Let’s not canonise Nelson Mandela – and let’s not demonise other African leaders

Barack Obama was in appropriately forgive-and-forget mood yesterday, shaking the hands of both Cuba’s Raul Castro and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as he attended a memorial service in Johannesburg for Nelson Mandela.

Such was the Mandela feelgood factor that these were proper handshakes too, not one of those sneaky ones where Mugabe wanders up from the sidelines and pumps unsuspecting statemen’s hands like a dirty old uncle at a party.

But while Mr Obama basked in applause worthy of a successor to Mandela, yesterday was rather less fun for the real inheritor of that title,  Jacob Zuma.

The serving South African president found himself roundly booed by the audience, turning what was supposed to be sombre memorial service into a kind of Pop Idols for international heads of state.

True, Mr Zuma’s record isn’t terrific. Only a minority of South Africa’s black community have prospered under his time in office, and he himself has faced allegations of corruption, though never proven.

But watching the glib way this was reported yesterday was a reminder of the blinkered way the world still sees African leaders: either as unquestioned saints, like Mandela, or as nasty  ne’er do wells like Zuma.

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There is no in between, and seldom any recognition that as politicians go, these people have among the toughest briefs anywhere on the planet, where even the best efforts can seem mediocre.

Mandela, it should be remembered, was the exception to the rule in more ways than one. While clearly a statesman of rare skill, the apartheid system he dismantled was an obvious, glaring injustice, and a cause behind which the rest of the world could easily unite.

There are no such straightforward goals for his successors, who have the much knottier and longer term task of trying to push South Africa’s impoverished black community into genuine prosperity.

There are no clenched-fist style victories in that particular battle, just a long hard slog over which one has only limited control, with no shortage of grumblers saying that nothing like enough has been done.

But it isn’t just South African politicians who are excoriated for not living up to some impossible standard. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard leaders in Africa and other parts of the developing world lumped together as corrupt, selfish brutes, whose governments let down the fine, decent people they serve.

If only it were that easy. The reality, as I have seen from numerous reporting trips through Africa and the Middle East, is that to expect clean government in very poor countries is to expect miracles that really would be worthy of  sainthood.

Take official corruption, for example. This is rightly taken very seriously in the West, where taking back-handers or doling out jobs to cronies is fairly rare these days. What we forget, though, is that in lands with very weak economies, a position in government can be one of the few decent jobs around, and is therefore far more highly-coveted than, say, being a clerk in a town hall in Britain.

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Especially if one has a sideline in taking backhanders for fast-tracking bureaucratic procedures, which, again, is pretty much a way of life in many such places. Sadly, in countries where there has traditionally never enough of the state pie for everyone, the temptation is to grab what one can, when one can.

So when new ruler comes comes in – let’s call him Leader A – it doesn’t matter how much rhetoric he spouts about fighting corruption. There will still always be pressure to dole out government positions to party loyalists – not so much a “jobs for the boys” culture as a “jobs for everyone” culture. And if there aren’t enough to go around, then a few extra ministries may just have to be created.

Fine, one might say. If Leader A is really serious about tackling corruption, he”ll have the guts to put a stop to all that. But it isn’t necessarily that simple. Doing so may risk alienating his support base, and in unstable, coup-prone countries, this can lead to more than just a few grumbles among the backbenchers.

Equally, many of the people on the state payroll may be acolytes of the provincial warlord with whom Leader A has just brokered a fragile peace. If he wants to stand up for his anti-corruption principles now, fine. But that nasty local insurgency might just kick off again.

Of course, this is not to suggest that Leader A should not at least try to tackle corruption, or that he may do a better job  than leader B, who uses his time in office to buy Ferraris and Paris flats. But we should acknowledge that corruption – in developing countries anyway – reflects not just the people in government, but the countries they rule over.

Take Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, for example, who is constantly being taken to task by his Western backers for failing to rein in corruption. What exactly did the West think would happen, though, when it tried a rebuild a dirt-poor country with a history of strong tribalism and virtually no concept of central government?

Blaming President Karzai for that is like blaming him for fact that Afghanistan is mountainous. The problems come with the territory, and sorting them out is a project that takes decades, well beyond any one individual’s normal term of service (although that may explain why some of the better leaders, as well as some of the worst, are reluctant to give up power).

So next time you hear an African leader booed as a corrupt, incompetent idiot, bear in mind some of the very real obstacles they face. For the easiest possible way to ignore the underlying problems is to blame it all on the people at the top.

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