Nelson Mandela is gone. After a protracted illness, he has slipped away. We knew it was inevitable, and, yet, it is still hard to fathom. One of the truly great men of our time is no more.
In nearby Zimbabwe another elderly African leader, Robert Mugabe, lingers on, denying rumors concerning his health and claiming that trips abroad for medical treatment are related to routine procedures. The world is unconvinced. Rumors have swirled for years that Mugabe, 89, is fighting prostate cancer. He is still active, but he as well likely has only a few years to live.
The juxtaposition of the two men and the knowledge that we will have lost both of them before long beckons us to consider the contributions they have made to African independence and to the lives of their countrymen. They were shaped by the same forces of history, and they came to define the two formerly white-ruled nations of Southern Africa.
Mandela was an icon, a living symbol of the ability of man to triumph over oppression and to emerge untarnished by the struggle. He survived 25 years of incarceration at the hands of the white South African regime and then led his nation to a better, fairer future. How he resisted the temptation to satisfy his cravings for revenge and to replace white oppression with an equally oppressive black government we may never fully understand. The key point is that he did, and all South Africans, regardless of race, are better off for it.
Mugabe is a different creature entirely. He emerged like Mandela from a generation of Africans fighting to end colonial rule and return Africa to its rightful owners. But where Mandela found the capacity to transcend hate and bigotry, Mugabe learned only to replace one form of oppression with another and to exalt his own importance over that of any other factor.
Mugabe came to power in 1980 as Prime Minister. He later elevated himself to the position of President. He continues to hold that position today, 33 years later. When he came to power he was the leader of a nation with an independent judiciary and a well-established tradition of the rule of law. He now sits atop one of the world's true kleptocracies.
Mugabe began from the outset of his regime to force out any rivals and to destroy his internal political opposition. In 1982, he deployed the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade of the army under the pretext of crushing a rebellion against the government but in reality for the purpose of exterminating those who supported his political opponents. Twenty thousand unarmed civilians were massacred. In the aftermath of the offensive, opposition politicians were rounded up and held without trial for four years.
Since then Mugabe has "won" reelection in contests controlled through a combination of intimidation of political opponents, the buying of votes and outright fraud. Political opponents have been beaten, murdered and raped. Some have simply disappeared.
Mugabe's regime is one of the most corrupt in the world, with virtually all aspects of the economy controlled by his family or his close associates. Sales of diamonds from fields in Zimbabwe total in excess of $4 billion a year. Virtually all of that money simply disappears into the pockets of high-ranking government officials.
When Mugabe came to power, Zimbabwe had one of Africa's largest and most sophisticated economies. No longer. Under his mismanagement it has become a basket case. In 2000 Mugabe began a policy of organizing gangs of thugs to invade and occupy white-owned farms throughout the country. Over the next few years, virtually every such farm in the nation was effectively seized. Farmers who resisted were murdered. Many simply fled the country.
Mugabe claimed that the land would be given to the people. In fact, he and his followers took most of the best farms for themselves. Estimates are that Mugabe personally still owns over forty such estates.
The agricultural sector, not surprisingly, collapsed. A nation that had once been the breadbasket of Africa became a net importer of food. To compensate for the disaster and the drop in revenue, Mugabe ordered the printing of more money. Inflation ran rampant.
Despite some recent optimism regarding the possibility of an economic upturn in Zimbabwe the situation remains dire. As of January 2013, the state treasury in the capital city of Harare reported that there were exactly 217 dollars left in the coffers. The Minister of the Treasury added that, as a consequence, public finances were effectively in a state of paralysis. The nation could not pay its bills.
Zimbabwe is due to hold elections and a constitutional referendum in the near future, and, according to the Minister would now be looking to international donors to finance those events. Spokesmen for Zimbabwe's electoral commission said that it would cost $104 million to organize the voting.
Perhaps the most telling evidence of the stark contrast between South Africa and Zimbabwe can be found in the numbers of individuals simply voting with their feet. Since 1997, estimates are that over two million Zimbabweans have illegally entered South Africa in search of work. For years, the South Africans largely ignored the problem, but recently they have begun to act more energetically to expel illegal immigrants. Between January and April of this year, South Africa deported 13,600 Zimbabweans.
We are increasingly inclined to remove the human factor from our analysis of historical events and political developments. We see them largely as the impersonal by-product of economic trends, demographic shifts and social forces. World War II is not best understood, for example, as a contest between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin on one side and Tojo, Mussolini and Hitler on the other but as the collision of worldwide political, economic and societal forces.
There's clearly a great deal of validity to such an approach. History is not all about personalities or great men and women. But just as clearly, it does not proceed without being impacted by them.
Robert Mugabe cannot personally be made fully responsible for every step Zimbabwe has taken since the end of white rule anymore than Nelson Mandela can be given credit for every positive development in South Africa since the end of apartheid. But both men played critical and diametrically opposed roles. Mandela chose to set a tone of reconciliation and cooperation. He looked to the horizon and told his people their future lay there, together. Mugabe chose to treat the government and the nation as his private possessions. He chose hate and greed. He looked to his own interests only, and he gave no vision of any kind to the people of Zimbabwe.
We have lost Mandela. He has passed into history and out of our grasp. It will fall to every one of us to make the difference now. Let's hope we can.