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Target: Mugabe, victim: Mbeki?


The leadership of one African country, Zimbabwe, still gets disproportionate demonisation from the West, for good and bad reasons. In addition to hostile media coverage, president Robert Mugabe and nearly 100 of his cronies face ‘smart sanctions’ which prevent them from traveling to most Western countries on anything other than UN business, and they are not allowed to hold bank accounts in Western financial centers.

In early December, the Commonwealth summit of former British colonies was another occasion for attention, especially because South Africa’s own geopolitical agenda was also on trial.

Given Africa’s big structural problems–AIDS, trade, debt, food shortages, environmental crises and unending civil wars ravaging failed states—it is striking that so much symbolic political investment has been made in the fate of a small country (12 million people) with a rapidly declining economy, no particular strategic significance and confusing left-wing official rhetoric combined with state repression of (black) workers and the urban poor. But from conference halls such as Abuja, Nigeria—where president Olusegun Obasanjo hosted the Commonwealth—to grassroots organizations and trade unions, opposing views about Zimbabwe split the continent.

Here in Johannesburg, pundits right and left predict the contagion of nationalist excesses across the Limpopo River into South Africa, and indeed into the region, via president Thabo Mbeki, Namibian president Sam Nujoma and a few other Mugabe flak-catchers.

Having spent a week in Zimbabwe’s eastern mountains just after the Commonwealth closed, I find convincing evidence that the struggle for social justice, largely now against the ruling party, remains potent. Land redistribution from 4000 white settlers and their ancestors—which began in earnest after Mugabe lost a constitutional referendum in February 2000, and is now far advanced and largely irreversible—will no longer veil the country’s other political dynamics.

At the heart of the matter lies the classical dilemma that Frantz Fanon pointed out, namely a venal elite that does the ‘comprador’ bidding of the neo-colonial power centers, while using the politics of patronage, the rhetorics of an imagined nation, the tools of repression available in the security apparatus, and the ideological machinery of a ruling party to intimidate the masses. For a superb read in the same tradition, but adding a feminist critique of Mugabe’s macho militarism, I brought along Horace Campbell’s book, Reclaiming Zimbabwe: The Exhaustion of the Patriarchal Model of National Liberation (Cape Town, David Phillip, 2003).

Campbell advances the most courageous, comprehensive critique I have seen of Mugabe and his distorted tradition, in no small part because as a (Jamaican-born) pan-Africanist, he was once part of Harare’s insider intelligentsia. For example, the rise of Mugabe’s ‘Green Bombers’–young civilians who terrorize rural opposition party members by rape, kidnappings and beatings–can be explained not only by class dynamics (these are unemployed youth acting in the classic lumpen manner) but necessarily also by ingrained gender power relations.

Yet Campbell helps us appreciate the gains made during the 1965-79 ‘chimurenga’ (freedom struggle) against Rhodesian minority rule, dignifying black identity and briefly providing the countryside with some developmental goods: rudimentary clinics, schools, agricultural support and somewhat better roads. There is little else to say for liberation, though, thanks to Mugabe’s first two decades of reconciliation on the economic front (little land and few enterprises were redistributed through official processes), bureaucratisation on the governmental front, and repression especially of the minority Ndebele ethnic group on the security front.

Then during the 1990s, when structural adjustment was imposed in earnest, Mugabe won acclaim from the IMF and World Bank. Once the urban poor and workers began a systematic revolt, the nationalist regime’s backlash against residual white financial and farming clout was, perhaps, inevitable.

In 1999, an opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged. Last week, its second major congress attracted 3,000 delegates. Finally, more progressive economic objectives emerged under the guidance of charismatic young lawyer and parliamentarian, Tendai Biti (a former Trotskyist student leader), who heads that portfolio. How far the MDC can stray from London/Washington influence before imperialist and local capitalist funding sources are alienated remains to be seen. But the party’s president, Morgan Tsvangirai, and his national executive have apparently decided to give some meaning to the idea of MDC ‘social democracy’. Tsvangirai, who headed the trade union movement during the 1990s, once told me the party’s ideology was ‘like spaghetti–all mixed up’; hence, appropriate for his multi-class democratic alliance.

However, there is no point in expecting top-down leftwards motion without considering how far the grassroots forces will pull from the bottom. For mass action protest against Mugabe, the MDC is fortunate that the main trade union federation and the National Constitutional Assembly network are now working more formally together, because impressive strikes and civil disobedience during 2003 will need to amplified in 2004. In addition, mid-range political hopes might be invested in the Zimbabwe Social Forum, founded in November, exuding superb anti-capitalist rhetoric.

Of critical importance is the durable, day-in, day-out work needed to protect basic human rights, mainly to shield the exceptionally brave young activist cadreship from Mugabe’s military, police and paramilitary thugs, who regularly attack the populace with impunity. The right to information, which has suffered in intensive care for so many years, was on the deathbed recently with the closure of a crucial newspaper, the Daily News. But a judge’s order in late December appears to have provided the space to reopen and resuscitate the country’s independent press.

These local struggles for freedom, social justice and democracy are being sabotaged by Mbeki’s constructive engagement policy. The cozy relationship between Pretoria and Harare alienated most urban Zimbabweans beginning in 2000.

The early 2003 gambit by Mbeki and Obasanjo to readmit Zimbabwe to the Commonwealth represented, according to Tsvangirai,, ‘the disreputable end game of a long-term Obasanjo-Mbeki strategy designed to infiltrate and subvert not only the Commonwealth effort but, indeed, all other international efforts intended to rein in Mugabe’s violent and illegitimate regime. Through this diabolical act of fellowship and solidarity with a murderous dictatorship, General Obasanjo and Mr Mbeki have now openly joined Mugabe as he continues to wage a relentless war against the people of Zimbabwe. They are now self-confessed fellow travellers on a road littered with violence, destruction and death… Pretoria is free to pursue its own agenda. But it must realise that Zimbabweans can never be fooled anymore.’

