By Pascal Fletcher
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Both are hailed as African liberation heroes and both preached, and were praised for, messages of reconciliation and unity when their countries threw off the shackles of white minority rule.
But while South Africa's Nelson Mandela, now 95, retired and ill in hospital, is basking in glowing world tributes, Robert Mugabe, 89, who helped turn former Rhodesia into independent Zimbabwe, is fighting to stay in power as Africa's oldest ruler.
He is contesting an election on Wednesday that could extend his 33-year rule, still spitting defiance at a Western world that has long vilified him as a brutal dictator, while insisting he will never let his nation be "recolonised".
That two of the surviving grand old men of Africa's freedom struggle should have followed such divergent paths reflects the vagaries of history and the different choices made by each.
Mugabe's opponents say this week's poll is riddled with irregularities and may not be credible. Southern African neighbors express concerns that the electoral process has been rushed. The United States, one of Mugabe's sharpest critics, says it will not accept any election that is not free and fair.
Both Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and the opposing Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by his rival in Zimbabwe's fractious unity government, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, say they are confident of victory. The election run-up, though hasty, has been relatively peaceful and free of the violence by ZANU-PF militants against the MDC that blighted a disputed 2008 vote.
Rallying supporters he calls "soldiers", Mugabe has termed the election a "do or die" contest, suggesting he recognizes that his historical legacy is at stake.
"He's still fighting the liberation struggle ... that's the fight of his life, that's who he is," Blessing-Miles Tendi, a lecturer at Oxford University's Department of International Development, told Reuters.
Tsvangirai, widely viewed as the underdog given ZANU-PF's well-honed tactics of conserving political power, calls the vote a "watershed election" that will choose "between a progressive future under an MDC government or a return to the dark days of 2008 under an exhausted ZANU-PF regime".
With the stakes this high, some observers such as the International Crisis Group warn that another protracted political crisis, and "possibly extensive violence", is likely.
"Conditions for a free and fair vote do not exist," the Brussels-based advocacy group said in a report on Monday. It said "strong diplomacy" would be needed from the African Union and the southern African regional grouping SADC to keep Zimbabwe from plunging into violent post-election turmoil.
AU and SADC teams will monitor the voting - Harare has not allowed in observer missions from the West.
But if the balloting and outcome can be judged reasonably credible, there are signs that the West is willing, even anxious, to ease Zimbabwe's international isolation.
In March, the European Union suspended most sanctions against Zimbabwe after voters approved a new constitution limiting presidential powers, opening the way for the election.
In another step towards normalization, the International Monetary Fund agreed in June to monitor Zimbabwe's programs until the end of the year, paving the way for the country to clear billions of dollars of debt arrears. Under this agreement, Zimbabwe will be allowed to negotiate debt relief with creditors and new financing by leveraging its natural resources, according to Finance Minister Tendai Biti.
FROM RECONCILIATION TO RUIN?
Whatever the outcome of Wednesday's vote, Mugabe may find it hard to overcome his image in the West as a cold-hearted despot, blamed for killings and abuses against opponents and for ruining a country once known as a "jewel of Africa" through a policy of violent seizure of white-owned land.
Mugabe and his supporters dismiss this view as a Western cliche. The Jesuit mission-educated former teacher was always an enigmatic and controversial figure after he joined the struggle against white minority rule in Rhodesia.
He was dubbed the "thinking man's guerrilla" because of his bookish, bespectacled demeanor and the academic degrees he earned during a decade in jail. Ian Smith's white Rhodesian government which he fought cast him as a "bloodthirsty Marxist puppet" and even "an apostle of Satan".
But for many of the black majority at the time, Mugabe, whose middle name is Gabriel, was an angel of liberation who helped conquer the independence of newly named Zimbabwe in 1980.
Three decades later, views of Zimbabweans reflect a mixture of fear, grudging respect and admiration but also weariness towards a figure who has dominated their lives for a generation.
"We're sick and tired of the old man," said Phelisian Chikovo, 30, at an MDC rally, adding: "Mugabe was our leader, a revolutionary leader, so I don't want to put him in jail".
"We don't have a problem with him if he accepts defeat," said Vusi Chigombe, 26, another MDC supporter. "We reconciled in 1980 after 16 years of war. Why can't we reconcile now?"
Ironically, Mugabe can claim to have preceded Mandela by a decade as an apostle of racial reconciliation.
After his guerrilla movement turned political party ZANU-PF won independence elections in 1980, he won plaudits for a famous "swords into ploughshares" speech in which he pledged a "new amity" between the races in new-born Zimbabwe.
A decade later, Mandela emerged from 27 years in apartheid prisons to proclaim a similar vision of a "Rainbow Nation" of racial harmony, consecrated by 1994 elections that buried apartheid and elected him South Africa's first black president.
But by the end of the decade, the two giants of black liberation in southern Africa had chosen different ways.
