mandela is rightly being eulogized as a great world leader who endured imprisonment and brought about a peaceful end to South Africa’s apartheid regime. Mandela’s greatness should be seen in contrast with the corruption of Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe. Their early lives and political situations were similar; the fruits of their political stewardship could not be more different.
Mandela was educated in Methodist schools in South Africa while Mugabe received his early education from Marist and Jesuit institutions in Rhodesia.
Mugabe still claims that he is a devout Catholic and has embarrassed the Vatican by attending Blessed John Paul II’s funeral and beatification, and the recent installation of Pope Francis.
Both men also spent considerable time in jail for their political activities – Mugabe, 11 years; Mandela, 27. Both also came to power on massive waves of optimism at the overthrow of repressive white regimes. There, the similarity ends.
Mugabe never renounced the path of violence. Mandela did and used his years in jail to argue for reconciliation among blacks and whites. When he was released and came to power, that is what he sought.
People forget or are unaware of the optimism that gripped the first years after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. The country grew economically and expanded its health care. Its infant mortality rate tumbled, and life expectancy soared as did literacy rates.
However, even then Mugabe was waging a brutal war of repression against his black rivals. In 1997, the British government of Tony Blair, appalled by the corruption and human rights violations in the country, stopped bankrolling Zimbabwe’s efforts to buy out large white landowners and turn their farms over to poor blacks.
Four years later, Zimbabwe was in dire economic straits and the International Monetary Fund imposed an austerity program that gutted the country’s health care program, and put its faith in increased exports from the large white-owned farms.
After that, things only got worse. In 2000, Mugabe began the forced redistribution of farmland that included the torture and murder of many large landowners. Infant mortality rose to higher levels than ever, and the country’s infrastructure fell into ruin.
Elections are rigged, and Zimbabwe now has one of the worst human rights records in the world.
You can blame the IMF and Britain, as Mugabe regularly does, but leaders have choices. Mandela showed there is a different and better way.
The quest for national reconciliation is not easy, and South Africa is no Valhalla. But if ever there was a contrast between the fruits of class warfare and that of a people trying to work together, it can be seen in the different paths taken by Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe.