Most national leaders and ex-leaders fall into three categories. There are leaders "unto darkness and death" –- to quote the unfortunate words of Sir Patrick Renison, colonial governor of Kenya in the 1950s about the late Jomo Kenyatta — such as Cuba's Fidel Castro and North Korea's Kim Jong-il. There are bad managers, such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. And there are the utter non-entities.
Africa has all of the above, but it can also boast some exceptional men, statesmen of true greatness. Everyone thinks immediately of Nelson Mandela, the first president of post-apartheid South Africa. But there is also the first president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere (1922-99), who was recently placed on the path to canonisation as a Catholic saint by the Cardinal of Dar-es-Salaam, Polycarp Pengo.
In an era in which national leaders have been responsible for the blood of millions, men such as Mandela and Nyerere surprise by their virtue. Mandela's defence of reconciliation and racial harmony and Nyerere’s humility and integrity are beacons in a world disfigured with cynicism, selfishness, prejudice and bloodshed. No JFK skeletons in the cupboard, either.
Biographies of Mandela are abundant, the latest being a handsome coffee table book, Mandela: the authorised portrait, by Rosalind Coward. Like most of its kind, it traces his early life and education, his initiation into the struggle against apartheid, his detention on Robben Island, and his years as president. It glosses over his imperfections and oozes adulation.
Madiba, as he is known in South Africa, is not without faults. He has been married three times, and divorced twice. His first marriage to Evelyn broke up after 13 years, mainly because of his frequent absences and his devotion to the revolution while she, a Jehovah’s Witness, shunned violence and professed political neutrality. After Evelyn, Mandela married Winnie, a political leader in her own right. After many years of enforced separation, they grew apart politically. He wanted reconciliation, she, less forgiving, sought to maintain power through violence. And then, on his 80th birthday, Madiba married Graça Machel, the widow of the former leader of Mozambique, a close friend of Mandela, who had perished in an air crash.
Mandela made some serious political errors, too. One of his worst was to back South Africa's politically correct constitution, which has helped to foster one of the most morally permissive societies in the world.
But what he will leave behind him –- he is now 88 — is a legacy of forgiveness and reconciliation, and a respect for each citizen, regardless of colour. He helped to negotiate between Libya and the UK to bring to justice two suspects in the 1988 Lockerbie plane bombing. When one of them, Megrahi, was found guilty and kept in solitary, Mandela went to visit him and pressed for him to be jailed in a place where he could see his family. He knew how to win hearts. When he put on a Springboks shirt at the World Rugby Finals, suspicious whites melted. South Africa is lucky to have had such a leader.
The father of Tanzania
Julius Nyerere was a man of vision too. He believed that his Tanganyika could teach Africa and elsewhere much about tolerance and human harmony. A graduate of Edinburgh University, who had translated The Merchant of Venice into Swahili, he taught in a Catholic mission school near Dar-es-Salaam, the capital. He left teaching to take up an organising role as leader in the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), which aimed to achieve independence from Britain and to wipe out tribalism and build a unified nation. With the help of his leadership and sense of purpose, TANU achieved both.
Nyerere’s vision was not merely political. A man of daily Mass, Communion and meditation, his Catholic faith influenced his whole political career. Even when he had become an important political figure, he translated catechetical materials and the Sunday Scripture readings for the year into his tribal language, Zanaki. Unlike Mandela, Nyerere harmonised the hectic years of the birth of his nation, with a happy, devoted married life. His fidelity to one wife was outstanding in a country where polygamy was common.
When Tanganyika and the island off its coast, Zanzibar, united to become Tanzania, he said: "We the people would like to light a candle and put it on top of Mount Kilimanjaro so that it shines beyond our borders, giving hope where there is despair, love where there is hatred, and dignity where before was humiliation."
Good-naturedly, but with determination, he withstood the harassment of the colonial government that was trying to suppress the activities of TANU. Independence came smoothly, thanks to Nyerere’s excellent relations with the colonial governor, as well as to his own integrity, intellect, organising talents and ability to present his vision to the common man.