While Mandela stepped down after serving a single term amid international accolades in 1999, Mugabe, buffeted by falling support, economic crisis and popular anger over a costly intervention in a Congo war, tried to prop himself up through a constitutional change to increase his powers.
"Initially Mugabe adopted a Mandela-like reconciliation policy, but when he couldn't deliver, he became more and more extreme," said Tony Hawkins, economics professor at the University of Zimbabwe's Graduate School of Management.
In 2000, Zimbabweans inflicted a humiliating constitutional referendum defeat on Mugabe, causing him to unleash a campaign of violence and intimidation against opponents that included seizures of white-owned farms by war veterans and supporters.
This won him a subsequent election but sealed Western demonization of his rule as a "corrupt and ruinous" regime, in the words of then British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The takeover of farms that were Zimbabwe's economic mainstay precipitated a decade-long meltdown with inflation reaching 500 billion percent, unemployment 80 percent and economic refugees streaming into South Africa, its larger southern neighbor.
MANDELA AND MUGABE: DIFFERENT VISIONS
Mugabe still defends the farm seizures as an act of national right and sovereignty, however chaotically accomplished.
In a rare interview with South African state broadcaster SABC last month, he acknowledged the seizures of white farms had been violent and disorderly, but he said they were fundamentally right to recover native land occupied by invading white settlers in the 19th century.
"After all this is our land, you see, we did not need to negotiate taking it back," he said.
By 2008, Tsvangirai's MDC and most of the world were accusing Mugabe of blatant strong-arm tactics to try to win another disputed vote. The MDC says 200 people were killed during the 2008 polls.
Even the retired Mandela - who maintains an enduring loyalty to liberation era allies like Cuba's Fidel Castro - joined the criticism of Mugabe's rule, lamenting a "the tragic failure of leadership" in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe clearly revealed his difference from Mandela in the interview aired on June 2 - barely a week before the ailing South African anti-apartheid hero returned to hospital for a recurring lung infection.
The Zimbabwean leader did not flinch from swiping at the halo of the global icon of racial harmony, saying Mandela had "gone a bit too far in doing good to the non-black communities".
"He's been too saintly, too good, too much of a saint."
His words highlight a debate in South Africa over Mandela's much-praised role in negotiating the transition from apartheid.
Some radical critics of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) say Mandela's moderation and concessions mortgaged the economic freedom of South Africa's black masses, who still suffer poverty and unemployment while much of the land and mineral wealth remains in the hands of a white and black elite.
Mandela's defenders point precisely to Zimbabwe and its damaged economy, and to the current turmoil in Egypt, as cases which underline the wisdom of his reconciliation strategy.
"(It) makes my blood boil to hear some romantic revolutionaries criticize Mandela for being too conciliatory, too soft on the whites, in negotiating our transition," South African journalist Allister Sparks, a veteran white liberal, wrote in an newspaper column this month, without naming Mugabe.
"AFRICANS OWNING THE LAND"
Not everyone sees Mugabe as a romantic but he clearly sees himself as an unrelenting fighter against "colonialists and imperialists", to whom no concessions can ever be made.
"They will praise you only if you are doing things that please them," he said in the SABC interview.
Mugabe enjoys some support both in Africa - where feelings against post-colonial meddling still run deep - and in other regions where 'anti-imperialist' nationalism has currency.
"There is an African constituency that he appeals to," said Oxford University's Tendi, citing Mugabe's unflinching stance against Western pressure and defense of economic independence.
South Africa's ex-ANC "bad boy" Julius Malema, who champions the nationalization of mines and expropriation of white-owned farms without compensation, defends Mugabe's land seizures.
"He had two options: to side with monopoly capital or with the people and he has chosen to side with the people," he said.
Predicting a win for Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party, Malema told Reuters that "Africans owning the land" would be Mugabe's lasting legacy in an economically recovering Zimbabwe.
A 2012 study, Zimbabwe Takes Back its Land by Joseph Hanlon, a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics, even takes a fresh look at the turbulent 2000 Zimbabwean land reform, arguing that production has largely returned to the 1990s level.
In the SABC interview, Mugabe invoked unfinished tasks to justify seeking re-election at his age. The age factor, combined with reported illness and the lack of a designated successor, will complicate the future if he wins on Wednesday.
Mugabe said he wanted to completely defeat Western sanctions and consolidate ownership of resources - a reference to an ongoing indigenization strategy that seeks to give majority stakes of mining firms and banks to black Zimbabweans.
"My people still need me, and when people still need you to lead them, it's not time sir, it doesn't matter how old you are, to say goodbye," he said.
From the days of his youth, herding cattle with a whip in one hand and a book in the other, he said he had "awareness that the white man had come and robbed us of that which was ours".
His wish? To be remembered as a man who "desired right up to the end that his people should be masters of their own destiny".
(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley and MacDonald Dzirutwe in Harare; Editing by Paul Taylor)