Ali Mazrui: Cut from the same cloth? Mandela, Obama and the dawn of an era

Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama are symbols of a post-racism age which is still unfolding. Mandela has become the most respected black man by other races in world history, while Obama stands a chance of becoming the most trusted black man in US history.

No African American has ever been so close to winning the US presidency. But no African American could have come so close without the unprecedented level of trust from a sizable part of the white electorate.

A major cause of this joint success by Mandela and Obama lies in their embodying a short memory of racial hate, and in their impressive readiness to forgive historic adversaries. They have both shown a capacity to transcend historic racial divides.

Cultures differ in hate retention. Some nurse their grievances for generations. Others may be intensely hostile in the midst of a conflict, but as soon as the conflict has ended they display a readiness to forgive even if not always to forget.

Armenians were butchered in large numbers by Ottoman Turks way back in 1915-1916. It has turned out that the Armenian culture has considerable proclivity towards hate retention. The story of the Armenian martyrdom of World War I has been transmitted with passion from generation to generation.

But they are still demanding justice from Turkey more than 90 years after the massacres.

The Irish also have long memories of grievance. Clashes occur in North Ireland every year concerning marches which commemorate “Orange conflicts” in the 17th century.

Jews also have strong collective memories of the Holocaust and earlier outbursts of the European anti-Semitism. But Jews have been more subtle in their troubled relations with Germany.

Mandela came from a culture which is illustrative of Africa’s short memory of hate. That culture is far from being pacifist. Wars and inter-ethnic conflicts have been part of Africa’s experience from before European colonisation and decades after independence. What is different about the African culture is its relatively low level of hate retention.

Obama’s tolerant multi-culturalism may be due to personal factors. He has a white American mother, a black Kenyan father, and an Indonesian step-father. His cultural ancestry includes Luo culture, Islam and black American Christianity.

Mandela’s life passed through stages. His early days as an African nationalist were characterised by a belief in non-violent resistance. In a sense he carried the torch of Albert Luthuli and Mahatma Gandhi. Sharpeville was a major blow to his belief in passive resistance.

The African National Congress within which he had become one of the top leaders, finally embraced the option of armed struggle and Mandela became commander-in-chief. When he was finally sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 after the Rivonia trial, some expected Mandela to become more bitter than ever.

Twenty-seven years later he emerged from prison as “truth and reconciliation” personified. The former C-in-C of the armed struggle emerged in 1990 ready to hold the olive branch, magnanimous in triumph and rather submissive in defeat.

Obama manifested not only racial reconciliation, but also an opposition to pointless warfare like that of Iraq.

But Mandela needs to be placed in the context of other African as well as African American leaders. Post-colonial Africa had produced other leaders who have illustrated Africa’s short memory of hate. Jomo Kenyatta was condemned by British colonialists as a “leader unto darkness and death” and imprisoned in a remote part of Kenya.

Eve of independence

He emerged from imprisonment on the eve of independence and proclaimed “suffering without bitterness.” He transformed Kenya into a staunchly pro-Western country. A short memory of hate indeed!

Ian Smith unleashed a civil war in Zimbabwe when he unilaterally declared independence. He lived to sit in parliament of black-ruled Zimbabwe and was not subjected to post-war vendetta or trial. Again, Africa’s short memory of hate was manifested.

Nigeria waged the most highly publicised civil war of post-colonial Africa, which cost nearly a million lives. The federal side under Gen Yakubu Gowon won the war, but was magnanimous towards the defeated Biafrans. Yet another manifestation of Africa’s short memory of hate.

By the time Mandela was having afternoon tea with the unrepentant widow of the founder of apartheid, Mrs Verwoerd, he had tough acts to follow in African magnanimity. There were precedents of forgiveness which he followed and improved upon.

Obama had to prove his post-racial tolerance by denouncing his firebrand pastor, and by leaving his own church.

In comparing Mandela with other post-colonial African leaders and Obama there were other elements of style to be taken into account.

Post-colonial Africa and its diaspora produced five styles of political leadership. A charismatic leadership style depends mainly on the personal magnetism of the leader, and is best illustrated by Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and indeed Obama and Martin Luther King Jr.

Ideology and party organisation are used to mobilise the masses, and is best illustrated by Julius K. Nyerere of Tanzania and, indeed, Obama’s mobilisation of young Americans.

Skills of management and technocratic pragmatism are in managerial style, and this is illustrated by Thabo Mbeki of South Africa today and Felix Houphouet-Boigny of Cote d’Ivoire who died in 1993. A coercive style of political leadership relies mainly on a regime of fear and demands compliance and obedience.

Most military regimes have been coercive in that sense, perhaps as best illustrated by Idi Amin of Uganda. However, there have also been civilian regimes of coercion and fear — such as that of Hastings Banda of Malawi.

Finally, there is conciliatory style of political leadership, which is predisposed towards compromise and reconciliation. Where does Nelson Mandela fit in?

Because of his record after being released from prison in 1990, there is a temptation to think of Mandela primarily as an example of conciliatory leadership. But, in fact, the younger Mandela was a powerful combination of charisma and mobilisation rather than conciliatory leadership.

Is such charismatic conciliation also characteristic of Obama? Mandela’s personal magnetism enabled him to rise rapidly in the ANC Youth League (NACYL).

In 1952 he was elected national volunteer chief, and proceeded to traverse the country organising resistance as part of the ANC’s Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws.

For his role in the campaign he was accused of violating the Suppression of Communism Act. He was convicted, but his record of strict non-violence at that stage earned him a suspended sentence and a confinement within the boundaries of the city of Johannesburg.

Much later, Obama was accused of Black American extremism and was even suspected of being a closet Muslim. But he was not tried in court.

Mandela’s role in the defiance campaign propelled him to the presidency of the Youth League, the presidency of the Transvaal region and the deputy presidency of the ANC as a whole.

The party’s initial policies still reflected the philosophies of no-nonviolent resistance, which had been advocated earlier by Mohandas (later Mahatma) Gandhi and Albert Luthuli (the first African Nobel laureate).

The ANC’s action programme was inspired by the Youth League and envisaged a struggle based on civil disobedience, labour strikes and non-cooperation.

Mandela was heavily involved in much of the planning, organisation and implementation of such methods of struggle. In anticipation of the possible banning of the ANC, Mandela accepted the awesome responsibility of preparing a master-plan for underground networking and secret lines of communication.

Mobilisation leader

But in most of the 1950s, he as a mobilisation leader was averse to violence. He also helped to promote the Freedom Charter which had been adopted by the congress of the people in 1955.

It was not until June 1961 that the ANC, after a long and agonising reappraisal, reached the conclusion that violence could no longer be ruled out against a coercive regime of racial intolerance.

It was in the same year that the Umkhonto we Sizwe (spear of the nation), the ANC armed wing, was formed with Mandela as its C-in-C. Mandela as a charismatic leader, was now involved in armed mobilisation.

While he has been a force for reconciliation between blacks and whites, Mandela has been less compromising as a southern warrior in the North-South relations.

Similarly, while he has offered the olive branch in relations between blacks and whites, Obama has been less compromising as a campaigner of the poor against the rich.

They may both discover what Luther King was beginning to realise in 1968 — that abolishing racism may be accomplished much sooner than abolishing poverty.

Prof Mazrui is director, Institute of Global Cultural Studies, Albert Schweitzer professor in humanities, Binghamton University, USA and chancellor, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology

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