Zimbabwe’s many symbolisms
Posted by CM on June 29, 2008
Morgan Tsvangirai has long had reason to be worried for his life under the Mugabe regime. The incidence last year in which he was brutally beaten by the police, with Mugabe then delightedly crowing about it instead of seeking to dissociate himself from it, is just one of many examples of the hostile operating environment in which Tsvangirai has tried to do his job of leading the main opposition party.
So when Tsvangirai says he sought refuge at an embassy in Harare after hearing word that soldiers were on their way to his house, I can well understand how he would not stick around at home waiting to possibly be brutalised for the umpteenth time. His bravery over the years is not in doubt, and he has learned the hard way to be judicious about trying to balance leading his followers and not volunteering for the abuse which the Mugabe regime has made it so clear it is willing and eager to mete out to him.
I have not read or heard any details of the process and time line between his getting word of the alleged band of approaching soldiers and his fleeing for safety, but perhaps he had very little time and felt he had to move very quickly. Given what he has been through at the hands of the authorities, I could well understand if there was not enough time to think things through in the scramble for sanctuary.
I have prefaced my thoughts about his choice of the Dutch embassy for refuge with some reasons why this choice may have been made, when I presume in other circumstances it would have been seen by Tsvangirai and his advisors that this was an unfortunate choice. This was not just walking into temporary safety, it was also walking into the long-term trap of having Mugabe’s charge that Tsvangirai is merely a front for Western and white interests stick to him.
Given the MDC’s expressed distrust for Thabo Mbeki’s impartiality as an intermediary between the opposition party and the ruling party, I can understand why Tsvangirai would have been leery about seeking safety at the South African embassy, for example. And his choice of the embassy of the Netherlands, a country with an honorable history of support for Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle and of support for the country in many ways since independence, is not as symbolically disastrous as would have been the case had he sought refuge under the skirts of Britain or the US, the detractors whose support of the MDC Mugabe is most enraged and paranoid about.
But in the context of how Mugabe has loudly sought to frame “the Zimbabwe crisis” as primarily between the white West through their claimed MDC proxies and him for taking over white farms, Tsvangirai’s choice of the Dutch embassy for sanctuary will haunt him even if he eventually wrings power from Mugabe. It will be one reason for suspicion and one more tool of propaganda against him by his detractors in a ZANU-PF that would not simply disappear into thin air under an MDC government.
Mugabe and ZANU-PF use election posters of a grim-faced Mugabe with a raised fist to project strength and power. There was a time when this would have seemed more appropriate, for example as a symbol of resistance against the old Rhodesian government during the first independence-era election. Now in “peace time” when the issues are/should be the bread and butter ones that Zimbabweans are grappling with daily, the fist is more a symbol of menace than one of persuasion in an ostensibly democratic era in which the main contest should be between competing ideas, not competing fists.
The fist is further inappropriate in being directed at the voters who dare disagree with Mugabe, rather than at any claimed external enemies. It is Zimbabweans who are being hammered by the fist for daring to disagree with it on how their country should be ruled, not the purported external enemies. The need for the intimidating symbolic message of the fist if the voters don’t “do the right thing” by Mugabe is a tacit admission of having lost the ability and confidence to win those voters by persuasion. It is merely another indication of how the Zimbabwean electoral process was a “sham” long before being declared so a few days ago by outgoing US President George Bush, whose own electoral credibility at home and in the regimes he supports abroad makes his finger-pointing ability in this regard weak.
MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti has been in jail for some weeks (before winning bail a few days ago) for announcing the results of the March 29 election ahead of the official election body. Whatever the legalities of the charges against him, they appear as petty harassment by the Mugabe government. The MDC was partially successful in using data posted at polling stations to compile its own national vote figures and avoid any official hanky panky with the figures at that level.
