Colonial Legacy Is Mugabe's Excuse

11 December 2003

By Stentor Danielson

Robert Mugabe is the self-appointed savior of Zimbabwe's blacks. As president, he has justified anything and everything by claiming that it's part of his struggle against the nation's racist colonial legacy.

The latest racism that Mugabe has taken on is his country's suspension from the British Commonwealth, an association of former British colonies that provides a forum for international cooperation and promotion of democracy. Last year, Mugabe swept to victory in the Zimbabwean elections after receiving critical endorsements from Mr. Machine Gun and Mr. Electoral Fraud. The Commonwealth responded by kicking Zimbabwe out for a year.

This weekend, Australian Prime Minister John Howard pressured the leaders of the Commonwealth nations to agree to an extension of Zimbabwe's suspension. Mugabe lost no time in declaring that he wanted no part of Commonwealth membership anyway: "It's quits, and quits it will be." The opposition Movement for Democratic Change praised the Commonwealth's tough stance and condemned Mugabe's decision to further isolate the country from the world.

Mugabe wasn't interested in disputing Howard's charges that he stole the election, intimidated opponents, trampled on press freedom, and seems bent on running the country's economy into the ground. Indeed, he said he would use "legal force and violence" against his opponents rather than give in to "imperialist" demands that he cease his tyranny. He lashed back at the Commonwealth with accusations that the real reason he was suspended was racism.

Race has been Mugabe's justification for the very brutality that led to his suspension. He won acclaim in the 1970s and 1980s as a leader in the struggle against the brutal apartheid regime of Ian Smith. But unlike South Africa's Nelson Mandela, who understood that the opposite of white domination is not black domination but multiracial democracy, Mugabe set about cementing his power in the name of blacks' struggle for freedom.

The best-known example of Mugabe's iniquity is the "land reform" he has carried out. Land reform is desperately needed in a country where whites, profiting from a history of racist dispossession of the country's native inhabitants, control nearly all the productive farmland. But rather than pursue a just solution to the problem that restores poor blacks' economic security (such as the one Britain has offered to broker), Mugabe has seized the injustice as a cloak for more injustice. He has endorsed the violent takeover of white farms by "war veterans," cronies deriving legitimacy from their participation in the struggle for independence from white oppression. For evidence that this reform is not about helping dispossessed blacks, we need look no farther than Zimbabwe's plummeting agricultural output, which has sent the country from the breadbasket of southern Africa to a nation that can't even feed itself.

Restrictions on the press were also justified by accusations of supporting colonialism. Journalists who expose the corruption of Mugabe's regime are branded as agents of Britain and other foreign powers. Recently, Zimbabwe instituted a requirement that all journalists be licensed, and restricted licenses to only citizens. This effectively banished the foreign press, which is deemed most likely to betray the nation.

There was anger from other African nations at Howard's strongarm tactics at getting the suspension extended, as well as a feeling that engagement, rather than punishment, would be more effective in promoting change. Joachim Chissano of Mozambique lamented the white nations' unwillingness to cut Zimbabwe some slack because they don't understand how hard it is to recover from domination by "abject racialist powers." Some observers feared a split in the organization along racial lines.

Such a split would encourage Mugabe to thumb his nose at world opinion, dismissing calls for democracy and reform as racist and neocolonialist ploys. He doubtless hoped that by appealing to race, he could win sympathy in other African nations by reminding them that the push for democracy was coming from their former colonial masters.

Luckily, Commonwealth leaders stood together on Monday to condemn Mugabe and express hope that Zimbabwe would be democratic enough to return to the organization soon. In this case, Mugabe has failed to pursue Saddam Hussein's tactic of sapping international action by keeping hardliners and supporters of engagement at each other's throats.

Ultimately, the problem is not just that Mugabe is illegitimately using race as a screen for corruption and oppression. The problem is also that in doing so, he trivializes Africa's long history of racial problems. Fixing the legacy of colonialism and apartheid will require real democracy and economic security for downtrodden Africans, not oppression by black leaders who spout anti-colonial rhetoric.

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