The situation in Zimbabwe has now become intolerable and Thabo Mbeki’s deafening silence on what is going on in that country is doing no one any good.
Mbeki’s loyalty, on a pan-African perspective, should be with the common humanity across the continent, not necessarily with the leader of the day. There is no doubt that Mbeki and other southern African leaders have long established personal relations with Robert Mugabe and many admire his outspoken comments on the West’s often hypocritical posturing.
But however they view Mugabe personally, they cannot shirk their duty to the people of Zimbabwe. Leadership is not a matter of ownership – it is a position of trust. Mugabe’s leadership over the past few years has been abysmal. Under his watch, the country has gone from being one of the most prosperous and promising in Africa to a ravaged shadow of its former self. It had the most literate population in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the best infrastructures, beautiful, clean cities, a higher than average per capita income and, in my experience at least, some of the most delightful, intelligent and self-confident people on the continent.
Today hunger, poverty, want and fear rule. The prices of basic items increase by the hour as the value of money drops. The police, as the awful beating meted out to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai attests, seem to be out of control.
Today, whenever I meet my Zimbabwean friends or talk to them on the phone, when that is possible, all I perceive is a deep sadness in their eyes and voices. Their self-confidence has been shattered and few of them can even allow themselves to dream of a better future.
This is a huge tragedy. No matter the why and wherefores of Zimbabwe’s descent into poverty, the buck stops with the executive president and his team of ministers.
Granted that the authors of Zimbabwe’s misfortunes are many and varied – some of them are sitting in Whitehall and Washington; some of them acted as fifth columnists before scuttling out of the country – nevertheless, Zimbabwe is a sovereign country able to make and act on its own decisions. In hindsight, it is clear that the decisions made by the executive were informed more by passion and angst than by cool reason.
Emotion versus judgment
Government should not be run on emotion. Emotions cloud judgment and whilst emotions pass, decisions made in the heat of the moment can endure for decades. At national level, these decisions can blight the lives of millions and their ill-effects can be passed on to several generations. When Robert Mugabe made his decision to redistribute productive land, he should have known that powerful forces would have been ranged against him. There was plenty of warning. He should have been prepared to put up his shield, form new alliances and ensure that his government worked every second of every day to make the transfer of land into a successful enterprise. The best answer he could have made to his critics would have been to make Zimbabwe even more prosperous, its people happier and more fulfilled than before.
It would have required great statesmanship and a Herculean effort to achieve this but the building blocks were there: the energy, the intellect, the capacity were present; the will was strong among the people and support from abroad was forthcoming.
That was the greatest challenge facing Robert Mugabe – had he succeeded, he would have gone down in history as one of the world’s great leaders, almost on a par with Mandela.
Instead, he became defensive and indulged in slanging matches with Britain and the US, thereby neatly falling into their trap. Meanwhile, nothing was done to adjust to the massive impact of the removal of white commercial farmers from the productive heartland of the country. As the economy began to backslide with the imposition of sanctions, he became even more defensive, lashing out at all critics – even those who meant nothing but well for Zimbabwe. The die was cast and all subsequent events, including the beating of Tsvangirai, flowed logically from this initial misguided response.
Here was when his friends, including Mbeki, could have had a quiet word, pointing out the error of his approach and suggesting alternative paths. By keeping quiet or showing their approval to what was clearly a mistaken strategy, they encouraged him in his folly. As the saying goes: ‘With friends like these…”
Robert Mugabe was presented with the double-edged opportunity to succeed or fail when he embarked on his campaign to redistribute land and correct the terrible injustice of the land-holding pattern that existed. In summary, he failed and has compounded that failure by repeating his mistakes.
Zimbabweans are robust and can bounce back if the deterioration can be halted. But that will not happen with the current leadership because it is embarked on a different direction. So what is the solution? I don’t have an answer but there are people out there, Zimbabweans and other Africans, including national leaders, who may have the answer. Will they speak up? If they are true friends of Zimbabwe, they will.