The rhetoric is hot, but it has become obvious that commitments to political freedom in Mbeki’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) are merely a ruse, if Zimbabwe is taken as evidence.

Local justice/democracy activists are even more cynical. In a foreword to a book edited by Simba Manyanya (NEPAD’s Zimbabwe Test: Why the New Partnership for Africa’s Development is Already Failing, Harare, Zimcodd, 2003), the chair of the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development, Jonah Gokova, wrote of ‘the more profound rejection of NEPAD by Zimbabweans from important social movements, trade unions and NGOs… Above all, we now call on Africans to rally around an African People’s Consensus inspired by a vision of the development of the continent that reflects more genuine African thinking–instead of NEPAD, that homegrown rehashing of the Washington Consensus augmented by transparently false promises of good governance and democracy.’

Did Mbeki and Obasanjo deserve the derision? They termed Zimbabwe’s 2002 presidential election ‘legitimate,’ and repeatedly opposed punishment in the Commonwealth and UN Human Rights Commission. In February 2003, South African foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma stated, ‘We will never criticise Zimbabwe.’ The NEPAD secretariat’s Dave Malcomson, responsible for international liaison and co-ordination, openly admitted to a reporter in March, ‘Wherever we go, Zimbabwe is thrown at us as the reason why NEPAD’s a joke’ (sic).

Mbeki failed in his March 2003 attempt to have Zimbabwe readmitted to the Commonwealth, following the March 2002 election-related suspension. He then tried to ensure Mugabe would be invited to the Abuja meeting. But Obasanjo quickly came under stronger pressure from London, Canberra and Ottawa, and his fact-finding mission to Harare in November could not disguise regressions in all spheres of politics.

With Obasanjo refusing to invite Mugabe, Mbeki reportedly decided to punish the Commonwealth secretary-general, New Zealander Don McKinnon (who, according to Mbeki, had bent organisational rules with secret consultations that concluded a majority of members wanted the Zimbabwe issue decided in December not March 2003). Pretoria proposed a Sri Lankan replacement, former foreign minister Lakshma Kadirgamar. But Mbeki’s candidate lost the election by 40-11; the e-news agency Zwnews.com opined that several African countries—Botswana, Cameroon, The Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius and Sierra Leone—voted for McKinnon, so a potential race/region clash was averted.

Then Zimbabwe’s suspension was extended indefinitely. Mugabe had earlier stated publicly that he anticipated getting his invitation to Abuja and apparently thought he might receive full African support so as to split the organisation on racial grounds. His reaction to extension of the suspension was a quick announcement at a ZANU(PF) congress that Zimbabwe would leave the organisation. The real loser, however, was Mbeki, for as University of Pretoria politics professor Hussein Solomon remarked, ‘Mbeki has no credibility as a leader. He is not prepared to stand by the principles espoused in terms of the African renaissance.’

(Notably, Mbeki failed to use the Commonwealth as a venue to criticise the blatantly illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq by leading members Britain and Australia.)

Clearly bitter upon his return home, Mbeki helped craft a statement issued by the Southern African Development Community (plus Uganda but minus Botswana), complaining that (unnamed) Commonwealth members were ‘dismissive, intolerant and rigid.’

Mbeki’s next ANC website letter (http://www.anc.org.za) went even further, rubbished an entire social movement whose main Zimbabwean activists are genuine democrats. Mbeki argued: ‘In his book Diplomacy, Dr Henry Kissinger discusses the place of the issue of human rights in the East-West struggle during the Cold War. He writes that: “Reagan and his advisers invoked (human rights) to try to undermine the Soviet system.” … It is clear that some within Zimbabwe and elsewhere in the world, including our country, are following the example set by “Reagan and his advisers”, to “treat human rights as a tool” for overthrowing the government of Zimbabwe and rebuilding Zimbabwe as they wish. In modern parlance, this is called regime change.’

With this attack, according to Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights director Arnold Tsunga, a progressive committed to the Zimbabwe Social Forum, Mbeki raises the risk ‘of human rights defenders being attacked or clamped down upon. Indeed these remarks are likely to have far reaching and grave consequences on the operating environment of human rights defenders in Zimbabwe.’

Frustrated by Mbeki, several Johannesburg church leaders issued a statement, including this line: ‘We are confused by the constant call for moral regeneration within our own country by leaders who appear to defend or overlook moral corruption in neighbouring states.’ Mbeki’s office replied with anger.

To top it off, Mbeki then visited Mugabe (and stopped in briefly to see Tsvangirai). But the Zimbabwean president once again failed to set the basis for negotiations by agreeing to liberalise the political environment. Apparently Mugabe promised that talks with the MDC—stalled completely for four months–would start up in 2004, but his procrastination and tendency to renege are legendary.

Mbeki left, uttering an ill-considered diplomatic nicety–‘President Mugabe can assist us to confront the problems we have in South Africa so that we can assist you to solve the problems that face Zimbabwe’—which caused a sudden decline in the value of the South African currency. Sunday Independent political writer John Battersby (a loyal transmission belt for Pretoria), quoted a ‘senior government spokesperson’ the next day: ‘President Mbeki should not be taken literally.’ The point was ‘to ensure that the Zimbabweans continue listening to us.’

But aside from Mugabe and his ruling clique, who revel in what they hear from Pretoria, will anyone else?

(Patrick Bond, co-author of Zimbabwe’s Plunge (London, Merlin Press, 2003) is at pbond@sn.apc.org)

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