Pictures of his being taken to court during the time he was held show him in an Arsenal football club hooded jersey on several occasions. On the one hand this was the harmless display of loyalty to a football club by an apparently ardent fan, one no doubt shared by many of his supporters (and by many of his detractors alike for that matter.)
But if a person in his position (in terms of the party and the occasion) chooses to make a statement on his jersey, that Biti’s choice was of his support for a football club, and of a British one at that, suggests the MDC pays far little attention to the kind of symbolic messaging that Mugabe has largely been brilliant at. This was a lost opportunity for Biti to have chosen another more politically and propaganda-wise appropriate message for his party. It was also a sign of how carelessly the MDC allows themselves to be continually tarred with the broad brush stroke of their orientation being more towards their claimed European backers than by what is best for Zimbabwe.
That charge may be nonsense and in this particular case there may be as many Arsenal admirers among ZANU-PF supporters as amongst MDC supporters, but that is not the point. The point is the subtle and not so subtle messages one in as prominent a position as is Biti, and at as critical a time for his party as this, communicates by everything one does in the spotlight, and paying attention to how those messages can further or detract from your agenda.
Several Zimbabwean commentators have pointed out the confusing symbolism of MDC leader pulling out of the June 27 presidential run-off a week before, for reasons many of his supporters can understand, even those who are disappointed that things have come to this pass, but yet still fielding candidates in a number of parliamentary by-elections being conducted at the same time. In at least one of those constituency in which such a by-election was held, the MDC’s candidate beat Mugabe’s prominent information minister.
What are we to make of this? That the MDC believed the playing field to be uneven enough to withdraw from the presidential contest, but not from accompanying contests at the same time? And should the MDC accept its parliamentary candidate’s victory, or dismiss it as a result of the same flawed presidential contest it has pulled out of? At best, the MDC is sending out very mixed, inconsistent messages.
Days before Mugabe’s one-man June 27 run off, soon after Tsvangirai had pulled out of contesting, The Guardian newspaper in the UK carried an article purportedly written by the MDC leader in which he called for an international peacekeeping force to ensure a free and fair election. Recognizing that such military talk is a red flag to a Mugabe who may be at his most besieged, paranoid and dangerous, Tsvangirai hastily issued a denial of the idea that he advocated any military intervention in Zimbabwe.
Even if he does secretly believe military intervention to be called for, doing so openly at this time and in a British publication would not be the smartest tactic for Tsvangirai to try to work his way into the presidential palace. So the denial was the right thing to do. But Tsvangirai did not claim the article was fraudulently submitted in his name, only saying that although “credible sources” had told The Guardian he was the author, “this was not the case.”
“An article that appeared in my name, published in the Guardian … does not reflect my position or opinions regarding solutions to the Zimbabwean crisis,” he was reported to have said.
The Guardian acted coy and refused to clear up the circumstances of the mysterious confusion, although it also took the article off its website!
All this only served to thicken the plot. Did the article emanate from Tsvangirai’s camp or not? Was it a forgery or not? Would The Guardian have published it under his name without being sure that it did indeed come from Tsvangirai’s camp? Does Tsvangirai write or approve important documents that go out into the public domain in his own name or that of the party, or are there loose cannons within the party who are able to spout off as they like and affix his signature?
To people to whom these things matter terribly, The Guardian is a “leftist” publication, as opposed to “rightist” publications such as The Times and The Telegraph. Given the British media’s general shrillness towards Zimbabwe I can’t tell if these distinctions count. But I am given to understand that vaguely speaking, as an African I should consider the British “left” to be good guys and the “right” to represent those who pine for the old order in which Africans knew their place in relation to massa and everything was ‘right’ with the world.
It is hard for me to make these latter distinctions from reading the left and right British press about African, and particularly Zimbabwean issues, which for some reason seem to account to a significant degree for general British high blood pressure. But whether or not the left-right media distinctions do mean anything, I wonder who Tsvangirai would have been addressing by making what would have been a major policy statement in British media of any ideological orientation.
