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'Z' is for Zimbabwe: Turmoil & Silence as a Country Potentially Unravels

April 17, 2008 ·

Too many well-intentioned African Americans interpreted Zimbabwean developments through our lens here on the opposite side of the Atlantic.

Much of Black America stopped discussing Zimbabwe after its liberation in 1980; at least, we stopped discussing it for a while. After years of regular coverage of the liberation war, details regarding Zimbabwe became harder to obtain as attention shifted to struggles in Mozambique, Namibia, Angola and South Africa. Not to be misunderstood, it was not that facts were being withheld for us here in Black America, so much as we paid less attention to developments, and did not dig for information.

President Robert Mugabe, the leader of ZANU (later ZANU [PF]) was, of course, a hero to so many of us insofar as he was the main, though not only, leader of the liberation struggle. He seemed, at least at first, to be oriented toward the development of an independent and, at least theoretically, socialist-oriented Zimbabwe, with land redistribution, workers’ control, and black power all on the agenda.

So many of us chose to ignore developments, however. We ignored purges that had taken place within ZANU prior to Liberation. We ignored the violent crushing of a rebellion in the early years of the Mugabe administration. We ignored President Mugabe’s adoption of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank formula of “structural adjustment,” despite its economic theory running contrary to a pro-people economic transformation. And, we ignored the fact that the land was not being redistributed. We ignored this and other unsettling matters while the focus of much of Black America was on events unfolding in other parts of Southern Africa.

It was only after the seizures of white farms in 2000 that a new discussion of Zimbabwe emerged, albeit a much distorted one. For many it was as if they had jumped through a time portal between 1980 and 2000, oblivious to the development of the country and the challenges that it had encountered. President Mugabe, it seemed to many, was finally seizing the land and completing Liberation…at least, that is what many of us thought. But what was missing was a broader context to understand developments and too many well-intentioned African Americans interpreted Zimbabwean developments through our lens here on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Instead of reviewing the actual developments on the ground, many of us fell prey to interpreting facts based on what we would have liked to have believed was unfolding rather than what was actually playing out.

Many well-intentioned supporters of Zimbabwe ignored or were oblivious to the growing protests that had swept Zimbabwe in the 1990s among workers who stood in opposition to the economic policies of structural adjustment that were impoverishing them. We were further prepared to ignore, or forget, that President Mugabe had been quite delayed in taking steps to redistribute the land in the first place, even factoring in that the British and the United States reneged on pledges that they had made to subsidize a “willing seller, willing buyer” land transfer. And some of us closed our eyes to who was actually benefiting from land redistribution and who was not.

In 2003, several African American activists - including this writer - penned a letter of protest against the policies of President Mugabe. Each of us had been supporters of ZANU (PF) and had been reluctant to voice public criticisms. Our criticisms were aimed at the repression being conducted against opponents of the Mugabe administration and their supporters. We also questioned how - but not whether - land was being redistributed and who was gaining from this. We made it abundantly clear that our criticisms bore no resemblance, in either form or content, to those voiced by U.S. President George W. Bush and Tony Blair, then the British Prime Minister.

The response we received was, let’s say, quite remarkable. Some pro-Mugabe individuals and organizations, despite knowing the histories and work of the signatories, declared us to be CIA agents and/or agents of the State Department (a difference without a distinction for our critics). Some people even went so far as to suggest that we were being paid by the Zimbabwean opposition. We were vilified for even questioning what was transpiring in Zimbabwe, even though in some cases we had first hand knowledge of brutal repression.

The other response was just as interesting. Quietly we were applauded by many African Americans who were pleased that someone (or others) had spoken up, though they, themselves, were not necessarily prepared to publicly do so. While this was encouraging, it was equally unsettling in that it evidenced a fear within Black America about having a genuine debate on such an important issue.

Nevertheless, in the aftermath of this verbal/written slugfest, little real exchange took place. The atmosphere had become so charged that many people decided that it was not worth saying one more thing about Zimbabwe. Rather, too many of us just sat back and watched in silence.

So, we watched. Colleagues of mine in Zimbabwe, individuals whose progressive work I was familiar with, were jailed and tortured by the Mugabe administration, but I was expected by pro-Mugabe activists in the United States to say nothing, and indeed, to deny everything. Any hint of criticism was immediately construed as allegedly giving aid and comfort to the Bush administration and its mania for regime change. In a brief visit to Zimbabwe I had the opportunity of speaking with a group of Black Zimbabwean trade unionists. I found myself attempting to explain to them why many African Americans were silent in the face of President Mugabe’s repression, or in some cases, actively supported President Mugabe. They shook their heads in collective disbelief.

Over the last two weeks we have seen events surrounding the Zimbabwean election and it feels surreal. I must, however, ask some tough questions. What does it mean that an incumbent administration fails to reveal the ACTUAL election results, yet demands a recount? One need not be a supporter, and I am not, of the principal opposition party in Zimbabwe - the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) under Morgan Tsvangirai - to sense that all is not right with the world following the election. One’s attitude toward the MDC should actually be secondary to whether one believes in the notion of free and fair elections. To put it bluntly, if one is going to call elections, they should be transparent; if one does not want transparent elections, don’t call them in the first place.

The MDC is politically inconsistent, and outside of Zimbabwe there are very mixed feelings about them within Southern Africa. Though originally planned as a labor party, the MDC became a sort of united front of opponents of President Mugabe, ranging the political spectrum from the revolutionary Left to some conservative white farmers. The economic views of the MDC are themselves difficult to ascertain at various moments. But this is a matter for the people of Zimbabwe to resolve. Whether we like or dislike the MDC, or President Mugabe for that matter, holds second place to whether there is a political environment that advances genuine, grassroots democracy and debate in Zimbabwe. If that environment does not exist, then all of the revolutionary rhetoric in the world will not amount to a hill of beans on the scale of things.

The Zimbabwe political crisis threatens to go from bad to worse. A reenactment of the events in Kenya following their stolen election a few short months ago is not beyond imagination. The role of the African Union, and particularly Zimbabwe’s neighbors, becomes all the more important in attempting to resolve the crisis. Threats by Britain and the United States are not only counterproductive, but they are insulting since the administrations of neither country possesse the moral authority to actually entertain or offer a positive solution. But supporting the African Union would be a positive step.

There is something that I believe that African Americans can and should do, and in some respects it might represent an important chapter in our continuing relationship with Zimbabwe. This is a variation on a proposal I made once before. We should offer to assist the African Union in mediating the talks toward a peaceful resolution of the ongoing crisis. Specifically, the Congressional Black Caucus should contact the African Union and offer to constitute a mediating team to work with the African Union. This should not be interference and should not be construed as interference, but it could be a genuine act of solidarity.

Within Black America, we have to be prepared to have more open and constructive debates without resorting to the “nuclear option.” I have seen a variant of this in the discussions surrounding the candidacy of Senator Barack Obama. Someone voicing a reservation or concern, let alone a criticism, is open to being called everything but a child of God. This infantile approach to controversy WITHIN our community must end; indeed, it must not be tolerated. The stakes are far too high.

Let me apologize to some in advance: I cannot maintain silence for fear of upsetting an opponent. As I said, the stakes are too high.