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The Amazing Mugabe Man

Faster than the speeding bullets of international opinion, mighty enough to lob a nation into the sewer, he is the Amazing Mugabe Man, champion of the landless. But his most unsung power is his ability to paralyse other superhero presidents into silence.

Original publication: Tiscali World Online, 2001.

amazing mugabe man

All the indications are that the breakdown in law and order in Zimbabwe should not be taken as a purely spontaneous eruption of popular anger at the legacy of minority rule, which is how President Mugabe enjoys characterising the violent invasions of white-owned farms in his country. His stance on the matter is that these widespread occupations are a long pent-up reaction to imbalances in land ownership. After years of discontent a threshold has been crossed, the will of the people has broken to the surface, and he, Mugabe, is more or less only a bystander in the whole business. Owlishly bemused and not a little smug at how the pendulum has swung so forcefully in favour of his ‘fast-track land reform programme’ – but a bystander all the same, a gently beaming onlooker.

In terms of this programme, announced last year [2000], over 5,000 white-owned farms – or about 95% of all white-owned farmland – have been targeted for resettlement by landless blacks. But if ‘fast-tracking’ isn't fast enough for the overzealous activists on the ground and things get a little out of hand ... well, there you have it, what can a fellow do, the people have spoken, this is bigger than you or me, baby, it's the great gushing geyser of the vox populi – and don't tell me you settler bastards didn't see it coming?

Never mind that this position amounts to an abdication of the responsibilities of governance. What is more likely is that the forcible occupations, spearheaded by militants of the ZANU-PF ruling party and supposed veterans of the liberation war, have been facilitated by state sponsorship at the highest levels. If it is still premature to speak conclusively of anything as thoroughgoing as ‘state orchestration of violence’, it is certainly feasible to accuse the Zimbabwean government of tacit collusion in the violence being waged in the name of land reform – of acts of omission, in other words, if not of as-yet unproven ones of active, deliberate, expedient commission.

See no evil, hear no evil

Anecdotal reports abound of police turning a blind eye when land invasions are in progress or failing to act when besieged farmers ask for help. At a national level officials do nothing publicly to denounce acts of terror, save perhaps for tut-tutting at how unruly ‘criminal elements’ in the campaign are playing into the hands of foreign journalists only too ready to paint a selective and exaggerated picture of the putative true state of affairs.

Mugabe himself sets the pace with his nudge-nudge, wink-wink, catch-my-drift-boys pronouncements on land reform, reinforcing with his every word the ambience of ideological legitimacy and state tolerance that sanctions the deeds of ‘the war vets’ – the Brown Shirts who are cutting such a decisive swathe through the red tape and general arsing about that usually accompanies state appropriations of private land.

This is, after all, good old Zimbabwe, a nation where the virulence of political repression seems to intensify the more the aging Mugabe, president for the past 21 years, senses the harbingers of his political and existential mortality. It is a country where political intimidation is routine, opposition politicians are harassed and threatened, independent media are strictly curtailed and even live phone-in shows on state television have been banned – obviously it's hard to censor a live phone-in if a caller starts mouthing off about the government.

More spectacularly, it's a country where, according to the news wire AFP, ‘in June 2000 at least 34 people died ahead of parliamentary elections and thousands more were beaten, raped, abducted or otherwise intimidated in a campaign of violence by pro-government militants’.

It is, in short, a situation that the Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon has termed ‘a reign of terror masquerading as land reform’, and to imagine that the autocratic Mugabe and his government are not culpable in fomenting this crisis, whether by acts of commission, omission, or opportunistic combinations thereof, is laughable. What is truly puzzling, however, is the silence that descends on outsiders to Zimbabwe who are in a position to exert leverage on this troubled state.

Honoured with dubious respectability

While the USA has passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Recovery Act, which seeks to implement visa restrictions and targeted sanctions against those responsible for violence, the response by South Africa – Zimbabwe's influential neighbour and the country whose economic and political self-interests are most jeopardised by Zimbabwean instability – has been the ineffectual, pusillanimous charade of kow-towing known as softly-softly ‘quiet diplomacy’.

