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Reclaiming the Zimbabwe narrative
28/09/2009 00:00:00
by Mthulisi Mathuthu

THERE is something about the determination of the liberal community in trying to unseat Robert Mugabe which reminds one of Lady Macbeth who, towards the end of that Shakespearian tragedy, struggles desperately to wash her hands clean of Duncan’s blood.

Just as the poor lady, pushed by a sense of guilt over her role in the murder of King Duncan battled with the invisible blood stains, the Western world liberals are not only angry with Mugabe over his treatment of whites but are working tirelessly not just to undo Mugabe but to absolve themselves from the making and protection of the tyrant they so much adored but loathe today.

In her essay The Tragedy of Zimbabwe, Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing writes: ‘‘Mugabe is now execrated, and rightly, but blame for him began late. Nothing is more astonishing than the silence for so many years of the liberals, the well-wishers -- the politically correct. What crimes have been committed in its name -- political correctness …”

As Lessing says, the liberals’ silence on Mugabe over the years was so pronounced that it, on its own, easily amounts to a criminal act which explains the revisionist language from the Cable News Network (CNN) and the strange characters attendant to the struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe.

Suffice to say that Mugabe’s earlier global image as a humane “conciliator” was hardly the work of the Zimbabweans themselves but a few powerful liberals from within and abroad who sought to cushion their own personal space.

These liberals cashed in on Mugabe’s reconciliation gesture, blowing it out of proportion to mean that their freedom and satisfaction equalled tranquillity in Zimbabwe. For as long as they could enjoy casino in Montclair, play golf and fly copters and planes to Kariba – Zimbabwe was democratic. It didn’t matter what Mugabe was doing to other blacks because he was good to the white folk.

But as is now known, not only did Mugabe know that his image as a “good African” hinged on the liberal account of Zimbabwe and on Whitehall’s patronage but he always hated that image although he benefited from it.

To Mugabe, being a “good African” to white people diminished his stature as a liberation war stalwart drawing him closer to the likes of Kamuzu Banda and Mobutu -- people whom, in his mind, were pathetic sell-outs who lost both the respect of their people and masters with equal measure. He always wanted to be much closer to his heroes Patrice Lumumba and Kwameh Nkrumah.


Mugabe was good as long as he quelled the 1980’s land occupations, and for as long as he denounced apartheid in South Africa which, despite their earlier support for it, the West wanted to dismantle.

When South Africa got its independence, Mugabe wasn’t of any use to the Whitehall guys because a better project had emerged south of the Limpopo with Mandela coming into power. The Whitehall plan was that if Mugabe’s reconciliation worked, that is, ensuring the unhindered prosperity and satisfaction of the whites, it would then be transferred to South Africa, a country which meant much more to the British not just because of their investments there but because of the size of its economy too.

If the prosperity of a few white businesses in Zimbabwe mattered so much to the West, one can only understand how much the success of the many more across the Limpopo had to be secured at all costs.

That achieved, Mugabe would then be discarded and all the goodwill will be for Mandela’s South Africa and with Zimbabwe dwarfed and Mugabe redundant, his ouster would not just be welcome but also a workable idea in the Whitehall scheme of things.

After-all, Mugabe always kept them on tenterhooks, occasionally threatening to revoke the hand of reconciliation. In 1992, he had sounded the alarm bells with the Land Acquisition Act. Despite having left them alone, Mugabe always harboured ill-feelings about the white farming community whom he once said were so hard-hearted "you would think they were Jews". So in the scheme of the Whitehall people, the sooner he was overshadowed the better.

But before his departure Mugabe had to be thanked (some might say bribed) with a royal British Knighthood for not just having protected the white properties but for having been such a “good African” that even after the lapse of the 10-year constitutional provision barring the seizure of land, he had let the white farmers to stay put.

Granted in 1994, the year Mandela assumed power, the British Order of the Knight of Bath would serve a double purpose -- to see Mugabe off with honour and without him grumbling and secondly, to put a lid on his earlier crimes – like the Matabeleland massacres -- in which Whitehall was complicit having not only provided part of the training for Mugabe’s private army brigade but gone on to help discourage press coverage of the atrocities.

In that way, the past would have been done with and the Whitehall foreign policy wonks would then proceed to their next project, this time overseen not just by a “good African” but a saintly one – Mandela -- for he didn’t seem untrustworthy like the quarrelsome Mugabe.

Incensed by Whitehall’s broader plan to replace him with Mandela’s South Africa, Mugabe, who was always conscious of the fact that his rule was other people’s project, decided to rescue himself from this group of “good Africans” comprised of people he so despised by becoming a “bad African”, a real baddie.

