In DepthColumnsTriumphs and tragedy


Posted on Monday, 26 May 2014 17:01

Triumphs and tragedy

Patrick Smith

World-weary pundits rapidly revised their narrative of a new Africa in the time of Mandela.


Ohlange High School, Inanda, KwaZulu-Natal, 27 April 1994. It was a day of change. Hundreds of us journalists left Durban at four in the morning on buses laid on by the African National Congress (ANC) to Inanda to see Nelson Mandela vote for the first time.

He cast his ballot at a school built by John Langalibalele Dube, the founding president of the ANC. Afterwards, Mandela walked across to Dube's grave beside the school: "Mr President, I have come to report to you that South Africa is free today."

On that election day, hopes could hardly be higher. Decades of struggle against apartheid were followed by an uneasy and sometimes violent interregnum while the ANC and National Party negotiated a transition to free elections.

Two weeks later, the world watched Mandela speak at his inauguration in Pretoria: "The time to build is upon us [...] We commit ourselves to the construction of a complete, just and lasting peace."

Visiting correspondents had scarcely voiced their homilies to camera about the victory of democracy when news started breaking of one of the worst bouts of slaughter since the Second World War.

Correspondents flocked to Kigali where the shooting down of President Juvénal Habyarimana's plane on 6 April had been the signal for death squads to start a genocide.

As recently launched 24-hour news stations showed hideous footage of mass murder, world- weary pundits rapidly revised their narrative of a new Africa in the time of Mandela. Yet those triumphs and tragedy in the same month started a new chapter in Africa.

South Africa's hard-won

Liberal constitution, its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and its promotion of women's rights set standards across the world. Its capital and technology helped to drive Africa's economic expansion, quite apart from the social transformation of South Africa itself.

Lessons have not been acted on after Rwanda. Britain, the United States and France jointly drafted a UN resolution to withdraw peacekeepers from Rwanda at the height of the killing spree.

A decade after the genocide, the UN General Assembly agreed on a 'Responsibility to Protect'.

Yet this year the death toll in Syria's civil war passed 100,000 without any sign of intervention, and we hear how UN and AUforces in Sudan's Darfur and the Central African Republic have been palpably unable to protect civilians.

The lessons learned go beyond UN resolutions to public policy.

As Donald Kaberuka, Rwanda's former finance minister and now president of the African Development Bank, points out this month: "High-quality education is the surest way to stop the transmission of poverty between generations. I was born in a refugee camp, and now I'm running a bank."

On that, Kaberuka and the ANC's president Dube would surely have found common ground, along with Ghana's star architect David Adjaye and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

In their different ways they represent an Africa in the making. ●

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report. He has edited the political and economic insider newsletter Africa Confidential since 1992 and was associate producer on a documentary about the 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea commissioned by Britain's Channel 4 television.


Subscriptions Digital EditionSubscriptions PrintEdition










Music & Film



Keep up to date with the latest from our network :


Connect with us