Zim: a little perspective

2008-04-22 00:00

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 judgment refusing to let the 77 tons of weapons be transported 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 presumably, to Angola. The Chinese weapons, which were shipped three days after President Robert Mugabe lost the Zimbabwean election on March 29, 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 last 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 “recounted”.

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 are 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% and inflation is 160 000%. Almost 70% 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 (SADC), 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 recolonisation 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 15 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.

The other disturbing thing, from an African point of view, is the disproportionate interest that the Western media take in the Zimbabwean tragedy.

A United States-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.

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