June, 1:15pm. The moon passes between the sun and the earth. It casts a symbolic shadow over vast swathes of southern African land. It is probably in Angola, with the best view of the eclipse, that the symbolism is most profound.
As thousands of tourists flocked into that war-torn country, thousands of famished and misborn children were stuck in their broken huts in Angola’s Central Highlands. The orphanages of Cuito and Chipeta conjure up images of the pool of Bethsaida. As the eclipse eyeglasses turned skywards, hundreds lay on broken beds in sordid buildings called hospitals. A whole generation has known nothing but war and lifetime sadness. Chasing the eclipse, Land Rovers cut through the forest, face to face with Africa’s deepest wound.
On the tenth anniversary of the demise of the Cold War, US Secretary of State Colin Powell also came a-calling. But his visit, like that of the tourists, changed little. The US Republicans’ African agenda doesn’t hold out any hope for ending the Cold War barbarities left over from the West’s proxy war in Africa.
It was a sad solar eclipse, symbolizing a pattern of undemocratic behaviour across the continent. It was Zambia’s privilege to host the launch of the new, much-vaunted African Union. To celebrate the first eclipse of the new millennium the Zambian Government banned all political activity. President Frederick Chiluba found himself on a collision course with his own followers when he announced plans to seek an illegal third term. Protests included the resignation of his deputy, Christian Tembo, eight cabinet ministers and forty other members of his own party in Parliament. Although he swept into power on ‘the winds of change’, Chiluba transformed himself into a windbreak and his Movement for Multi-Party Democracy into a movement for multi-party destruction.
Chiluba’s case is not isolated. He joins many of Africa’s elder statespeople, including Namibia’s Sam Nujoma, José Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Kenya’s Daniel Arap Moi, all of whom project themselves as victims of Western conspiracies in order to cover up their own dictatorial habits.
In Namibia the eclipse overshadowed an electorate seething with discontent at Nujoma’s perpetual rule. The veteran nationalist adjusted the constitution to allow himself a third term and there is talk that he could seek a fourth one. In Zimbabwe, no sooner had the blood dried on the farmlands than the sun blurred and dimmed. Dubbing his current combative posture the ‘Third Chimurenga’ (the ‘Third Liberation Struggle’ after the 1893 uprisings against Cecil Rhodes and the 1970s armed liberation struggle), Mugabe has opted for all the tricks of a beleaguered dictator.
He refuses to apportion the blame for Zimbabwe’s economic problems and instead claims that the white farming minority is the sole hindrance to land redistribution and his imagined democratic efforts. Political intolerance and racial hate are on the rise. But Zimbabweans are not fooled. They are coming to see that Mugabe is surely part of the same African ruling aristocracy that is plotting to narrow democratic space so that they can cling to power.
As the African Union takes root it must strive to come out of the dark shadow of autocracy. But it seems the loudest voices in the Union are also the most foul. The body politic is larded with drug and diamond barons, warlords and kleptocratic regimes. Just as there are those who benefited from the eclipse, Africa is still at the mercy of those who prosper in the dark; who swear by peace and order under the sun but trade in fear and death after nightfall.
Can there be any hope in Africa? The very fact of the new Union shows that sanity is not all lost. The beautiful ones are being born. In Zambia the civilian population mobilized to thwart Chiluba’s dictatorial ambitions. In Zimbabwe, although Mugabe continues playing to the gallery, the gallery is rapidly emptying. No-one today condemns Nujoma without linking him to his counterpart in Harare. There is strong mobilization to boycott diamonds, the source of wealth for the warlords in Angola and West Africa. The vampires sucking the Democratic Republic of Congo have been exposed and the belligerents, at war since 1998, are all talking the language of peace. And now there is tough talk about the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as well as the World Trade Organization.
Africa is a dramatic contest of curses and blessings whose effects unfold year after year. Like the eclipse that came for a short while, Africa’s problems are evanescent. Despite all the problems, the continent’s millennium recovery plan and the ‘African Renaissance’ touted by South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki indicate a new-found will and fresh thinking across the continent.
Mthulisi Mathuthu is a journalist working in Harare.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7