Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Double standards on Zimbabwe?

An American professor weighs in on the Zimbabwe crisis in today's Globe and Mail. Shorter Jonathan Zimmerman: "We were upset about apartheid, and mobilized heavily. We aren't reacting the same way about Zimbabwe. It's the soft racism of low expectations."

He includes himself in this condemnation. I can't tell if this is serious self-criticism, or merely a rhetorical positioning device.

We get that sort of thing a lot from conservatives these days, eager to play the "I know you are, but what am I" card. But Zimmerman does not appear to be cut from the same cloth. He seems, in fact, like a fair-minded man, so his argument should be taken at face value. And I strongly disagree with it.

This is, first of all, a classic apples and oranges comparison. We were up to our necks in apartheid here in North America. In Canada, at least one politician called Nelson Mandela a "terrorist" even after apartheid was no more. Some academics thought apartheid was just fine. Universities were heavily invested in South Africa, and disinvestment was controversial. We imported South African goods. The media gave the floor to apartheid apologists like Ambassador Glenn Babb to sing the praises of "separate development" and castigate the anti-apartheid movement.

There was actually a debate about apartheid here in North America. Anti-apartheid activists had to convince people that apartheid was wrong. Economically we were shoring up an explicitly racist, colonial regime. Politically, we were moving in the right direction, but slowly, and not without resistance (listen to video clip number 7). The US, meanwhile, exercised a number of UN vetoes in support of the South African regime.

Anti-apartheid boycotts, demonstrations, sit-ins and other actions grew organically in this context. And besides, colonialism was (and is) our Original Sin, and ours to expiate.

But the Zimbabwe situation is strikingly different. To begin with, despite Liberal and Conservative government support for investment in Zimbabwe, our universities and banks are not involved: investments are direct, mostly in the mining sector. Canadian imports of Zimbabwean goods are miniscule. There is no political support for the current excesses of the Mugabe regime. In fact there is no controversy about those that I am aware of, although the causes of the current lamentable state of affairs call aloud for public discussion. There is, in any event, no case that has to be made with respect to the Mugabe autocracy, no boycott to be organized that would make any sense, and no protests to be held against non-existent institutional investments.

So in what domestic context would an anti-Mugabe movement take root? And what, come to think of it, would such a movement call for, besides the removal of the old tyrant?* I suggest that these questions better address the lack of mobilization than the notion of a soft bigotry of lesser expectations. South Africa, after all, didn't turn into a dictatorship. Nelson Mandela, the first president of a free South Africa, became a towering figure for good. Democracy in Africa is obviously more than a possibility, and it gives us every right to hope for nothing less in Zimbabwe. There is no evidence, in fact, that we don't: the author of the article, it seems to me, is possibly projecting just a bit by bringing allegations of racism into the discussion.

As always in such cases, however, it behooves us to look hard at the etiology of the current state of affairs in Zimbabwe. To start with, the UK abandoned its 1979 Lancaster House commitment to assist in land reform in Zimbabwe, a commitment given in exchange for a ten-year no-expropriation pledge by Mugabe, one of the terms of the Lancaster House agreement that he was under some pressure to sign. Britain's reneging on this commitment is probably the most significant underlying factor in Zimbabwe's current predicament. If there is a root cause of Zimbabwe's continuing civil unrest, it is failed land reform.

Journalist Michael Holman of the Financial Times is unsparing in his criticism of Mugabe. But he states in plain terms that the Zimbabwean president felt betrayed over the land question, having signed the independence agreement at Lancaster House on the understanding that outside assistance would be provided to resolve the issue. Instead, relatively minor funding was forthcoming, not nearly enough to help buy out the 5,000 white farmers who owned most of Zimbabwe's agricultural land. This was in sharp contrast to the considerable support that Britain had earlier provided to Kenya in that regard. Holman notes that "the spirit, if not the letter, of the Lancaster House agreement [was] broken."

But matters got even worse. While Britain's Conservative government had provided some funds as noted for a "willing seller, willing buyer" approach to land redistribution, it wasn't enough to change the balance of ownership in Zimbabwe. In 1992,
the Land Acquisition Act was passed to permit forced sales, but there was little money available to makes those purchases. Then Tony Blair's Labour government unilaterally withdrew from the Lancaster House assurances in 1997. Blair's Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, made at that time an infamous statement in a letter to Zimbabwe's then-Minister of Land: "[W]e do not accept that Britain has a special 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 colonised, not colonisers."

Three years after that slap in the face, Mugabe's attempt to change the constitution to permit confiscation of white-owned land was defeated in a referendum. Violent expropriations by "war veterans" began shortly afterwards. At that point (2000), two-thirds of the best agricultural land remained in the hands of a small white minority--twenty years after independence. Much of what redistribution there was, however, from 1992 onwards, turned out to be a distribution of land to
Mugabe's cronies, who, by neglect, took much of it out of production. Once an African breadbasket, Zimbabwe gradually became an agricultural basket case. Refugees streamed into South Africa. And Mugabe himself became increasingly erratic, dispossessing 700,000 people in Harare by demolishing their homes, and denouncing homosexuality in a manner that would make Fred Phelps proud.

Land reform, then, was going nowhere fast. But if that weren't enough, the other prong of the neocolonialist fork, an economic structural adjustment program, was imposed by the IMF in 1991, and it hit ordinary Zimbabweans fast and hard. It crippled what had up to that point been a growing economy (an average of 4% real growth per annum since independence), and plunged the country into poverty and deindustrialization. Mugabe ended this disastrous experiment in 2001.

The IMF and the West swiftly retaliated with various economic sanctions. For example, George W. Bush signed into law
the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001, which had been sponsored by an old ally of Rhodesia's racist Prime Minister Ian Smith, Senator Jesse Helms. The Act instructed American officials in international financial institutions to "oppose and vote against any extension by the respective institution of any loan, credit, or guarantee to the government of Zimbabwe," and oppose any relief of "indebtedness owed by the government of Zimbabwe." There is an excellent overview of the subsequent developments here, in an article by progressive journalist Gregory Elich.

Now, obviously it's time for the ageing dotard to go, along with his "securocrats" who are actually running the country. But that's no more than a pious prayer. Restoration of democracy in Zimbabwe is inextricably tied to the renewal of outside assistance to proceed with genuine land reform. Yet the latter is probably a pipedream at this point.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change is seen by the West as the only alternative, but the likely success at some point in the future of Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC, a party bankrolled by the white farmers and supportive of a return to structural adjustment and privatization, may simply deliver Zimbabwe out of the frying pan into the fire.

Tsvangirai reminds me
quite a bit, in fact, of Mangosuthu Buthelezi, that Great White Hope (pun intentional) of the likes of Conrad Black and other dispassionate observers of the African scene. But Buthelezi was simply outclassed by Nelson Mandela, and became a footnote in the history of post-apartheid South Africa.

There is, however, no Nelson Mandela figure waiting in the wings in Zimbabwe. On the one hand, there's Robert Mugabe. And on the other, Morgan Tsvangirai, who has chosen his advisors from the conservative Cato Institute and the International Republican Institute. For ordinary Zimbabweans, traumatized by war, poverty and increasing lawlessness, it's a classic Hobson's choice. And our lack of mobilization in North America , pace Jonathan Zimmerman,
reflects precisely that.

*The anti-apartheid actions weren't simply aimed at removing Vorster, or Botha, or de Klerk, after all, but at dismantling an entire political and social system.

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