Michael Trapido
Michael Trapido

Why has Nelson Mandela remained silent on Zimbabwe?

Yesterday I picked up on a question from Christopher Hitchens in Slate magazine: Why has Nelson Mandela remained silent on Zimbabwe? The answer, in my humble opinion, is twofold. Firstly he hasn’t, and secondly Madiba has now earned his rest from politics and should, as his doctors advise, remain free of stress, which I would imagine must include politics.

The president of South Africa’s first multiracial democracy will be 90 on the 18th of July 2008, having spent a lifetime struggling to free his people from racism and intolerance. As most South Africans are aware, 27 of those years were spent in prison before he emerged to bridge the gap between the races and bring them under one flag, rather than seeking retribution. An incredible feat all on its lonesome.

Just prior to kick off of the World Cup Final 2007 against England in Paris, when he referred to the Springboks as the All Blacks I realised that Madiba, of all people, has merited his greatness and earned his rest. While we would all love to see him as much as we can, exerting pressure will only shorten his time with us and be of benefit to nobody.

Hitchens submitted the following: “By his silence about what is happening in Zimbabwe, Mandela is making himself complicit in the pillage and murder of an entire nation, as well as the strangulation of an important African democracy. I recently had the chance to speak to George Bizos, the heroic South African attorney who was Mandela’s lawyer in the bad old days, and who more recently has also represented Morgan Tsvangirai, the much-persecuted leader of the Zimbabwean opposition. Why, I asked him, was his old comrade apparently toeing the scandalous line taken by President Thabo Mbeki and the African National Congress? Bizos gave me one answer that made me wince — that Mandela is now a very old man — and another that made me wince again: that his doctors have advised him to avoid anything stressful. One has a bit more respect for the old lion than to imagine that he doesn’t know what’s happening in next-door Zimbabwe or to believe that he doesn’t understand what a huge difference the smallest word from him would make. It will be something of a tragedy if he ends his career on a note of such squalid compromise.”

Why Hitchens should wince when the honorable George Bizos SC gave him a straightforward answer is beyond me. The fact is, that as any South African who has kept up to date on Madiba would know, our former president has been advised to slow it right down by his doctors.

As an ardent critic of Mugabe I’d be the first to say that any efforts to focus the mind of the Zanu-PF is worthwhile but in Madiba’s case it is no longer prudent to expose him to this kind of pressure.

Unless Hitchens is suggesting that Madiba be asked to condemn a country that gave safe passage to many of his comrades without being briefed in full about the situation there. It is that extremely onerous briefing which could prove far too taxing for him at this point in time.

In the Sunday Independent (UK) in 2000, Madiba’s attack on the tyrants of Africa was recorded and left little doubt about his feelings for those who won’t hand power over to those selected by their people. Here is part of that article:

South Africa’s revered former president, Nelson Mandela, yesterday attacked African “tyrants” who cling to power. Although he did not name Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, he said: “Everybody here knows who I am talking [about].”

Giving a speech in Johannesburg for Unicef, the children’s charity, Mr Mandela departed from his text to talk about “leaders in Africa who have made enormous wealth, leaders who once commanded liberation armies”. They had come to “despise the very people who put them in power” and “think it is their privilege to be there for eternity”.

Some of these leaders wanted to keep power for life to avoid retribution for their crimes in office: “We have to be ruthless in denouncing such leaders.”

This of course has not stopped commentators like Nat Hentoff and human rights activists Peter Tatchell from asking the same questions.

Of course there are even those who believe that Madiba should speak up but in this case for Robert Mugabe, who faces the forces of evil who are trying to undo the revolution. This I would respectfully suggest, in light of what he has said previously about tyrants that cling to power, is not going to be happening soon.

What is happening in Zimbabwe is a tragedy the scale of which we’ll only find out in years to come. That it is costing this country billions of rands which could best be spent elsewhere and occasioning human suffering to the people of Zimbabwe and in exile here, there can be no doubt.

While I appreciate the magnitude of the humanitarian disaster we are witnessing, until someone advises otherwise, I don’t believe that Madiba is able to digest the full picture, should not be pressurised into doing it because of his health, and in light of the fact that we were given the role of mediators, our efforts should be concentrated on those selected to deal with it.

Madiba, deservedly and with our highest regard, has left the building.

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