Whether he was appealing to the UN, the AU or any other multi-national body, his choice of a British publication to speak from is an oddly interesting choice given how his nemesis has framed the battle taking place in Zimbabwe. Mugabe repeatedly accuses his opponent of being a front for British interests. Tsvangirai seems to dutifully want to confirm Mugabe’s suspicions and feed his paranoia! Somebody please explain to me the ‘strategy’ behind this, if any.
Is the MDC oblivious of the import of these things, the symbolisms that will be read into what, how and where they say things?
The Western media have excitedly played up Nelson Mandela’s comment about the problems of “failed leadership in Zimbabwe.” But what surprised me is that having chosen to say something on the subject, Mandela’s statement was as mild as it was. It was hardly the “attack on Mugabe” the Western media was itching for, and was made in the same breadth Mandela lamented the recent horrific xenophobic attacks against fellow Africans in South Africa. Mandela did not say so, but those attacks could also said to result from “failed leadership.”
It was almost as if Mandela carefully meant to balance his mild criticism of the regime in Zimbabwe with chiding his own society. He knew he would be dismissed by the Mugabe government as pandering to Western whims and pressure, which is exactly how Mugabe’s information minister characterised Mandela’s comments.
Mandela’s expressed regret at the xenophobic violence in South Africa and the failed leadership in Zimbabwe are hard to fault. His juxtaposition of the two as well as his very careful phraseology underscored his realization of the delicate nature for him of saying anything about either issue. He would have been well aware that as nasty as the Mugabe regime has become, there is an additional Western anti-Mugabeism that transcends the man’s nastiness.
The brevity of Mandela’s comments and their wording suggests a keen awareness that he as an African icon must be wary of the pitfalls of giving the impression of buying into the reasons for the shrillness of Western anti-Mugabeism that go beyond his being bad for Zimbabweans. The reasons that Zimbabweans and an increasing number of other Africans want Mugabe gone may be quite different from the reasons Britons and other Westerners have such a viscerally negative reaction to Mugabe.
The careful way in which Mandela made his comments show an awareness of the importance of symbolism in how one gets one’s message across, only reduced somewhat by his using a British platform to make his comments on high-profile African issues. In the current heated atmosphere surrounding anything to do with Mugabe, where one makes one’s comments is as important as how it is done.
This seems lost not just on top MDC officials, but on well-meaning non-Zimbabweans like the somewhat excitable, attention-seeking South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was one of the few and the first prominent Africans to risk Mugabe’s ire and shamelessness at hurling invective at his detractors by calling him an embarrassing caricature of an African dictator some years ago.
Yet there is something at best messy about people like Tutu going on rabid anti-African media like CNN and the BBC to make a case for military intervention in Zimbabwe, as has reportedly been echoed by Ugandan-born, UK-based Bishop John Sentamu. Here are two African bishops of the Church of England putting themselves in the rather awkward position of using the British media to call for an invasion of an African country. They were careful to say that any such effort should be led by African Union or UN troops, but few will be fooled by this. The AU and UN have not intervened in situations far more calamitous than Zimbabwe, and it will be very difficult for these two men to live down the rashness of their statements unless open warfare breaks out in Zimbabwe.
This is a failure to separate distaste for Mugabe from the the many racist sins of commission of such media, thereby compromising Tutu’s entirely valid criticism of the cynical Mugabe. How, when and where to say things are as important to saying anything at all, and both Tutu and Sentamu fail these tests in this case. Whether one agrees or not with their sentiments, that they are seemingly targeting them to a Western audience rather than the African audience they claim they would want to spearhead any invasion force is a sign of how they are seemingly oblivious of the many levels at which the battle for Zimbabwe is being fought. If you are genuinely trying to get the attention of the AU for what would be a controversial and at present reckless decision, surely doing so on the BBC, the broadcaster of a keenly interested party, Britain, whose hands are from from clean in Zimbabwe’s tortured history, is not the wisest course of action.
