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

Britain's caution was not misplaced. Mugabe's absolute refusal to
stop the violence or respect the rule of law dashed Zimbabwe's hopes
of getting British or IMF money. Meanwhile, all Mbeki got were empty
promises, while Mugabe got dramatic, immediate and public support. It
must be remembered that the summit came after a week in which another
three MDC activists and two white farmers had been murdered by
Zanu-PF thugs, and in which the mass beatings of farm workers and
torching of houses of both blacks and whites had taken on a routine
character. There was no doubt that these atrocities occurred because
Mugabe willed them--yet all three presidents came out publicly in
full support of him. Chissano, acting as their spokesman, claimed
that Mugabe was a "master"and a "champion" of the rule of law. When
reminded that foreign funding for land reform was dependent on a
transparent process, Chissano replied that such thinking was very
dangerous to the region. "What you are telling us is very grave. It
is creating ill feelings in our hearts. You are saying it is a sin to
be a freedom fighter. It is grave if the British government thinks
like that." Mbeki sat by and nodded his agreement with these
remarkable sentiments.

For his own part, Mbeki was wholly unwilling to criticize Mugabe's
continuing human rights atrocities or even to say whose fault the
violence was. Instead, he tried hard to blame Britain. The core of
the problem, he insisted, was one of poor, landless blacks whose
condition was the result of racism and colonialism. The main
responsibility for the current crisis--and even the violence--lay in
Britain's failure to fund land reform. He was openly critical of
Britain for making the rule of law and a transparent transfer to the
poor a sine qua non for funding: "I don't think it is correct for
anybody to walk away from this", he declared. What this amounted to
was a complete and public excusing of Mugabe's human rights
atrocities, a declaration that he should be free to carry out
whatever sort of "land reform" he wanted, and an assertion that the
greater wrong, dwarfing all others, was the original sin of white

Mbeki's insistence that the crisis was really all about a land issue,
caused essentially by the whites, was certainly not accepted by
ordinary Zimbabweans. A survey conducted by the Helen Suzman
Foundation had shown that only 9 percent of Zimbabweans thought land
the most important issue, equal with those who thought poverty the
key issue, but far behind those who mentioned the fall in the
Zimbabwean dollar (14 percent), unemployment (25 percent) or rising
prices (28 percent). Only 2 percent thought whites were most to blame
for Zimbabwe's problems, while 28 percent blamed Mugabe and another
41 percent his government. Overwhelmingly the electorate said it had
no confidence in Mugabe; 66 percent said they were dissatisfied by
the way he had dealt with the land issue (against 26 percent who were
satisfied); and only 36 percent wanted Zanu-PF to continue in power.

A subsequent Suzman survey of October 2000 showed that the MDC view
of the matter--that Mugabe was using the farm occupations simply as a
means of trying to crush the opposition and hang onto power at all
costs--was shared by a large majority. Almost 70 percent either
wanted the white farmers to stay as they were or even wanted to
invite back white farmers who had left Zimbabwe. Sixty-four percent
said the farm invasions had nothing to do with land reform, and 70
percent said the war veterans who invaded farms were simply criminals
who should be put on trial. By this stage 74 percent wanted Mugabe to
step down as president, against only 19 percent who did not; 56
percent wanted him impeached and 51 percent said that even if Mugabe
resigned he should be put on trial for his crimes.

Playing the Race Card

Mbeki's insistence--against all the evidence--that the Zimbabwean
crisis revolved around a land issue caused by white colonialism was
of central significance. Once the problem was defined in that way,
any self-respecting African nationalist would have to side with
Mugabe, whatever his faults. Moreover, the projection of this
definition of the problem was quickly picked up by many black South
Africans who could relate this version of reality to one they knew at
home. Thus the oddity that a write-in survey of black opinion in the
Johannesburg townships soon found 54 percent siding with Mugabe on
the land issue, while the large majority in Zimbabwe did the opposite.