In Mugabe’s thinking, never again should the whites use the black folk only to dump them -- it is not always the case that the Whitehall folk are smarter than the African folk.

Mugabe’s sudden rebellion against the Crown seems to have hit home, and that is why Zimbabwe is forever the centre of global attention today. He must be stopped at whatever cost to prevent him poisoning other “good Africans” – from Botswana’s Ian Khama through Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaoré to Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete.

In Mugabe’s thinking, when a white man attacks a black man, that means the black man is right. It is this “I’m my brother’s keeper” approach to international relations that has earned Mugabe admiration in Africa and elsewhere, and vilification from western capitals. In his mind, instead of him becoming pathetic and totally reviled by the black folk because of what he did to them (the Gukurahundi pogrom, Nleya, Rashiwe Guzha, Patrick Kombayi etc), they will now praise him for rendering the white folk pathetic.

Irked by Mugabe’s rebellion and, no doubt feeling embarrassed and guilty for what Lessing calls the crime of political correctness and silence on Zimbabwe, the liberal folk have set up many projects to “build democracy in Zimbabwe” and to revise the account of Mugabe as one who started off very well but got worse along the way.

The guilty have stripped Mugabe of his royal honour and the universities of Michigan, Massachusetts and Edinburgh have had to recall their honorary degrees granted to the veteran tyrant before 2000. Just because these honours were granted at the height of obvious crimes against black people, but which were masked by white prosperity and comfort, the language has been changed to allege Mugabe’s “transformation” from a benign leader into a monster.

The revisionist approach transcends into scholarship. Professor Terrence Ranger, who today is at the forefront of many initiatives to reverse Mugabe’s politics, was until just before 2000 not as visible in the fight against Mugabe as he is today. In 1995, a time when Mugabe’s malevolence was already clear even to Primary School children, Ranger received an honorary Dr of Letters from Mugabe as the chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe. State television showed the tyrant rising to his feet to cap the don. Ranger smiled and cracked jokes with his friend Mugabe.

At the time Ranger received his honorary degree, horrific things had just occurred. State agents had emptied live ammunition on Patrick Kombayi for opposing Mugabe’s deputy Simon Muzenda in the 1990 elections, Ndabaningi Sithole’s Churu Farm had just been seized by Mugabe, Rashiwe Guzha had just disappeared and Captain Edwin Nleya killed. Morgan Tsvangirai, a trade union leader then, had been unlawfully detained and student leaders were in and out of prison. The list is endless.

Just as the recent Mugabe interview with the CNN showed us, it is possible that few of these “well-wishers” don’t know of the Churu Farm saga or the story of Guzha, yet they know in detail the story of Mugabe’s goons stealing whisky from the Beatrice country club in 2000.

Today, Ranger will, I’m sure, not hear of an offer for such an honour from Mugabe. But the question remains: What changed about Mugabe which has distanced the early “well-wishers” from their friend? His anti-gays stance? Intervention in the Congo war and disrupting America’s project there? The assault on the white farming community and the seizure of their properties? I suggest all the above could be the uncomfortable answers.

No doubt, Ranger suffered for Zimbabwe’s independence, but why did he wait until the end of the 1990s to act, convincingly, on Mugabe’s tyranny?

To the liberals, as the CNN interview showed us, the pillaging of the Beatrice and Mutorashanga Country Clubs means much more than the fates of Nleya, Guzha and Tsvangirai. The diligence of characters like R.W. Johnson on matters to do with Zimbabwe in general, and Mugabe in particular, since 2000 is as breathtaking as it is suspicious.

A whole range of literature on Zimbabwe promotes a view of the country with titles, style and content meant to cast Mugabe in a light that absolves the “politically correct”.

Almost all the books written by Western journalists about Mugabe after 2000 have the assault on the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the commercial farmers as their main thrust. Mugabe’s early crimes are of a lesser value.

As much as these books dissect and attempt to contextualise Mugabe’s rule and character, they, to a large extent, serve as support to the revisionist account of Mugabe.

A few examples might suffice. The Telegraph diplomatic editor David Blair’s Degrees in Violence: Robert Mugabe and the struggle for power in Zimbabwe, makes for one.

Much as Blair tries to repudiate the claim that Mugabe was ever a responsible statesman and goes on to tell us that the Mugabe we see today is the “real Robert Mugabe”, this hits the reader as a rushed assertion.

The writer seems to want to avoid the trap that many of his colleagues have fallen into and to shield himself from the accusation of selective accounting before he tragically does just that.

