VIPs at the memorial service of Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium just outside Soweto, Johannesburg, were stunned when Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe received a standing ovation from thousands of South Africans who had braved the torrential rains to honour their first black President. Mugabe had not been expected to attend the memorial service in the first place. Initial reports had even said that he had not sent a message of condolence when Madiba died on 5 December 2013. But Mugabe and his wife were among the more than 100 presidents, prime ministers and dignitaries that attended the memorial service on 10 December 2013.
Mugabe had won Zimbabwe's presidential elections five months earlier polling 61 percent of the votes, but several Heads of State sitting together with him at the memorial service did not recognise that victory. They adored Nelson Mandela but hated Mugabe with a passion. The two were exact opposites. Mandela, a saint; Mugabe a brutal dictator once described as the third most evil man in the world after Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Osama bin Laden of Al Qaeda. But here he was, a South African crowd cheering him and booing their own President, Jacob Zuma.
To the crowd, Mugabe was a hero. They loved him for the very same reason that the West hated him- taking land from the whites and giving it to the majority. Mugabe was revered by blacks for standing his ground despite concerted attacks from the most powerful countries in the world. He was the only African leader who had openly told the West to go hang, at one time telling British Prime Minister Tony Blair to "keep your England and I will keep my Zimbabwe".
Mugabe had refused to budge despite more than a decade of sanctions but he was now a pariah, more like a skunk which leaves a bad smell long after it is gone. But that had not always been the case. The West hated Mugabe during the liberation struggle because he was an "avowed Marxist", who some reports claimed, was going to ban Christmas if he was elected president. The West preferred another liberation fighter Joshua Nkomo. He was a moderate and was good for business. But they were surprised when Mugabe pulled off a two-thirds majority in the independence elections winning 57 of the 80 seats for blacks. Another 20 were reserved for whites. Cunning as ever, Mugabe surprised everyone when he proclaimed a policy of reconciliation and urged Zimbabweans to turn swords into ploughshares to build a new nation. He invited Nkomo and former Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith into a coalition government- something he did not have to because he had enough numbers to form a government on his own.
But it was his victory speech on 4 March 1980 that sealed everything, turning him into a darling of the West despite his stated ambition to create a one-party state. He was showered with awards, prizes and honorary degrees (18 doctorates according to United States ambassador Christopher Dell). He was even awarded a knighthood by the British government and was referred to in the Western media as Africa's best statesman. But his star started fading when Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years and became South Africa's first black president. Mandela also proclaimed reconciliation but went a step further than Mugabe. He abandoned the main pillar of his African National Congress's economic policy- nationalisation.
Just before his release from prison, Mandela had written a note to his supporters which read: "The nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC, and the change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable. Black economic empowerment is a goal we fully support and encourage, but in our situation state control of certain sectors of the economy is unavoidable."
But according to academic and author William Gumede, once out of jail Mandela was convinced that for a black government to gain respect in the West, it needed to follow economic and social policies modelled on those of Britain, Germany and the United States. When he became President Mandela changed his tune and began to support the free market.
"If there is anything I am conscious about, it is not to frighten the minority, especially the white minority. In our economic policies- the reconstruction and development programme- there is not a single reference to nationalisation, and this is not accidental," he said.
Economic emancipation was pushed to the back burner. Mandela became obsessed with maintaining his place in history as the man who brought freedom to South Africa and united the nation. "He wanted to be remembered as the extra ordinary man who emerged from twenty-seven years in prison without rancour, to lead a divided South Africa into the future," wrote Gumede. To prove this, Mandela said in February 1996: "I will pass through this world but once, and I do not want to divert my attention from my task- which is to unite the nation. I am writing my own testament because I am nearing my end. I want to be able to sleep till eternity with a broad smile on my face knowing that the youth, opinion makers and everybody is stretching across the divide, trying to unite the nation."
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