I met Nelson Mandela briefly on June 22, 1990 in New York, shortly after he was released from prison but before he was elected President of South Africa. I well remember the extraordinary scenes on February 11, 1990, when the South African authorities released Mandela from 27 years of incarceration, and he addressed the nation and the world. Four months later, he visited the United States as a private citizen. The New York and federal authorities treated him like the head of state he would become, and security was extremely tight. He came to the Council on Foreign Relations, next door to the Center for African Art, where I worked. We asked if we could present him one of our publications, and officials agreed. Our building was swept by security, and there were snipers on the roofs. The streets were cleared of vehicle and pedestrian traffic. We made a sign saluting Nelson and Winnie Mandela, and when his limo stopped in front of the museum, we presented him our Yoruba catalogue. He was gracious to all.
Following Nelson Mandela’s death on December 5, 2013, the world has mourned his passing and celebrated his accomplishments. His achievements are now well known and widely appreciated. Mandela’s impact extends far beyond South Africa, and it is appropriate that Mandela is remembered along with Gandhi (himself a South African lawyer before he returned to India), and Martin Luther King. Another way of appreciating Mandela’s accomplishments and placing him in the context of his times is to examine two other African leaders, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who had somewhat similar early experiences but who in the end fell short of Mandela’s moral authority, unrelenting honesty, inclusive ideals, and political skills.
Jomo Kenyatta became the first President of Kenya in1964, following a short stint as prime minister, after Kenya’s independence from Great Britain in 1963. Kenyatta was a Kikuyu, the dominant ethnic group in Kenya’s central highlands, born about 1894. His early education was in local schools, followed by a series of modest jobs. By the early 1920s he was interested in politics, and he visited Britain to advocate for Kikuyu land claims. He furthered his studies there and in the Soviet Union before returning to England to study social anthropology under Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics. His first book was Facing Mount Kenya, the anthropology of the Kikuyu (1938). Kenyatta was already involved in pan-African and anti-colonialist causes and participated in these intellectual circles.
Upon returning to Kenya in 1946, Kenyatta became principal of Kenya Teachers College, and, in the following year, president of the Kenya African Union, a political party that sought independence through peaceful means. In 1952 Kenya declared a state of emergency as a result of the Mau Mau uprising, centered in the Kikuyu homelands. Kenyatta and five other nationalist leaders, the Kapenguria Six, were tried for Mau Mau activities and sentenced to seven years in prison at hard labor and then detention. While in detention, he was elected president of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), and public pressure for his freedom greatly increased. He was released in 1961, and was influential in drafting Kenya’s independence constitution. KANU won the elections of 1963, and Kenyatta became prime minister, and then president of Kenya in 1964. He was re-elected in 1966, 1970, and 1974. He published his autobiography, Suffering Without Bitterness, in 1968. Kenyatta was popularly known both fondly and cynically as Mzee, Swahili for “respected elder.”
I was excavating with the National Museums of Kenya at Kiunga on the coast near the Somalia frontier on August 22, 1978, when Kenyatta died. We did not normally listen to the radio in the field, but that day for some reason we had on the Voice of Kenya, when suddenly the radio started playing somber music and then the announcement in Swahili, that Jomo Kenyatta, the first President of Kenya, was dead. Even for an expatriate resident, it was quite impactful.
Kenyatta accomplished much to establish Kenya as a relatively peaceful, stable, democratic, multi-racial state based upon capitalist economic principles within the Western sphere of influence. Compared to its neighbors, Kenya is relatively prosperous, although poverty remains widespread. But there were substantial negatives to Kenyatta’s leadership. He consolidated power in his hands, quashed political opposition, silenced dissent, outlawed opposition parties, and, although elected, was functionally president for life. Major opposition figures, such as Tom Mboya and J. M. Kariuki, were assassinated during his stewardship. To this day, ethnic tensions, particularly in the political arena, have not been completely resolved, as demonstrated by the murderous violence surrounding elections of 2007-2008. Kenyatta’s administrations set the stage for corruption, land acquisition, and amassing wealth for government officials and those close to the inner circle. His wife, Mama Ngina Kenyatta, was widely thought to be involved in the illicit ivory trade. For all the good things Kenyatta accomplished, these are serious blemishes on his legacy.
