•A version of this post ran on the blog Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own.
Nelson Mandela is an international icon for the politics of reconciliation and the rule of law. Since its transition to non-racial democracy, South African elections have been credible, following the pattern of the first all-race elections in 1994. Mr. Mandela voluntarily stepped down after a single term as chief of state, and most South Africans regard him as the father of democratic, non-racial South Africa.
Robert Mugabe is notorious for shredding the rule of law, uncountable human rights violations, and resorting to violence to maintain his power. He has been chief of state for more than thirty years, during which Zimbabwe devolved from being one of Africa’s most successful states to one of the worst in terms of international social and economic indicators. (Zimbabwe’s standing has improved of late.) He faces national elections this year. Zimbabwe’s electoral track record over the past decade does not bode well for them to be non-violent. For many, he is the iconic “big man” African tyrant.
This background provides some context for an astonishing, soft-focus television documentary by Dali Tambo on Mr. Mugabe, the first part of which was aired in South Africa over the weekend. The documentary is focused on a State House lunch that humanizes the Mugabe family and provides the chief of state with a platform to comment on personalities ranging from Margaret Thatcher (favorable) to Tony Blair (unfavorable).
Mugabe says that Mandela “was too much of a saint” with his emphasis on reconciliation. According to Mugabe, Mandela did not do enough for black people. “Mandela has gone a bit too far in doing good to the non-black communities, really in some cases at the expense of [blacks],” he says in the film, according to Agence France Press.
Mr. Tambo’s soft-focus treatment of Mugabe has predictably generated hostile reaction. Cape Town media presenter Kieno Kammies criticized Tambo’s glossing over Mugabe’s human rights violations and land grabs. In a shouting match between the two presenters, Tambo replied that his program, “People of the South,” is about people, not politics. “I present the man as he actually is, and you must take what you want from it," he said.
Tambo is the son of Oliver and Adelaide Tambo, leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle, who were also close to Mugabe. The Johannesburg airport, South Africa’s principal international hub, was renamed for Oliver Tambo in 2006.
Mandela and Mugabe together are symbolic of the contradictions of southern Africa. For if many regard Mandela as a democrat and a healer and Mugabe as a thug, others see the latter as an African liberator who drove the whites out and restored the land to black Africans. In post-Mandela South Africa, most blacks remain impoverished and land reform has proceeded very slowly. Accordingly, Mugabe has many admirers in South Africa.
Perhaps the best known is the now officially-disgraced former leader of the African National Congress Youth League, Julius Malema, who famously called for the nationalization of South Africa's mines and of white-owned farms without compensation. Still, Mugabe’s criticism of Nelson Mandela will not go over well with many South Africans. As one blogger commented: “What’s next, vacations with Hitler?”