No sooner has the writer completed his trick that he plunges headlong into the same trap, dragging the reader through the same everyday CNN diet of the assault on the whites and the MDC. The 1980s period is totally overshadowed and yet it is littered with mass graves, and not scars which seem to attract more revulsion today.

Suffice to say, there has not been a single mass grave in Zimbabwe between 2000 and today and yet the overkill on the drama unfolding in that country will suggest that an Auschwitz is going on there.

Heidi Holland’s Dinner with Mugabe: The untold story of a freedom fighter who became a tyrant makes for yet another spectacular revisionist account. As opposed to fighting for freedom, Mugabe sought power by any means necessary. He rode on the freedom train to get power. And to keep that power, he used just as dirty methods as apply to this date.

Immediately after attaining power, Mugabe embarked on a brutal Stalinist-style of power consolidation aimed at cowing opponents and achieving a one party state which resulted in the killing of 20,000 civilians in Matabeleland and yet all these acts didn’t register much in the liberal world because Mugabe avoided disturbing them as a way to win their trust and their patronage.

Essentially, Mugabe is more of a terrorist than a liberator. He has been that for a long time and yet listening to the discourse on Zimbabwe today, you are left with an impression he only became a baddie post-2000.

Following the bashing of opposition leaders in March 2007 Mugabe proudly remarked: “We are called Zanu PF. Check our record when provoked.” This was in line with his earlier threat and instruction to his ruling Zanu PF party goons in 2001: “We must strike fear into the heart of the white man -- our real enemy. Let them tremble.”

Yet another interesting liberal account of Mugabe and Zimbabwe is Christopher Hope’s Brothers Under the skin: Travels in Tyranny which seeks to portray Mugabe as a racist par excellence. Perhaps conscious of the racial aspects of this revisionist account of Mugabe, Hope seeks to escape the accusations by twinning Mugabe with the racist apartheid architect, Hendrick Verwoerd. And yet it will be difficult to cast Mugabe as a mere racist. Nothing in Mugabe’s life to this date helps Hope’s line.

To the contrary, Mugabe’s tyranny is something of a dragnet sucking in everything and everybody on its way. Whatever he may have uttered against the whites is just as terrifying as any other threat he has issued against any other person – including Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu: “ZAPU and its leader, Joshua Nkomo, are like a cobra in a house. The only way to deal effectively with a snake is to strike and destroy its head."

Ever an opportunist, Mugabe will stop at nothing to get his way. If it means crushing children or pregnant women, whites, gays and Ndebeles or Shona opponents, he will do just that.

Contrary to the CNN line, Mugabe has, unlike Verwoerd, never espoused an all-out racist policy but has played the race card (and tribal of course) to achieve his broader project –consolidation of power. Verwoerd used his tyranny to enhance his broader racist project. He went so far as to roll out laws crafted in crudely racist language something which Mugabe hasn’t done.

Sadly, however, reclaiming the Zimbabwe account for ourselves will be a difficult task. A whole range of Africans have been sucked into the liberal revisionist line with the likes of Bishops Sentamu and Desmond Tutu lining up to cast Mugabe in this light.

It is not surprising that the CNN and the BBC adore them. Even Ali Mazrui’s 1986 BBC Africans series documentary projects Mugabe’s Zimbabwe as one of the countries whose direction is worth emulating which feeds into the liberal fallacy that Mugabe was once a democrat. Accounts like Mazrui’s help the guilty lot to squirm off the hook.

While Sentamu calls Mugabe the “worst racist” he ever saw, Tutu observed what he terms “a change in character” on Mugabe’s part and that is from being a “good African” into a bad one. For the headline-chasing Sentamu, to say Mugabe is a racist on the basis of the 2000 onwards horror show in which a handful of whites were killed is to say the killing of more than 200 black people does not count.

Unbeknown to him, Sentamu serves Mugabe well by casting him as a lesser devil eliminating from his CV the killings of many other black people before 2000. In the end, Mugabe looks like a victim of propaganda and Sentamu like a confused primate!

It might also help if Tutu understands that there was never any other Mugabe except the one whom he is berating today. In the end, the Bishop loathes the Mugabe he admires! The same might as well apply to former US President Jimmy Carter who lavished Mugabe with praises right in the middle of the 1980s horror in Matabeleland, but is now a leading campaigner against him.

Listen to Lessing: “For a while, I wondered if the word tragedy could be applied here (to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe), greatness brought low, but Mugabe, despite his early reputation was never that, he was always a frightened little man …”

And yet in trying to reclaim the account from the liberal grip, some have fared just as badly as Tutu and Sentamu only that they are praising their friend Mugabe. African leaders and scholars have lined up to argue that Mugabe is a revolutionary leader par excellence whose only sin in the post-independence era was to redistribute land. To buttress this view, they point to the inconsistencies and double standards such as has been complained of by many.

