Signs of yellow streak near State House

In 1999, standing in the cell that Nelson Mandela occupied on Robben Island for all those years, I thought of Alexander Dumas' classic The Count of Monte Cristo who, like Mandela, spent time in prison for a wrong he had not committed.

In 1999, standing in the cell that Nelson Mandela occupied on Robben Island for all those years, I thought of Alexander Dumas' classic The Count of Monte Cristo who, like Mandela, spent time in prison for a wrong he had not committed.

As a rookie reporter, I was once assigned to look at the wire copy which included Reuters, United Press International and The Associated Press.

There were reams and reams of copy on The Rivonia Trial, in which Mandela was one of the accused. This was my first introduction to the man.

Young as I was, my conscience had already been rudely awakened to the extent of humankind's inhumanity to humankind: Southern Rhodesia had naked racism, yet from everything I had read and heard, the black people of South Africa lived a veritable hell on earth under the Boers, mabhunhu.

Mandela and others were on trial for challenging the mabhunhu. They became my instant heroes.

Mandela was the victim of a white man's cruelty to blacks whose land he had invaded to loot its natural wealth.

The presence of this stout-hearted man on every inch of the cell, including his bunk bed, was palpable. Had he thought of revenge, while he lay there night after night? Perhaps he had, perhaps he hadn't. We now know that, even if he had thought of scalping every Boer he could, he had decided he didn't have the stomach for it.

Perhaps every African who hates Mandela today hates him for that reason alone. He refused to avenge the torture, persecution and murder of his people by killing Boers, because it wouldn't bring them back and would hurl him, as a human being, into the same snake pit of inhumanity that they occupied as they butchered the Africans.

People who say Mandela should have stooped to revenge are yellow-bellied cowards: it takes enormous courage to forgive your enemy.

Zimbabwe, being land-locked, has nothing like Robben Island. Neither does it have a cell like Mandela's. Robert Mugabe was jailed by the racists, but not many people are invited to visit his former habitat, as part of a tour of historic spots connected to the liberation struggle.

This still doesn't detract from the heroism of some of the men and women interred at Heroes Acre in Harare. But it does illustrate a distinction between the two men, as Africans who confronted the enemy head-on.

Many would dwell on the intrinsic differences in the two struggles, yet it is difficult not to single out their individual response to their erstwhile oppressors' cruelty.

Mugabe pronounced reconciliation on the eve of independence. Yet he repudiated that pledge long before 2000 and the murder and plunder on the farms. The prelude to Gukurahundi, in which 20 000 died, was not, as it should have been, a period of jaw-jaw between PF-Zapu and Zanu-PF. The hiatus between peace and war was woefully brief.

It had all the hallmarks of a coward's way. If you append to that history the recent almost official vitriolic attack on the British for honouring Mandela with a statue in London, you begin to detect a yellow streak somewhere in the vicinity of State House in Harare.

l Bill Saidi is deputy editor of The Standard in Zimbabwe.

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