by Hannes Wessels
I think it’s fair to say that had the government of Ian Smith been African and not European Rhodesia would have been hailed universally as the best governed country in Africa but it was European so it was horrible and had to go and so it did. But this judgement was not based on the facts; quite simply it was ‘white’ could not possibly be right and had to be destroyed. The decision was entirely a racist one in the purest sense but because whites were the victims of this particularly pernicious decision it was considered acceptable. Then Robert Mugabe took power but because he was black all the rules changed instantly and for the next 30 odd years the world would again adopt a twisted racial position that would have calamitous consequences.
The European powers, led by Britain, caught up for so long in trying to salve their perceived collective guilt about their respective colonial pasts were, from the outset, desperately anxious to believe that in Mugabe a real African statesman had finally arrived after a string of bitter disappointments in the post colonial period.
The fact that Mugabe came to power at the head of a ‘Liberation Army’ that had terrorised much of a populace into submission on the path to power was conveniently ignored. No one, including, most notably, Mrs. Thatcher gave a hoot. The lady who ‘was not for turning’ did a double-summersault when confronted with the wrath of the African despots who insisted on Mugabe as the leader of the new Zimbabwe. She swiftly reneged on her commitment to recognise the government of Bishop Abel Muzorewa which had been certified free and fair by her own commission. When Mugabe and his cohorts then proceeded to break all the electoral rules agreed at Lancaster House she and Lords Carrington and Soames all looked steadfastly in the opposite direction and recognised the result. Soon thereafter Mrs. Thatcher announced she had “warmed” to Mr. Mugabe.
The U.S. with President Carter at the helm and Andrew Young their African point man were overjoyed when Mugabe took office. Asked by a reporter from The Times if he thought Mugabe was of a violent disposition Young was very clear: “Not at all, he’s a very gentle man,” Young replied and went on. “In fact, one of the ironies of the whole struggle is that I can’t imagine Joshua Nkomo, or Robert Mugabe, ever pulling the trigger on a gun to kill anyone. I doubt that they ever have.” Later he said: “I find that I am fascinated by his intelligence, by his dedication. The only thing that frustrates me about Robert Mugabe is that he is so, incorruptible.”
Mugabe was lucky. He inherited a small but magnificent country with arguably the finest infrastructure in Africa. The economy was diverse and well developed and the country possessed the skilled manpower required, in both the public and private sector to become a major economic power in the African context.
He quickly set about destroying it by dragging the country into an encounter with a command economy where he and his loyalists would attempt to control all the levers while following a vaguely Marxist blueprint. This was exactly the wrong recipe but the economy and the people were resilient and innovative and the economy survived; not because of him but in spite of him.
Tax levels were hiked to being some of the highest in the world, the best civil service in Africa was smashed, and his stated commitment to a non-racial meritocracy was a joke from the start. In all sectors, blacks, regardless of their experience or qualifications were pressed into positions way beyond their ability. Loyalty to ZANU PF was the sole criterion. Detention without trial was the order of the day.
When the threat of political opposition appeared early in the 80’s in Matebeleland Mugabe reacted ferociously. Ethnic-cleansing ensued and thousands were killed, maimed and tortured. The world looked the other way. The United Nations said nothing, Oxfam refused to speak out. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives defended the genocide, insisting that the Zimbabwean security forces were merely addressing “legitimate security concerns.” Minister of State for Africa, Baroness Chalker remained a loyal friend and was well disposed to having her photograph taken holding hands with the man while romping up the steps of State House.
No matter how badly he governed he was pleased to find he could traverse the world and enjoy the unanimous, virtually unqualified acclaim of a misguided world that believed he was doing a wonderful job. The fact that this was miles from the truth was not what anyone wanted to hear and he was showered relentlessly with richly undeserved praise. It is not entirely surprising he began to believe he was absolutely beyond reproach and his innate arrogance quickly translated into another fine example of ugly African megalomania.
In 1994, with strong backing from Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, Mugabe was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath by the Queen at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace. The following year there was world-wide astonishment when, in the build-up to an internationally-sponsored book-fair, Mugabe ordered that gays and lesbians be evicted before referring to like-minded people as “… worse than dogs and pigs … beasts … guilty of sub-human behaviour,” he called for them to be removed from society. But nobody cared. In the late 90’s the Americans were still thrilled with Robert. President Clinton’s Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Tom MacDonald, was gushing in his praise of him and miraculously concluded the country was an “An African success story” just before it hit a financial brick wall when the government ran out of money.
Western aid continued to flow freely. The Conservatives paid him a parting tribute by giving him a State visit. Riding in the Royal carriage with the Queen glowing at his side en route to inspect the guard mounted in his honour he must have concluded he could do no wrong. The new Labour government of Tony Blair ensured the Police and Intelligence services were well supplied with British-made equipment.
During his seemingly interminable rule there have been no free elections. Fear has consistently been the factor that has underpinned his stranglehold on power. The list of people who have disappeared when they looked threatening is a long one and continues to grow. The man’s violent pedigree is reflected in his choice of past and current bosom-buddies: Mengistu, Ceaucescu, Kim il Sung, Gaddaffi, Castro, and Siad Barre, to mention a few.
Then came the referendum on a new constitution in 1999 and Mugabe lost. That triggered a furious response and the ‘land grabs’ began. The white farmers were forced off their properties along with some of their labour and the country went into an economic death spiral. All of a sudden the world grew angry and to his utter astonishment he was reprimanded then slapped with a travel ban and financial embargoes. Astonishment then turned to fury and he quite rightly argued he had done much worse previously so why the sudden change of attitude. Was it he wondered, because he had killed 13 white farmers that he was suddenly being told to behave? If so what was the problem because he’d killed a lot more blacks in the past and nobody had ever said a word. This is ‘racist’ he cried! And in a way you have to admit he was right.