This month’s extensive international news coverage of Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy stands in stark contrast to the coverage accorded to the recent death of another extraordinary 20th century leader: Võ Nguyên Giáp, the 102-year-old Vietnamese general who humbled three world powers and a rising fourth. Giáp died in Hanoi on 4 October 2013.
While Mandela – the radical political activist turned president and elder statesman – was memorialized in Johannesburg on 10 December, French and African Union troops were stabilizing the Central African Republic (CAR) which appeared to be on the brink of civil war. Broader discussions about Mandela’s impact across Africa or his complicated and rich legacy of violent radicalism were in short supply in the 24/7 mainstream media cycle. Oddly, even U.S. president Barack Obama’s eulogy failed to mention Mandela’s connection to his African nationalist contemporaries like Ghana’s first post independence president Dr. Kwame Nkrumah or Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta.
Clearly some contemporary leaders and seasoned media outlets are uncomfortable discussing political radicalism and its role in finding solutions to the legacies of European colonialism, poverty, injustice, and government corruption – obstacles to freedom and independence which both Mandela and Giáp had squarely in their sights throughout their lives.
If ever there was a time to look straight at these and other obstacles to freedom, it is now. Together we face the frustrations and fears of Muslims and Christians in the CAR and beyond. We seem confused about how to bolster fledgling democracy movements and fight totalitarianism which is emboldened when the United Nations and world leaders remain quiet. We even see democracies in Asia facing serious threats to their stability from rising political, racial, religious factions and broader regional tensions, particularly as China elbows its way onto the world stage.
So I found it troubling that while Mandela’s life and legacy were given non-stop TV coverage with specially designed graphics and pre-packaged video homages Giáp’s life and recent death – with all its complex implications for our post Cold War world – received scant attention, with the exception of the excellent in-depth ‘Breaking News’ story by the BBC World News and online articles.
In contrast CNN International announced Giáp’s death on its low key ‘Breaking News’ ticker followed by a brief news story and online obituary. There was no CNN expert panel discussing Giáp’s enormous and lasting impact on U.S. military doctrine, foreign policy or even contemporary U.S.-Vietnamese diplomatic relations in the context of the recent military standoffs in the South China Sea.
Overall this superficial news coverage of Giáp’s death and Mandela’s legacy of radicalism was both a lost opportunity for good journalism and sophisticated, forward thinking political leadership. If I may borrow words from another president recently remembered, we should embrace these historical figures and confronting events ‘not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’
Mandela was widely described as an iconic leader who embraced peace and reconciliation. But Mandela was also branded a ‘terrorist’ by the U.S. government until 2008, and he fiercely and publicly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2001. These inconvenient nuggets were not widely reported recently and it is important to ask why.
Like Giáp, Mandela began his political life as a non-violent student activist who was expelled for his efforts. Both men would later turn toward sabotage and violent direct action to oust their respective governments created by European colonial rule. In the end, both men would confuse, frustrate and confront many in the world’s corridors of power while leading South Africa and Vietnam to national independence, albeit along two very different paths.
I mention these similarities not to demean Apartheid’s brutality and the response to it or the unique conditions under which Giáp and the Viet Minh fought the French, Japanese and later the Americans and its allies. I mention these things because after the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre in which 69 unarmed, peaceful protestors were killed by South African government forces Mandela went underground and formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the African National Congress, and travelled to Algeria for military training in 1961.
If these conditions sound familiar they should. Follow Twitter feeds and blogs from Syria, Egypt, Kiev, Moscow and elsewhere, including the U.S. where Edward Snowden’s political activism continues to have serious international ramifications. If we wait too long to engage we may miss the next young Giáp or Mandela who are fighting injustice and oppression and looking for allies online and on the ground. If we don’t join them in honest and open discussions or direct action we may face a world for which we are unprepared. Climate change will be the least of our worries.
Like millions of others I have faith in the South African and Vietnamese people, and I cheer them on as they work toward national unity and development. Perhaps Vietnam can learn from South Africa’s fledgling democracy as it aspires to stamp out corruption and treat people equally and with dignity – whether at the heart of power or along the edges of society.
As Mandela said to me and thousands of others packed inside Yankee Stadium in June 1990: “There is an umbilical cord that ties us together.”
The deaths of inspiring leaders like Mandela and Giáp, and historic moments like the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., are significant and rare events which connect us. We can choose to ignore them or we can discuss them in all their rich complexity to help us reassess who we are, where we’re heading and what we value as citizens and members of the community of nations.
Rachel Cunningham is a Master of Arts candidate at the University of Western Australia in Perth, Australia where she is researching contemporary foreign policy. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a BA in Political Science and is a former journalist. She currently resides in Hanoi, Vietnam. Follow Rachel on Twitter @RCHanoi.