JAN. 8, 212: Tens of thousands of South Africans today attended a rally in Bloemfontein to mark the 100th anniversary of the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC).
Unfortunately, the iconic and charismatic 93-year-old Nelson Mandela didn’t attend the rally because of poor health. The gods love Mandela. Unlike the Biblical Moses, they allowed him not only to lead his people to the Promised Land, but to also be their president for one term.
The end of apartheid and the advent of democracy will always be a different experience for South Africans, than for the rest of Africa.
South Africa showed Africa that it was possible to build a multiracial society, difficult and troubled as the “Rainbow Nation” project has been. Mandela on the other hand did what remains the impossible in Africa – he stepped down from the presidency after just one term! What makes this remarkable is that if there was one African leader who would have comfortably been president-for-life if he had chosen to become a power hog, it was Mandela.
In 2010 when it pulled off easily one of the best and emotional World Cups ever, South Africa also gave us lessons in how to rally a nation. It showed that the deeper you dig, the more surprises and incredible energies you will find in the hearts of a people.
However, there is a frightening side to South Africa. The xenophobic and horrific attacks against other Africans in 2008 revealed its dark side. Even more troubling, has been the failure of the ANC leaders to fully acknowledge that a crime was committed against other Africans, many from countries that paid a dear price in supporting South African liberation.
And, as sometimes happens in countries like Ethiopia, Egypt, and Tunisia, most of South Africa is still not comfortable in its African skin. Many South Africans still talk of “going to Africa” when they are travelling to other parts of the continent.
Ethiopia was eventually forced to come accept quite a bit of its “Africanness” when it degenerated into a vicious military dictatorship; got consumed by years of war; fell into abject poverty; and when millions of its people perished in famines, offering the world some of its most shocking images of starvation of the 20th Century.
South Africa has not yet had its “Ethiopian moment”. It doesn’t need to, partly because every country is free to fashion its identity. If South Africans don’t feel they are kin to other Africans, they have every right to. For an entity that evokes no flattering emotion for a nation is not worth much.
However, WHY South Africa is conflicted about its Africanness, is a matter for all Africans. It is a conflict that seems to stem from three sources.
First, ignorance about the rest of Africa.
Secondly, the apartheid trauma that seems to have left South African unable to give back full-heartedly to those who supported its liberation.
Thirdly, a bizarre and complex need for international acceptance, especially from the west, born out of the peculiarities of apartheid oppression, and the global stardom that was conferred upon Mandela by the world.
If you asked 10 Frenchmen and women on the streets of Paris about the UK, perhaps five will tell you something based on a visit to London. If you asked the same question of Ugandans on the streets of Kampala about next door Tanzania, you will be lucky to find two who have visited Dar es Salaam.
So, while Africans often talk of “African solutions to African solutions”, they are remarkably ignorant about each other. This is because most Africans are poor, and poor people don’t travel. Also, even if they could, many times because the roads are bad, the trains stopped running long ago, or you have idiotic immigration officers who make crossing the borders hell, we don’t travel much outside our countries.
However, for senior politicians and business people, ignorance is not excusable. The privatisation of Nigerian Airways offers a good example of South African failure here. South Africa’s cerebral Thabo Mbeki and Nigeria’s outspoken Olusegun Obasanjo formed a formidable pair when they were presidents of their respective countries.
Their partnership helped in creating Africa’s most ambitious good-governance and development initiative ever, the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) in 2001. As soon as both Mbeki and Obasanjo left the scene, the rest of Africa’s Big Men stuck a knife in the back of NEPAD and left it to bleed to death.
South African Airways was interested in buying into Nigeria Airways, and given Mbeki’s and Obasanjo’s closeness, it seemed like a done deal. Mbeki called Obasanjo and set up a meeting for a South African delegation to see him in Abuja over the airline sale. Obasanjo obliged.
Now Obasanjo, as anyone who has read his ex-wife Oluremi Obasanjo’s wonderful and highly entertaining book “Bitter Sweet: My Life With Obasanjo” knows,generally treats women shabbily. However, a woman in a power suit headed the delegation that Mbeki sent to this aging, conservative, agbada-wearing polygamist former military strongman!
