Mugabe, Mbeki, and Mandela's Shadow

Mugabe, Mbeki, and Mandela's Shadow

Mini Teaser: Nelson Mandela's successor is providing vital help to the illiberal and undemocratic regime in Zimbabwe.

by Author(s): R.W. Johnson

Zimbabwe in the mid-1990s was a crisis waiting to happen. President
Robert Mugabe had seen his ambitions of creating a one-party,
Marxist-Leninist state thwarted by economic reality and the need to
submit to International Monetary Fund (IMF) conditions, but neither
he nor his ruling party--the Zimbabwe African National
Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF)--had assimilated the fact that their
entire world-view had been found wanting. The result was a polity
becalmed before a storm: a corrupt, bloated and hegemonic party
presiding over a stagnant economy, and a president and a bureaucracy
facing rising popular discontent but wholly unwilling to reform--let
alone loosen their grip on power.

In 1997, facing hostile demonstrations from Zanu-PF's own guerrilla
war veterans--the fighters who had brought him to power--Mugabe
finally snapped. He tore up his commitments to the IMF, awarded large
and unbudgeted pensions to the war veterans, announced the seizure of
white-owned farm land, and lurched toward economic catastrophe. His
complete dependence on IMF loans caused an initial backdown from his
farm seizure plan, but a series of strikes, food riots and a growing
movement of political opposition saw him increasingly cornered.

Things came to a head with the government's defeat in the
constitutional referendum of February 2000, which caused Mugabe to
turn to a form of political repression that involved complete
defiance of economic rationality. The result has been a society in a
furious state of self-destruction. Zimbabwe is racked by the highest
AIDS rate in the world, sharp economic contraction, soaring
unemployment, an unpayable and still soaring foreign debt, continuous
fuel shortages, a flight of skilled workers, repeated food riots, and
70 percent inflation. The referendum defeat showed that if the
process of democracy were ever allowed to prevail, the twenty-year
rule of Mugabe and his Zanu-PF would soon be over.

But no liberation movement in southern Africa has ever lost power, or
considers it thinkable that it should do so. Believing that their
history of resistance to white rule endows them with a sort of
permanent righteousness, Mugabe and his party have felt free to use
whatever means they like to stay in power; after all, they say, they
came to power by the sword and if necessary will stay in power that
way. Hence the violent repression both against the burgeoning
Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the tiny white minority.
Mugabe and his party enforcers have used mass beatings, systematic
torture, organized gang rapes, house burnings, death threats and
every kind of police and army brutality to intimidate the opposition.
Mugabe proudly boasts that he has "a degree in violence" and that the
MDC "will never, never rule Zimbabwe." Thirty-four black and seven
white farmers have been murdered. Over and over again the courts have
found the government acting illegally in almost every sphere of life;
Mugabe's response has been to disregard the courts and attack the
judges. In his eyes the intrinsic righteousness of being a liberation
movement simply trumps all other moral or constitutional

Despite this overwhelming repression, the MDC won 57 of the 120
elected seats in the June 2000 parliamentary elections and clearly
enjoys majority support: a poll in October showed the head MDC
candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, leading Mugabe by almost three to one
as the people's choice for president. Mugabe, now 76, is clearly
determined to run again in the March 2002 presidential election, and
it seems certain that the country--forecast by the IMF to suffer
negative growth of 10 percent this year--will see continuous violent
repression for some time to come.

It may seem tempting to dismiss Mugabe as merely another lunatic
Third World tyrant, but the Zimbabwean crisis is far more important
than that. When Mugabe became president, the late Tanzanian leader
Julius Nyerere told him to look after Zimbabwe well, for it was "the
jewel of Africa." It was not only exceptionally beautiful and a
tourist magnet, but it also had one of the continent's highest per
capita incomes, one of its best educated populations, considerable
natural wealth, and zero foreign debt. For Zimbabwe to have
self-destructed so spectacularly represents a crisis not only for the
fourteen other member states of the surrounding Southern African
Development Community (SADC), but for Africa as a whole.

The Key Supporter

Mugabe's stature--alongside South Africa's African National Congress
(ANC), Namibia's swapo, Mozambique's frelimo and Angola's MPLA--as a
leader of the liberation struggle has led to an extraordinary Western
myopia. Examples are legion. In one notable instance, Mugabe, aiming
to head off a movement for constitutional reform, set up a wholly
rigged Constitutional Commission, which-- ignoring the universal
popular demands for greater restraint on presidential power and for
his resignation--produced a constitutional draft concentrating even
greater powers in the presidency. This draft would have enabled
Mugabe to serve for a further twelve years, and permitted him to
expropriate property without compensation.