But he was not to be played around with. An admirer of Israel's achievements despite the substantial Muslim presence in Tanganyika, he told a press conference in 1961,that "We are not going to let our friends determine who our enemies shall be." He was adamant that all races should be able to claim citizenship and threatened to resign if amendments were not made to a citizenship bill; they were. He ordered troops into Uganda to dislodge the bloody tyrant Idi Amin while the rest of the world stood by and did nothing.
Nyerere always warned against corruption:
"In an acquisitive society wealth tends to corrupt those who possess it. It tends to breed in them a desire to live more comfortably than their fellows, to dress better, and in every way to outdo them…. The visible contrast between their own comfort and the comparative discomfort of the rest of society becomes almost essential to the enjoyment of their wealth, and this sets off the spiral of personal competition -– which is then anti-social."
His warning has proved far-sighted in many African countries,. In neighbouring Kenya, for example, there is an enormous gap between the opulent lifestyle of the super-rich, and the large majority of city dwellers who get by on less than a dollar a day.
The solution, for Nyerere, lay in his policy of "ujamaa" (family-hood), an African socialism which would avoid capitalist exploitation and communist class conflict. He said: "Both the rich and the poor individual were completely secure in African society… Nobody starved, either of food or of human dignity, because he lacked personal wealth: he could depend on the wealth possessed by the community of which he was a member." During Nyerere’s tenure, soft drinks, not wines and spirits, were offered to guests at State House; his annual salary was meagre and his office was never accused of bribery or corruption.
He was unfortunate on two counts: first, the West regarded ujamaa as watered-down Marxism; secondly, it did not work. Noble as the idea was, it remained largely an idea, and left the people impoverished and demotivated. In this, Nyerere seems to have been a naïve idealist. But he was humble enough and honest enough to admit his mistakes. Even after he left the top position, Mwalimu (the Teacher) was warmly welcomed everywhere he went, and people turned out to listen to this man who had never lost the common touch, and whom they could easily identify with.
Perhaps Nyerere's greatest achievement was to bring the widely varied tribes and races (non-Africans were a very small minority) together, for today the sense of national pride in Tanzania is very striking. Tanzania has managed, thanks mainly to his sense of direction and vision, to avoid the "tribal nationalism" –- to use a phrase of Hannah Arendt — of other African countries.
Even today, many in the West might regard these two great figures as tainted by their association with socialism. But their views on this are not easy to pin down. Nyerere, at least, was never a doctrinaire Marxist, and Mandela's attitudes evolved. To understand their position better, it is instructive to read Nyerere's words from an address at the University of Toronto in 1969.
"Like Portugal, South Africa claims to be a bastion against communism in Africa. The regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) claims that it is defending its part of Africa against communist-inspired chaos. These states are all anxious that their struggle against the freedom movements should be interpreted in the West as part of the world-wide anti-communist struggle.
The real danger which worries me is that the West will accept this interpretation, and that it will, in consequence, betray its own principles by supporting these Southern African regimes… The freedom fighters use communist arms and are trained in communist countries because they have no choice. This is happening now and it will continue. And then South Africa and Portugal will proclaim to their allies this 'proof' that they are fighting communism. They will show captured communist weapons and display some hapless prisoner-of-war in order to persuade those opposed to communism to support their war against the freedom fighters…
Africa does not look at things through Cold War spectacles… (the conflict) may become a confrontation between the poor, coloured world and the rich, white world…"
To the Africans, the Soviets were just other white people, who said they were ready to help them gain their freedom, and give them the training and equipment to do this. Freedom was the immediate issue, not the ideology of the liberator. Once liberation had taken place, the Whites, capitalist or communist, could go home.
Mandela and Nyerere: two truly great African leaders who have set the direction and the style for many generations in their countries to follow, and whose example other African leaders –- indeed world — leaders would do well to emulate.
Marytn Drakard is African Contributing Editor for MercatorNet.