I’ve often said that the greatest gift Nelson Mandela gave to South Africa was to serve only one term. In doing so, he sent the message that he was not indispensible, that he was not country. Too many African leaders peddle the propaganda that the state will collapse without their omniscient and omnipotent wisdom. In ceding power, Nujoma, like Mandela, sent his countrymen the message that they live in a mature country that is not solely dependent on a single man.
The charismatic Nujoma has often been compared to Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe. They do share a few superficial traits. They both have publicly attacked gays, invoke anti-imperalist rhetoric whenever possible, have a great deal of charisma and are both former guerilla leaders. I believe they are friends.
But there are significant differences between the two. The main difference is that for his bellicose rhetoric, Sam Nujoma generally respected basic democratic norms and press freedom. There were no massacres in opposition heartlands, no mass arbitrary arrests, no use of food aid as a political weapon, no broad assault on the rule of law.
Another main difference is that SWAPO has evolved into an actual party that represents its membership and is not automatically beholden to its leader. In fact, there was a move by some to force through a constitutional amendment that would’ve allowed Nujoma to serve more terms as president. The party was independent minded enough to reject the effort. In Zimbabwe, ZANU-PF essentially remains an instrument of Mugabe.
Binga, Zimbabwe - The hungry children and the families dying of AIDS here are gut-wrenching, but somehow what I find even more depressing is this: Many, many ordinary black Zimbabweans wish that they could get back the white racist government that oppressed them in the 1970’s….
I well remember attending in Honolulu a pan-African celebration of Zimbabwe’s independence in April 1980, with a Christian Sudanese grad school colleague (since immigrated to the U.S.) and a Muslim Sudanese housemate, and listening without sufficient skepticism to an earnest African student telling me how one-party rule was the only way to deal with tribalism in a country like Zimbabwe. Well, at least Zimbabwe now has two major parties, a brutally persecuted opposition party and a ruling party of thugs. Is that progress?