Immediately, Obasanjo felt belittled. Things got worse. According to a source at the meeting, at the end Obasanjo explained that the privatisation of Nigerian Airways presented political problems. To enable him dealt with the backlash, Obasanjo told the delegation that South African Airways would have to give back a token portion of the airline after it buys it to a small group of Nigerians.
The South Africans understood Obasanjo to be asking for the shares as a bribe. They were probably right. The mistake is that the good lady in the power suit told Obasanjo to his face that that was against the law in South Africa.
Obasanjo ended the meeting abruptly, and said they would hear from him shortly. The next they heard a few days later, the airline had been sold to Richard Branson’s Virgin. Perhaps if they had departed quietly, briefed Mbeki, and left the two men to talk later, the deal might have saved. But after Mbeki sent a young man in a tight skirt to talk to him, its seems Obasanjo was quite miffed at him too.
Years before all this, was the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1987/88. Cuanavale was the decisive battle in the long Angolan civil war. The South African Defence Forces (SADF) had intervened to help Jonas Savimbi’s rebel UNITA movement overthrow the MPLA regime.
Facing defeat, the Angolans called on help from Fidel Castro. The Cubans rushed in, and aided the Angolans fight UNITA-SADF to a draw – the first time the apartheid army had been stopped in its long years of tormenting countries for their support of the ANC.
A peace agreement in August 1988 brought that conflict, at least the SADF’s direct involvement, to an end. Part of the agreement was that the ANC’s military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe be relocated outside the region.
There were no countries willing to take the risk until Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni stepped forward. The story has not yet been told fully publicly, but a senior government minister told me that Museveni faced his first serious cabinet revolt over that decision. It took two whole days of debating and cajoling to get the Uganda cabinet to accept that the country hosts Umkhonto we Sizwe.
In many ways, without the Cuito Cuanavale stalemate and the peace agreement, Mandela would not have walked to freedom in 1990 – if at all. And the independence of Namibia, where apartheid South Africa was overlord, in March 1990 might have taken longer too.
Uganda did not get any special favours for taking on Umkhonto we Sizwe after the ANC took power. To this day, Ugandans require visas to travel to South Africa – while citizens from some countries that didn’t support the liberation don’t.
With South Africa free and growing richer from the access to the vast African market out of which it had been locked in the apartheid era, everyone was courting it.
At one point there was talk of South African being invited into some kind of European Union membership. That was too much for some African presidents, and Uganda’s Museveni couldn’t hold his tongue. Trying to be as polite as he could, he said it would be “a big mistake” for the EU to take in South Africa, and undermine the possibility it using its economic might to lift the rest of Africa through trade.
However, this western courtship of South Africa seemed psychologically important for the country. According to one point of view, the only way black South Africans could ever overcome the sense of racial inferiority pumped into their heads over nearly 50 years of apartheid, was if they were “unconditionally pampered by white powers”.
Thus after he left power, although he remains an inspirational figure for Africa, Mandela has rarely visited the rest of the continent. He has been more comfortable travelling to Europe and North America. Critics say that even the amiable Bishop Desmond Tutu is “scornful” of the rest of Africa, and “he turns down 99.9 percent of the invitations he gets to speak and participate in events in other parts of Africa, and accepts 99.9 percent of the invitations from the west.”
One diplomat called this Mandela and ANC’s “acknowledgement problem”. That they never feel adequate from the affection of other Africans. They need the love of the west for them to feel apartheid was a “mistake”, and that they are fully human in the eyes of Caucasians.
One effect of this is that it has hobbled South Africa’s ability to be a diplomatic power in Africa equal to its role as the continent’s wealthiest nation.
Sometimes, as in the case of dealing with Zimbabwe’s deranged ruler Robert Mugabe, South Africa’s (or the ANC’s) race problem means it can’t crack the whip, because it fears it will be accused of being the new colonialist – which is too close to what the apartheid regime was for its comfort.
On the extreme, ANC leaders like its suspended populist youth leader Julius Malema, respond to this by going overboard to support every African leader whom the west criticizes like, again, Mugabe, or the recently lynched Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The idea that a leader from the west cannot be right on any issue, is an overreaction, a product of a failure to have a balanced and rational frame of mind when confronted by someone who represents “white power”.
The ANC failure has been its inability to make South Africa that is comfortable and confident about its Africanness. I don’t see that changing for another 30 years, at least.
©Charles Onyango-Obbo / twitter@cobbo3