Butcher, Baker, Dictator, Liberator

Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the former president of Zimbabwe, has died at age 95 in Singapore, while receiving medical treatment there over the past few months. Just as he was in life, Mugabe in death is a highly controversial political figure, with a legacy that is as much celebrated as castigated, as much praiseworthy as unworthy.

Among leaders of various nations, Mugabe’s credentials as a freedom fighter are being touted and memorialized as part of the wave of independence of African nations from European colonialism during the last century. “Under President Mugabe’s leadership, Zimbabwe’s sustained and valiant struggle against colonialism inspired our own struggle against apartheid and built in us the hope that one day South Africa too would be free,” Cyril Ramaphosa, the current South African president, said upon Mugabe’s passing.

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Hamba Kahle to a South African Son

Hamba kahle in the Xhosa and Zulu languages of South Africa is a commonly expressed heartfelt wish for a deceased person to “go well” on their spiritual journey in the Great Beyond. Another commonly heard English phrase at South African funerals is that someone “ran a good race” during his/her lifetime on Earth, having lived a life worthy of praise.

Such terms of endearment are among the many now being expressed throughout South Africa for renowned musician Johnny Clegg, who passed away at his home in Johannesburg a few days ago at the all-too-young age of 66. He had succumbed to pancreatic cancer.

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One Hundred Years of Madiba

Nelson Mandela, in his lifetime, had a way of getting people’s attention. Whether it was living up to his African childhood name of Rolihlahla — “one who shakes the tree” or stirs up trouble — or serving as the first chief of a liberation army connected to his political party, the African National Congress, or going to prison for nearly three decades for his beliefs, or emerging from that prison hell to become the first elected president of a free and democratic South Africa, he commanded people’s attention and could not be ignored.

The same holds true in death. Mandela died at age 95 in December 2013, but less than five years later, South Africa and the world this year are celebrating the centenary of Madiba, the tribal clan name by which most South Africans affectionately know Mandela, their beloved former leader.

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Playing the Soundtrack of Our Lives

There are many contemporary musical artists around whose work touches us deeply, inspires us, motivates us, tells our life stories in their lyrics and songs. We think of them as playing the soundtrack of our very lives.

A select few musicians in the world, though, rise to the status of soundtrack-makers for entire cultures, peoples and nations. Hugh Masekela, the South African jazz trumpeter who passed on recently at the age of 78, is among that highly regarded level of musical giants. His music was the soundtrack of a nation-in-the-making, South Africa, and spoke directly to countless numbers of people around the globe, especially in the African diaspora.

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No Necktie for a Dictator

It was January 1990 and here I was at a conference center in Harare, the capital city of the southern African nation of Zimbabwe, sniffing around for some kind of a good story I might report at a high-level, ministerial meeting of British Commonwealth nations — a gathering of sovereign countries, like Zimbabwe, that still bowed down and answered to their former colonial master, the United Kingdom, out of economic necessity and survival. Nothing much happening here, I thought, and I was just about ready to leave the boring governmental event empty-handed.

Then, luck of all luck, I spied over in an isolated corner of the lobby of the conference center a VIP greeting the occasional straggling guest. But it was not just any old VIP. It was Robert Gabriel Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, who had just delivered the welcoming speech.

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Castro’s Most Enduring Legacy: An African Story

Say the words “Cuito Cuanavale” to the average American citizen, liberal and conservative alike, and you’re likely to get a shrug and a blank stare in response. Add the name “Fidel Castro” to that phrase and you’ll instantly notice a nervous tick in their squinting eyes. Dare to throw the word “hero” into the mix and you’ll see a definite jerking motion in their knees and a reddening in the face.

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The Long Morning after Mandela

Today, 5 December, marks exactly one year since the passing of former South African president Nelson Mandela at age 95. In death, as in life, Mandela — arguably the greatest statesman of our time — seems to have left his own special mark on the world, and he most certainly has not been forgotten.

Has it really been one year already? These past 12 months have sped by, almost like they were one long morning after Mandela’s final rest. And who could ever forget the dramatic scenes we saw coming out of South Africa in the world’s media back then?

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It was Twenty Years Ago Today...

Millions of people lined up for miles and miles over the course of three days in late April 1994, many of them voting for the first time in their lives in their country’s first democratic elections — who can forget such images?

The whole world seemed to hold its collective breath as it watched South Africa take its first steps away from the brutal apartheid racial segregation polices of the preceding 48 years (and from centuries of European colonialization of southern Africa before that) and into a new era of liberation and freedom.

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Mandela, the Man and the Myth

As we celebrate the life and times of the late Nelson Mandela in this website’s special tribute edition, it is perhaps appropriate to balance out the high honor and respect I hold for Mandela and his elevated place in world history (and in my life personally) with a few thoughts on Mandela the man vs. Mandela the myth.

As Nelson Mandela often told the story in his lifetime: When he was preparing to come out of prison in 1990 after 27 long years, his biggest worry was that the public would see him as what he called a “demigod” — someone who was saintly, morally perfect and closer to God than the rest of us. He wanted the people of South Africa and the world to see him not that way, but rather as an ordinary man with faults and problems of his own who was struggling like everyone else.

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A Mandela Moment (2)

Those who are honored to have met the late Mr. Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, always seem to take special pride in their particular Mandela Moment, a memory that remains with them for a long time.

My first such Mandela Moment took place on 28 October 1990, a Sunday, when I had a chance to shake hands with the great man at a welcoming rally in Osaka, Japan just a few months after Mandela, then-deputy president of his party, the African National Congress (ANC), had been released from 27 years in South African prisons.

My second Mandela Moment a few months after that was just as memorable, if not more memorable, than the first one.

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