During my last week in Zambia earlier this month, the national agricultural fair came to town at the Showgrounds. My toleration of crowds being as low as my interest in fertiliser, I took a pass on what is apparently one of the social events of the season. Its significance was perhaps best illustrated by the guest of honour, invited by Zambia’s recently-elected President Michael Sata to open the show: Robert Gabriel Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe.
Mugabe’s turn at the showgrounds—accompanied by a heavy security presence, I was told—is interesting because it shows that in parts of Africa, he’s not the pariah we all suppose he must be. It is also telling that he was so fulsomely welcomed—at least at the official level—in Zambia. His host was the country’s recently-elected President, Michael Sata, who ran on a populist, anti-corruption platform in 2011 to win an against-the-odds victory against the incumbent party which resorted to some pretty nasty tricks in its effort to hang onto power.
In the autumn, I attended a talk given by a British academic, Dr Alistair Fraser, who had been in Zambia during the election. He was guardedly optimistic about the possibility of Sata fulfilling his campaign promises, which focussed on excising corruption from the public sphere, restoring a measure of justice to the mines on the copperbelt which have become industrial enclaves run by foreign-run companies, and overseeing the more equitable distribution of the results of Zambia’s recent growth. Fraser noted, as I wrote at the time, “that Sata appears to be working on a Mandela-esque ‘Man of the People’ image, the maintenance of which might force him to avoid more obviously egregious abuses of his position”.
Many Zambians not only feel let down by Sata’s first nine or so months in office, but are deeply worried about his association with Mugabe, who they fear may be rubbing off on their President. Sata is currently working assiduously to co-opt or silence the opposition through fair means and foul, and seems to be calculating that his rhetorical populism—in contrast to his more conventional approach to political problems—will wrong-foot the opposition.
In the wake of what are seen as Sata’s failures to address Zambia’s big problems—the provision of services (teachers at some schools go months and months without pay, schools are in a truly deplorable state, healthcare in rural areas is rudimentary where it exists), corruption, the equitable distribution of wealth, the challenge posed by the somewhat lawless mining enclaves—Zambians are having a markedly different discussion about who should provide services and where the most fruitful partnerships lie.
In the United States and Europe, the roll-back of the state (which has, at the end of the day, been pretty darn good at providing services like education, healthcare [except in the U.S.], resource management, and impetus for development) is being greeted as a disconcerting turn of events. The private sector is seen, with good reason, as a generally-mercenary, always profit-oriented, regularly quite inefficient sector.
In Zambia, on the other hand, where the state is seen as having failed (in part for reasons beyond its control, so caught up are national economies in global trends, undemocratically-directed structural adjustment programs, and the workings of an international financial and industrial elite), people are looking elsewhere. One strident critic of Sata’s government (who shall remain nameless) mooted a merging of the private sector with the NGO/CBO sector. The former, he suggested, could provide innovate impetus and capital, while the latter could provide both networking and connective tissue on the one hand, and a moral framework on the other. It’s an interesting thought.
At the moment I’m reading (alongside the latest of Laurie R. King’s Holmes and Russell mysteries) the chilling tract, Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands 1980-1988. It details the little-known but harrowing murder of thousands of Zimbabweans during the mid-1980s by Mugabe’s elite paramilitary units in what was a combination of political and ethnic purge. It’s easy to see, given the man’s history, why Zambians look nervously to the south when they see Sata growing increasingly intolerant of criticism, increasingly ingenious in his suppression of dissent, and ever-more fulsome in his embrace of the man known as ‘Uncle Bob’.
There is a whole cottage-industry built around Mugabe-bashing, but most of the genre consists of fairly garden-variety rants, none of which seek to position the man and his spectacular failure to follow up on his early years of success in any kind of social, political, or most importantly, historical context. Many seek to explain Mugabe’s authoritarianism (associated in the minds of most Westerners solely with the often violent appropriation of white-owned farms) through recourse to a kind of cheap psychology, which seeks to substitute psychoanalysis for examination of cause and effect. Colonialism in Zimbabwe was characterised by a stark divide in land ownership, with much of the country’s best land being stolen or conquered by white settlers, who instituted a colour bar and ruled in a fairly draconian fashion. Given this history, it is understandable that at independence land reform might have been expected to be on the table, and that the country’s government might have controlled the process.
Instead, as part of the deal whereby Zimbabwe gained its formal independence from Britain, the funding of land reform was to remain in British hands, an agreement which was violated once and for all by Tony Blair’s government. The character of the process, and its ending in the ‘90s meant that the central grievance associated with colonialism went un-addressed. Mugabe, no stranger to violence, may have resorted to tactics seemingly calculated to backfire and lead to violence and social unrest, but there were reasons for his actions. Zimbabwe’s economy tanked, and the country was governed in an increasingly authoritarian manner, opposition leaders bloodied and beaten, and voters brutally intimidated.
There has been disturbingly little pressure applied to Zimbabwe’s leadership by neighbouring nations, and there are several explanations for this failure. There is a certain sense in which African leaders (in common with their counterparts in much of the ‘developing’ world) feel that they put up with overmuch condescending lecturing from Western leaders, much of it hypocritical. It is probably also fair to say that in many African societies age brings respect. And Mugabe is amongst the continent’s more venerable leaders, putting more youthful leaders in a difficult position—of criticising their elder. And not just any elder. Connected to age is the fact that Mugabe is one of the last of a generation of liberation heroes still in power. Loathe him or not, he was one of the leaders who led Zimbabweans to independence against the best (and often violent) efforts of, by turns, the British government, white Rhodesians, and the South African apartheid military and security services which worked tirelessly through the ‘70s and ‘80s to sabotage the emerging nation.
There is a school of thought—insensitive and ignorant in equal measure—which argues that Zimbabwe was better off under white colonial rule, a viewpoint which not only ignores the system of quasi-apartheid and the quasi-military rule, the entrenchment of forced removals and the erection of internment camps, the colour-bar and the land theft, and the psychic scars that people bear from spending several generations as second-class subjects in their own country. Thanks to a set of historical circumstances, some of them within his control, Robert Mugabe has made an absolute shambles of running his country, and has savaged the still-beautiful land when his people had the temerity to question him. It might be worth looking over those circumstances when evaluating whether there is a danger of his poison affecting Zimbabwe’s neighbour to the north.