Knox Chitiyo
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme
ANC leader Nelson Mandela and wife, Winnie, raise fists upon his release from Victor Verster prison after 27 yrs. Photo by Allan Tannenbaum//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.ANC leader Nelson Mandela and wife, Winnie, raise fists upon his release from Victor Verster prison after 27 yrs. Photo by Allan Tannenbaum//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

To the last, Mandela was a symbol and unifying force not just for his countrymen but also for the wider region and the African continent.

Nelson Mandela was one of the most famous, and certainly the most venerated, leaders of the late 20th century. His life story with its twists and turns, and extraordinary achievements, became the stuff of legend, not just in South Africa and the region but globally too. As his life force gradually ebbed away, it was intriguing to see that many of those who kept a ceaseless vigil outside the hospital included immigrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa.

I cannot say that I knew Mandela well. I only saw and met him, fleetingly, a couple of times: first when he came to Zimbabwe in the mid-1990s and later in South Africa. Both times it was impossible not to be impressed by his strong handshake, vivacity and the extraordinary sense of dignity with which he carried himself and which he accorded others. During this time, and right up to the end of his presidential tenure, Mandela faced the immense and linked challenges of nation-building at home, re-inserting South Africa as a constructive player in the regional architecture and bringing South Africa back into the global community of nations after decades of isolation.

Mandela’s pivotal role in the creation of a democratic South Africa needs little elaboration; less assessed has been his legacy in the region. The fascination with his 27 year imprisonment, the internal talks in the transitional period between his release in February 1990 and his inauguration as the first president of a democratic South Africa, as well as his subsequent presidency, have all tended to obscure his regional impact, which began long before he became president.

There is no one organization or individual who can claim to be (or be claimedas) the leader or even the prima inter pares of the regional struggle against white minority rule. It was a collective struggle, where the sense of injustice and the realization that political resistance would need to be complemented by armed resistance reached critical mass in the early 1960s. Infamous events such as the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa in March 1960 and the Baixa de Kassanje massacre of cotton workers in Angola in January 1961 crystallized the notion of the need for the region’s nationalist organizations to make common cause against a pernicious system of racial exploitation, which had also made common cause to silence non-white activism.

The ANC was one of a number of liberation organizations in the early 1960s. Like many of its peers, the ANC at the time was riven between those who felt that an armed struggle against the state would be counterproductive and could result in the destruction of the party by the coercive instruments of the state and those − and their numbers were increasing − who felt that armed resistance, both symbolically and in practice, was an essential component in the resistance to the heavy hand of state oppression.

Mandela’s life on the run as a nascent guerrilla leader became the stuff of legend in South Africa; his arrest, trial and subsequent speeches from the dock at the Rivonia Trials in 1963 and 1964 set the world alight. There was global media coverage, and his insistence that the armed struggle was necessary and that he was prepared to die for the struggle against injustice helped to galvanize and legitimize the regional struggles against racial oppression. Mandela and the ANC did not create the regional liberation struggle, but they did empower it. Mandela’s speech was a cry heard around the region (and the world). It was translated into numerous languages and the new generation of black nationalists of the 1960s in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, Zambia and elsewhere studied Mandela’s speeches carefully, not just for the substance of his ideas, but also for the power of his oratory.

During the nearly three decades of Mandela’s incarceration, the struggles for freedom continued, albeit with changes. In the 1970s a new generation of South African resistance leaders such as Steve Biko rose to prominence as did other ANC leaders such as Oliver Tambo. Mandela was sometimes overshadowed by the new generation, but he was never eclipsed. And while the international efforts to pressure the apartheid government to release Mandela were hugely important, it was ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo’s comment in 1978 that ‘Africa cannot be free while Mandela remains in prison’ which was the wind beneath the wings of the global struggle against apartheid. Regional solidarity with Mandela and South Africa’s struggle legitimized the international struggle for multi-racial democracy.

Upon his release in 1990, Mandela faced a huge weight of expectations from South Africans and also from his peers in the region. Although nation-building at home was his defining mission during his presidency, Mandela also faced the challenge of bringing South Africa into the regional and continental community. Many observers and analysts both then and now assumed that this would be easy, given the common history of liberation struggle, but there was nothing simple about South Africa’s re-entry into the regional system. In 1990, South Africa had enormous goodwill from its regional peers but also faced some residual suspicion about its intentions. During the apartheid years South Africa, with its vaunted military and economic power, was seen by its neighbours as the neighbourhood bully.

Mandela was a strong proponent of consolidating the Southern African Development Community (SADC) as a genuine common and collective security and economic zone. An essential component of this was, he believed, breaking with South Africa’s hegemonic past and endorsing South Africa as a partner, and not a threat, to the region. Although his successors Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma have favoured a more assertive foreign policy in some areas, South Africa’s foreign policy (and the SADC ethos) is still largely based on the idea of mutual respect and soft power which Mandela encouraged.

Although there was enormous respect for Mandela by his peers in the region, he had to earn their trust. Robert Mugabe, Kenneth Kaunda, Eduardo dos Santos and others had also earned their rank through the struggle and were strong leaders in their own right. They welcomed Mandela into their circle but he had to carve out his own niche. There were differences of opinion, particularly regarding state and regional militaries and the use of force.

Although Mandela had been a key proponent of armed struggle in the 1960s, once in power he was ambivalent about military force both in South Africa and the region. When Robert Mugabe was chair of the SADC Organ for Defence Politics and Security, Mandela, contrary to perceptions at the time and later, supported the SADC Organ and established a useful working relationship with Mugabe, although there were differences over how best the Organ should be operationalized.

In 1998 Mandela found himself at odds with Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia over the decision by SADC to enter the Congolese civil war in support of Laurent Kabila. The decision by some SADC member states to deploy as a SADC force was divisive within the region. South Africa was isolated but Mandela’s insistence at the time that genuine regional consensus was a pre-requisite for SADC deployments would become an essential part of subsequent SADC missions where it acted as facilitator, mediator, observer and a military force, most recently in Zimbabwe, Madagascar and the DRC.

Mandela and the ANC were also keen proponents of a new vision of national and regional relations based on the security sector as the ultimate guarantors of human rights and civil society. But the complexities of regional realpolitik and the consensus on national sovereignty have made this a gradualist process and meant that ultimately it was Mandela and South Africa which had to adjust to the legacy of regional and continental power politics.

Nevertheless, when all is said and done, Nelson Mandela was, and will forever be, as much of an icon in the region and across Africa as he is in South Africa and the world. He was a talisman in the collective struggle against racial oppression; his encouragement of pragmatic and adaptive idealism which allowed the ANC to reformulate itself during the global changes of 1989−91 found huge resonance amongst other regional parties such as the MPLA in Angola and Frelimo in Mozambique which also had to change or perish. His belief in inclusivity, non-racialism, reconciliation and a common humanity are not just ideals, but common sense. Africa cheered when Mandela donned a Springboks jersey to present the rugby World Cup trophy to South Africa in 1995.

Although his passing is mourned throughout the country, the region and beyond, the world celebrates the extraordinary life and achievements of Nelson Mandela. He will be missed.

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