So glaring have been the inconsistencies of the West in its engagement of the developing countries that some Africans will go to shocking levels to defend each other in the face of criticism. Under pressure to disown Mugabe in the face of his retributive politics, the African leaders have not only dug in but defended him. Perhaps the most startling defence of the Zimbabwean ruler came from his friend and former Mozambican President, Joaquim Chissano, in 2001.

“Mugabe is a master of the rule of law and champions it,” he said at the height of state terrorism in Zimbabwe.

Just as disappointing has been African journalism. Veteran Ghanaian journalist, Baffour Ankomah, has, since 1999, used his UK-based magazine, the New African to promote Mugabe’s quarrelsome brand of politics and to take aim at the rest of Mugabe’s critics. More than necessary, he has visited Zimbabwe, fully sponsored by the state, to do damage limitation for Mugabe.

Ankomah deliberately confuses an attack on Mugabe for an attack on Zimbabwe. He waxes lyrical about Zimbabwe’s natural beauty and how wrong it is to demonise Mugabe and yet he doesn’t take time to see the obvious carnage on the ground. As Pablo Neruda would have said, what about the blood in the streets Mr Ankomah?

This opportunistic but determined PR exercise has been carefully crafted and feeds on the hypocrisy of the international community with the sole aim of not just promoting Mugabe as a “great African” but of absolving him from any wrong doing. How dare they West criticise Mugabe when they are supporting tyrants such as Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Paul Kagame of Rwanda -- who without doubt are amongst some of the most dangerous Africans -- Ankomah and some African scholars ask?

Mugabe has become the window through which we can see into the western hypocrisy and yet, upon reflection and given his record in the face of challenge, it would be an injustice to call him an African hero. It will be an overstatement to say he is a victim. He is getting the opprobrium he long deserved, albeit late.

Clearly, Mugabe wants to be a known as a victim of imperialism and whenever he has appeared on the world stages he has sought to drive this line to cheers by some Africans. Much as neo-colonialism is still a factor in international relations, that on its own hardly takes away the fact that Mugabe isn’t and shouldn’t be an African hero.

On launching his campaign to take land from the whites and to cleanse Zimbabwe of what he saw to be agents of imperialism, he, symbolically, dubbed the controversial exercise the “Third Chimurenga”, meaning the third anti-colonial struggle; and that struck a chord with many pan-African scholars.

The hollowness of his revolution is echoed by the fact that however much he tries to sell it as a pro-people exercise, the glaring reality is that the first and foremost victims are the poor black people who have been subjected to unspeakable torture, beatings and murder. The 2005 whirlwind demolition of the black urban folk’s shacks in the name of face-lifting provided evidence that Mugabe is one never to care about the ordinary people. So was the stripping of the many Zimbabweans of migrant origin’s right to vote in the 2002 election.

His is a “revolution” based mainly on murder, retribution and revenge. Just as Mugabe never sought inclusive freedom but personal power, his was not land reform; instead he seized land from the whites with the sole aim of inflicting pain than to achieve social justice which in his mind is down the scale.

To him, the white folk had to feel the reverse pain of loss and to know that they too can bleed.

The beneficiaries of the land reform are the cronies and not the people in whose name the exercise is carried out. Rather than being erected on reason, the exercise is driven by vengeance. Where it should inspire pride and confidence, it spawns hatred, fear and destruction.

Rather than being a revolution, Mugabe’s is a socio-politico Chernobyl and, thanks to earlier Western indifference (or British approval?) and patronage, the carnage has spread across the globe with Zimbabweans in exile doing menial jobs.

The tendency amongst Ankomah think-a-likes has been to say that just because Mugabe’s terror pales in comparison with the rest of the western client dictators who have never held elections, then the Zimbabwean leader is wrongfully accused. How daft!

They say just because Mugabe has allowed some newspapers like the Zimbabwe Independent and the Standard to operate and also let the opposition MDC party to operate shows that he is tolerant. Again this is obtuse because it ignores the fact that Mugabe’s tyranny is unique in that it is sustained by democratic institutions. It might not be as brazen as Kamuzu Banda’s totalitarian project but on scrutiny, one will see that this tolerance is nothing but a façade.

As the false portrait of Mugabe as a once progressive democrat is replaced by that of what David Blair described as “the real Robert Mugabe”, the “well-wishers” (western media) and the liberals are, like the poor Lady Macbeth, battling mad trying to wash themselves spotless clean.

One can almost hear them: “Out, damned spot!” And yet not even the waters of the Jordan and the “perfumes of Arabia” will suffice.

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