Complacency is fatal

2010-04-09 00:00

ZIMBABWEAN newspaper proprietor Trevor Ncube tells a story of how on his first visit to Zambia in 1991 he felt that Zimbabwe would never be like its northern neighbour.

Ncube, who owns the Mail & Guardian newspaper, was not unique in holding this view. Many of his compatriots, after Zimbabwe’s liberation in 1980, looked down on their neighbours as a backward nation.

Zimbabwe was economically and politically a stable country. It had better roads compared to Zambia’s pothole-riddled streets. Harare had reliable electricity when keeping a packet of candles and paraffin was a sign of forward thinking in Lusaka. Even the Zimbabwean dollar was incomparable with the Zambian kwacha.

In less than 20 years, things have changed dramatically. Our northern neighbour is the subject of ridicule. The Zim dollar has been wiped off the face of the Earth. An advertising agency actually used real money for a billboard, showing how sour things had turned in a country that was once the breadbasket of the region­.

I was reminded of the conversation with Ncube as I read about our boy genius Julius Malema extolling the virtues of Robert Mugabe­’s rule of Zimbabwe.

For someone our president considers good enough to be a future leader of the African National Congress, Malema shows a shocking misunderstanding of the present, let alone the past.

He is in many ways the embodiment of the many South Africans who believe we will never be like Zimbabwe and who accuse those who carry this fear as being afro-pessimists.

Not to say afro-pessimists do not exist. There certainly are many who do not believe that Africans can amount to anything worthwhile. They have developed sophisticated arguments under which they hide their racial superiority complexes.

It must be said though that many African leaders such as Mugabe­ tend to help bolster the arguments that ours is a heart of darkness. And in their failure to see what is obviously wrong, the Malemas play right into the hands of those convinced that Africa is cursed with leaders who have an overwhelming instinct for destruction­.

As scoundrels tend to, those who do not want to take responsibility for their part in the destruction of what was working well, hide behind the race card.

We should not fool ourselves. That Zimbabwe was able to be a model on which many in the region looked up to, was because of the work of black people. That it became a laughing stock was similarly the work of the same people.

Blackness therefore cancels itself­ out as a reason for the progress or stagnation of Zimbabwe. There must be other reasons.

If we are to take Ncube’s account as representative of a general view of Zimbabweans in 1991, that country fell into a complacency that proved fatal to many of its institutions. One of these reasons­ must be the dangerous tendency to believe that whatever bad is happening around me will never happen to me.

To take a simplistic view, as Malema has, that Zimbabwe is where it is because of the machinations of “the racist West” is to be ahistorical at worst or disingenuous at best. Worse still, it is denialist.

As we learnt with our handling of HIV and Aids, denialism and prevarication in the face of crisis only benefit undertakers.

We can ill afford to mortgage the future of this nation’s children to grave diggers who romanticise the heroes of the struggle against colonialism and apartheid while ignoring their failure to live up to the ideals of the freedom they fought for.

There is nothing “reactionary” in stating the obvious fact that Robert Mugabe is no model for our future. Yes, he led a valiant struggle, and under his rule Zimbabweans developed one of the biggest middle classes, per capita, in the region, if not on the continent.

But his list of liabilities outweighs his assets. Under his leadership, the two main ethnic groups — the Ndebeles and the Shonas — remain suspicious of each other; the country’s educated elites continue to flee their homeland and take their assets to foreign lands; political freedoms are fast vanishing; and the criminal justice system suffers from a credibility crisis.

South Africans have more or less the same issues — there is still great mistrust between blacks and whites, many young and educated South Africans (correctly or not) feel they do not have a future here and questions keep being raised (again, rightly or not) about our criminal justice system. Only someone who does not care about South Africa’s present, let alone future, would think being fêted by Mugabe is something to be proud of.

We already know from history that the worst we can do is think that we are immune from the silly decisions that have been made by one-time heroes.


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