New Republic's three year old, but still spot on article on Zimbabwe

Jul 17, 2011

Attention to Zimbabwe in the Western media may have cooled along with the worst of the country's crisis, but there is still a fascination with events there. Unfortunately that interest is not matched with many media accounts that dispassionately examine the intersecting issues that contribute to the problems of Zimbabwe. A 2008 article in the US magazine The New Republic is such a quality exception to the norm, and its points just as on target in 2011, that it deserves a re-reading.

It is in the form of a conversation between two American journalits, T.A. Frank and James Kirchick.

Frank:Who’s interested in Zimbabwe, and why? There are a lot of rotten countries out there. So why this rotten country? 

Kirchick: For me, what's grimly riveting about Zimbabwe--as opposed to other nations under tyrannical rule--is that it's had such a fast and senseless decline. Sure, it's probably worse to be in North Korea, but yesterday in Pyongyang was the same as today. Zimbabwe, by contrast, was a highly developed, prosperous country until even a decade ago. Mugabe took the “jewel of Africa” and obliterated it.

That much has gone wrong in Zimbabwe is beyond debate, but whether it is a 'rotten country' as Frank says depends a lot on the point of view of the beholder. There will also be those who will quibble with whether what happened was simply that ''Mugabe obliterated it,'' whether it has in fact been 'obliterated.'

And Mugabe and his government would trot out their old 'illegal Western sanctions' as the reason for the country's problems.

But there really is no disputing that one of the biggest tragedies of Zimbabwe, and one of the reasons for wide interest in it, is the scale,proportion and the speed of its decline.  

Kirchick: And the situation in Zimbabwe should be much easier to fix than North Korea. For one, it isn't a military threat to anyone, except to its own people. Plus, Zimbabweans are the best educated people in Africa. (It's the one good thing Mugabe did.) It’s also surrounded by reasonably democratic states. All of this makes the situation even more of a tragedy: It could be fixed if there was the will.

As Kirchirk points out, there are many other repressive countries, and many of them arguably much more so than ZImbabwe, like the North Korea of his example. Constranied as they might be, Zimbabwe has a functioning multi-party system and a robust, government-critical private media, which countries like North Korea, or even those like Saudi Arabia, do not.     

It has therefore never quite rung true that the Western fuss over Zimbabwe is strictly or even mainly about 'democracy and human rights.'

The New Republic article refreshingly takes this point head on in a way that is almost unheard of in the Western media.

Frank: There are those who insist that the only reason so many of us in the West are obsessed with Zimbabwe is that white farmers have been kicked off their land. What do have to say for yourself, Kirchick? 

Kirchick is surprisingly honest in admitting the 'kith and kin' aspect of Western interest in Zimbabwe that is unconvincingly denied by so many others.

Kirchick: Historically, I think there’s some merit to that argument. Early on, the one thing that distinguished Zimbabwe from the rest of Africa's horrors was that white people were involved. But that can no longer be the case. There are hardly any whites left in the country now, and those that remain are relatively well off.

Kirchick's "historically" gives the impression that the racial aspect of Western interest in Zimbabwe is ancient history. But at the time of the article in 2008 there was still discussion in some circles about reversing the dispossession by Mugabe of white farmers of land. A key part of that strategy was to give open support to incumbent president Robert Mugabe's opponents in the controversial elections held in April, who it was hoped would adopt different land policies that might have made possible either reversal of the dispossessions, or put in place some compensation scheme. So Western (especially British) concern for Zimbabwe's white population has been a key reason for the West disproportionate interest in Zimbabwe.

That this has been so nakedly clear that it has given Mugabe the ammunition to claim that Western opposition to him is not because of his repression, but because 'they are opposed to my empowerment of my people through the land reform programme and are sponsoring local stooges to replace me so that they can reverse it on behalf of the old white farmers.'   

Perhaps one of the biggest changes since 2008 and today, in addition to the modicum of economic stabilisation, is that few still talk about any realistic prospect of a wholesale reversal of Mugabe-engineered land reform, even after his exit. In that regard a big part of the West's interest in Zimbabwe no longer exists, as perhaps shown by the greatly reduced Western coverage since 2008.    

Frank: I also think even the original uptick of interest in Zimbabwe that we saw in 2000, while awakened by white farmers, was not solely based on them. After all, what distinguishes Zimbabwe from the rest of the continent is that it was a pretty decent country. And seeing any country decline that way is especially chilling and tragic.

Frank and Kircher then wander off into more traditional Western territory, posing the question of whether it was the 'fault' of US president Jimmy Carter, or of the British, to have 'allowed' Mugabe to come to power instead of thwarting him and showing more support for his more 'moderate' opponents. This seems a totally pointless exercise of backward-guessing and to this writer much less interesting than the rest of their conversation.  

Speculating on the way forward, Kirchick says, ''unity government isn’t possible in Zimbabwe.'' Just such an unlikely unity government has existed for three years now, although some might say he was right after all because of how poorly working that unity government is today.

At that time, in 2008, the Western pressure for Mugabe to go one way or another was at fever pitch. With unprecedented hyper-inflation and many other problems, Mugabe was also electorally vulnerable as at no time before and it is almost unthinkable he would have won a free and fair election if his opponent, now prime minister in the unity government, had not pulled out of the run-off election over government tolerated/sponsored violence to intimidate the opposition. Three years later, by hook and by crook, Mugabe continues in power, talking about being eager to stand in another election.

Frank makes a wish that was widely expressed in the West at the time, and is still dreamt of by many including many Zimbabweans, what he refers to as the 'for de-Mugabefication' of Zimbabwe.

Kirchick responds in a way that suggests a deeper understanding than many of the political situation in Zimbabwe by responding that, "the party is the problem. It's more than just Mugabe."

This is perhaps more evident today than it was in 2008. In the past few months, as his supporters scramble to prepare for a future without 87 year old Mugabe, several high profile army and party officials have made statements suggesting that they would not respect an electoral result giving victory to the MDC party of prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

While many in the West were screaming for Mugabe's head, believing that would be the miraculous solution to 'the problem,' Kirchick way back then recognised the reality was much more complicated. Mugabe is certainly no mere figurehead, but is powerful in his own right as an individual, and in many ways is the glue that holds many ruling system factions with disparate interests. Nevertheless, that system that will not necessarily collapse and disappear on his exit.     

The unity government that Kirchick didn't think was possible stumbles on from crisis to crisis. Although it bought the country time by reducing political tension and providing a window for economic stabilisation, it has failed to move the country forward from that important but low base. It is depressing that Frank and Kirchick's article would be just as accurate in 2011 as it was back in 2008.


Post a Comment