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The Black Commentator - Zimbabwe: More Than Complicity of Silence

When Collin Powell gave his infamous presentation to the United Nations, “proving” Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction Iraq dominated the headlines. It took some time and subsequent discoveries before many realized most of what we were fed was untrue.

Although not as elevated, today Zimbabwe has taken a high profile place in corporate media headlines. Are we getting the truth this time and can we rely on the same progressives who broke through misinformation around Iraq to do the same for us again?

This commentary is a response to another by BC’s Executive Editor, Bill Fletcher Jr., titled “Z” is for Zimbabwe; Turmoil & Silence as a Country Potentially Unravels. Mr. Fletcher, also being a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies where I am a program director, makes us colleagues. As I respect him for his analysis on many if not most matters, we have differences when it comes to Zimbabwe. There are several points his commentary raises that I believe omit the complexity and context of the issue.

Contrary to what is implied, many Africans (people of African descent) interpret Zimbabwean developments, not necessarily through romanticism, but with a valid rejection of imperialism’s “mania for regime change”. Too often has the public seen leaders and countries demonized simply as a prelude for this policy.

The right of anyone to criticize ZANU PF or Mugabe is valid and should be reserved without a person being condemned as an agent of the CIA or State Department. However, progressives and certainly revolutionaries must necessarily include an analysis of and explicit stand against US-British intervention. This would mean also addressing why and how they are targeting Zimbabwe. More often critics of ZANU PF and Mugabe reduce US-British positions to mere words or rhetorical condemnations when imperialism is never so passive. Not only did the US State Department admit on April 5, 2007 that it was engaged in efforts for regime change in Zimbabwe, such efforts were written into the text of the US’ hypocritical Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001.

This policy includes pervasive economic sanctions (war without guns) designed to strangle the people into submission. No matter what one’s position on ZANU PF and/or Mugabe, a position against imperialism’s immoral assault on Zimbabwe should be a matter of principle, being that “the stakes are too high.” After all, even though Saddam Hussein was widely believed a cruel dictator, progressives nevertheless oppose not only imperialism’s war on Iraq but avidly opposed the preceding US sanctions against Iraq. In Zimbabwe’s case, hardly any stand is taken against imperialism and progressives often corroborate much of the misinformation.

Specifically on Mr. Fletcher’s commentary the following are a few instances where I feel more clarifications are warranted:

Mr. Fletcher says: “We ignored the violent crushing of a rebellion in the early years of the Mugabe administration” but another side would say: “the violent crushing of a ‘violent’ rebellion.” I don't know any other way to put down a violent rebellion than through violence. I’m assuming here that Mr. Fletcher is referring to what took place in Matebeland, often referred to as a massacre in order to demonize ZANU PF. It is a situation too complex to do justice in this commentary but knowing the alternative explanation is important. Following an agreement to integrate the armed forces of ZANU, ZAPU and Rhodesians to form a Zimbabwe National Army, it was agreed that all guerrillas and Ian Smith soldiers were to surrender their weapons to the national armory.

ZAPU secretly decided not to, hiding massive arms caches on its farms and in the bushes, including armored cars and heavy artillery. After being discovered by Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organization, it is said that ZAPU failed to give a satisfactory explanation for this leading to a massive exodus of ZAPU leaders from the new government and the beginning of dissident activity in Matebeland. Shona speaking people and commercial farmers were being killed. Former ZAPU guerillas were roaming freely with guns, terrorizing people, especially in Matebeland and Midlands areas. The ZANU led government could not of course let this go on and it is said that security forces were deployed to end the dissident and banditry activity. Unfortunately people were killed along with dissidents and those who harbored them. However, what is more often mischaracterized as a massacre was more like a small-scale civil war with civilian casualties on both sides.

Subsequently, in 1987 ZAPU and ZANU leaders held talks, which culminated in a Unity Accord and is now celebrated annually on December 22nd, as ZAPU leaders were again put into the fold to form a government of national unity. It is instructive to note that the current National Chairman of ZANU is a former ZAPU leader, the National Youth Chairman is former ZAPU, the Second Vice President is former ZAPU, and the National Army Commander is former ZAPU. In fact former ZAPU members are now in control of many government and party institutions.

Mr. Fletcher says: “We ignored President Mugabe's adoption of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank formula of ‘structural adjustment.’”(ESAP) However, this ignores the context of the times and the world situation. Undoubtedly, it was a mistake to deal with the IMF and World Bank but the conditions and constraints that led to Zimbabwe's doing this were largely due to the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and were felt by all countries trying to pursue an independent path. Cuba referred to these conditions as their Special Period. This also ignores that Mugabe’s government abolished the ESAP, something done nowhere else in Africa.

