Maestro Mugabe and his orchestra of pain

2008-07-12 00:00

President Robert Mugabe once boasted that he held “degrees in violence”. But his use of force — against farmers, the opposition and sometimes the people en masse — shows that he also has a fiendish feel for degrees of violence. After 28 years of increasingly despotic rule, Mugabe has mastered the dark art of calibrating to best political advantage the state violence that is at his fingertips to command.

The key is not knowing when to strike, but when to refrain. One reason why Mugabe has long retained African Union (AU) support is that he is not seen as out of control, like an Idi Amin.

Instead, Mugabe knows when to unleash the hounds of hell and when to call them to heel, when to boast that they slaver at his command and when to disavow ownership.

Violence was ratcheted up before the presidential elections, forcing Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai to withdraw. Mugabe then declared himself the winner, exactly as plotted.

He now delights in the farcical situation where, although the South African government at last has conceded that Mugabe’s government is illegitimate, it perversely argues that the MDC should share power.

Violence against white farmers was similarly orchestrated. The war veterans forcibly “liberated” the farms, only meekly to have to hand the spoils to the Zanu-PF elite.

Conductor Mugabe’s musically flawless understanding of tempo, volume and audience sensibilities is nicely illustrated by the war vet invasion last week of the Imire Safari Ranch, a breeding area for endangered black rhino and one of the few places in Zimbabwe that still has wildlife.

The vets wanted a brace of impala, otherwise they would burn down the place. Owner John Travers reluctantly complied.

The next day they demanded that the Travers — who have spent a lifetime in conservation at Imire — vacate the property within 24 hours, failing which they would be killed. Johnny Rodrigues, head of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF), points out that if the invasion had succeeded most of the animals would have been slaughtered.

ZCTF calculated last year that more than 90% of the game on private game ranches has been lost.

Although wildlife is still fairly abundant at Hwange and Mana Pools, it is rare in the other national parks.

As it happens, Rodrigues authors a popular occasional e-newsletter to those interested in Zimbabwean wildlife. Through this, Imire took its case directly to the court of public opinion. Within hours of the invasion, Rodrigues had sounded a clarion call.

He highlighted the threat to Imire and its hand-reared and now internationally known menagerie of orphaned animals — Tatenda the rhino, Hogwash the warthog, Tsotsi the hyena and Nzou, the elephant that thinks she is a buffalo.

Within hours the world news media was humming as the story was picked up and animal lovers sprang into action. Mugabe’s government, with characteristic aplomb, read the political downside threatening at a time when the UN was about to vote on sanctions.

Not even inner-circle access could save the covetous army general behind the invasion. The retreat was sounded.

The following day, Travers was inundated with reassuring phone calls from the ministers of Environment and Defence and from the provincial governor. The police, the army and Central Intelligence Organisation operatives were immediately deployed onto the property to protect it.

Needless to say, they were not needed. Imire, for now, is safe.

Not so for the poor farmers that the SA Development Community Court recently ruled should not be evicted from their land. Alas, they have been sent packing.

As a maestro of violence, Mugabe knows that the rhino, any day, will garner more

sympathy than the wit ou.

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