When Mandela Clashed with Moi over the Mau Mau

Article excerpt

Nelson Mandela was inspired by the gallant struggle put up by the Mau Mau in Kenya to defeat colonial rule. But, as Wanjohi Kabukuru reports from Nairobi, when Mandela visited in July 1990 intending to see the grave of the Mau Mau's legendary leader, Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi, and pay respect to the man he considered his hero, the Kenyan government, then under President Arap Moi, stopped him. Mandela went back home disappointed.

WHILE A LOT HAS BEEN SAID ABOUT Nelson Mandela's 27-year incarceration, his freedom struggle and guiding a racially divided South Africa from the ugly spectre of apartheid to a "rainbow nation", little has been mentioned about what influenced him. On 11 July 1990, Mandela arrived in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and was immediately whisked to Nairobi Hospital, suffering prom a bout of pneumonia.

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He was on his way to attending the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Before the summit, Mandela had been visiting Europe where he contracted a cold. Two days later, a stronger and healthier Mandela threw away all diplomatic niceties and revealed what inspired his core beliefs as a freedom fighter.

His main reason for visiting Kenya was to pay homage to the Land Freedom Army (LFA), best known as the Mau Mau, which had waged a bloody liberation war against the British between 1952 and 1963. Mandela had been drawn to Kenya by three aspects of the Mau Maw One, he wanted to visit Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi's grave; two, he wanted to see Kimathi's widow, Mukami Kimathi; and three, he wanted to meet the former Mau Mau commander, General China (real name Waruhiu Itote).

His host, President Daniel Arap Moi. and his aides were embarrassed beyond words at Mandela's request. Moi openly opposed the Mau Mau through his entire political life. But at a public rally held at the Moi International Sports Complex in Kasarani, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Mandela stung Moi with his searing comments: In my 2.7 years of imprisonment. I always saw the images of fighters such as Kimathi, China and others as candles in my long and hard war against injustice. It is an honour for any freedom fighter to pay respect to such heroes."

President Moi would never forget that day--13 July 1990. Field Marshall Kimathi's often-quoted statement, "It is better to die on our feet than live on our knees for fear of colonial rule", seems to have inspired Mandela as he discarded diplomatic etiquette on that day. Mandela was angry that the Kenyan government, calling the nation independent, would ignore and actually banish the collective memory of the very heroes who made the country a beacon to other liberation movements across the globe. For his parr, Moi was livid too. A week earlier, he had ordered a massive crackdown on pro-reform activists who were agitating for a re-introduction of multi-party democracy in the country. Indeed it was Mors worst week as Mandela disclosed his inspiration from the Mau Mau.

Mandela's homage was not simply making a show and neither had he just decided to admire the Mau Mau and Field Marshall Kimath i for reasons of political expediency. While Moi and his aides assumed that Mandela was out to humiliate the Kenyan president, the truth is that Mandela's admiration for the Mau Mau started long before he was incarcerated at Robben Island.

The former intelligence chief of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK), Ronnie KasriLs, gives a glimpse of what inspired Mandela during the difficult years. …