by Mario EVANS
Too many places on the continent continue to ignore his message.
Last week, a radio talk show on WNYC (a member of NPR) in New York City encouraged listeners who were immigrants or visitors from Africa to call in and share their views on ‘Nelson Mandela’s Pan-African impact’.
Before the calls came in, the host Brian Lehrer interviewed Jami Floyd (starts at 3:30 in theaudio), a Clinton White House aide who had met Mandela in person. Floyd started out strongly and did a nice job conveying for the audience her sense of awe at meeting the great man. To her credit, she also stressed the importance of the South African constitution as “a fine document, a beacon to the world of democracies”.
Lehrer then dipped briefly into a Chris Matthews-esque moment and wanted to know what it was like to be in the same room with Mandela. Floyd graciously gave him what he wanted by assuring him most emphatically that although she had met scores of “presidents, secretaries of states, leaders of other countries etc., luminaries from so many fields, I can honestly say that none of them compares to Nelson Mandela”.
So far, the show was going as expected. Lehrer clearly thought so when he thanked her with: “What a great contribution to our show today.”
Then followed the less great contributions.
Starting at minute 9:00, a handful of people called in. One was from Liberia and Kenya, another from Uganda, others from Nigeria, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. They all had warm words of praise for Mandela and were grateful on a personal level for the way he had inspired them and given them hope.
But about the ‘Pan-African impact’, the feedback was perhaps not what Lehrer was expecting. At minute 10:50, Audrey from Liberia said that “the model that Mr. Mandela set out for many African leaders has not been followed…” Lehrer interrupted her and dispatched her gently.
You can say that again, Audrey. Sudan, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Rwanda, Congo and now the Central African Republic. And many others.
A caller from Ethiopia was even more vocal at minute 14:30. “Unfortunately”, he said with palpable frustration, “Mandela’s preaching of reconciliation and forgiveness was not learned by African brutal dictators. All over the place…” and then he named the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur “during Mandela time”, Somalia, Ethiopia.
Lehrer sounded crestfallen after this “reality bites” sort of tirade. In the closing comments, he rescued the show from its downward spiral by directing the audience to a column by a Malawi political activist which seems to have been the inspiration for the show’s topic.
Clearly, there is some dissonance between the unqualified adoration coming from the American media, and the reality on the ground for a large majority of the African population. One wants to talk about feelings and symbolism and inspiring words. The other is distressed by continuing genocide, civil war, poverty and corruption.
Just last week, one day before Nelson Mandela’s death, Christian fighters in the Central African Republic, wielding rifles and machetes, attacked Muslim neighborhoods in the capital Bangui and left nearly 100 dead. Muslim ‘Seleka’ rebels had previously gone “door to door with machetes, bludgeoning their victims and burning down scores of homes.”(AP report)
For most Africans outside of South Africa, yes, Mandela was a great man but, so far, more an inspirational figure than an effective agent of change.
Yet, his impact on Africa may grow after his death. These are the words he spoke in 1964:
This is the struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society, in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But, if needs be, my Lord, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
His message of freedom, tolerance and peace must be carried throughout Africa. His legacy will be measured not by the feel-good emotions his memory evokes on American campuses but by how quickly Africa improves in the decades ahead.
You can listen to the entire radio segment here.