Madiba’s death offers a moment of reflection on Kenya- South Africa relations

By Juma Kwayera

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South Africa: One of the greatest and lifetime events this year was the death of the world’s iconic leader Nelson Mandela. This happened as Kenyans prepared to celebrate fifty years of independence momentarily disrupting the country’s grand bash.

Curiously, the Kenyan leadership has always had lukewarm and uneasy relationship with South Africa, since Mandela’s time in prison.

Successive regimes in Kenya treated Mandela as a peripheral personality and Pretoria has often reciprocated in kind by giving Nairobi a short shrift.

Such was lukewarm appreciation of Mandela by Nairobi that despite his iconic status in the world, Kenya is the only African country that has not erected a monument or named an institution in his honour.

The closest Kenya has come to acknowledge Mandela as an African hero was during Kenya@50 celebrations on December 12 at Safaricom Kasarani Stadium, Nairobi, when President Uhuru Kenyatta called for a minute of silence in honour of the fallen African giant.

Former detainee and Mandela admirer Koigi wa Wamwere is of the opinion that Kenya and other African countries ‘betrayed’ the need to make amends and appreciate Mandela’s contribution to Africa’s renaissance.

The cold diplomatic relations between the two countries sometimes take the form of tiffs, which on a number of occasions manifest at international forums where the two countries have been bitter rivals as was witnessed during the election of the chair of the African Union Commission. Kenya refused to support South Africa’s candidate Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, precipitating a stalemate that lasted more than six months till February.


In retaliation, it took long for South African President Jacob Zuma to accede to common African Union position to shield President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto from being arraigned in the International Criminal Court to stand trial.

Significantly, Zuma does not support calls for African countries to withdraw from the Rome Statute. He also postponed indefinitely a tour to Kenya in February to underline Pretoria’s displeasure with the East African nation’s ‘shabby’ treatment of Pretoria.

The cold relations between Pretoria and Nairobi were again on display when the master of ceremony and ANC Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa during the Madiba memorial service blithely acknowledged Kenyatta’s presence as “the Kenyan president is also here.”

It is on record that Mr Ramaphosa, regarded as President Zuma’s heir apparent, was embarrassingly forced out of Nairobi after the African Union seconded him to mediate between Party of National Unity and ODM following the 2007 disputed presidential election outcome. Ramaphosa had been picked because of the role he played in North Ireland peace settlement.

After Mandela was released from detention in 1990, one of the immediate international engagements was a round African trip to thank leaders, particularly of the ‘Casablanca Group’ led by Libya and ‘Frontline’ states led by Tanzania that supported ANC against apartheid.

Notably, he skipped Kenya, only returning later with express request to meet Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi’s widow Mukami, but which the Kanu leadership was reluctant to grant. When he met her, Mandela praised Dedan Kimathi, but took a swipe at Kenya leadership for not honouring their hero and subjecting his family to utter neglect.


In 1997, when transiting through Kenya, he declined to meet a delegation led by former Foreign Affairs minister Kalonzo Musyoka that had gone to meet him at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in transit from North Africa. His successor Thabo Mbeki was later to repeat the same, saying he could not disembark from the flight, saying he needed to sleep.

“This is the irony of it all. At present, it is the British government that is planning to erect a monument in honour of Mau Mau rebels. Even if we cannot apologise to Mandela, an expression of regret will do. We need to own up for our neglect of African heroes,” says former Imenti Central MP Gitobu Imanyara, who coincidentally had been detained on the day Mandela was meeting Dedan Kimathi’s widow.

It is against this backdrop that there are calls to President Kenyatta to ‘fix’ Kenya’s relations with South Africa by apologising for past “commission of omissions” or erect a monument or rename one of the major roads or institutions in the country in Mandela’s honour.

Short of this, they say, Kenya’s mourning of Madiba has ring of the proverbial of shedding crocodile tears.

Kenya has named roads and streets after founding presidents of African nations such as Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), Kenneth Kaunda ( Zambia), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Haile Selassie (Ethiopia), Patrick Lumumba or capital cities of their countries such Kinshasa, Dar es Salaam, Kampala, Lusaka, among others. The closest Kenya has come to identifying with South Africa is trough Soweto, a slum in SA’s commercial capital Johannesburg. Now Soweto is found in almost every major town in Kenya, and most such places are full of shanties.

Soweto was the citadel of the African National Congress (ANC) revolutionary activities and the place where apartheid extreme human rights abuse was experienced, hence its reverence as the enduring human spirit despite the odds.

“Even the countries that once labelled Mandela as a terrorist and ANC organisation have recognised Mandela as a global icon. When Bill Clinton came to power in 1992, the Democratic Party removed his name from the list of terrorists, followed by an expression of regret. Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labour party also did the same to a hero the Margaret Thatcher government had branded a terrorist,” says Mr Imanyara.

Perceptions that Kenya held Mandela in low esteem define the diplomatic engagement of the two governments. Pretoria’s perception of former presidents Jomo Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki governments is that of the governments that dined with the perpetrators of apartheid. At the time ANC was waging a guerrilla war against the white supremacist National Party, Nairobi had flourishing economic and diplomatic relations with conservative political parties in the West that propped apartheid.

It is against this backdrop that former political detainee Wamwere says Mandela’s death offers a moment for reflection Kenyan political elite. Speaking to The Standard on Sunday, Wamwere says Kenya and four other countries whose presidents treated Mandela shabbily owe the African hero a “serious apology”.


These are former Malawian President Kamuzu Banda, former Zairean (now DR Congo) President Mobutu Seseko, former Ivory Coast President Felix Houphouet-Boigny and Jomo Kenyatta undermined South African liberation the clutches of apartheid. The four countries traded with apartheid South Africa, which used to imported salt from Kenya.

The mistrust characterises the relationship between Nairobi and Pretoria was manifest in the aftermath of the 2008 post-election violence. Kibaki, whose re-election was in contestation, denied south Africana any mediation role.

Nairobi resisted the involvement of South Africans – Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Cyril Ramaphosa, both friends of Mandela – in the mediation on the basis they would be partial to Raila Odinga and ODM, whose leadership had longstanding working relationship with ANC.

Kibaki eventually caved in to international pressure to allow retired South African Judge Johann Kriegler to chair the Independent Elections Review Commission that probed the 2007 disputed presidential poll. In one of the interviews Justice Kriegler had with this writer he expressed shock at how Kenya had treated Mandela “shabbily” since his release from prison.

“We know in South Africa that Kenya does not hold Madiba in high esteem. We were lucky to have Mandela because without him, South African would be existing as an entity,” said Justice Kriegler.

According to Imanyara, Kenya did not identify with Mandela because during the Cold War era, it had aligned itself with the West, which was its main source of funding. Former Attorney-General Charles Njonjo made no secret of his links with South African apartheid leadership of the time and president Jomo Kenyatta’s personal doctor was a white South African.