Savage farce

2008-04-17 00:00

As I write, the savage, tragic farce in Zimbabwe is still playing itself out. One cannot say how it will end. Maybe one needs to try to step back a little from the immediate, constantly changing reality, and try to see the whole situation in some kind of perspective.

In an attempt to do this, I want to comment on the latest column in the Weekend Witness by my friend Harold Strachan. In his jokey and deliberately indirect way, Strachan comments on Hitler and Mugabe, both of whom can be said to have presided over national disasters. Of Hitler he recalls that it was fairly common among his opponents to describe him as mad: his fanatically assertive German nationalism, his hatred of the Jews, everything he said and did was to be put down to his personal lunacy. Strachan argues — quite correctly, and I think all historians would agree — that Hitler, for all his viciousness and imbalance, was essentially an extreme, lopsided manifestation of a communal hurt, anger and desperation that had developed among the German nation as a whole. As Strachan points out, by 1870 Germany was as advanced industrially as Britain and France (in fact he says more advanced), and yet it had no real empire where it could ply its trade and send emigrants. Then after its defeat in World War 1, the nation was made to make absurdly punitive reparations, and this led to the humiliating inflation disaster of the twenties. In these circumstances the emergence of a potentially dangerous demagogue could have been predicted.

In stressing all this Strachan is implicitly subscribing to what might be called the structural view of history, which is often contrasted (I think over-simply) with the “great man” view of history. The structuralist view is that the supposedly great men of political history can all be largely explained in structural terms; their seemingly great qualities, either good or bad, are not so much their own as the explicable products of their context. In other words, history is made not by individuals but by social and economic forces.

So in these terms Strachan argues that all those who see Mugabe as “mad” are getting it wrong: “and betcha life on it you can pick up any paper and in it there will be further dull recitativo about his lunacy, plus an inventory of recent horrible things he’s done to everybody but his band of fellow-madpersons …” He then goes on to talk of Mugabe’s supposed “hallucination that Britain wants to recolonise Zim” and proceeds to mention Blair’s “New Imperialism elsewhere in the world” (a reference to Iraq), with a distinct suggestion that Mugabe may be right in his suspicions. Thus “when most of Africa refuses to join the Madness Chorus and vilify ol’ Mugs there’s the usual lament”, which Strachan implies is misplaced. He concludes: “We all of us know what disaster Free Trade deals with Europe et al can lay on a fragile developing economy, and what menace can be laid on countries refusing to sign on.”

It’s an interesting argument, and some of its aspects are valid enough. Africa has good reason to be distrustful of Europe in trade negotiations, and Blair, demonised by Mugabe, is certainly no world hero. But I think Strachan is wrong. There was no elaborate structural build-up to the Zimbabwean Zanu-PF disaster as there was to the German Nazi disaster. In the first 20 years of its independence Zimbabwe on the whole did pretty well. Its economy was in good shape, it exported food to other African countries, relations between its different communities were good. The massacres of Zapu supporters in the eighties were a bad blot; and the fact that there was little serious land redistribution was, as is now very clear, a ticking time bomb, and both the government and the white farmers were foolish to neglect this issue. But what happened from 2000 onwards, after Mugabe had lost the referendum on constitutional changes, seems to be very clearly the work of individuals — Mugabe and his main Zanu-PF supporters — and not of predictable underlying economic and social forces.

In my view it would be really difficult to explain in structural terms, not so much the sudden dispossessing of white farmers (that made a kind of rough sense, though it was against the ethos of the country and economically very unwise), as the destruction of the shanty homes of many poor Zimbabweans, the threats to business people, and the thoughtless imposition of impossible price controls. These things can be partly explained, however, as the actions of a group of now reckless people who are determined to stay in power at all costs, and are indeed afraid of the consequences of losing power.

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