Magazine article The Spectator

Mugabe Is Their Darling

Magazine article The Spectator

Mugabe Is Their Darling

Article excerpt

In Johannesburg recently I hooked up with Mojo, an old drinking chum from Dar es Salaam, where in the 1980s I was an FT stringer covering the 'frontline states' and he was an officer in the ANC's armed wing, Mkhonto we Sizwe. These days I'm a settler on the land in Kenya, while Mojo has risen to become Lieutenant-General Mojo Matau, South Africa's chief of military intelligence. At our reunion the beers flowed freely into the night as we remembered the old days. Mojo and I slapped each other on the back and held hands for a bit. Then I asked my friend, this man in the kitchen cabinet of ANC power in the new South Africa, what he thought of Robert Mugabe. At his reply my heart sank. He described Zimbabwe's President as a hero for what he's done to white farmers, and a leader who illuminated the path ahead for South Africa. I remonstrated, as I always do, and ended by telling Mojo that I saw myself as an African first, a white second, and that it was my ardent wish to stay on the continent. 'Your only home,' countered Mojo, gently taking my hand again, 'is England.'

Is this the real story behind Thabo Mbeki's 'quiet diplomacy' towards Zimbabwe? Mugabe, to say it without beating around the liberal bush, is a hero to many of my black African friends. Most of the people I'm talking about are from the upper middle class, inheritors of the African kingdom after colonialism. According to one Zambian, who is among my very oldest of comrades, 'Mugabe is Shaka Zulu.'

Mugabe is 'speaking for black people worldwide,' writes the South African journalist Harry Mashabela. Regarded as a solid liberal in his long career, and writing in the Helen Suzman Foundation's September newsletter, Mashabela pointed to the adoration Mugabe won at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last year: 'The applause and standing ovation were a tacit expression of appreciation of the courageous stand Mugabe has taken in trying to resolve the critical land problems facing his country.'

Indeed, Mugabe and his lieutenants win ovations across Africa: at a summit of the Southern African SADC trade bloc in August, or at an ANC conference ten months ago, when President Thabo Mbeki got up and hugged Zanu-PF loyalist Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mugabe laps it up. During Zimbabwe's sham elections in 2002, a correspondent asked him if he thought the violent land invasions hadn't damaged his image. He replied, 'If the perception is that of Europeans, well, I suppose you arc right to say my reputation has gone down. Gut in terms of Africa, go anywhere and I am a hero.'

Mugabe's pan-African admirers believe that his problems - Zimbabwe's 400 per cent inflation, three million starving, violence - derive solely from the wish of the former colonial power and her allies to punish him for redistributing white land to indigenous Africans. Says Mashabela: 'Not human rights violations, not absence of the rule of law and not bad governance as the British and American governments would like us to believe.'

'African intellectuals see this in terms of Mugabe correcting historical injustices,' my Zambian friend tells me. By now I don't need to remind you of Zimbabwe's colonial story, the forgotten promises of the Lancaster House Agreement, the building-land pressure and disproportionate ownership of commercial farms by the tiny white minority. 'But surely it's not about that,' I say. 'Surely it's that Mugabe is at war with his own people. What about the MDC opposition?' My friend says, 'The MDC is regarded as a white-backed movement that has no credibility.'

The truth of what's happening inside Zimbabwe doesn't matter here. We've moved into the territory of black racial prejudice, which, just like its white counterpart, is rooted not in facts, or decency, or humanity, but in irrational nonsense. Among these black friends of mine in their tailored suits, drinking whisky and playing golf, I am simply reminded of those people in England who profess to be tolerant, civilised people, yet harbour ideas about niggers, yids and towelheads that make them bedfellows of the BNP. …

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