By Frederick Golooba-Mutebi
I had just arrived in the UK for a seminar on yet another of the many vexed issues about Africa and its politics — state weakness and its implication for governance — when Nelson Mandela’s death was announced.
Momentary idleness had got me to switch on the telly to see what was on the news. Mandela, we all know, had been ailing and bedridden for a very long time prior to his passing.
The news therefore came as no surprise. Truth be told, the passing of an elderly person after much physical suffering induces a degree of thankfulness linked to the idea that at long last they have gone to rest. And so I took the news with the quiet acceptance of what had long been expected to happen anytime.
I had intended to switch off the telly quickly in the interest of catching up with much-needed sleep. But this was no time for rushing to bed.
I decided I would listen to the great and the good of British society whom the BBC had wheeled out to discuss what they remembered about the great, probably the greatest, icon of the struggle against apartheid and the racism that begot and drove it for nearly half a century.
It was all rather touching, the unity around how great Mandela was, and how much of a good fight he had fought. The easy consensus did put me off a little bit. I switched off.
Yes, Mandela was great, I kept thinking to myself. But how many of those eulogising him had always thought he was, I wondered.
Some familiarity with politics in Britain reminded me that there was more than merely a soupcon of hypocrisy in all the free-flowing eulogising that did not mention some of the things some of those who were talking wanted to leave hidden under the carpet.
It is well known that, with the exception of what many still call the “left,” the establishment in Britain was anti-ANC and anti-Mandela for a long time, and had no qualms about calling them terrorists and doing what they could to try and frustrate their efforts to dismantle racist rule in their country.
This attitude lasted until well after Mandela had been freed from prison. A telling example of the “esteem” in which he was held by some members of the British ruling class was the attempt to deny him entry into the British parliament, the House of Commons, during a visit in 1990, just months after his release.
He did eventually enter, thanks to efforts by his Labour Party supporters, but through the back door and, according to reports, was welcomed by a “guard of honour” made up of the cleaners who were generally black West Indians.
This and the knowledge that only recently an ANC stalwart and former anti-apartheid activist, Tokyo Sexwale, was held at an airport in the United States for no reason other than that his name is on a terrorist watch list dating from the days of apartheid, made me reflect on who was mourning and who was appearing to mourn Mandela’s passing, and why.
There are, of course, millions of black South Africans and many whites for whom he was the inspiration behind their hopes of one day living in a country free of enforced racial division and the oppression that accompanied it.
They are free today because of what he and the movement he led stood for, and for that they are eternally grateful.
And then the whites for whom the collapse of the apartheid system was a tragedy, but whose predictions of a post-apartheid genocidal revenge and seizure of white-owned property, mainly farms, never came to pass.
They may fear what will happen now that he is gone, but they remain grateful that while he lived they were the beneficiaries of compassion and forgiveness they must feel they had no right to expect.
Alongside them was much of the world out there, mainly the Western world where large numbers of white refugees would have fled had Mandela turned out to be a Idi Amin or a Robert Mugabe whose mass eviction of massively privileged and widely envied and hated non-indigenous groups conjured up images of what might happen but didn’t.
Lest we forget, the same Western world was home to millions of people of all races to whom, as to others in other parts of the world, the very idea of racial segregation and the affected racial superiority of some South African whites were simply offensive. For refusing to compromise with evil, Mandela earned their eternal respect.
And then there are the millions of Africans for whom the anti-apartheid struggle represented no less than the anti-colonial struggles that had freed them from domination by foreign elements.
But let’s face it; hiding among all these groups were those for whom public displays of solidarity with Mandela’s genuine fans was simply good PR, an opportunity to be seen to do the right thing, now that only the lunatic fringe would insist he was a terrorist.