Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Zimbabwe -Breaking the Silence from Across the Black Atlantic

Zimbabwe. I’ve neglected to speak on the situation in the Southern African country, despite the recent events that have taken place since the elections held back in late March. The situation is Zimbabwe a convoluted one. Here in the West, many in the black activist community have taken a strong stance, so much so that an opposing opinion is tantamount to some form of Pan African “race treason.” Far be it from me to care about being accused of such a thing. However as emotions tend to run high on the topic, I thought I’d give it a few weeks before I said anything. So this is my Zimbabwe commentary. However it is not so much about the elections that have recently taken place, the unheard of refusal to release results after almost a month, the recent run-off polls, or the bizarre cache of Chinese weapons (destined for Mugabe's government) that black union members refused to unload from a ship. Rather, this is about how we in the black western world view and talk about Zimbabwe—or better perhaps, how some attempt to stop us from doing so openly and honestly.

Zimbabwe. The recent elections have pitted two bitter forces against each other. On the one hand we have Robert Mugabe, hailed by many black activists around the world as a freedom fighter. On the other hand we have an opposition party, a hodge-podge of dissenting interests funded in party by a wealthy white minority, and backed by a former coloniser (the UK) as well as other Western powers. The 84 year old Mugabe and the ZANU PF have fought this election, and previous ones, by portraying themselves as freedom fighters against Western encroachment. And many blacks in the West, particularly the US, admire him and throw their support behind him based on this premise. It is an understandable choice, given the history of Zimbabwe under brutal colonizing regimes that massacred black Africans, engaged in whole-sale theft of land and set up oppressive regimes. Given that, I’d at first glance support Robert Mugabe and any leader in Africa who claimed to be fighting for African sovereignty. Only one problem with that analysis--the people most harmed by Mugabe's rule haven’t been the historical white oppressors. Rather, they’ve been other black Zimbabweans.

From shutting down the press, to destroying the shanty towns of hundreds of thousands of poor squatters, to torturing, beating and even killing dissidents (as reported by independent witnesses), the ZANU PF under Mugabe has oppressed more Africans than it has the minority of wealthy whites it is allegedly fighting against. By holding onto power for over two decades (a troubling sign in of itself) and declaring himself the only guarantor of Zimbabwe's sovereignty, the bitter irony is that Robert Mugabe went from freedom fighter to despotic autocrat, and has sowed the very seeds that allow foreign critics (Britain, the US and others) to both demonise him and ultimately gain control thru such groups as the MDC. What Mugabe should have done was groomed a legitimate and respected cadre of future leaders to take over, to take the struggle where he obviously could not, rather than holding onto the reins of power between himself and a handful of cronies. Now the people of Zimbabwe (on the face of it well over half of them, and most likely much more, given the intimidation tactics of the security forces loyal to Mugabe in suppressing the vote among rivals) have finally decided that enough is enough. And they're willing to go to the MDC--even with its troubling ties to the West--rather than endure another era of Mugabe/ZANU PF rule.

When the last round of elections were held in Zimbabwe, I had written then that the people of that country were between a rock and a hard place. Choose the oppressive autocrat they used to admire, or go with the opposition party whose ties they rightly question. What has always been needed is a choice that is not the MDC and certainly not Robert Mugabe. But given his tight grip on power, Robert Mugabe was the only person who could have seen to this, if his true concern was Zimbabwe in the first place. The sad fact is that Mugabe and the Western powers feed off each other. He casts himself as the black vanguard against Western encroachment and they cast him as a dictator. The more they push, the more he claims the enemies are at the gate and he is the only one that can save Zimbabwe. The more he tightens his hold on power, the more they demonise him, and place restrictive sanctions that only hurt the people of Zimbabwe. It has been a perfect symbiosis that groups like Africa Action pointed out do nothing to help the people of Zimbabwe, but keep Mugabe in power without his acknowledging his shortcomings, and simultaneously giving the West another “African despot” to rail against without having to acknowledge the harm of colonialism and neoliberalism.

Of course, listen to numerous black activists in the US, and they have decided they know what is best for the Zimbabwe people. To many black activists in the West who pay attention to such things, Mugabe is a revered figure who is beyond criticism. Usually if there is any criticism, it is glossed over as "well I know he does some things, but..." or "he may somehow abuse his power, but...." Either that, or some comparison is made by saying "well look at how much people Bush has killed,” as if that somehow makes oppression by Mugabe better. No actual refutable case is made when out-of-hand dismissing Mugabe's documented cases of torture, abuse, and silencing of black opposition members. When such evidence is ever presented, the usual retort is that independent observers, who are deemed worthy when they are pointing out abuse by Western powers, are allegedly no longer credible sources. The brutality of the 1980s carried out under Mugabe's watch in Matebeleland in which thousands of civilians died, is either ignored or excused in a myriad of ways--as somehow these black activists in the West know better about the goings-ons in Zimbabwe than the thousands of witnesses who have long reported on it. To Mugabe's black defenders in the West, they see the war veterans aligning behind Mugabe, and that's all they need.

The hard truth is that the Mugabe revered and romanticized by the black activist crowd in America is the one of the revolutionary that Bob Marley sang to during the hey-day of Zimbabwe independence. It is not the one with the sad and jaded history that followed in the two decades since. This new Mugabe who has aged with the time is something much of the black activist world remains in staunch denial about.

And, as I have personally learned, to voice criticism of Mugabe is to open one's self up to countless and ceaseless attacks from these black Western defenders of his legacy. Usually they sum up their support beginning with the seizure of white farm lands in the 1990s by Mugabe, and go no further. Anyone critical of Mugabe is accused of supporting the white farmers--naturally. Of course, people like myself who criticize Mugabe could care less about the seizure of white farms. Our problem is where the best farmland went exactly, the actual motives behind the land grab and a host of other abusive acts by the ZANU PF that have *nothing* to do with the land grab or the media-hyped "plight" of the rich white minority. The McCarthyist attack on black dissenters of Mugabe in the West became so high, that in 2003 The Black Commentator put out a special titled "The Debate on Zimbabwe Will Not be Throttled" to indicate that Mugabe’s stifling of the free press, was not about to reach across the Atlantic.

In a recent article for Black Commentator, Bill Fletcher, a past president of TransAfrica Forum, spoke of a recent visit to Zimbabwe, where he had to explain to perplexed black union workers that many black activists who had supported their liberation struggle, who had criticized apartheid in South Africa, were now backing Mugabe. As he put it, “they shook their heads in collective disbelief.”

So the question to be put to those who defend President Robert Mugabe so insistently, who can so easily and willlingly explain away his wrongs, gloss them over and then hurl accusations of treason and treachery at those who disagree, remains this: is it the people of Zimbabwe you’re fighting for—or is it just one man?

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