AFRICANGLOBE – With the death of Nelson Mandela, Zimbabwe and Africa have lost a great elder statesman who was an iconic, larger than life personality whose influence on the world political stage cannot be overstated. Most Zimbabweans will remember Mandela as a statesman of great conscience and conviction and as someone who dedicated his life to the liberation of the country he loved — South Africa.
Additionally, many Zimbabweans saw Mandela as the universal standard bearer of Africa in its struggle for liberation, human rights and dignity.
As glowing and illuminating tributes pour in from around the world, Zimbabwe, too, is in grief for the man who was an unwavering standard bearer of Africa and a hero of the continent’s struggle against colonialism.
Strongest memories of Mandela and Zimbabwe when put into focus can be divided into the early formative years of the nationalist movement, peak period — banning and consolidative years of liberation movements, collaborative years of armed movements and the post-independent Zimbabwe “free South Africa” campaign as well as the stage in which Zimbabwe offered political, material and moral support to the protracted negotiations leading to the democratisation of South Africa.
When put into a historic perspective, the Mandela-Zimbabwe connection can be traced back to the time when President Mugabe and other prominent Zimbabwe nationalist figures attended Fort Hare University in South Africa almost at the same time with Mandela, Oliver Tambo and other ANC cadres in the 1940s.
Zimbabwe’s nationalist figures share so much in common with Mandela in this period as they all got in some way influenced by Marxism and pan-African ideals at Fort Hare.
Zimbabwe’s nationalist movement was to a greater part influenced by Kwame Nkrumah and the independence of Ghana in 1957 as well as to a measured extent by the events around the African National Congress in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Mandela just like Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo and other nationalist heroes, were past victims of oppressive minority regimes and had to face lengthy prison terms for their activism. Mugabe was jailed for 11 years by the minority Ian Smith regime while Mandela had to endure almost a third of his life — 27 years — in prison.
Both Mugabe and Mandela and their fellow comrades who also fall in the gallery of great African heroes are credited with playing key roles in bringing political independence to their countries and Africa in general.
At the peak of the independence war in the 1970s, Zimbabwe’s foremost armed liberation movements, Zanla and Zipra, also shared the same trenches with cadres from ANC’s Umkhonto weSizwe as well as the PAC’s armed wing.
During this period, liberation movements mobilised support from similar bodies and countries — the OAU, the UN, Cuba, China, Russia and other friendly nations across the world. They spoke the same language — freedom and liberation.
Burrowing through some archival material, Mandela on April 4, 1991, when he had been released from jail, said the Patriotic Front forged between Zanu and Zapu in 1976 was a huge lesson for him and South Africa to be drawn from.
“As in your struggle, we are confident that this unity will be forged and that it will make our victory certain,” he said.
Mandela praised Zimbabwe’s role in pressing since independence for unity of anti-apartheid forces in and outside South Africa.
Mandela said this when he came to Zimbabwe for talks with PAC leader Clarence Makwetu and his delegation.
And when Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980, President Mugabe and other Sadc leaders were at the forefront of an aggressive and sustained campaign to “Free Mandela” who was the conscience and beacon for a free South Africa.
On June 7, 1986, the University of Zimbabwe conferred Nelson Mandela and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere with an honourary Doctor of Laws (honoris causa). Mandela’s daughter Zenani received the award on behalf of her father.
Prof Walter Kamba, who was UZ Vice Chancellor at the time, said: “His more than 23 years in South African jails, coupled with his stubborn and unambiguous refusal to accept conditional release designed to compromise him and his party, have made Mandela a living legend.
“In the minds of many he is a great man, a hero and the intractable incarnation of the protracted struggle for freedom and liberty in South Africa and everywhere, a towering personality.
“This is Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s chair. But it stands empty because the wicked and inhuman hand of apartheid and its concomitant evil structure have cruelly denied us the physical presence of this illustrious son of Africa on this momentous occasion.”
This captured the “anti-apartheid” mood in Zimbabwe at the time and politicians, artistes, student activists and people in general were all mobilised and active in the “Free Nelson Mandela” campaign.
Mandela gained space and moral strength from Zimbabwe’s political experience at a time when a dark cloud hung over South Africa’s road to democracy. This is certainly something that cannot be taken away from Zimbabwe.
“The only compromise one could think of is something like what happened in Zimbabwe, where we are able to say we guarantee that so many seats will be held by whites,” Mandela said back then while considering guaranteeing white seats in parliament to allay white fears over majority rule.
Prior to the holding all-party talks in South Africa that paved way for the all-race elections in 1994, Zimbabwe was Mandela’s spring board and base where he made rigorous and extensive consultation with President Mugabe on the future of South Africa.
Zimbabwe which had gone through a similar and much rigorous experience opened doors for Mandela, something that gave him the confidence and resoluteness to confront the turmoil in his country.
In May 1991, Zimbabwe hosted a two-day meeting of the leadership of the ANC of “South Africa” and the PAC of “Azania” setting the stage for a conference that was expected to lead to the formation of a united front of all political factions fighting to overthrow the evil apartheid regime in South Africa.
A month earlier, leaders of the ANC and the PAC called on President Mugabe at State House to present him with the report of the two organisations two day national executive committee meeting.
Before 1994, Mandela shuttled between Harare and Johannesburg to make consultation and whenever he travelled to other countries in Africa and abroad, he would regularly make brief stop-overs to brief President Mugabe.