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On Tsvangirai’s Wall Street Journal article

Posted by CM on April 7, 2008

Putative but not yet installed president Morgan Tsvangirai has recently become quite the writer, with recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and in today’s The Guardian.

Let’s see what might be picked up from his thoughts in the WSJ of March 21, just over a week before the recent election, in his opinion piece headlined “Freedom for Zimbabwe.”

Mr. Tsvangirai starts his article off with a bang. “Daily, the representatives of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the political party that I lead, are harassed, tortured, imprisoned without trial and even killed,” he writes.

There is no doubt about the onslaught the MDC has been under for years, and I don’t doubt the harassment increased in the days and weeks before the election, despite this also being lauded as a fairly peaceful election even by the MDC itself. It is important to remember “peaceful,” meaning here the relative absence of systematic, wholesale violence, does not necessarily imply the “free and fair” conditions that we so often talk about without precise definition.

But writing for a distant US audience, the wording of the sentence I have quoted suggests that torture and murder of MDC representatives are daily occurrences. Any death linked to election violence would be one too many. But any evidence of a pattern of daily murders of MDC members would be a pogrom that Zimbabweans would surely be widely aware of, and that the world needs to be provided evidence of. Mugabe’s regime is brutal, but I have not heard even the MDC claim that its officials or members are being targeted for murder in the way Tsvangirai’s wording suggests. No one I know of from any quarter has claimed that there have been any election-connected deaths at all in the run up to the just ended election, although I certainly stand to be corrected.

The average Zimbabwean reader would understand that Tsvangirai probably did not mean to imply the daily targeting for murder of his officials that the sentence could be intepreted to mean. But I think that is precisely how the primarily American audience of the WSJ article are likely to have understood it. Americans have not only been primed to think that Zimbabwe is a war-zone, they are already conditioned to think the absolute worst about Africa. And of course in this case, this fits in with the ogre that Mugabe has been painted to be, which far exceeds the reality of his still oppressive rule.

Overstating things in the way Tsvangirai does in the first part of his paragraph is probably considered fair game in the propaganda war against Mugabe, who is himself not above these sorts of tactics. And it allows a Tsvangirai who had expected to be sitting in the presidential palace at this point after the election, to cast himself to the Americans as a particularly brave fighter against the image-battered Mugabe.

Tsvangirai is indeed brave but pandering to American ignorance and prejudices about Africa in this way is a most unfortunate way to wage his propaganda war against Mugabe. The way this careless kind of tactic feeds American stereotypes about Africa and distorts the reality in Zimbabwe does at least as much long term damage as whatever benefits it might win Tsvangirai in the short term.

Before I am beyond the first paragraph of an article I am hoping will give me helpful insights into the thinking of a man who hopes to get my vote and to be my president, I am already asking myself, “What is he trying to do with this kind of language?” Assure and woo potential investors from among the WSJ’s prestigious readership? Ingratiate himself with the US political establishment? Rally the support and sympathy of Americans for his fight against Mugabe? Whichever it is, I am already very uncomfortable that he so makes his point by the kind of careless distortion implied by the phrase in his article I have picked on, whether the implication of a campaign of systematic daily murder was deliberate or just an “innocent” slip.

Having lived in the US, one of the things that would make my blood boil most frequently were just the kind of often crude stereotypes about Africa that pertain there, and that Tsvangirai walks right into by overstating the security situation in Zimbabwe at the time of writing his article. So after paragraph one of the article, I am not feeling too favourably disposed towards my possible future president.

Maybe I’mjust uptight, overly sensitive and critical of Tsvangirai and need to give the man a break. Let us move along with his article.

Tsvangirai then spends the bulk of the rest of the article highlighting Zimbabwe’s main problems over the last few years, Mugabe’s role in bringing them about and in broadly outlining how he and the MDC propose to address them. The way he identifies the economic issues and his prescriptions no doubt were sweet music to his WSJ readers. The article displays a faith in classic IMF-World Bank-US style thinking about how nations should get ahead.

…committment to protecting persons and property…compessions for those who lost property in an unjust way…balance between reconciliation and accountability…restoring the independence of the judiciary…slashing bureaucratic red tape…will open economic opportunity to all Zimbabweans…taming the government’s appetite for spending…reduction of the number of ministers to 15…government will have to live within its means…Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe must become independent of the government…Most state-owned companies are woefully inefficient, will be privatized or shut down…

Most of this sounds harmless enough and is the kind of non-specific campaign rhetoric one would expect from any politician following the script of the reigning paradigm of how the world is currently economically structured. Tsvangirai gives no indication that he recognises that there has been a raging debate across the world about the effectiveness and benefits of classic IMF thinking about how to alleviate poverty and foster widespread economic growth in developing countries. Many of the most dynamic developing countries actually owe their progress to discarding classic IMF-style advice which assumes free markets that all economies have equal access to, to give just one example. The need to slash public spending, another central tenet of that kind of economic dogma is now questioned by many economists.

However, even for those of his broad recovery proposals I am not completely at ease with, I still grant that countries that intend to get ahead economically must just be pragmatic enough to accept that they must master the rules of the game as it is played in the world today, rather than hope that they can first change those rules. This means finding ways of manouvering around the many parts of that game that are “unfair,” rather than just whining about the unfairness. This is a big part of the lesson we can learn from the emerging economies of Asia.

But I have the uncomfortable feeling that Tsvngirai is pandering to his American audience, trying too hard to impress and win over a foreign audience before he has won me, a Zimbabwean, over. The WSJ is surely a prestigious publication to get an article published in, but how relevant is that for a person running for president of a country in southern Africa? When last did Mr. Tsvangirai write an article for a Zimbabwe-dedicated website or publication ? Or even for any publication primarily read by Africans, whether on the continent or abroad. My point is not at all that he should not have written for the WSJ, but that this to me is a further reason to worry about his whole orientation.

I do not want another president who is a paranoid isolationist in the mould of Mugabe. But I do want a president who is more careful and smarter about his engagement with the Western world than I believe Tsvangirai to be. That for me partly means being cognisicant of Africa’s history and how being patted on the head as a good boy by Western powers can be an initially flattering blessing that may come back to haunt a naive politician. I want a president who has a deep knowledge of African history and of Africa’s present day aspirations to engage positively with the West, but with a cool, wary head, not a childish sort of over-excitement.

I know I am only supposed to be concerned about how the country can effect its rejection of Mugabe at the ballot last week. I am choosing to look ahead beyond that to try and say, “Tsvangirai, beware;watch your back.”

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