A few days ago Britain stripped Mugabe of a knighthood it had awarded him in the early post-independence love affair between he and the then UK political establishment, including still sitting Queen Elizabeth. Then there were the moves to ban the Zimbabwean cricket team from participating in matches in Britain.
There was a time when Mugabe would probably really have felt slapped on the wrist by a Britain and a British royalty he has long shown signs of adoring, despite his current rhetoric. But it is a sign of Britain’s enraged sense of helplessness in regards to the strong intransingence of Mugabe in its dealings with them that they “chastise” him with such pathetic gestures. It may be why the British seem to be itching with barely disguised eagerness for a chance to be involved in taking him out.
If anything, Mugabe’s colonial fondness for things British has become somewhat of an albatross around his neck, a glaring contrast to the anti-British rhetoric he now spouts. Even in merely symbolic terms, Britain’s weak moves against Mugabe show how he has held the upper hand in the lovers’ spat between him and successive ruling UK establishments. It was increasingly awkward for the British establishment to be reminded how the Mugabe they now portray as global public enemy number one was once their model example of a “good” African and a triumph of their “civilizing” and religionizing mission in Africa. But at this stage of the game, the neither-here-nor-there gesture of withdrawing a knighthood an African nationalist like Mugabe should have politely turned down anyway in no way moves Mugabe. It may actually be a propaganda boon to him, by adding to his now prized anti-British credentials. The British move was a poor use of symbolism, the cricket ban only a little bit less so.
Having reluctantly accepted his divorce with his once-beloved Britain, Mugabe now thrives on being the anti-British rebel, and what remains of his irrational “Mugabe is the man at all costs” support in many quarters is precisely because of how he has masterfully tweaked the collective British nose and run circles around them. Mugabe is far more in touch with the sentiments of the world’s formerly colonized and brilliantly, if diabolically uses the symbolism of the lingering resentment and suspicion in a way that has left the British sputtering.
Any regime change engineered by the British would only make a martyr out of Mugabe and revive his waning star amongst many of the former admirers who have written him off as a power drunk despot. Britain may frustratedly grasp how Mugabe has used being anti-Britain into a club with which to beat them at their own game of demonizing the “enemy,” but they have shown no sign of understanding the deep, complicated well of mixed feelings, both love and hate, that are the result of Britain’s relations with various groups of “natives” over recent centuries around the world.
For a small and dwindling but very loud and abrasive band of “revolutionaries” scattered around the globe, support for Mugabe is the best symbolic proof of their ideological credentials to come along in a long time. As increasingly despotic and cynical as Mugabe has become as his country sinks, for these ideologues Mugabe’s unstinting message of rhetorically sticking it to the West every chance he gets justifies all his failures and his oppression of Zimbabweans. For them Mugabe as a symbol of their rigidly held ideological positions is far more important than his laying to waste of the country he rules. The increasing misery of Zimbabweans is merely being inconsequential ‘collateral damage’ to whatever ideological principle they feel Mugabe champions for them.
For these people, Mugabe is incapable of doing wrong. He walks on water for them and is more infallible than the Pope is said to be for Catholics. If they are forced to concede that Mugabe has so compromised the electoral process as to render it meaningless as a genuine referendum on how the majority of Zimbabweans want to be ruled, “Well, you can’t really blame Mugabe, he is operating under hostile conditions of sanctions and support for the opposition by the West, he has been forced to resort to his strong-arm measures.” This side-steps the question of why then such elections are held at all under such absurd conditions as Mugabe has done, giving his detractors far more evidence of a cynical power-lust that has nothing to do with his claimed African empowerment agenda.
For the right wing and racist, anti-African sections of the Western establishment, Zimbabwe’s symbolism is not so much for its repressions and impoverishment. Even now in its dilapidated and increasing dysfunctional state, Zimbabwe is “better” than many other nations who do not get anywhere near the same attention, and are in good books with the West as weak, dependent and obedient client states.
