By David McLaurin
Iwrote some weeks ago about how many Africans will not criticise their leaders or people in authority, an attitude based on traditional respect for age. It is always interesting therefore, and sometimes disheartening, to bring the name Mugabe into a conversation. Most people feel somewhat embarrassed by the Zimbabwean dictator and this is proved by the way they feel they have to defend him. The defence strategies vary. The most popular goes something like this: Tony Blair (and by implication, all other Europeans) is only interested in Zimbabwe because he wishes to defend the interests of Zimbabwean whites; in other words he is not interested in matters of justice at all, but rather motivated by racial solidarity. There is some truth in this. Did the British government make much fuss when Mugabe’s North Korean trained henchmen were massacring people in Matabeleland back in the 1980s? While most Africans can accept that the whites of Zimbabwean are not British but Zimbabwean, just as blacks in Britain are not African but British, there nevertheless is a deep belief that all whites stick together when the chips are down. They find it hard to believe that British people regard white Zimbabweans as foreigners.
The other favourite defence is that Mugabe is the properly elected president of his country, and his actions, such as his recent slum clearance programme, are perfectly legal. It is foreign prejudice that condemns him without evidence for election-rigging, violence and persecution of those who do not agree with him.
My answer to these arguments is always to state the obvious: in 20 years Mugabe has reduced his once prosperous country to poverty. He must therefore be a bad president. But even here one encounters the assertion (no evidence is ever offered) that the economy of Zimbabwe has been sabotaged by Britain and America. Just how Bush and Blair managed this, no one can quite explain. It is assumed that Bush and Blair spend much of their time thinking about Zimbabwe; to reply that this is simply not the case meets with incredulity.
What, though, is Mugabe up to? The man is not mad, but rather a skilled politician. He plays the anti-colonialist card because that old chestnut still has a lot of life left in it. If you adopt as your election slogan “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again”, then, incredibly, many people will vote for you, and momentarily forget food and fuel shortages. But this old song is also the favourite tune of Mugabe’s chief ally, South African President Thabo Mbeki, he of the famous quiet diplomacy. One phone call from Mbeki would force Mugabe’s resignation (just as white South Africa eventually forced Ian Smith to give way) but that phone call will never come. Mugabe is Mbeki’s rottweiler; Mbeki is planning to do to his white minority what Mugabe has done to his. Remember the Lancaster House agreement, and all the other declarations that were meant to ensure the future of the whites in the new Zimbabwe? There are now supposed to be a mere 20,000 whites left in Zimbabwe where once there were 280,000; in a generation there will be none. Contrary to what most people think, Mugabe has managed to drive out a thriving community with barely a word of protest from the rest of the world. And what has happened north of the Limpopo will surely happen south of it and soon. The person who told me this – an experienced diplomat – gives what is left of white South Africa another 20 years. I wish I could think he was wrong, but I very much fear he is right.
Fr David McLaurin is a missionary priest in Kenya