Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

John Pilger speculates on reasons for Mbeki’s approach to Mugabe

Posted by CM on July 7, 2008

It is not easy these days to find calm voices on either or any side of “the Zimbabwe crisis.” Everyone seems to be competing to be louder and more emotional than the other.

Most people remain perplexed, and many outraged, by the perception of South African president Thabo Mbeki as soft on or sympathetic to Robert Mugabe. Whatever the reasons for it, it seems pretty clear to me that the reality of whatever Mbeki’s true feelings towards Mugabe is not going to change any time soon. So while I understand the fascination with the question, I’m not sure posing it repeatedly with anguish is very important to solving Zimbabwe‘s problems right now. But it is admittedly an interesting issue, if only as a debating point.

One of the most calm and lucid people to ponder the issue is writer John Pilger in his article ‘The silent war on Africa.’

Says Pilger, “That Mugabe is an appalling tyrant is beyond all doubt; yet there is a subtext to the overly enthusiastic condemnation of him by the “international community”, notably in Europe. “Unacceptable!” says British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, having personally distinguished the campaign to morally rehabilitate the concept of empire.”

He points out the hypocrisy of Brown’s “highly selective condemnation of uppity despots like Mugabe while fawning before equally awful despots such as the Saudi Royal family?”

“If nothing else, Mugabe has provided retrospective justification for the glory days. And perhaps his greatest crime is having slipped the leash. After all, both despots and democrats in Africa provide an essential service, or as Frantz Fanon put it in The Wretched of the Earth, “the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged. [They are] quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent.” Those who refuse the role of business agent have often paid with their lives: from Patrice Lumumba to Amilcar Cabral, Ken Saro-Wiwa to Chris Hani.”

Pilger then goes on to chronicle a litany of ways in which the Western world is fully implicit in Africa‘s many messes. Most readers will be familiar with the arguments, from the aforementioned hypocrisy in deciding who is a “good guy” in the world and who is not, to cynical trade terms and cynical development policies.

“None of this excuses the outrages of Mugabe. But look beyond the West’s whipping boy and mark the enduring outrage of an imperial past that remains (enaaged in) a war against Africa that Africans must win,” he writes.

Then he gets to the crux of his article.

“Why is Thabo Mbeki so soft on Mugabe? Is it simply loyalty to a past of “joint struggle”, as has been suggested?.”

Pilger describes how the hopes of the South African poor for a meaningful improvement in their post-apartheid, post-1994 situation have been betrayed under first Mandela and now under Mbeki.

He concludes, “When Robert Mugabe attended the ceremony to mark Thabo Mbeki’s second term as President of South Africa, the black crowd gave Zimbabwe‘s dictator a standing ovation. The embarrassment and message for Mbeki was like a presence. “This was probably less an endorsement for Mugabe’s despotism,” noted the writer Bryan Rostron, “than a symbolic expression of appreciation for an African leader who, many poor blacks think, has given those greedy whites a long-delayed and just come-uppance.”

It was also a warning.”

Well, while I think Pilger’s conclusion is correct, there is also nothing earth-shakingly original about it. The vision of a happy-ever-after “rainbow nation” was too much of a hopeful fantasy given the water that has gone under the bridge in South Africa over the last few centuries. Perhaps even more so than Zimbabwe, the deep wounds of a very violent recent history could not just be swept under the carpet by having a smiling, well-liked president like Mandela for a few years.

There are already many signs of the bubbling to the surface of many long-simmering resentments, compounded by the disappointment of failed (and unrealistic) expectations of what could be quickly achieved in the post-apartheid era, that may eventually make South Africa not quite the miracle nation many hope it can continue to be.

Pilger builds and concludes his argument well, but for me has not delivered any dramatic new insights into exactly why Mbeki has seemed to remain so partial to Mugabe.

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One Response to “John Pilger speculates on reasons for Mbeki’s approach to Mugabe”

  1. matt said

    Interesting. The ANC has seen serious infighting going on between two main factions recently and watching this made me realise just how little has been achieved in SA. Hardly a position of strength to deal with a thug like Mugabe.

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