Thursday, July 17, 2008



By Ojh Oswago
The Standard
July 17, 2008

At the end of the 20th century, Time magazine engaged in the search for a ‘Person of the Century’. Albert Einstein was honoured, beating Mohandas Gandhi, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and other greats.

The BBC, on a similar activity, but with different criteria, honoured Karl Marx, largely on public acclaim. As consolation (perhaps) Bill Clinton was requested, and did write, a remarkable piece on Roosevelt and Nelson Mandela on Gandhi.

Adolf Hitler received nomination. In denying him the honour, Time cobbled a sophisticated, but ultimately disingenuous argument. It went something like this: Freedom, civility and decency in the face of evil, are core values to humanity and these were threatened by the nihilism and defeatism represented by Hitler.

Left unanswered and unanswerable, were equally weighty imponderables: Wasn’t Hitler and the Holocaust conditions precedent for the realisation of the Promised Land? Without both and collective global guilt, Israel might not have been created.

And, didn’t Einstein contribute to the atomic bomb (which, to his credit, he later condemned), but which nonetheless, holds the capacity for the annihilation of the human race?

Mandela, widely cited for the honour, didn’t succeed partly because of the logic cited above. Other African leaders — Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Mobutu Sese Seko, Gamal Abdel Nasser and so on — were not mentioned. Pleading the case for some of this cast could be problematic. But why not Nyerere?

Time’s audience is global and preponderantly western. Does Mandela project some traits more aligned to western values than Nyerere? The answer to this question should illuminate the West’s enchantment with Madiba and its sincerity. (Mandela’s 90th birthday was more of a celebration in the West than in Africa.)

Nyerere was idealistic. So is Mandela: 27 years incarceration breeds bitterness, hopelessness and vengefullness, not forgiveness, humility and a sense of accomplishment. Vacating power within one term was his most potent fealty to the ideals of freedom and universal franchise. Having achieved these, he saw no utility in power. This is lofty, saintly or sagacious inclination.

Nyerere too attempted, but, failed, on a social-economic experiment. His idealism was marked by commitment to human liberation, equality and equity. He created a true nation state.

Mandela was incarcerated, figuratively, by the West and only physically by the Boers. Without the West’s diplomatic, commercial and military support, the Boer State and apartheid would not have lasted as long. Thus, Mandela was a prisoner of the West. But the West now idolises and dotes on him after, a decade ago, changing its mind and forcing his release.

Hero worship

Nyerere and Mandela have a lot in common. Both were idealistic, charismatic and loved. Both were principled, noted for real humility and voluntarily vacated power. Yet only one attracts adulation from the West. The inquisitive mind must ask: ‘Why?’

The West, in adulating Mandela, is not celebrating his courage, vision, endurance, temperance or exemplary governance. Yes, it finds these attractive but different groups in the West react to different impulses.

To the black diaspora, hero-starved since Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr and so on, Mandela fills a craving for a hero of common identity. This community has endured embarrassment and guilt by historical association, from Africa and its litany of horrors. Mandela, somehow elevates and redeems the continent and, in his reflected afterglow, themselves.

To the dominant class interests in the West, Mandela’s magnanimity and secular sainthood ensure security and prosperity for kith and kin in Africa. Protesting affection for a native son is also good for the soul, especially in light of the rapacious slave trade. They do so out of unconscious guilt.

The adulation for Mandela is insincere and hypocritical. His obviously towering character is only expedient, ephemeral, unanchored on anything historic or philosophical; much like he were a rock or Hollywood star.

The writer is a lawyer and management consultant.