Standing Up to Mugabe

Robert Mugabe is not a typical dictator. Unlike, say, Idi Amin or the former Liberian president Charles Taylor, Mugabe does not play the part of a thug. He wears natty suits, watches cricket, and reads the British press. He gets up early to practice yoga, drinks lots of tea but no alcohol, and switches artfully between a very proper English and Shona, the language of Zimbabwe’s majority tribe.

In fact, despite his fierce opposition to British involvement in his country, Mugabe is in many ways a textbook Anglophile. His rhetoric may be ferociously anticolonial, but he still wants his children to learn the manners of British royalty.

But Mugabe is a dictator-and a particularly dangerous one. First elected as prime minister in 1980, the eighty-three-year-old former school teacher has slowly destroyed his country’s economy. Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of southern Africa but now depends on aid from the World Food Program, which estimates that 38 percent of the country’s population is malnourished. This hunger is not mainly the result of natural famine but of greed and maladministration. In 2000, President Mugabe’s government confiscated the land of the country’s remaining white farmers and, in the name of justice and decolonization, gave it to his friends and political supporters, most of whom knew little about agriculture. The farms were neglected or destroyed, while the urban poor went hungry, many of them fleeing to South Africa. As James Kirchick recently reported for the New Republic, Zimbabwean state-run television now warns people not to set brushfires, which are being used to trap mice for food.

Mugabe and his cronies in the Zimbabwean African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) have often used hunger as a political weapon, directing aid to his party’s rank and file, withholding it from those who support the country’s beleaguered opposition party. Having made them hungry, he has also tried to make them invisible. In 2005 he began to “re-ruralize” a million Zimbabweans who lived in poor urban areas of Harare that voted against ZANU-PF candidates in that year’s parliamentary elections. The campaign was called Operation Murambatsvina, which in Shona means “drive out filth.”

Zimbabwe’s catalogue of miseries is impressive, even by African standards. The rate of inflation is now well above 1,000 percent, the highest in the world; it is expected to reach 4,000 percent by the end of the year. This-and the 80 percent unemployment-make it hard, if not impossible, for the average Zimbabwean to buy even the most basic provisions. In 1990 the average life expectancy of Zimbabwean men was sixty-two. Today it’s thirty-seven, the lowest in the world, though three years above the life expectancy of women.

Opposition to Mugabe’s regime from within the country has been savagely punished, while criticism from outside has been scorned or ignored. Morgan Tsvangirai, a former union leader who now heads the Movement for Democratic Change, was beaten by Mugabe’s police at a prayer meeting in early March. Forty-five other activists had to be hospitalized. Two were killed. Asked about Tsvangirai’s beating, Mugabe replied, “Of course he was bashed. He deserved it.... I told the police: ‘Beat him a lot.’”

Until recently most of Zimbabwe’s Catholic bishops were silent about Mugabe’s misrule, but on April 1 they released a pastoral letter describing the government as “racist, corrupt, and lawless.” Sharp criticism from the United States and other Western countries has often seemed to help Mugabe, since it plays into his public image as a native hero beset by hostile colonial powers. South Africa’s leaders have discouraged what they describe as the “megaphone diplomacy” of the United States and Great Britain in favor of their own “quiet diplomacy.” But, so far at least, these leaders have been better at the quiet than at the diplomacy. Although they privately acknowledge the urgency of the situation in Zimbabwe, they are still too reluctant to criticize Mugabe publicly, seeming to treat him as he wants to be treated-as a kind of Zimbabwean Nelson Mandela. Perhaps the United States cannot do much, but it can do more: it can use every diplomatic and economic pressure available to let South Africa’s leaders know that they must no longer enable and protect Mugabe.

If they refuse to listen to the United States and Europe, they should listen to Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town. Tutu laments that there is “hardly a word of concern let alone condemnation” about what is happening in Zimbabwe. “We Africans should hang our heads in shame. Do we really care about human rights, do we care that people of flesh and blood, fellow Africans, are being treated like rubbish, almost worse than they were ever treated by rabid racists?”

April 24, 2007

Published in the 2007-05-04 issue: 
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