Monday, 21 April 2008

Rumble in Zimbabwe

One thing I'm becoming more and more interested in as I stay here in Africa, is African politics, especially in Southern Africa (for obvious reasons). I've been trying to get a handle on the history of post-colonial Africa, more-or-less exclusively by reading this book "The State of Africa," by Martin Meredith. It's a great book, though it covers such an enormous subject that it's bound to be a little shallow. But considering I had zero knowledge before I started reading this, it's exactly what I needed. It covers the major events/coups/governments of pretty much every country in Africa since the 1950s, when Europe began to give up their games of colonialism and allow independence. Overall, I'd have to say it's pretty damned depressing. It pretty much reads as one psychotic, greedy, evil dictator after another. Some are less psychotic/greedy/evil than others, but suffice it to say that it is a relief to read about the countries which merely fail due to benevolent socialist intentions, rather than intentional massacres and looting.

Anyway, the upshot is that whatever the politics of the continent of Africa may be, they are certainly not boring. There's pretty much always some kind of crisis or tragedy going on somewhere, and it continues to be true in my tenure here. Aside from the constant war-torn tragedies of Darfur, DR Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia, etc., in the 9 months I've been here there have already been several specific difficulties. In December - now, there was a massive crisis in Kenya (one of the most stable and strongest economies on the continent), which has subsequently settled down (at least for the present - everyone is hoping that the new shared government will be able to stave off more violence). South Africa has unveiled a large scale electricity crisis, a dire prophecy regarding the 2010 FIFA world cup here. And the current exciting piece of political turmoil is the election in Zimbabwe.

Ever since I've been here, I've been learning more and more about how shit has hit the fan in Zim over the past few years. The President/dictator for the past 28 years (since independence) is Robert Mugabe, who was a great revolutionary hero (and is still considered to be so in much of Africa). Apparently, he began his rule with much world optimism, and I think he was a not unreasonable leader for the first ten years or so. From what I can tell, problems began around the early 90s, when he became more and more disillusioned with the state of land reform in his country - much of the farm land, etc., continued to stay in the hands of the white, British farmers, or at least was not transferring quickly enough for Bob's taste. So he nationalized everything, took the land from the white farmers and gave it mainly to his political cronies, family, revolutionary buddies, etc. Subsequently, the food production, economy, public welfare, etc. plummeted. And rather than question the validity of his policies, he blamed (and continues to blame) the economic woes of Zimbabwe on a global, Western conspiracy. Of course, in addition to all of this, corruption became endemic, political freedoms are smashed (for the good of the country, of course), there was a continued attack on free business and industry, and life continued to get shittier and shittier.

When I arrived here in South Africa, it was immediately clear from talking to people and watching the news that there was a massive problem. There is enormous illegal immigration from Zim to SA, people trying to achieve refugee status with extremely low rate of acceptance by the government here. People were fleeing Zim like crazy to try to find work and send money back to their families. I remember soon after arriving here, I saw a sign down at the touristy waterfront for a boat trip, listed as costing US$30, ZAR 200 (south african rand), and one BILLION Zimbabwean dollars. That's how bad the inflation was/is - I think it is the highest level of inflation in the world now (this after being one of the best economies in Africa, earlier in Mugabe's rule).

Anyway, about 3 weeks ago, there was an election in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe (now 84 years old) was of course running, along with really only one opposition candidate - Morgan Tsvangirai. Elections are of course not even close to free and fair there - independent media is completely disallowed, constant threats are levied against the opposition, a history of political violence and intimidation stares any of Mugabe's political opponents directly in the face. Despite all of this, people are obviously EXTREMELY unhappy there, and as something like 1/3 of Zimbabwe's population lives outside of the country, often in some communication with those back home, people are able to get some reasonable outside information. So when the election resulted in

a) the first time an opposition party took majority in parliament (official) and
b) a clear majority vote in favor of Tsvangirai (unofficial, due to exit polls and posted results at individual polling stations)

there has been much hope aroused. However, true to form, Mugabe has refused to release official results for the Presidential race in over three weeks, and subsequently decided that there were "irregularities" at polling stations, calling for a "recount" of the parliamentary polls. Of course, his government has taken possession of the votes long ago, and it's pretty clear he plans to stuff the ballot boxes in his favor. Together with government-sponsored violence in opposition-held areas, over 400 arrests and a number of murders of MDC members (Movement for Democratic Change - Tsvangirai's party), and the fact that Tsvangirai himself has been forced to flee the country, this has resulted in the current highly interesting political situation here in Southern Africa.

The other crazy thing is the South African governmental response. There is huge public outcry against Mugabe's shennanigans from the SA public. However, President Mbeki is old revolutionary friends with Bob, going way back. Throughout Mugabe's reign of terror over the past years, Mbeki has been conducting what he calls "quiet diplomacy." What exactly this entails, I'm unclear on, but what it clearly does NOT entail is any public denunciation of Mugabe whatsoever, or any real results involving political freedoms. Into this election situation, amidst international outrage at Mugabe, Mbeki has continued his "quiet diplomacy," leading to his recent famous statement that "there is no crisis in Zimbabwe." This has created a media furor here, increasing both the hilarity of the situation, and its sadness.