Admittedly, and quite frankly, it's difficult to see what external blandishments would work best on Zimbabwe's intransigent leadership or what outside actions would resolve the crisis, except letting the fever run its course and checking for a pulse later on. And, admittedly, Foreign Affairs Minister Pahad is not unconvincing when he argues, ‘The media have attacked us for our quiet diplomacy. But what is diplomacy if it is not quiet?’ – i.e., tick Bob off and he won't take your calls anymore.

Then again, what is diplomacy if it is not an iron fist in a velvet glove, if it is not underwritten by the political will to go the distance should no mutually agreeable arrangement emerge? And never mind protecting South African interests, as paramount as these are: whatever happened to the notion of not standing idly by while bullies hit on other kids in the playground?

Reacting to Tony Leon's call for diplomatic and political sanctions against Zimbabwe, Minister Pahad replied that while ‘we do not accept everything that is happening there’, ‘We can't take any action that would lead to the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy.’ If only the Zim-Zim authorities were as farsighted. Yes, given that their economy needs the merest gust of wind to pitch it into the abyss, economic sanctions would be a measure of last resort, although what Leon seems to have in mind is closer to the strictures proposed by the Americans.

One would have to be on drugs to believe that visa restrictions and a medley of diplomatic and political sanctions would in and of themselves normalise affairs in Zimbabwe. But such measures are likely to send an emphatic signal. Crucially, they would isolate a state that the international community has continued to accord – albeit guardedly – a dubious respectability, even a certain awe. This has been particularly so in southern and greater Africa, and particularly so in the case of its leader. For this reason the most effective interventionary steps of this kind would be those that originate close to home.

What inner resistances would have to be crossed, what ideological ambivalences resolved, and what political pros and cons balanced out, before regional leaders can commit to such an approach is a subject for infinite conjecture.

For the time being Minister Pahad is sticking to his guns, alas too figuratively for some, on ‘quiet diplomacy’, even though President Mbeki recently conceded in a BBC interview that the policy has been unsuccessful. Prompted with the words, ‘Mugabe's not listening, is he?’, Mbeki replied, ‘Well, he hasn't.’

Indeed, it's a profoundly irksome thought that Mugabe's imperviousness has so embarrassed a statesman of the calibre and capacities of a Thabo Mbeki and left the young(ish) lion of the Third World, the man apparently most well positioned to sway the old grandee of post-Independence Africa, curtseying and vacillating in the wake of Mugabe's Mosaical determination to lead his nation to the Promised Land. What is it about Mugabe that makes regional leaders so diffident, so reticent, in their dealings with and around him?

One irony too many

There are signs, however, of growing resolve in the subcontinent to allay total meltdown in Zimbabwe. At the end of the most recent Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit, in Blantyre, Malawi, President Mbeki announced that a task team comprising representatives from South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana would work with the Zimbabwean government on political and economic issues, and that it would consult a spectrum of role-players.

In yet another allusion to the failure of his ‘quiet diplomacy’, Mbeki said, ‘The feeling of the region ... was that as a region we should really not leave it to South Africa to interact with Zimbabwe. The rest of us have an obligation to participate in this process so that we contribute to finding a solution.’

While the SADC initiative falls somewhat short of Tony Leon's appeal for, inter alia, sanctions, a motion of censure against land invasions, and an independent investigation into allegations of state orchestration of violence, the measures suggest that the region is making a cautious departure from its past passivity; it certainly seems an improvement, if only a nuanced one, on ‘quiet diplomacy’.

What the effect of a task team will be remains, of course, to be seen. It hardly inspires confidence to learn that, barely hours after the SADC announcement, the editor of Zimbabwe's only independent daily newspaper was arrested, apparently in connection with his paper's coverage of the looting of white-owned farms.

Crucially, though, SADC has replaced Mugabe with Mozambican president Chissano as head of its security and defence organ. Given that this organ is supposed to safeguard against breakdowns of law and order, it would have been one irony too many for Mugabe to have stayed on, all the more so since the Blantyre summit was played out against the fiery backdrop of large-scale looting and farm invasions in the northern Zimbabwean region of Chinhoyi.

