Several years ago, I and a number of other African American individuals came under attack for our public criticism of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and his repressive regime. Some African American activists who have been outstanding champions of the struggle for national liberation thought that it was, at best, inappropriate and at worst treasonous, for people such as Africa Action’s Salih Booker, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists’ Bill Lucy and me (at that time, President of TransAfrica Forum), to challenge the practices of an allegedly anti-imperialist individual and government. At the same time, we received considerable support-quiet support I should add-from other African Americans who were pleased that we had spoken out, though they themselves were uncomfortable being public in their support.
Since that time, in part because of the manner in which our criticism was so successfully caricaturized by our opponents, I have been cautious in my comments. Today I have to throw caution to the wind. Very recently leaders of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, (ZCTU), individuals who in many cases have long and distinguished histories going back to the national liberation war (1966-1979), individuals I have come to know and respect, were arrested by the Mugabe government. Some of them have been tortured while in captivity. This cannot go on. We cannot remain silent.
President Mugabe was a hero for many of us as one of the chief leaders of the Zimbabwe freedom struggle. He put his country on the line, upon its liberation, in supporting the anti-apartheid liberation struggle in South Africa. Yet, over the years something has gone terribly wrong. Instead of proceeding forward on a revolutionary transformation of Zimbabwe that would increase the power of the workers and farmers, something else slowly unfolded. Those closest to President Mugabe came to be the principal recipients of the benefits of liberation.
For many of us in Black America, Zimbabwe dropped off the ‘radar screen’ until the land seizures that took place a few years back. These seizures of land from many white farmers were heralded by a considerable number of African Americans as a step toward full liberation. Yet few of us stopped to ask, who was getting the land? and what was happening to the African farmworkers who had worked the land? Such questions seemed inconvenient at best. So, two equations began to emerge as a way of silencing any questions. The first went like this:
* President Mugabe is seizing the land of white farmers; this helps to rectify the situation that has existed since the land was stolen in the 19th century; therefore, anyone who criticizes President Mugabe is actually a supporter of the white farmers.
The second equation that emerged, particularly after President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair got into the fray with their criticisms of President Mugabe looked like this:
* President Bush is a maniac attempting to dominate the world; President Mugabe criticizes President Bush for his global aggression; therefore, President Mugabe must be on the side of justice and anyone criticizing President Mugabe must be an ally of President Bush.
I wish that politics were that simple. When I briefly visited Zimbabwe in late 2004 and spoke with leaders of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions-a room full of Black faces from the working class-it was clear that politics is never that easy. They do not want Bush and Blair to intervene in Zimbabwe any more than I do, but they do want justice.
The ZCTU has led a struggle against both the increasing immiserization of the Zimbabwe workers brought on, initially at least, by the faulty economic policies of President Mugabe’s government. In addition, the ZCTU has been central to the struggle for democracy. They have dared to raise criticisms, only to be painted as allies of imperialism by those who in the past had no difficulty sitting in the comfortable rooms of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund developing economic policies that do not benefit the Zimbabwean people. The ZCTU’s continued struggle against harsh economic conditions has now landed their leaders in jail and subject to-what does the Bush administration call it in Guantanamo?-extreme pressure.
We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us, as goes the famous saying. Yet we cannot be trapped by those same shoulders. What was once done-actions taken, courage displayed-is always important, but it is not necessarily reflected in what one is doing today.
If we stand with Zimbabwe and with the objectives of the struggle which commenced so very many years ago for its liberation and transformation, then today we must stand with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, and say that the voice of Black America will not be silenced for old time’s sake.
BC Editorial Board Member Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long- time labor and international activist and writer. He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum.