Who will be the next great African leader?

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JOHANNESBURG – Who will be Africa’s next Nelson Mandela?

It’s a question that is asked every July 18th, the birthday of the much-revered freedom fighter. Even at the age of 93, and with his health fading, his enduring ability to unite is evident on this day more than most. For his birthday wish, he has asked South Africans to spend a few minutes of their time helping their communities – painting schools, teaching children, tidying streets. So respected is Mandela, that millions of people will do precisely as he asks.

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It makes many wonder about the future: Who will be Africa’s next undisputed leader? Who could replace the moral void that Mandela will leave, one day?

It is often conflicts that produce great heroes – Mandela’s status emerged from years of racial segregation. So, perhaps the recent civil war in Ivory Coast has created legends of the future – after all, this was a war which was frequently portrayed as a simple battle between good and evil, the moral and the immoral.

The conflict broke out last year when former president Laurent Gbagbo lost the national elections but refused to leave office – at one point he locked himself into the presidential bunker. Gbagbo was ousted after months of bloodshed between his forces and those of the rightful president, Alassane Outtara. But just as the world appeared to anoint Outtara as a hero, prosecutors muddied the portrayal by claiming that some of his fighters might have committed war crimes during the post-election violence. Leaders who appear to be democratic heroes are often tainted by time.

At one point in history, Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe was widely seen as a freedom fighter; like Nelson Mandela, he embraced violence to overthrow white power. Of course, along the way those two men took different paths, to the point where their names came to have opposing definitions in the dictionary of democracy. To many, the suggestion that Robert Mugabe could become Africa’s great moral force will seem like a gruesome joke. Mugabe has presided over economic decline and political chaos – apparantly using fear and intimidation to crush his opposition.

Click here to view a slideshow of Nelson Mandela through the years

However, the dictator has supporters who believe that his anti-Western rhetoric is precisely what Africa needs to find its own voice on the international stage. Some claim that the era of Mandela politics – defined by reconciliation and unity – is over. But there are many, many more people in Africa who believe that Mugabe represents the very worst in despotic leadership.

Across the border, a prominent young politician who is often referred to as ‘South Africa’s Mugabe’ is increasingly being spoken of as a future president. Julius Malema is the 30-year-old leader of the youth wing of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela’s political party. According to some observers, he has the same fiery enthusiasm that was typical of the elder statesman during his angry youth.

Although Malema has many adoring supporters, he is loathed by large sections of the South African public – and mocked for his rottweiler approach. His reputation for controversy was enhanced by an angry exchange with a white British television journalist last year. When the reporter challenged him during a press conference, Malema had him thrown out of the room shouting: “Don’t come here with that white tendency.”

As the cameras rolled, he continued “If you’ve got a tendency of undermining blacks, even where you work, you are in the wrong place.”

Malema is no Mandela, according to his critics, of which there are many. He certainly divides opinion, rather than unites it.

Perhaps ‘the next Mandela’ has always been a Mandela. Mandla Mandela is the grandson of the former president, and has more than a passing resemblance; he may be seeking to emulate his legacy. A politics graduate, he has become a prominent politician and a tribal chief in the village where his grandfather was born. But some believe that he has little to offer South African politics apart from heritage and a famous surname; many claim that he has used that name to build a career in politics and business which he wouldn’t have had without it. He certainly does not have the inspirational aura and intellectual clout of Mandela Senior: But who does?

Perhaps the search for the new Mandela is an impossible one. Maybe the bar is set too high.

But few come closer than Kofi Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations. Through his campaigns against poverty and AIDS, and his calm approach in helping to defuse global conflicts, the Ghanaian diplomat has become one of few political superstars to command universal respect on this continent. He is a former Nobel Peace Prize, and a member of ‘The Elders’ – the elite group of statesmen which includes Nelson Mandela.

Annan is 73 years old, and there appear to be few younger leaders following in his trail. But other countries and continents survive without ‘a Mandela’ or even ‘an Annan’.

Does Africa still need such a figure, or does the combination of volatile politicians and immature democracies require the gazing glance of an unchallengeable voice of reason, a Nelson Mandela?