Robert Mugabe was born near Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in 1924. His early education was in Roman Catholic schools, and he later earned a BA in 1951 from the University of Fort Hare in South Africa. He was a teacher in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Ghana, where he was influenced by Kwame Nkrumah. Upon returning to Southern Rhodesia, Mugabe entered politics and became a leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), whose main strength came from Shona speakers in the north, in competition with Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU), centered amongst the Ndebele in the south. When violence occurred between the two groups, the parties were banned in 1964 and the leaders detained. During the course of his career, including while in prison, Mugabe earned degrees in economics, education, law and administration through external programs from the University of London and the University of South Africa. He was released from prison in 1974.
In 1965, after negotiations for independence failed, Southern Rhodesia’s prime minister Ian Smith’s government unilaterally declared independence (UDI) from Great Britain. From then through the 1970s Smith fought the revolutionary forces. Finally, in 1979, negotiations for a transition to majority rule succeeded, and Robert Mugabe became prime minister of the Republic of Zimbabwe. Although there was some effort to merge ZAPU with ZANU, ultimately Mugabe fired Nkomo from the cabinet and forcefully crushed Ndebele resistance in the south with significant loss of life. Since 1987, Mugabe has been President of Zimbabwe.
In order to remain in power, Mugabe has sometimes used intimidation, fraud and violence during Zimbabwean presidential elections. Land reform and redistribution also has a checkered history. In 2000, mobs overran many white farms, with considerable violence, apparently with the connivance of the government. At various times, the British Commonwealth, European Union, and United States have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe, and restricted travel on Mugabe, for governmental misdeeds and financial mismanagement.
It is very difficult to create a democratic, multi-racial, equitable society after years of institutional racism, inequality and even terrorism. African leaders come from cultural groups with their own support structures and traditional ways of governance. It is either natural to carry these associations into national governance, or at least difficult to resist such cultural pressures in trying to modernize a national state. Comrades in the struggle for freedom want shares of the benefits of independence. When whites colonized Africa, they often took the best farming lands for themselves. After independence, naturally there were pressures for land reform and redistribution, and the speed of these processes led to tensions. In Zimbabwe, this included intimidation and violence. Sometimes, associates of the powerful wound up with the land, rather than those most needing it. These are just examples of some of the pressures for change that African leaders faced after independence. Kenyatta negotiated the issues reasonably well, Mugabe notoriously poorly.
The history of countries in the belt from Ethiopia to South Africa illustrates the difficulties of transition from colonialism to independence. Population, resources including land, economic development, poverty, transportation, education, ethnic and religious strife and quality of governance are chronic problems. Ethiopia is stable today, but suffered from East-West rivalries, and fought wars with two of its neighbors. In Sudan, Islamists in the north fought Christians in the south for years, and now newly independent South Sudan is experiencing ethnic-based violence. Clan rivalries and Islamic extremism have sundered Somalia, the only single ethnic group country in sub-Saharan Africa. Uganda, once considered the “jewel of Africa,” suffered under Idi Amin. Rwanda had its genocide, and eastern DR Congo has been a mess for years. Tanzania got a solid start under its founding president, Julius Nyerere (known as Mwalimu, teacher), but grapples with poverty. Zambia, Malawi and Botswana have had relatively peaceful histories, but they struggle with many of the issues affecting the region. Mozambique was enveloped for years in the wars that plagued the southern part of the continent. AIDS has ravaged many countries in the region, including South Africa. The evidence suggests that is very difficult to create solid political, governance and economic structures when facing these significant challenges. Some of the countries have been doing much better recently.
This survey of the neighborhood illustrates why we should revere Nelson Mandela. At the end of apartheid, tensions were in place for a much different outcome. Mandela showed a way that all factions in South Africa could follow. South Africa’s economy is more like a European nation than like its neighbors’, but poverty is still a major issue. South African elections have been orderly and constitutional, but the African National Congress dominates and there are ruling elites. Nevertheless, South Africa seems to be working through its problems, and to a great extent the success of the model is due to the integrity and moral force of Nelson Mandela. It is appropriate to appreciate Mandela as the father of modern South Africa.
In 1947, Louis and Mary Leakey convened in Nairobi the first Panafrican Congress of Prehistory and Quaternary Studies, the premier international organization to study human origins and cultural development in Africa. I helped their son, Richard Leakey, plan the eighth congress, held again in Nairobi in 1977. The tenth congress met at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1995. It was the first meeting since South Africa was freed of apartheid and all the boycotts were dropped. The foreign minister of Zimbabwe opened the congress and welcomed the South Africans, white and black, back into the community of nations. It was a poignant moment. In thousands of ways like this, big and small, Nelson Mandela has had an impact on individuals, South Africa, the rest of the continent, and the world.
Thomas H. Wilson is past Chair of Arizona Humanities and the Director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History.