Mr. Fletcher says: “And, we ignored the fact that the land was not being redistributed.”

But some was. Although it represented only one third of a 162,000 household target, more than 50,000 households had been resettled by 1990. Why wasn't more land redistributed before the late 1990s? This is explained by constraints of the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement that brokered Zimbabwe’s independence and it is critical to note that the liberation forces were encouraged to accept this agreement by fellow liberation forces in the other Front Line states. The constraints in this agreement were not the choice of Mugabe or ZANU.

Mr. Fletcher says: “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.” I don’t know what the point is here. That instead of commending ZANU-PF, for jettisoning ESAP as soon as it could, it is better to support the opposition, which wants to cement ESAP in place?

Mr. Fletcher says: “And some of us closed our eyes to who was actually benefiting from land redistribution and who was not.” With all due respect this sounds like a version of the land going not to the landless but to Mugabe's cronies routine. I’m sorry but I can’t believe Mugabe had 134,000 cronies to dole land out to in 2002. Land audits bear out the fact that land went mainly to the landless and had reached over 250,000 families by 2006. Furthermore, not only have there been eyewitness testimonies by others, such as that of Baffour Ankomah, editor of New African who has seen things for himself but I also personally know of a youth farming cooperative started with land from this exercise. Having been there and stayed at the home of the cooperative’s chairman I attest that these youth are hardly cronies of Mugabe.

Mr. Fletcher says: “I found myself attempting to explain to them (his Zimbabwean comrades) why many African Americans were silent in the face of President Mugabe's repression.” Actually, I haven't noticed this reluctance disproportionate to any other issue. Maybe I've seen too many articles taking the standard line against Zimbabwe. I have experienced quite a bit of cynicism among most intellectual African-“Americans” about my alternative position on the issues. On the other hand I also find that the common Black person on the street has legitimate reservations about anything remotely resembling the regime change rhetoric of imperialism.

Regarding Mr. Fletcher’s position on the elections, I agree that it would have been better to announce the results even with a recount needed. Although I recognize that the MDC and Western media would have treated the initial figure as real and the recount as rigging. From that standpoint, I think I can understand why the total has not been announced. But it still may have been better to do so. The same rigging claims were going to be tossed around regardless. Statements by British officials and US make it clear that they will accept no result that does not favor the opposition. What more is the iron first and velvet glove of imperialism doing to ensure their interests in Zimbabwe? Mr. Fletcher and I agree that the stakes in Zimbabwe are higher than the mere outcome of an election but I contend that it’s one of completely embedded neo-colonialism versus the right to national self-determination and sovereignty.

Mr. Fletcher says: “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.” There is more to this than one could gather from this summary. In December 1998, with Zimbabwe having already earned the indignation of Western governments, a plan was presented to the European Union’s Africa Working Group recommending strategies for regime change. The plan called for the formation of a political party from this spectrum of opponents in “civil society”, naming in particular, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). Prior to this, in May 1997 European trade unions had already singled out the then Secretary General of ZCTU, Morgan Tsvangirai as their presidential candidate against Robert Mugabe. It’s with this backdrop that the MDC was born.

I agree with Mr. Fletcher’s assertion, “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.” Clearly, however such an environment cannot exist while foreign interests are so pervasively manipulating so much of what appears to be internal.

On January 24th, 1999 a meeting was convened at Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs to discuss the EU’s regime change policy. The theme of the meeting, led by Richard Dowden, now the Executive Director of the Royal African Society, was “Zimbabwe - Time for Mugabe to Go?” The “confiscating” of white-held land is what got a “yes” to the conference’s rhetorical question. Dowden presented four options:

    1. a military coup
    2. buying the opposition
    3. insurrection
    4. subverting Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party

A few months later, the US State Department held its version of that meeting, a seminar entitled “The Zimbabwe Crisis” to discuss its strategy for dealing with the same. Their conclusion too was that civil society and the opposition would be strengthened to foment discontent and dissent.

If we’re going to discuss Zimbabwe and what position to take on it, it’s important that the African community consider this context. While Mr. Fletcher is concerned with what he refers to as "infintile approaches" to controversy within our communities, I’m more concerned that our assessments are arrived at with plentiful and accurate context. Because, like Mr. Fletcher, I believe the stakes are much too high. Guest Commentator, Netfa Freeman is director of the Social Action & Leadership School for Activists (SALSA), a program of the Washington DC based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), a longtime activist in the Pan-African and international human rights movements, and a co-producer/co-host for Voices With Vision, WPFW 89.3 FM, Washington DC. Click here to contact Mr. Freeman.

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May 1, 2008
Issue 275

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Executive Editor:
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
Peter Gamble
Est. April 5, 2002
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