Fiery backdrop to Blantyre

Over 70 white families fled the area and around 50 farms were ransacked during the attacks, which apparently were sparked off after a clash between black occupiers and white farmers who had rushed to the aid of a fellow farmer. According to the local ZANU-PF MP, Phillip Chiyangwa, however, ‘The resultant attacks were out of anger after the farmers assaulted blacks who had approached them for dialogue over a misunderstanding.’

Twenty-one of the farmers involved were arrested, and during the several days it took for police reinforcements and paramilitary units to make a showing, millions of rands' worth of damage was incurred and scores of black farm workers beaten up by invading mobs, reportedly with virtually no police intervention. Still, it was jolly hockey sticks to know that the fuzz had not completely forsaken their duties. Three policemen were suspended and are to be investigated for supplying the 21 arrested farmers with new prison clothing.

Meanwhile, Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, is alleging that the spree of violence was masterminded by the ZANU-PF head honcho in the area and that a special army unit had been deployed in plain clothes to terrorise Mugabe opponents. Closer to home, Tony Leon says he had a telephone conversation with a farmer who claimed the attacks seemed to have been controlled from the Chinhoyi police station itself.

The Zimbabwean government has now announced that it will be using the army instead of state agricultural services to demarcate white farms for resettlement, an attempt, it says, to speed up reform as well as to restore order. To the cynical, it looks suspiciously like a classic mop-up operation – send a vanguard to clear out the enemy, and a rearguard to entrench the ground gained.

Isaac Newton and the absent crisis

It was against this backdrop that all eyes turned to the Blantyre summit. Would the region at long last take effective measures against Mugabe? Indeed, would the country's woes even feature at all as a matter of urgent concern? The omens did not look promising, especially when the Sunday Times asked the Information Minister if SADC would be addressing the crisis in his country. In a week when Finance Minister Makoni painted as desolate a picture of Zimbabwe's flatlining economy as one could wish to find, the Information Minister's reply to the Times was a little surprising: ‘Crisis?’ he said. ‘What crisis? There is no crisis in Zimbabwe, so there is no need for it to be discussed.’

Amongst the other national delegates, the signs were scarcely more auspicious, with SADC executive secretary Prega Ramsamy taking the view that ‘there is too much unnecessary attention on Zimbabwe ... There is too much focus on negative issues in the region.’ A Zambian minister, who didn't want to be named, told the press, ‘It's a very delicate issue. We couldn't even raise it. We are Zimbabwe's direct neighbours, but even we don't know what is going on inside there.’

As for Mugabe himself, on the eve of his departure for Blantyre he addressed a Heroes Day rally with the following reference to events in Chinhoyi: ‘We have seen of late some of those who have not repented [three guesses who?] who are organising themselves to attack the landless people who have been resettled on some farms. But we warn them to desist immediately in these kinds of organised attacks [he means farmers, not ‘war vets’]; they will of course ricochet. Acts of this nature have the ability to rebounce, and when they bounce back and hit them they should not cry foul.’ It was Mugabe the Bystander all over again, this time in the guise of a Sir Isaac Newton spelling out the inevitabilities beyond his personal control.

At the end of the day SADC has come up with the strategy, regionally endorsed, of forming a consultative task force that will work with the Zimbabwean state. The question remains: will this be enough? For many it will be too little, too late. For others, working with Mugabe on resolving land invasions is (to lift another quote, dimly remembered, from Tony Leon) like ‘discussing child care with King Herod’.

Then again, is there ultimately any other alternative?

Believe it or not, but there was a time, not long before the land grab began and last year's electoral carnage started piling up, when once I sprang to the defence of Mugabe's good name. Beneath his homophobic, authoritarian exterior, I argued, and beyond the prejudices put out about him by ex-Rhodesians, there must surely be a kindly and vital nature; and even if one doesn't like his politics, he certainly deserves respect for his life-long dedication to Zimbabwe. After all, anyone who so famously called Tony Blair ‘a cold fish’ can't be all bad.

But then Mugabe ruined the friendship; then he went bonkers and mutated into the Amazing Mugabe Man, a destructive colossus who stands astride an entire country and whose strangest power isn't his invincible strength but his ability to make his neighbours lapse into a trance of inaction, half aversion, half compliance, and dither off into the wings, softly softly.


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