As the ailing Nelson Mandela turned 95 this month, the international community celebrated his legacy and rooted for his recovery.
Just to the north in Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe, 89, is running for re-election this week. He’s looking to extend his 33 years in power, which have been marked by authoritarian rule, economic collapse and international isolation.
These two men have shaped their neighboring countries in dramatically different ways. Mandela is a global icon in a country often cited as a land of hope. Mugabe is a widely seen as pariah in a country that has endured a precipitous decline.
Their global reputations could hardly be more different. With both men in the news, we took a look at their legacies, and two things stand out.
First, before Mandela and Mugabe came to power, they had remarkably similar biographies. Second, neither South Africa’s successes under Mandela nor Zimbabwe’s failings under Mugabe were foregone conclusions.
First, the similarities between the two men. Martin Meredith, a British author who has written biographies of both men, sums them up this way:
“Both were born in an era when white power prevailed throughout Africa, Mandela in 1918, Mugabe in 1924. Both were products of the Christian mission school system, Mandela of the Methodist variety, Mugabe of the Catholic. Both attended the same university, Fort Hare in South Africa. Both emerged as members of the small African professional elite, Mandela a lawyer, Mugabe a teacher. Both were drawn into the struggle against white minority rule, Mandela in South Africa, Mugabe in neighboring Rhodesia. Both advocated violence to bring down white-run regimes. Both endured long terms of imprisonment, Mandela, 27 years, Mugabe, 11 years.”
Mugabe led a successful guerrilla campaign that led to the demise of white-ruled Rhodesia and he was inaugurated as the president of the newly independent nation of Zimbabwe in 1980.
Despite a civil war, the country was considered one of the most prosperous in Africa. It’s economy was still largely intact and its education system was considered one of the best on the continent. Western aid flowed into the country.
Peter Godwin, a white Zimbabwean, was attending university in Britain in 1980, but decided to return home, as did many of his friends living abroad.
“We thought Zimbabwe had a great future, and I went home determined to play a part in it,” says Godwin, who has written several books deeply critical of Mugabe’s rule, including The Fear in 2010. “We thought we would get past the war and the racial issues, and this would be a bold, new experiment that would succeed.”
In contrast, there was no such optimism in South Africa at that time. The country’s white leaders remained firmly entrenched. Mandela had been in prison for close to two decades and there was no sign his release was on the horizon.
His movement, the African National Congress, was banned in South Africa and operated from the sleepy city of Lusaka, Zambia, hundreds of miles from the South African border.
Gazing into the future from the vantage point of 1980, it would have been reasonable to predict that Zimbabwe had better prospects than South Africa.
But Martin, the British author, points to what he considers a crucial difference between Mandela and Mugabe.
“Whereas Mandela used his prison years to open a dialogue with South Africa’s white rulers in order to defeat apartheid, Mugabe emerged from prison bent on revolution, determined to overthrow white society by force. Military victory, said Mugabe, would be the ‘ultimate joy,'” Martin notes.
Once in power, Mugabe’s military waged a brutal campaign against a rival black movement in the early 1980s, leaving an estimated 20,000 dead and setting the tone for dealing with any group seen as a potential rival, says Godwin.
When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he negotiated with the country’s white leaders for four years to end apartheid. As the country’s first black president, he consistently preached national unity, sometimes to the point of irritating the country’s blacks, who felt he was too conciliatory.
And on a continent where many leaders rule until they are overthrown or die, Mandela served just one five-year term and then retired in 1999.
Mandela was lauded for this highly unusual move, for relinquishing power even though the South African constitution allows for a second term.
John Mattison, a former NPR correspondent in South Africa, later worked in Mandela’s administration. “I would meet with counterparts from other parts of Africa,” Mattison says, “and they would say, very emotionally, he deserved a second Nobel Prize for peace for stepping down because of the example it set in Africa, because so many people in Africa, even in government, are so frustrated that their leaders never step down. Once they get in, they stay. And he was very clear about the constitutional state he wanted to set up and be a precedent for.”
Mandela’s African National Congress has dominated the country since 1994 and has not faced the prospect of losing an election and handing over power. South Africa’s current leader, Jacob Zuma, is the country’s fourth black president since apartheid ended.
In contrast, the longer Mugabe has remained in power, the more authoritarian he has become, Godwin says.
“Mugabe has been absolutely consistent. From the very beginning, he realized he could get what he wanted through violence,” says Godwin, who now lives in New York and is president of the PEN American Center, the writer’s association.
Mandela and other South African leaders have rarely criticized Mugabe, arguing that quiet diplomacy is a better option. However, Mugabe has rarely held his tongue, and recently took a poke at Mandela.
“Mandela has gone a bit too far in doing good to the non-black communities, really in some cases at the expense of (blacks),” Mugabe was quoted as saying in South Africa’s Sunday Independent. “That’s being too saintly, too good, too much of a saint.”
Mugabe also defended his decision to run for another five-year term.
“My people still need me,” he said.
Zimbabwe votes on Wednesday, and Mugabe is heavily favored.