Mandela vs. Mugabe: A Contrast in African Heroes

04/25/2013 04:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2013

Former South African president Nelson Mandela, affectionately known as Madiba, has recently struggled significantly with his health, including suffering multiple multi-day hospital stays. Messages of support have poured in from across the world, as the 94-year-old icon weakens.

Mandela is deeply loved and adored throughout the world. His fight against Apartheid, culminating with his inspirational journey to become South Africa's first black president after 27 years of incarceration in the notorious Robben Island prison, is the modern day hero's journey. He is an inspiration to millions, and having lived in South Africa for the past five years, the respect for Mandela is the only subject that the rainbow nation of South Africa agrees upon.

As a native Zimbabwean currently working as household help in South Africa, the man inspires me greatly: his childhood struggles as a rural boy under Apartheid, the determination he had to make a difference in his country, and his infinite desire to forgive all who wronged him and the country, are invaluable principles for every young African man to follow.

I can remember vividly in 1994, as a 10-year-old primary school boy, listening to our rural school headmaster excitedly tell us that Nelson Mandela has been elected as first black South African president. At the time, my own country of birth, Zimbabwe, was enjoying its 14th year as an independent republic, with scars of the liberation struggle slowly coming to a healing. Robert Mugabe was already a veteran President, but still loved throughout the country. The economy was rapidly growing, and Zimbabwe was fast becoming the breadbasket of Africa, a model that South Africa could only aspire to reach.

Fast-forward five years, to 1999. South Africa's economy was one of the fastest-growing in the world, and its people who had only known true independence for five years, were far better off than their peers in Zimbabwe. Nelson Mandela needed only five years to set South Africa on a path to fully recovery. In those five years, he worked tirelessly to unite a nation deeply divided on racial lines. He dedicated his only term in office to build bridges between races that many thought were burnt beyond repair. He worked to emancipate the downtrodden and calm the hearts of the black majority, who had been viciously oppressed by the Apartheid regime and itched to revenge their sufferings. Mandela made hearts that were once so filled with anger embrace forgiveness. In so little time, he accomplished more than most African leaders do in decades.

As Nelson Mandela retired, leaving South Africa on solid footing, his Zimbabwean counterpart was on the verge of setting my birth-country in the very opposite direction. In 2000, he began a policy of land redistribution that destroyed the Zimbabwean economy, and he has ruled with a dictatorial hand, crushing those that raise any opposition to his ruling. The Zimbabwean economy has collapsed, largely because of his policies. I have been forced to move to South Africa, far from family and friends, and doing all I can to make ends meet, largely because of these policies.

I have often wondered where Zimbabwe would be today had President Robert Mugabe been half the man and leader as Nelson Mandela. Only nine years ago, in 2004, a continent-wide poll conducted by the New African found that Mandela was the most beloved African in the continent's history. Mugabe was number three. Now, however, the two men today are spoken about in extremely contrasting terms. Mugabe represents the lesson of how power can irrevocably corrupt a once admired hero. On the other side, Mandela represents an example of how great statesmanship and forgiveness can be a catalyst to a quick national healing. Mugabe chose not to retire early, like Mandela, finding power too irresistible to relinquish. And when as a nation, we said we wanted change, it only motivated him to hold on even tighter.

Like every Zimbabwean I strongly support the idea of spreading the economic wealth of the country, so that it does not remain in the hands of the few, white or black. But I cannot imagine Nelson Mandela stubbornly insisting on doing something in a way that would in the end, hurt poor people. Mandela put people's welfare first in every decision he made. Mugabe stubbornly makes policies that fortify power, rather than helping people.

Mugabe and Mandela both were heroes when they led their respective countries out of colonial rule. But one followed a path of forgiveness and peaceful, setting his country on a stable path for generations to come. The other pursued spiteful agendas, as the lust for power overcame him. Millions of Zimbabweans, including me, now bear the scars.