Blindness on Zimbabwe

2008-05-16 00:00

It was reported this week that retired South African generals investigating post-election violence in Zimbabwe had uncovered “shocking levels of state-sponsored terror” there. This, they said, makes any chance of a peaceful run-off election “almost impossible”.

In yesterday’s Witness this story was placed adjacent to two others. One described the injuries inflicted by Zanu-PF members on suspected political opponents and the other gave an account of a brutal attack on a white farming couple.

Things in Zimbabwe began to go wrong a long time ago, of course, but a decisive moment came earlier this decade after a referendum which did not go the ruling party’s way. Chagrined, President Robert Mugabe ordered the harassment and banishment of white farmers. This was indignantly documented and condemned in the Western media. Other African countries were outraged. Dreadful things had been happening for years on the African continent, including Zimbabwe, and yet, they noted, these had been virtually ignored by the West. Clearly, the sudden interest in Zimbabwe once whites were the victims indicated a selective, even a neo-colonialist, attitude.

This line of thinking was adopted by some influential and misguidedly myopic Africanist South Africans, including President Thabo Mbeki. Inevitably, that meant that when it came to Zimbabwe, sections of the South African media developed a kind of squeamishness, a deliberate myopia of their own, and a reluctance to criticise even the most blatant human right abuses and the destruction of Zimbabwe’s economy. If the media kept their collective mouth shut and looked the other way, they apparently reasoned, no one could accuse them of racism and all the other -isms associated with it.

And so Mbeki, whose quiet diplomacy was really a euphemism for complete inertia, felt justified in remaining silent, too. He continued to do nothing despite gathering national and international protest — to the extent, most recently, of suppressing the scathing report on the recent general elections and of demonstrating his support for Mugabe by visiting Harare.

It’s surely time, with the appalled report of the retired generals in his hand and with the end of his own presidency in sight, for Mbeki at last to take a firm stand on Zimbabwe.

If he does not, history will blame him, not only for conniving with Mugabe’s systematic destruction of that country and its people, but also for his own part in some of the fall-out from that destruction, such as the flood of Zimbabwean refugees into South Africa and the xenophobic violence currently developing into a serious runaway problem here.

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