All praise to the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, which refused for four days to unload a shipment of Chinese arms destined for landlocked Zimbabwe.
That was long enough for a South African court to issue a judgment refusing to let the 77 tonnes of weapons across the country to Zimbabwe, despite the South African government’s unwillingness to intervene.
Of course, the Chinese ship then just sailed up the coast to Mozambique.
The weapons, which were shipped three days after President Robert Mugabe lost the Zimbabwean election on March 29, will still reach his army, police and party militia in time to terrorize the voters into reversing last month’s verdict in a runoff presidential election.
But it was nice to see some fellow Africans take a stand against his thuggery.
All praise also to former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan.
After meeting Zimbabwean opposition leaders in Kenya on Friday, he asked bluntly, “Where are the Africans? Where are their leaders, what are they doing?” The answer, as Annan knew very well, is next to nothing. But why not?
Three weeks later the results of the presidential race have still not been published. But Mugabe has already said that there must be a runoff election. Meanwhile, the militia of his Zanu-PF party is conducting mass beating, using the records from the polling booths in rural areas to identify villages that supported the opposition. Hundreds of people are in hospital with broken limbs, and some are dead.
Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is a disaster, a country where unemployment is 80 per cent and inflation 160,000. This is in glaring contrast to the surrounding countries, which have reasonably healthy economies, free media, and the rule of law.
So why does the main regional organization, the Southern African Development Community, not take a stronger stand? Why did South African president Thabo Mbeki insist that there is “no crisis”?
It’s all about perspective.
Mugabe may be a monster, but as one of the last surviving leaders of the independence generation, he is a sacred monster.
Moreover, many other African leaders are half-seduced by Mugabe’s claim that he is facing a recolonization attempt by Britain. It’s a comical notion, but in post-colonial Africa it has a certain resonance.
The fact is that Zimbabwe was once a British colony (Rhodesia), and Britain did nothing when the local white minority illegally declared independence in 1965. It took 15 years of war and tens of thousands of African lives to overthrow the white minority regime, and at the end, Britain promised to provide large amounts of money to buy out the white farmers who still owned most of the country’s good land. Then it reneged.
In 1997, Clare Short, the international development secretary in Tony Blair’s new government, wrote a famously stupid letter to the Zimbabwean government in which she said, “We do not accept that Britain has a responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish and, as you know, we were colonized, not colonizers.”
Mugabe was understandably enraged. Whether that explains his decision to drive the white farmers off their land without compensation three years later (and thus to wreck Zimbabwe’s economy) remains to be seen. But the prominence of those same white Zimbabweans in the opposition movement that sprang up after 2000, however understandable, certainly fed his paranoia.
The other disturbing thing, from an African point of view, is the disproportionate interest the Western media take in the Zimbabwean tragedy. A U.S.-backed occupation of Somalia by Ethiopian troops has plunged that country back into war, killing thousands and turning hundreds of thousands into refugees, and it barely gets mentioned in the Western press. Nor does the West seem to mind the striking absence of democracy in Angola, from which it buys a lot of oil. But about Zimbabwe, for some reason, it cares.
There is no Western plot to “recolonize” Zimbabwe. Southern African countries need to bring pressure on Mugabe in their own long-term self-interest. But they bring their own perspectives to the problem, and that makes it harder for them to act.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.