Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Mugabe: Why Africa applauds him

Normally I don't find much to agree with in New Statesman articles, but this lengthy piece on Mugabe (Africa's top tyrant) is worth reading:

[...] To [...] millions of [...] Zimbabweans forced by their government into hunger, homelessness or fleeing the country, it is a mystery why the man responsible for their plight continues to be treated like a hero in the rest of Africa. Not only does he receive standing ovations whenever he appears at pan-African gatherings, but Malawi has even named a new road after him. The Robert Gabriel Mugabe Highway from Blantyre to the Indian Ocean ports of Mozambique, opened by the Zimbabwean president in May, is a huge embarrassment for the European Union, which funded it and has sanctions in place against Mugabe and his regime. [...]

"Zimbabwe is a test case for the African continent on how we deal with dictatorships and black-on-black repression," said Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), when we met in Harare just before Easter. He shook his head as I counted out the huge stack of notes needed just to pay for our coffee, a bill of more than a million Zim dollars (the official inflation rate is 1,042 per cent). "So far it seems to be failing."

A deputy president of a neighbouring country told me he was at the second inauguration of Thabo Mbeki as president of South Africa in 2004, when Mugabe walked in and the entire audience rose in applause. "I was so embarrassed," he said. "How can we in Africa complain about the west when we applaud such a tyrant?"

As a result of Mugabe's land reform the countryside looks blighted by a terrible scourge, and four million Zimbabweans depend on food aid. Many more subsist on roots and fried termites, and the country's life expectancy has dropped to the lowest in the world - just 34 for women. Yet the programme responsible was recently described as "commendable" by Isak Katali, Namibia's deputy minister of lands. "We feel if Zimbabwe did this, we can do it in the same manner," he said.

As someone who has travelled back and forth reporting on the country since 1999, witnessing the demise of what was one of the most affluent and educated countries on the African continent, this attitude seems inexplicable. Yes, Mugabe was a liberation hero, leading his country to independence from Britain in 1980, but surely that does not excuse him all subsequent excesses?

It is the silence from neighbouring South Africa that is hardest to understand. South Africa is the place most affected by Mugabe's actions, hosting more than two million refugees from Zimbabwe, who get blamed for crime and stealing jobs. Every day, hundreds more desperate Zimbabweans attempt the journey across the crocodile-infested Limpopo River. South Africa is also best placed to do something - it could literally pull the plugs, switching off both credit and electricity.

Instead, President Mbeki has relied on so-called "quiet diplomacy". This involves sending letters that Mugabe ignores and occasionally extracting minor concessions. One was the use of transparent ballot boxes in the last election. Mugabe immediately turned this to his advantage by warning people that he could see how they voted. [...]

But what to do? "Mugabe has very successfully portrayed the Zimbabwe crisis as an anti-colonial and anti-imperial problem, and in so doing has forced other African countries to support him," explains Brian Raftopoulos, programme manager for the Cape Town-based Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, himself an exile from Zimbabwe. "To criticise Mugabe is to be seen as pro-western and anti-African." [...]

Yet what Mugabe has done is not about race or righting the perceived injustices of colonialism. It is about power and one man's determination to hang on to it at all costs. [....]

Although they are quiet on Mugabe's actions and crimes, I imagine most of Africa's leaders eagerly await Mugabe's death. His status as a liberation here has potential African critics completely cowed. But surely South Africa has the standing to criticize him; Mbeki's silence is a blot on South Africa.