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Kenya’s three-pronged impact on Mandela’s legacy

Saturday December 14 2013

The Dedan Kimathi statue on Kimathi Street,

The Dedan Kimathi statue on Kimathi Street, Nairobi, is decorated with miniature flags and [email protected] flyers as the country prepares to celebrate 50 years of independence this month. The highlight of the Silver Jubilee celebrations will be marked at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi, where the Union Jack went down and the Kenyan flag went up on December 12, 1963. PHOTO : Phoebe Okall | NATION. 

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Power is about making strategic connections. Kenya’s influence on Nelson Mandela’s legacy is one such axial connection.

When President Uhuru Kenyatta asked Kenyans to observe a minute’s silence in honour of the freedom icon during the 50th anniversary fete, he nearly linked Kenya to Africa’s greatest moral and intellectual lessons to the world.

But he shied away from boldly calling in Kenya’s publicly acknowledged intellectual and political debts owed by the world’s most celebrated freedom fighter and one of the greatest moral icons of the 20th Century.

Uhuru travelled to Johannesburg for Mandela’s national memorial service. But he would have ended up as yet another “statistic” of the over 100 African and world leaders who attended the service.

But President Kenyatta was one of three African personalities — including presidents Barack Obama and Robert Mugabe — who received a standing ovation from ordinary South Africans in the 95,000-capacity stadium.

President Kenyatta was not listed to talk. But the cheers after his name was mentioned by Deputy President of the African National Congress (ANC), Cyril Ramaphosa, drew extraordinary attention to him, with the crowd speaking of him as a man after the pan-African mantle.


In hindsight, it is safe to surmise that if Uhuru was given the chance to speak, he would most probably have not re-asserted Kenya’s influence on Mandela.

Yet, although Mandela had numerous political and intellectual mentors, it was from Kenya’s founding fathers that he imbibed the most exquisite of ideas about pan-Africanism — emancipatory violence and post-colonial politics of “forgiveness” — now the mark of his legacy.

Kenya’s influence on the Mandela legacy sits on three legs and spans over three historical phases.

The first leg is pan-Africanism. Kenya’s intellectual legacy on Mandela begins with the classic novel A Wreath for Udomo by Mandela’s countryman, Peter Abrahams, conceived around Jomo Kenyatta and Kwame Nkrumah who were among the key organisers of the seminal Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945.

The conference defined principles of pan-Africanism as African nationalism, socialism, and continental unity, which galvanised Mandela to work to transform the ANC from “a body of gentlemen with clean hands” to a mass liberation movement.

Kenya’s most profound impact on Mandela, however, was on the ideology of liberation. Like Jomo Kenyatta, Mandela initially pursued Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of a non-violent resistance or “soul force”.

Dedan Kimathi

But Mandela turned to Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi and the Mau Mau for inspiration, appalled by the grisly killing of 69 people during the Sharpeville massacre on March 21, 1960.

He formed a Mau Mau-style armed wing of the ANC known as Umkhonto We Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation) and launched a guerrilla war.

Mandela was also captured. But he was luckier than his spiritual mentor who was captured, hanged and buried in an unmarked grave. He was jailed for life in 1964, of which he served 27 years.

“In my 27 years of imprisonment, I always saw the image of fighters such as Kimathi, China and others as candles in my long and hard war against injustice,” Mandela told thousands of Kenyans gathered at Kasarani Stadium in 1990.

Believing that it “is an honour for any freedom fighter to pay respect to such heroes,” Mandela embarrassed former President Daniel arap Moi when he publicly asked to be taken to pay his respects at Kimathi’s grave.

Mandela expected a towering liberation figure like Kimathi to have a stately mausoleum extolling the values of sacrifice to the cause of freedom.

But he discovered, sadly, that there was neither a mausoleum nor a grave of Kimathi to see (and he could also not pay his respects to Kimathi’s widow, Mukami).

But Mandela’s tribute opened the flood-gates for Mau Mau’s rehabilitation. For four decades, like Mandela, Kimathi and other Mau Mau fighters were officially classified as “terrorists.” After Mandela’s speech, Kimathi became an icon of Kenya’s “Second Liberation” in the 1990s.

Civil society launched the “February 18 (Kimathi) Movement” honouring the day Kimathi was executed on February 18, 1957. On December 11, 2006, former President Mwai Kibaki unveiled Kimathi’s statute on Nairobi’s Kimathi Street.

As Mandela is laid to rest, Kenya owes him a debt to give his political and spiritual mentor a decent burial and possibly a mausoleum for posterity.

The third leg of Kenya’s impact on Mandela’s legacy is “forgiveness.” The ideology of “forgiveness” made Kenyatta and Mandela birds of a feather.

In the 1960s, Kenyatta used “forgiveness” to broker a non-retributive transition from colonial despotism and autarchy to independence and democracy.

Similarly, Mandela used ‘forgiveness” to negotiate South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy.

However, a rising global tide of a brazen “eye-for-an-eye” type of justice, buoyed by the International Criminal Court (ICC), is effectively rolling back and eclipsing Kenyatta’s and Mandela’s legacy of “forgiveness.”

In an interview by Al Jazeera TV on November 22, 2013, Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, poignantly noted that if there was an ICC in 1994 at the end of the apartheid era and South Africa was asked to surrender apartheid President Frederik Willem de Klerk to The Hague, South Africa would have refused.

“We would never have agreed that justice must trump this — even though we agreed that apartheid was a crime against humanity,” Mbeki said.

Prof Kagwanja is the Chief Executive of the Africa Policy Institute. [email protected]