President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and the late veteran South African leader, Nelson Mandela belong to an illustrious club of Pan-African leaders who ushered in the current political dispensation based on self-rule. These men are respected all over Africa for their sacrifices, with President Mugabe having spent at least 11 years behind bars and Mandela, a lengthier 27 years. However, the men have also criticised each other resulting in rumours that there is more to their story than meets the eye. Recently, President Mugabe made comments that incensed the South African ruling party resulting in a diplomatic spat. The question that has arisen is: Was there a guarded, secret feud between Mugabe and Mandela? Even more importantly now after Mandela’s passing, is Mugabe jealous of Mandela’s legacy?
A History of Public Spats
Speaking to then French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, the late Mandela said of Mugabe, “Before I was released from prison, he was the most popular African leader in this area, but when I was released the media said this is the end of Mugabe from the point of view of popularity. In fact, he himself didn’t want me to come out of jail.”
In 2010, Mandela took another dig at Mugabe saying, “We have seen the outbreak of violence against fellow Africans in our own country and the tragic failure of leadership in our neighbouring Zimbabwe.”
For his part, President Mugabe has also fired shots at Mandela’s legacy even post his death. In a 2013 interview with Dali Tambo for the show, People of the South, Mugabe said, “Mandela has gone a bit too far in doing good to the non-black communities, really in some cases at the expense of [blacks]… That is being too saintly, too good, too much of a saint.”
His attack was not the last. Recently, Mugabe took the word war a level up saying, “What was the most important thing for [Mandela] was his release from prison and nothing else. He cherished that freedom more than anything else and forgot why he was put in jail.” The Zimbabwean leader also said he had been in South Africa recently and talked to a minister in President Zuma’s government who replied, “Ask your friend, Mandela,” to a question Mugabe asked concerning the unfair distribution of wealth in South Africa. This was not the end of the matter. Mugabe went on to claim Mandela excluded everyone from participating in negotiations about the future of South Africa.
“Look at what he produced. Is this what they agreed upon with the whites? Mandela believed to be equal with the whites and made the biggest mistake of forgetting the land issue. They [whites] are in control of land, industries and companies, and are now the employers of the blacks. These blacks have failed to liberate themselves from white supremacy, all because of what Mandela did.”
Though this seems like overwhelming proof of a feud wrapped under the diplomatic veil for a very long time, the Zimbabwean leader categorically said he had no feud with Mandela. In fact, President Mugabe even called Mandela a champion of the oppressed in his condolence message in December 2013 when Mandela died yet four years later, he is blaming that very champion for the blacks’ failure to liberate themselves from white supremacy. Was the Mugabe condolence message just another chapter of diplomatic niceties and the traditional scattering of roses at funerals?
There is a strong case to be made for the existence of this feud but at the end of the day, all we have is conjecture. The feud would make for great headlines but what is certain is the fact that these two African leaders were not afraid to criticise each other as well as learn from each other. No leader is infallible; Mugabe and Mandela taught us as much!