How do we speak about Zimbabwe?

****Above is a picture from I took at the Human Rights Day March in Johannesburg on March 21, 2007.****

Zimbabwe has made headlines recently following the of Zimbabwean police’s killing of Gift Tandere, a young activist who organized against human rights abuses and the brutal beating of the MDC faction leader Morgan Tsvangirai. This is in addition to the growing attention on Zimbabwe related to high inflation rate (near 1700%), reports of human rights abuses, the growing refugee communities fleeing Zimbabwe (also check here), the HIV/AIDS orphanage crisis, the Look East policy and emerging relations with Iran. Trying to gain a coherent grasp on the situation in Zimbabwe under ZANU-PF and Robert Mugabe can quickly develop into a masochist and tiring exercise that leaves you feeling more frustrated then enlightened. I receive about 40 emails a day concerning Zimbabwe and each email does the work of further obscuring a complex situation, but at the same time (rather unintentionally) does the work of illustrating how important it is to be firm, but careful in our critique of Mugabe. Careful not because we don’t want to disrupt some hagiographic metanarrative about the greatest of Mugabe, but careful because we must not/cannot a) deploy ahistorical myopic discourses that paints Mugabe as a liberation leader (who by the way readily accepted structural adjustment programs, and delayed “land reform” until he was practically forced) or the image quite rampant in the Western imagination of a brutal, savage dictator and b) must not mimic or become ventriloquist of imperial endeavors. This delicacy in speaking about Zimbabwe does not mean we stay silent–engaging in the quiet diplomacy that South African president Thabo Mbeki has seemed to master; it means that we develop the strategies to speak about Zimbabwe in productive ways. In 2003, The Black Commentator published a feature article entitled “The Debate on Zimbabwe Will Not Be Throttled,” in which it is written:

George Bush doesn’t want you to talk about empowering the people of Africa — and neither do some African Americans. Issuing thinly veiled threats, these individuals and organizations appropriate to themselves the colors Red, Black and Green, and label as treasonous all Black criticism of their current Strong Man of choice, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

Espousing a twisted kind of Black “solidarity” that mirrors the “patriotism” of the white Right in the U.S., these groups claim that criticism of Mugabe gives aid and comfort to American and British schemes against the national independence of Zimbabwe. Since the Americans and British are always scheming to commit crimes against Africa, the threat to Black American critics of Mugabe and other African Strong Men is meant to be a permanent injunction. Under these terms, the time will never be right for progressives in the Diaspora to make common cause with the African people, if that involves strong critiques of specific African governments.

Granted–any words uttered about the negligence and brutality of specific African governments will be an invitation for the West. If it is not a formal invitation, then it is an instigation of the desire for greater Western involvement in Zimbabwe (and by extension Africa)–a desire that lingered below the surface awaiting the opportunity to exploit–and at the moment Africa has many crisis opportunities to exploit. It is a desire for involvement that can only be staged as legitimate when certain people speak in certain ways. With that said, how do we speak? When? Where? And to whom? Or, do we stay silent? Do we pussy-foot around the crisis at hand to preserve the sanctity of African political leadership? If we choose to speak, how do we speak in a way that does not invite neocolonial intervention, or mimic Western neo-con and neo-liberal narratives? I say love Black folks enough to fix the ugly. Let’s not pimp Black solidarity and Pan-Africanism until it’s so crippled that it’s meaningless and retired to the museums of embalmed anachronisms and clichés. This assumes that everyone reading this actually believes that something is wrong in Zimbabwe and on that point I turn to a 2005 article by Kenyan writer Mukomo Ngugi entitled “Can Zimbabwe Become Africa’s Cuba.” He argues that no matter what image of Zimbabwe you operate with “the one constant of the Zimbabwe of Africa, Diaspora and Friends is that Zimbabwe, and therefore Africa must not be returned to the round tables of another Berlin Conference.” So even if you are in support of removing Mugabe and the ZANU-PF from power, be careful because the MDC (the opposition party) may not be viable option.

In an article entitled “Mugabe Gets the Milosevic Treatment” Steve Gowan writes:

Last year Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of an opposing MDC faction, and eight of his colleagues, were thrown out of Zambia after attending a meeting arranged by the US ambassador to Zimbabwe, Christopher Dell, with representatives of Freedom House, a US ruling class organization that promotes regime change in countries that aren’t sufficiently committed to free markets, free trade and free enterprise. (4)

Funded by the billionaire speculator George Soros, USAID, the US State Department and the US Congress’s National Endowment for Democracy (whose mission has been summed up as doing overtly what the CIA used to do covertly), Freedom House champions the rights of journalists, union leaders and democracy activists to organize openly to bring down governments whose economic policies are against the profit-making interests of US bankers, investors and corporations.

Headed by Wall St. investment banker Peter Ackerman, who produced a 2002 documentary, Bringing Down a Dictator, a follow-up to A Force More Powerful, which celebrates the ouster of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, Freedom House features a rogues’ gallery of US ruling class activists on its board of directors: Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Otto Reich, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Steve Forbes, among others.


When not disparaging Mugabe’s government, Dell can be counted on to be doling out largesse to the opposition (US$1 million, according to one source, to get the Save Zimbabwe Campaign off the ground earlier this year. (7))


We should be clear about what the MDC is and what its policies are. While the word “democratic” in the opposition’s Movement for Democratic Change moniker evokes pleasant feelings, the party’s policies are rooted in the neo-liberal ideology of the Western ruling class. That is, the party’s policies are hardly democratic.

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This may be a reductionist conclusion about the MDC’s whose evolution is much more complex, but it’s a warning that just saying remove Mugabe is not good enough. Nice slogans have to be followed by a tangible and realistic plan. While I found the article to run along the lines of apologist discourse, it presents some important analysis and warnings concerning relying on the MDC as a radical alternative in Zim. It is a caution against the ‘anything but Zanu-PF-Mugabe’ rhetoric that creates a discursive power vacuum that is sure to be filled by any opportunistic party or positionality that presents a derivative (not a different) political culture. The illusion is assuming that anything-but-mugabe is good, or good enough. Mugabe must go, I agree…but where do we go from there? This is the crucial point that I feel is being overlooked because it is beyond shouting slogans or anchoring yourself to ambiguous solidarity statements. We often ‘settle’ in these situations and I think such settling is not only dangerous, but also strategic for those who will benefit from this said compromise. Let’s not be naive and assume that western countries are interested in “helping” with the Zim crisis out the kindness of their hearts–everyone has an ulterior motive…or maybe I am just unnecessarily cynical.