New Internationalist

Mugabe: saint, sinner or same?

Issue 402

Mthulisi Mathuthu argues that he hasn’t.

There is a dangerous notion about the story unfolding in Zimbabwe which needs some frank analysis so that historians may in future not accuse us of stupidity and dishonesty.

Somehow the notion has gained currency that President Robert Mugabe’s tyranny is essentially home-grown and a surprise to the West and the entire world.

Local independent newspapers in Harare have helped shape this unfortunate notion. Witness how, in their accounts, they omit the essential link between our tragedy and the outright dishonesty displayed in Washington, No 10 Downing Street and Buckingham Palace.

Witness how, if the Western institutions offer a word of ridicule or if they reprimand President Mugabe, they fail to put it into a context that allows people to identify the ground upon which Mugabe’s exclusive tyranny stands. By so doing they aid the official propaganda that the independent press is solely ‘pro-West’ and ‘anti-Zimbabwe’. Many have bought into this fallacy wholesale.

Mugabe’s regime showed its colours right from its very infancy and the West knew everything about it but refused to act because the regime was doing them a service. During the elections in 1980, Mugabe’s cohorts were out in the rural areas beating just about anybody who campaigned in what they regarded as their territory. After romping to victory the Government went about erecting camps in the Matebeleland region where it had no support. In those camps anything and everything happened. Consequently, about 20,000 people were either thrown down disused mine shafts or hacked into pieces before being thrown into dip-tanks.

Once this story of Matabeleland got out, they all cried: ‘Lies!’ Diligent journalists were threatened with the sack for daring to report on the carnage. Read Peter Godwin’s book, Mukiwa, which exposes the neglect and the cover-up.

Meanwhile, the captain and author of this tragedy, Robert Mugabe, remained a saint. He not only dined with Western leaders but was even honoured and conferred with doctorates. He won an award from the United Nations for the country’s food production. He was even voted Best African by British-based magazine New African in 1990. New Internationalist itself fell into the trap, ignoring or forgetting about the Matabeleland massacres, as it lauded Mugabe’s policies: ‘While there is some disappointment that the Mugabe Government has not grasped the nettle of land reform more tightly, on the whole it has the best record on land and food of the major African countries.’ (NI 179, January 1988)

Moral questions still arise. Is the murder of a white person more shocking than the hacking to death of thousands of pregnant women in Kezi?

The fact is that Mugabe was more useful to the West clean than soiled in the middle of a Cold War which had to be won at all costs. With Africa in general and southern Africa in particular forced to play host to so many Cold War clashes, a puppet became essential. What matter if the people were being killed? The fact was, those dying were poor black people with no powerful connections whatsoever. In that way Mugabe survived. A racial component is clearly not missing here.

Come the period between 2000 and today, Mugabe’s hatchet men kill nine whites, seize their farms and kill more than 150 black people. At once the ostriches come rushing home. Now all the computers run the story.

All newsrooms send journalists down, and Washington cries foul when they are pushed out. A white farmer is gunned down outside Harare and a picture shows his body guarded by his little pet; the story wins prime space all over the world. This is good, since cold-blooded murder is unacceptable anywhere.

But moral questions still arise. Is the murder of a white person more shocking than the hacking to death of thousands of pregnant women in Kezi?

We are witnessing here two devils that suddenly found no more reason to work together. Mugabe is deliberately defying Western leaders because he is fully aware of the tactics, since they were his former comrades. His tactics are just the same as those of the Western warmongers. Like George W Bush, Mugabe believes in bombing, blackmail, propaganda, erecting Guantánamos, killing, bribing and sheer deceit. That is not a coincidence so much as a telling pattern.

The current Western obsession with Mugabe as though he has suddenly become a devil incarnate has tended to make the Zimbabwean ruler look like a hero in parts of Africa. Mugabe, whose place in the annals of history as a tyrant should be secure, now lays claim to heroism. Africans in South Africa, Libya, DR Congo and many other countries view Mugabe with much admiration. This is because the recorded insincerity of the West leads them into the mistaken belief that Mugabe is being sacrificed for standing by his people. They imagine that Mugabe is a true African leader who has stood throughout his life for black emancipation.

The truth is that, once his friends in the West discarded him, Mugabe’s mask fell. Cleverly, however, he picked it up and fled crying ‘imperialist’. Those who woke up at that moment perceived a genuine black democrat who was fleeing the evil Blair and Bush, and they embraced his delusional rhetoric. A man who instigated one of the biggest atrocities in peacetime has suddenly become an emancipator of the downtrodden black people!

How ironic.

Mthulisi Mathuthu is a journalist who recently left Zimbabwe and now lives in Yorkshire.

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