In April 1994, fate decreed that two landmarks events of the late 20th century took place simultaneously in Africa. Both will long be remembered, but it is hard to imagine that any two events could have been so starkly different in their nature.
On April 6, a plane carrying the president of Rwanda and other notables was shot down over his own residence in Kigali, the country's capital. Within hours, the genocide that had been planned by a small group of extremist Hutu conspirators was launched. Before it ended 100 days later, while the world stood by idly, as many as a million unarmed Tutsi were systematically slaughtered.
At the same time, an unprecedented free and fair election campaign was being fought in South Africa. On April 27, while the genocide in Rwanda raged, the incomparable Nelson Mandela was elected the first democratic president of South Africa.
History had contrived to fashion one of Africa's worst tragedies and one of its greatest triumphs all at the same moment. While the genocide confirmed for many the utter hopelessness of the continent, Mr. Mandela's victory and his own unique qualities of leadership suggested a shining new era was yet possible. As it happens, over the past half century a remarkable number of Canadians have been involved in both these countries, for better and for worse.
This week, South Africa and Rwanda made international headlines again. In Canada, the government hopes very shortly to return to Rwanda for trial a man named Leon Mugesera, who for years has exploited the Canadian justice system to escape true justice at home. Mr. Mugesera played a significant role in poisoning the atmosphere in Rwanda that ultimately enabled the genocide. In 1992, in a recorded speech to 1,000 followers of the government party of which he was an important member, he called repeatedly for the extermination of all Rwandan " inyenzi" – cockroaches – the familiar dehumanizing name that Hutu extremists gave all Tutsi. Although Mr. Mugesera fled to Canada, where Rwanda's French-speaking Hutu had many unconditional Québécois friends, other Hutu extremists took up his genocidal exhortation. The plane crash was the trigger for the genocide they were preparing for.
But Mr. Mugesera has had to share the headlines this week with a far more momentous event for post-genocide Rwanda – the finding by a French inquiry that the plane had been shot down by Hutu extremists, not by their Tutsi enemies under Paul Kagame, today Rwanda's president.
From the beginning, the killers shrewdly and cynically pointed the finger at Mr. Kagame. This accusation made no logical sense at all yet was taken up by a motley band, including some Canadians, who for a variety of dubious reasons chose to deny the genocide ever happened. The significance of the 18-year battle to establish responsibility for the crash was enormous. If Mr. Kagame did it, then the crash could not have been intended to launch the genocide, and so it could be argued that there never was a conspiracy to commit genocide at all.
Now a comprehensive new report by two French judges should satisfy anyone open to reason and evidence that Mr. Kagame could not have shot the plane down. A large cloud of illegitimacy has been lifted from the reputation of the present government in Rwanda.
As for Leon Mugesera, whose infamous speech constitutes one link in the chain leading to the crash and the genocide, he will soon return for trial to a country that, controversial as it is, has undeniably made unimagined progress in the past 18 years. Rwanda has troubles a-plenty, including a government apparently determined to remain authoritarian. It also remains very poor. Yet the country's economic and social progress since the genocide is nothing short of startling. It is stable, at peace, largely safe and secure. Corruption is minimal. Mr. Mugesera will be convicted not because the Rwandan legal system is rigged but because his own incendiary words will convict him.
At this very same moment, Nelson Mandela's political party/movement, the venerable African National Congress, is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its birth. For most of those years, it was deemed an illegal organization by a series of brutal white governments determined to eradicate it by any means necessary. Many of its leaders and members were murdered or tortured, or like Mr. Mandela spent decades in jail, or were forced to flee the country to carry on the struggle from abroad. Others, like some churches and trade unions, also played key roles in ending apartheid. But for most of the Canadians and other outsiders who joined the anti-apartheid movement it was all about the ANC.
Like Rwanda, it's not easy to give a balanced account of South Africa over these past 18 years under the ANC. Like Rwanda, the cup can seem half-full or half-empty. Thanks both to Mr. Mandela himself and a number of exceptionally generous concessions made to white citizens and the white business community, a racial war of unthinkable proportions has been avoided. Like Rwanda's Hutu and Tutsi, reconciliation among South Africa's racial groups had to be a priority. In both cases, superficially at least, people learned to live together, if not warmly at least tolerantly. But exploiting racial sensibilities or memories of genocide remains a convenient ploy to be trotted out whenever useful, while in both countries there are fears that ethnic animosities lurk just beneath the surface.
But in so many ways, progress in South Africa compared to expectations has been deeply disappointing. While a modest black middle class has materialized, as hoped, and a rudimentary social safety net introduced, inequality has actually grown. Many ANC "comrades," including those who had once given their lives to the cause, decided that they were entitled to cash in on their sacrifices and have become ridiculously rich. No one had anticipated this perverse emergence of a class of black billionaires. Corruption is notoriously widespread, reaching through to the very pinnacle of the ANC pyramid.
At the same time, the country faces a staggering crisis of mass unemployment, restless young men with nothing to do, sky-high crime rates, wretched living conditions, poor health facilities and appalling schools in the vast African townships and in rural areas. Who imagined a liberated South Africa would be a poster child for a 99 per cent vs. 1 per cent world?
While Rwanda has been effectively ruled since the genocide by the steely, no-nonsense, efficient Paul Kagame, a military man who brooks little dissent, South Africa is on its third president. Mr. Mandela, despite his unparalleled strengths, allowed his government to repudiate the ANC's progressive platform and embrace neoliberal economics, dooming millions of his people to destitution and unemployment. Thabo Mbeki recklessly denied the source of the AIDS crisis, dooming millions of his people to disease and death. The populist Jacob Zuma faces allegations being a rapist and a crook, for both of which there is much evidence. The country staggers forward.
No one can forecast the future for these two nation, different in every respect save the almost unbearable burden history has inflicted on each of them. Overcoming those burdens would be a triumph not just for Rwandans and South Africans but for the human spirit everywhere.
An extended discussion of the Rwandan section of this column can be found at Pambazuka News .