Genocide by Sloth: Peter Mandelson, Visiting Durban, Finds Nelson Mandela Moving into the Front Line of "The Real War" against Aids, despite His Successor's Reluctance to Act

Article excerpt

I have never addressed an audience of whom I had so little knowledge. I tend to overprepare my speeches, anticipating the sea of minds I am peering into.

This night in Durban, in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal Province, was no exception. I knew the gathering had been loosely assembled under the banner of the Young Presidents' Organisation, but that could cover a multitude of individuals, ages and races. Winston Churchill famously addressed a thronging Durban populace from the steps of the city hall; I did so at Marco's pasta and pizza restaurant. For a moment, my heart sank when I entered: packed to the rafters, the audience appeared to be a mixture of business round table, rugby club and works outing, plus wives. I have made unsuccessful forays into such functions before. The participants tend to be bored by politicians, slightly drunk and impatient for the stand-up comic to round off the evening with a string of sexual and lavatorial jokes.

What would these Durbanites make of a leftish, recently evicted British cabinet minister who had come to talk to them about their country, their continent and the world after 11 September?

The answer, I am relieved to say, was a lot more than I feared. South Africa, with its history of conflict, dignified and intelligent transition, and capable nation-building (not to mention the quality of its media), turns out to be unparochial and seriously interested in politics. And, thank goodness, not slow to laugh, either.

Many of the questions from my audience at Marco's reflected views I have encountered in other parts of the world: support for America; relief that al-Qaeda has been seen off (for now); anxiety about the lawlessness that inhabits the world; and concern that we are responding to the symptoms, rather than the causes of disorder. True, one man referred to a certain Jimmy Cricket on his shoulder who, apparently, was wondering whether it was right for Tony Blair to run around like President Bush's puppet.

The Prime Minister would have been proud of my response -- honest. Another man, a wealthy Muslim trader, said that 11 September was not a good thing in any way, but didn't I think that it had made the world sit up and take notice of things it had previously ignored? My feeling was that this question was suggesting that America had it coming for its past in difference, but I may be wrong. Later, I learnt that Durban has its own Bin Laden centre, directly funded by the man himself, which has only recently airbrushed his name from view.

Throughout the evening, most of the issues raised were about Africa. Didn't Britain have a colonial responsibility for what had gone wrong? Wasn't Robert Mugabe a direct product of our failed legacy? Were we serious about the new plan for Africa's development? Wasn't that, in any case, alot of rhetorical hot air?

All very good questions. My knowledge of Africa goes back to the early 1970s, when, on completing my A-levels, I shied away from Oxford's embrace and rerouted via northern Tanzania. I was inspired by the socialistic vision of Tanzania's founding president, Julius Nyerere: his was a caring philosophy which ensured that his nation was built on sound values if not sound economics.

Then the oil shocks of the 1970s rocked Africa, commodity prices plunged, and the continent wrestled with a huge debt overhang in the 1980s and beyond. Cynicism and corruption became hallmarks of its leaders, financial institutions failed, governance collapsed. Violent conflicts and genocidal behaviour have disfigured the continent since. No wonder African development urgently needs a new paradigm in order to recover.

My argument in Durban was that Africans have to lead Africa out of poverty. To those who say that Africa is hopeless, we say Africa matters, as the Prime Minister did earlier this month. But nobody can do Africa's work for it. Without proper governance and functioning institutions, the rule of law and a free press, no amount of overseas aid will succeed in lifting Africa. …