Lauren_D said...

After spending time in Tanzania, I also have become more interested in African politics. I think it is interesting that with relinquished colonialism there was so much hope in the fledging African governments, and that so many of them have become corrupt dictatorships or mock democracies. Ian and I just started watching Ken Burns' The War and I find it amazing that not so long ago Italy, Germany and Japan were severely corrupt dictatorships. This gives me hope for the corrupt African governments of today. However, that said, it did take a world war and long occupations to change the course of these countries, to allow them to become the democratic societies they are today. The thing about Africa is that without the structure and oversight of an occupation, they are left to struggle through the mess of politics and corruption on their own and this could be a very long process. I don't have any answers, but I do feel the west (the US in particular) has been a bit too hands off. We are entangled in middle eastern politics which is an equally challenging corner of the world, but Africa is virtually off our radar. I find this very frustrating.

Alex said...

That's an interesting point about Germany, Italy, and Japan. I don't know if I would entirely make the connection there... yes those countries were fascist dictatorships, but how much role did actual corruption play? My impression of Fascist Germany and Japan especially were that they were quite efficient states, and that corruption was minimal, but my knowledge of WWII Europe is admittedly very poor.

The state of things in what we'll call "fucked-up Africa" seems quite different. Yes there were similarities between Holocaust Germany and genocide in several African countries, but... I don't know... it seems like it was much more that the corruption was rampant and chaotic, and it was all about taking everything you could, while the oppression was just in order to stay in power, rather than some coherent goal. There were stated goals of socialism and happiness of many of the African governments, but they were mere words to placate the masses, while fascism seems much more organized. For example, virtually every corrupt African dictatorship ran their country's economy into absolute destitution and bankrupted the country, growing fabulously wealthy in the process. In contrast, I don't know if Hitler, etc. became particularly rich (more so than customary for politicians), and the state economy seemed to do quite well under fascism.

Anyway, I think the problems inherent in Africa seem quite different than those of postwar Europe (with some overlap - obviously there is quite a bit of war-torn-edness in Africa) and the solution (assuming it exists) would be quite different.

As far as sticking our Western hands into Africa, I don't know if I agree with you. Africa clearly had occupation for many years under European colonization, and I think many people have understandably made the point that one can trace much of the problems here back to colonialism. Regardless, I can guarantee you that no country here would willingly accept Western occupation/rule, for the memory of colonialism is still extremely close to the surface (you only have to glance at Mugabe's speeches, which are thick with references to the evil British who are trying to re-colonize Zimbabwe). I certainly don't know what the answer is, but I personally think that one of the biggest, if not the biggest, piece of the puzzle is mass education. But that is a WHOLE nother rant, especially considering that in what seems to be the most hopeful of African countries (South Africa), education does not seem to have improved much for the poor black masses since emancipation...

Lauren_D said...

I guess it depends how you define corruption. If corruption is an underlying moral perversion that penetrates virtually every aspect of the state, I think the WWII Axis powers were pretty damn corrupt. I guess they may have been more streamlined and efficient in their corruption, but I don't think this makes them any less corrupt. Also, I think the goals of aiming for wealth or power, are somewhat intertwined and indistinguishable. Sure there are different ways to go about corruptly securing power/wealth but ultimately the perversion it takes is similar.

Certainly there are HUGE difference between the WWII Axis powers and Africa. I meant only to point out that these countries have changed considerably in a relatively short period of time, so perhaps there is hope for such change in troubled African countries. I also in no way think there should or could be any sort of occupation in any African country...I just meant to point out that change seems to happen more quickly when momentous events like world war and occupation occur and in the absence of such history-altering events change is likely to be much slower and messier.

In terms of western involvement in Africa, I find this a particularly difficult subject to wade through. I feel that we write off Africa in some ways as too messed up to help and I don't think this is a particularly helpful or accurate way to look at the situation. Colonialism is in many ways the root of most problems in Africa- country lines were drawn without any regard for tribal boundaries and relations. Colonial oppression has caused resentment and anger. These are challenging odds to overcome in establishing stable governments. I guess I just feel like there must be some form of diplomacy and information/technology sharing that could improve people's lives. The strongest current-day western influence I felt in Tanzania was U.S. Christian missionaries, and personally I think we could do more.

On that note, Tanzania is actually one of those countries who had a strong socialist leader, Julius Nyerere, who upheld the ideals of brotherhood and equality. While some of his Ujamaa policies lead to the loss of cultural traditions and were less than successful economically, the country gained a certain level of fellowship or camaraderie from this socialist past which prevails. It is now a stable democratic nation and with some economic stimulation it is a country with great promise. While there is widespread poverty, I do see change on the horizon and reason for hope in Tanzania.

Admittedly my knowledge of most things history related is cursory... I just like to think about these things as it pushes me learn more. It would be a lot easier to discuss these ideas face to face:) I'm still working on Ian. Maybe once Dave is living in Mozambique we'll make the trek:)We could hit up my friends in Tanzania, travel down through Mozambique and swing on down to you in SA...sounds exciting!