Where Is Nelson Mandela?


It is 23 years now since independence. Tomorrow we commemorate the day when we achieved political emancipation from Britain. . . . Gone are the years when we would throng various venues countrywide for Independence Day celebrations. . . . We now live a beggar’s life under an autocratic state. . . . Is this Uhuru? Instead of celebrating, we should mourn the death of Zimbabwe. —a letter to the Daily News, Zimbabwe, from Christopher Mucheregwa, April 17

In South Africa, where independence was gained from the murderous white apartheid regime, independence is still celebrated, and the leaders of that liberation—the late Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela, the first president of a democratic South Africa—are still honored in their own land, and among democratic forces in Africa.

As Lynne Duke noted in her tribute to Walter Sisulu at his death at 90 (The Washington Post, May 7), when he and Nelson Mandela led the militant Youth League of the African National Congress, “they staged marches, boycotts and work stay-aways to battle the laws that progressively stripped nonwhites of their human rights.”

But now, as the black citizens of Zimbabwe are battling the savage laws and brutality of Robert Mugabe’s government, South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, is hesitantly and ineffectively involved in what The Economist calls ” ‘quiet diplomacy,’ a euphemism for inaction.”

This abandonment of the brutalized people of Zimbabwe is joined by the rulers of Nigeria and Malawi. On May 5, Mbeki, along with presidents Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria) and Bakili Muluzi (Malawi), came very briefly to Harare to speak with Mugabe. As the headline in the May 6 New York Times noted: “Negotiations in Zimbabwe Fail to Break Political Crisis.”

At a news conference, Mugabe crowed: “I am the president of this country and I have legitimacy.”

In a May 8 editorial, the Times had a quick explanation for this forsaking of the freedom fighters in Zimbabwe: “We understand why African leaders are reluctant to lean on Mr. Mugabe. Mr. Mbeki shares Mr. Mugabe’s roots in a liberation movement, and the instability of many African regimes makes their leaders loath to promote regime change anywhere.”

But why is the universally respected—and indeed, venerated—Nelson Mandela silent? After all, in May, Mandela, together with South African deputy president Jacob Zuma, was involved in arranging an agreement between Hutu and Tutsi antagonists in Burundi. But Mandela was not in Harare.

However, another hero of the South African liberation movement, Desmond Tutu, archbishop emeritus, Capetown, has vigorously denounced the Mugabe dictatorship: “The hard facts on the ground in Zimbabwe . . . suggest an alarming array of policies and practices that may be leading the country to a catastrophic future. . . . The ongoing political violence . . . must be brought to an end. The threatening famine, caused in part by government land policies, will make things even worse.”

But only Nelson Mandela has the resounding stature to compel attention—including among the largely silent black civil rights leaders in the United States—to the horrific measures Mugabe inflicts on his people to stay in power.

I asked Adotei Akwei, Africa advocacy director of Amnesty International USA, about the silence of Mandela. “If Mandela would speak out,” Akwei said, “that would be a big breakthrough. But in addition to his disinclination to attack Mugabe, the ‘liberator’ of Zimbabwe, in the past, Mandela is a very loyal person, and he has known Mugabe a long time. Why did Bishop Tutu speak out? He is a man of principle.”

Furthermore, while Nelson Mandela is respected worldwide for the price he paid for his principled fight for the liberation of South Africa—imprisoned in the former leper colony Robben Island for 26 years—there has been no pressure on Mandela from his international admirers to bring hope and encouragement to the Zimbabweans.

“Very disappointing,” said Akwei, “is that there has been such little visible public concern anywhere for the suffering of the black people of Zimbabwe. And that includes black leaders in the United States. Even some of those who eventually became involved in protesting the slavery and genocide in Sudan have not been heard from about Zimbabwe.”

But there has been no pressure on American black leaders to come forward. American black church groups were an important force in getting more black political leadership to focus on Sudan. And in time, some of the white American media woke up, to some extent, to the savagery of the National Islamic Front government’s jihad against the black Sudanese in the south.

Although The New York Times has provided some useful spot-news and editorial coverage to the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe, most of the media have been indifferent. I have seen nothing on Ted Koppel’s Nightline or on the valuable Frontline documentary projects of the Public Broadcasting System. As for Kofi Annan and the United Nations, keep in mind Rwanda, and all the UN’s failures to save millions of people around the world from their oppressors.

Meanwhile, Cathy Buckle, in a March 29 online weekly letter from Zimbabwe, tells of Patricia, in Harare, attacked in her home at 1 a.m. by men in army uniforms accusing her of supporting the opposition to Mugabe. They “put a condom on the end of a rifle barrel and forced it inside her. Afterward they beat her and forced her to drink her child’s urine. ‘They have already killed me,’ she said, ‘but I have to carry on.’ ” Patricia, like a huge number of Mugabe’s victims, is black.

Here at the Voice, I received a press release from the African Liberation Day Coalition 2003. The headline: “Blacks Assert Hands Off Zimbabwe,” addressed to the “U.S. and British governments,” accused by this coalition of recolonizing Africa. The demand: “money for reparations and not occupations.”

Will they demand that Mugabe pay reparations to all the black Zimbabweans he has so ruthlessly misruled?

Among the signers of the “Hands Off Zimbabwe” message are: Africans Helping Africans, International Action Center, National Conference of Black Lawyers, Harlem Tenants Council, and New York A.N.S.W.E.R. The latter is noted for its skill at organizing anti-war demonstrations, along with the International Action Center.

Will A.N.S.W.E.R. invite Robert Mugabe to address its next demonstration for “Peace and Justice”? Meanwhile, incredibly, the African Liberation Day Coalition scheduled a rally for last weekend advocating “support of President Mugabe for standing up for his country.” Ask the black Zimbabweans about that.