Black nationalists in South Africa avidly transposed the "lessons" of
Zimbabwe onto South Africa. Thoko Didiza, the minister of land and
agriculture, was one of several ANC politicians who began to
castigate white farmers for the slow pace of land reform, insisting
that the state might need to acquire their land at sub-market value
if they did not lower the price. Sue Lund, her deputy director-general,
helpfully pointed out that South Africa still had an Expropriation
Act on the books--while Didiza herself went off on a fact-finding
tour of Zimbabwe to see what lessons could be learned from its style
of "land reform." The state-owned broadcasting station ran several
television documentaries about the brutality of white farmers and how
they evicted aged tenants--though spoke no word about the fact that
South Africa's farmers, facing land invasions and farm attacks that
have left over 800 of them dead since 1994, have put no less than 34
percent of the country's farm land up for sale. President Mbeki
announced that the government would not tolerate land invasions in
South Africa, but went on to attack white farmers for evicting
tenants. He made no mention of the ten white farmers killed in farm
attacks in the preceding month.

Both the small, radical nationalist parties to the ANC's Left, the
Azanian People's Organization and the Pan Africanist Congress,
announced that on the Zimbabwean land issue they were supporting the
ANC for the first time, reflecting how Mbeki's manner of handling the
crisis had created an eager black constituency on the issue within
South Africa. This was a self-invented constraint: it was now clear
that if Mbeki were to take a hard line against Mugabe, he could well
face domestic criticism that he was selling out poor blacks to white
colonial interests. Needless to say, this perception was based on a
complete and populist misreading of the situation. The real spokesman
for poor blacks in Zimbabwe, Philip Munyanyi, the general secretary
of the General Agriculture and Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe,
denounced Mbeki. His people were, he said, being burned, beaten and
tortured, and Mbeki uttered no word of protest. No one in South
Africa paid much attention to him.

Within days of the Victoria Falls Summit it was clear that it had
failed completely: the deputation to London of three Zimbabwean
ministers was told that aid depended on an end to violence and land
invasions and a return to the rule of law, conditions they found
unacceptable. Perhaps Mugabe had lied to Mbeki at the summit or Mbeki
had chosen to hear only what he wanted; either way, Mbeki's "quiet
diplomacy" lay in ruins, producing a further upsurge of criticism of
his refusal to take a hard line with Mugabe. Mbeki doubted "whether
condemning President Mugabe would solve that country's land
redistribution problem. It is a problem caused by colonialism." And
those who wanted Mugabe condemned were simply people who thought all
black governments were alike: "Part of the reason for this demand is
that there are people in society who say: If this black government in
Zimbabwe can behave in such a way, what guarantee do we have that the
black government in South Africa won't behave in the same way?"

Three days later Mbeki went on national television to defend his
"quiet diplomacy" in even more strident terms. Attacks on this policy
were, he said, "racist attempts to create an atmosphere of fear in
South Africa." Such critics were trying to create "a psychosis of
fear in our own country based on racist prejudices, assumptions and
objectives." This merely confirmed the bleakest worries of both
domestic and foreign investors, and the rand continued to fall.

The next day Mbeki visited Bulawayo and, standing hand in hand with
Mugabe, praised him for his wisdom, asserting that land dispossession
was "one of the most iniquitous results of colonization", that South
Africa suffered from the same problem, and that both countries needed
to work against "this colonial legacy." Meanwhile, Mbeki's office,
though unwilling to utter a word of reproach about Mugabe, was
perfectly happy to throw blame on the British. When Britain halted
export licenses for arms to Zimbabwe and stopped a shipment of 450
Landrovers, this was described as "inflammatory" and "aggressive."
Mbeki was annoyed, his spokesman suggested, that Britain was not
supporting his approach to the problem.

Up to this point the only leading black figure to criticize Mugabe
had been Archbishop Desmond Tutu. "He's almost a caricature of all
the things people think black African leaders do", said Tutu. "He
seems to be wanting to make a cartoon of himself." Mbeki's behavior
was now even too much for ex-president Nelson Mandela. For months he
had been chivvied in private gatherings and asked why on earth Mbeki
was behaving the way he was. He had striven loyally to support his
successor, but had in the end confessed that he disagreed with him on
Zimbabwe, as he did on Mbeki's repeated denials of the link between
HIV and AIDS. The day after Mbeki publicly embraced Mugabe, Mandela
burst forth. He denounced liberation leaders who "despise the people
who put them in power and want to stay in power forever. They want to
die in power because they have committed crimes." Asked whether he
was describing Mugabe, he retorted, "Everyone knows very well who I
am talking about. If you don't know who I am talking about there is
no point in telling you." Asked whether he supported Mbeki's policy
toward Mugabe, he averred loyally that he did, "but the masses don't
have to follow that route. The public must bring down these tyrants

Essay Types: Essay