The draft--thunderously voted down in February 2000--emanated from a
commission paid for by the Ford, Kellogg and Carnegie Foundations.
The local chief of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP),
Carlos Lopez, broke all normal diplomatic rules to speak openly in
favor of it. The Goebbels of the Mugabe regime, Jonathan Moyo, who
has justified its every excess and is arguably even more extreme than
Mugabe, was recruited directly from the Ford Foundation, his employer
for the previous five years. Moreover, Western aid continued to flow
to Mugabe long after he had publicly justified the torture of
journalists and made it clear that he had no regard for the rule of
law. Speaking in April 2000 in the presence of the Swedish minister
for development at the inauguration of a new dam paid for by the
Swedes, Mugabe publicly made death threats against Tsvangirai for
daring to oppose him. It was only after furious lobbying by local
civil rights groups that Swedish aid was suspended.

This Western myopia has occluded another key aspect of the Zimbabwean
crisis. Robert Rotberg, writing in Foreign Affairs, notes that
President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa--"the continent's shining
light"--has consciously refrained from criticizing Mugabe.
Nevertheless, Rotberg holds up Mbeki as an example of successful
African leadership and even suggests that other African leaders be
given "carefully tailored courses and seminars" so that they can
learn from the South African model. This endorsement altogether fails
to notice that Mbeki has stood--and continues to stand--solidly
behind Mugabe.

Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that there would be no
Zimbabwean crisis without this key dimension of South African
support. As former South African Prime Minister John Balthazar
Vorster showed when he made Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith accept
majority rule and allow Rhodesia to become Zimbabwe, a South African
government has the leverage to make Zimbabwe do as it wishes. It is
this phenomenon of Mbeki's and the ANC's support for
Mugabe--betraying the entire human rights tradition of the South
African liberation struggle--that has given the Zimbabwean crisis its
truly continental and tragic significance.

On January 8, 2000, President Mbeki, taking up his favorite theme of
an African Renaissance, called for an end to military regimes in
Africa. "We [Africans]", he admitted, "continue to allow tyrannical
regimes to impose themselves on us." This caused a certain amount of
eyebrow-raising, for Mbeki--unlike Mandela--had been quite unbothered
about his dealings with the bloodstained regime of Nigeria's Sani
Abacha, and maintains extremely cordial relations with Qaddafi and

Meanwhile, the South African High Commission in Harare was signaling
frantically that the unthinkable was about to happen: despite the
fact that government propaganda monopolized the state-owned media and
the government was spending heavily against a completely out-gunned
opposition, it looked as ifthe tyrant next door, Mugabe, was about to
lose the constitutional referendum. Zimbabweans were now experiencing
regular electricity cuts and chronic fuel shortages; every fuel queue
was in effect a recruitment agency for the opposition.

Mbeki had little reason to like Mugabe, who had sided with the ANC's
rivals, the Pan Africanist Congress, during the liberation struggle
and who had shown arrogance and bad temper at being upstaged by
Mandela's arrival on the international stage. Nonetheless, Mbeki's
instinct was, from the first, to give Mugabe--his fellow liberation
movement leader--all-out support. Although Mbeki pooh-poohed the
notion that Mugabe could lose, he decided to leave nothing to chance.
Canceling a long-standing commitment to attend the opening of the
Nelson Mandela Museum, he rushed to Harare on the eve of the
referendum--accompanied by a high-power team that included his
ministers of finance, energy and minerals--and offered Mugabe an 800
million rand* loan with which to purchase fuel and electricity.
Already the state-owned South African electricity and oil companies,
Eskom and Sasol, were supplying Zimbabwe on credit--something others
refused to do--and Eskom was already owed 120 million rands as a
result. South Africa, indeed, supplies 40 percent of all of
Zimbabwe's imports. In addition, Mbeki also promised Mugabe that he
would attempt to mediate with the IMF to get it to release funds to

There is little doubt that the Mugabe government rigged the
referendum results where it could. In Matabeleland South, for
example, the official results showed 51.4 percent voting for the
government--while a simultaneous opinion poll showed that more than
80 percent of voters there opposed the government. But it was
impossible to cheat in the two biggest cities, Bulawayo and Harare,
without it being entirely obvious--and the No majorities here were so
big that they overwhelmed the clearly rigged Yes majorities in the
countryside: even on the official figures 55.9 percent had voted No,
though the opinion survey suggested that the right figure was
probably about 63 percent.

Essay Types: Essay