So we have the media-dominant section of the Western establishment that is outraged by Mugabe’s farm takeovers.We also have a hrill “support Mugabe at any cost” contingent whose motivations also have little or nothing to do with the welfare of Zimbabweans.
Over the years a prominent section of this group are various commentators at home and abroad eager to establish their “blacker than though” credentials for one reason or another. Some do it in an attempt to soften what they may consider too close of an association with the West. They feel a strong need to strike a pose of distance from that West (and hence to suggest ‘radicalness’ and therefore trustworthiness in circles in which at least a shrill rhetorical anti-Westernism is a valued trait.)
The sometimes absurd result is that we have the quintessential ‘English gentleman,’ Robert Mugabe, being able to accuse any one who disagrees with him of being a British embed! You have ministers with long and deep personal, business and other links with the West needing to be seen to loudly repudiate the West, even if they literally “sleep with the West” daily in a metaphorical as well as sometimes quite literal sense.
For many black people Mugabe’s anti-Western rhetoric is a far stronger and attractive symbolism for the deep sense of grievance at the various historical slights at the hands of the West than is the negative symbolism of Mugabe showing as much contempt for Zimbabweans as the West has traditionally shown for Africans! These are complicated, selective emotional reactions to what Mugabe represents. The holders of these reactions, usually non-Zimbabweans and frequently blacks from outside Africa who continue to experience deep alienation in the West, the fact that Mugabe has stolen elections and the extent of his responsibility for his country’s condition are minor or non-issues.
But it is not just blacks to whom Mugabe’s strong streak of racial resentment appeals. Somewhat amusingly, there are non-blacks who are also eager to play the “blacker than thou” card for their own complicated reasons. As with many of Mugabe’s most ardent black supporters, they wage their ideological revolution from enough of a psychic distance from the reality of dealing with the consequences of what Mugabe has wrought in Zimbabwe that talk of the suffering there is almost an abstract concept for them.
For the anti-Mugabe Westerners, the only acceptable Zimbabwean political outcome is one in which Mugabe is deposed from power, and somebody in the mould of Tsvangirai were at the helm. For the pro-Mugabeists, his holding onto power is more important than whether he does so through a clean election or not. Neither of these cynical camps care a hoot about the say or condition of Zimbabweans in their racist, ideological or romantic posturing about what thy would like to see happen there.
Acres of media space have been written about the possible reasons for Thabo Mbeki’s continuing strong support for Mugabe. There is no need to repeat those speculated on reasons here. Many of those guessed reasons for Mbeki’s stance involve personal as well as global and regional political, ideological and other considerations in which the welfare of the common Zimbabwean is very low. Many analysts take it as a given that the most likely reasons for his support for Mugabe have more to do with his personal feelings towards and/or against Mugabe and Tsvangirai, and his own vision of what he would like to happen in that country than what Zimbabweans have and are expressing in various ways. This is just one example of how for some, “Zimbabwe” has become a hot button issue that transcends what its people may want.
Recently installed Kenyan prime minister Raila Odinga has been one of the sharpest African critics of Mugabe, pointing out the venality of calling an election in which the incumbent declares he would not accept a result showing his defeat. While Odinga’s criticisms of Mugabe are on target, they could be thinly disguised symbolic attacks on his rival and the man he believes stole the recent Kenyan election from him, president Mwai Kibaki; Kibaki’s silence in the face of the electoral mess in Zimbabwe is also symbolically important and entirely understandable given his own damaged electoral credentials. When Odinga strongly comes out against Mugabe in a way that is unprecedented in recent African diplomacy, he is also using his attacks to fight his own battles at home.
The symbolic “Zimbabwe” represents different things to various interest groups. They find the crisis there an exciting platform from which to score points for reasons that have nothing to do with the welfare of Zimbabweans. “Zimbabwe” has become an epic battle of cynical competing forces far beyond the issue of the suffering of its people.