Zimbabwe: A Little Perspective

19 April 2008

Zimbabwe: A Little Perspective

By Gwynne Dyer

All praise to the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, which refused for four days to unload a shipment of Chinese arms destined for landlocked Zimbabwe. That was long enough for a South African court to issue a judgement refusing to let the 77 tonnes of weapons be shipped across the country to Zimbabwe, despite the South African government’s unwillingness to intervene.

Of course, the Chinese ship then just sailed up the coast to Mozambique. The Chinese weapons, which were shipped three days after President Robert Mugabe lost the Zimbabwean election on 29 March, will still reach his army, police and party militia in time to terrorise the voters into reversing last month’s verdict in a run-off presidential election. But it was nice to see some fellow Africans take a stand against his thuggery.

All praise also to former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. After meeting Zimbabwean opposition leaders in Kenya on Friday, he asked bluntly, “Where are the Africans? Where are their leaders and the countries in the region, what are they doing?” The answer, as Annan knew very well, is next to nothing. But why not?

Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence 28 years ago, is now attempting to steal back last month’s election. Three weeks later the results of the presidential race have still not been published, almost certainly because he lost by a wide margin to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. But Mugabe has already said that there must be a run-off election even before the votes are “re-counted.”

Meanwhile the militia of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, the so-called “war veterans,” are using the records from the polling booths in rural areas to identify villages that supported the opposition, and conducting mass beatings in those villages so that the residents vote correctly next time. Hundreds of people are in hospital with broken limbs after these beatings, and some are dead.

Then there is the economic disaster of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, a country where unemployment is 80 percent and inflation is 160,000 percent. Almost 70 percent of working-age Zimbabweans have fled the country in search of work, and those still at home mostly live off their remittances. But they don’t live very long: life expectancy in Zimbabwe is in the mid-30s.

This is in glaring contrast to the countries that surround Zimbabwe, which have reasonably healthy economies, free media, democratic politics and the rule of law. Mugabe’s regime in not only hurting Zimbabweans; it is doing huge damage to the region’s image in the rest of the world.

So why does the main regional organisation, the Southern African Development Community, not take a stronger stand against Mugabe? Why did South African President Thabo Mbeki insist that there is “no crisis” in Zimbabwe, when obviously there is?

It’s all about perspective. Mugabe may be a monster, but as one of the last surviving leaders of the independence generation he is a sacred monster. Moreover, many other African leaders are half-seduced by Mugabe’s claim that he is facing a re-colonisation attempt by Britain. It’s a comical notion for anybody who knows modern Britain, but in post-colonial Africa it has a certain resonance.

The fact is that Zimbabwe was once a British colony (called Rhodesia), and that Britain did nothing when the local white minority illegally seized independence. It took fifteen years of war and tens of thousands of African lives to overthrow the white minority regime, and at the end Britain promised to provide large amounts of money to buy out the white farmers who still owned most of the country’s good land. Then it reneged on its promise.

In 1997 Clare Short, the International Development Secretary in Tony Blair’s new government, wrote a famously stupid letter to the Zimbabwean government in which she said: “We do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish and, as you know, we were colonised, not colonisers.”

Mugabe was understandably enraged by a British politician of Irish origin claiming equal victim status with black Zimbabweans, and using that to repudiate Britain’s treaty obligations to Zimbabwe. Whether that explains his decision to drive the white farmers off their land without compensation three years later (and thus to wreck Zimbabwe’s economy) remains to be seen. But the prominence of those same white Zimbabweans in the opposition movement that sprang up after 2000, however understandable, certainly fed his paranoia.

The other disturbing thing, from an African point of view, is the disproportionate interest that the Western media take in the Zimbabwean tragedy. A US-backed occupation of Somalia by Ethiopian troops has plunged the country back into war, killing thousands and turning hundreds of thousands into refugees, and it barely gets mentioned in the Western press. Nor does the West seem to mind the striking absence of democracy in Angola, from which it buys a lot of oil. But about Zimbabwe, for some reason, it cares.

There is no Western plot to “re-colonise” Zimbabwe. Southern African countries need to bring pressure on Mugabe to accept his defeat in their own long-term self-interest. But they bring their own perspectives to the problem, and that makes it harder for them to act.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“In 1997…paranoia”)