Here’s Why Nelson Mandela’s Group of Elders Should Handle African Politics With Caution

In August, a group of World leaders called The Elders wrote a letter urging SADC leaders to support a smooth transition in Zimbabwe. The letter read, “We firmly believe that a successful transition is vital not only for Zimbabwe but also for the region […] we are also convinced that, if the transition process is to succeed, it must be inclusive, transparent and framed in the national interest.”

Zimbabwean Foreign Affairs Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi came out in the country’s defence and said, “No one is quite sure as to whose elders they are, but what is clear is that it’s a self-appointed group. They don’t represent anyone. It is quite clear that they are willing to be used as agents of certain powers. That appears to be the main purpose of their self-appointed status as ‘elders’. They seem to have an obsession with Zimbabwe.”

This heated exchange evoked some curiosity around the group that is The Elders.

Nelson Mandela’s Elders

In a speech delivered on Nelson Mandela’s 89th birthday, The Elders group of leaders was introduced to the world. He said, “Let us call them Global Elders, not because of their age but because of their individual and collective wisdom.”

He has assembled a team of political and economic development veterans after Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel came to him with the idea for The Elders. The concept was then built from that foundation until it became what it is today, a political authority worthy of respect.

Mandela said, “I believe that, with their experience and their energies, and their profound commitment to building a better world, The Elders can become a fiercely independent and robust force for good, tackling complex and intractable issues, especially those that are not popular.”

The group’s members, the elders as it were, are Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finladn, Koffi Annan who is the Chair, Ela Bhatt, founder of Self-Employed Women’s Association of India, Lakhdar Brahimi, former Foreign Minister of Algeria, Gro Harlem Brundtland (Former Prime Minister of Norway) who is Deputy Chair, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil, Hina Jilani, an international human rights defender from Pakistan, Graca Machel who is also President of the Foundation for Community Development, Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, Ernesto Zedillo and Ricardo Lagos, former Presidents of Mexico and Chile respectively. The group is funded by a group of donors who make up its advisory council.


The Elders carry out initiatives in two broad areas which are promoting dialogue and building peace; and supporting efforts to alleviate human suffering, particularly caused by extreme poverty, injustice, or intolerance. The group has now tackled issues ranging from climate change, gender equality even up to child marriage. Zimbabwe also happens part of the group’s priority list. Relations have not ever been amicable between the Southern African country and The Elders with Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and Graca Machel being prevented from entering the country in November 2008.

After the refusal to cooperate by the Zimbabwean government, former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “We need no red carpet treatment from the government of Zimbabwe. We seek no permission other than permission to help the poor and the desperate.”

Zimbabwe’s state controlled media had said, “The visit has been deemed a partisan mission by a group of people with partisan interests.”

Waning legitimacy?

Recently, there was a screaming headline that read “SADC heads fume over ‘Group of Elders’”. The Zimbabwean Foreign Minister said, “The Heads of State were actually quite angry about that letter. They said, ‘These three think that we are puppets. Summit should reject this attempt by the three individuals to set an agenda for us’.”

The group of Elders being an international organisation whose brains are Western capitalists will always have problems of legitimacy. It is easy for politicians to view it as an instrument used by the West to effect political changes that further the cause of the West. The group has however, tried to deal with individuals at grassroots level in combating such vices as child marriages and these cannot be underestimated. This is not a group to dismiss but it may need to be more careful in dealing with politics. That is a more difficult terrain to negotiate when compared to social amenities. One mistake could damage the legitimacy of the whole cause. Yes, the politics of nations define how the citizens live but if the Group of Elders are really sagely as they would have the world believe, they will find ways to engage governments in non-confrontational methods which make them apprehensive and defensive like the Zimbabwean government.



Written by How Africa

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