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WHY IS THIS MAN SNARLING?: ROBERT MUGABE AND THE SOURING OF ZIMBABWE: "In the pantheon of heroes of the decades-long, region-wide war for southern African liberation, Robert Mugabe has always seemed the leader least easy to like or to admire. . ."

vol 11 no 4

Editorial and contents for Vol 11 No 4
the SAR editorial collective

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 4, July 1996
Page 1


In the pantheon of heroes of the decades-long, region-wide war for southern African liberation, Robert Mugabe has always seemed the leader least easy to like or to admire. Of course, even his critics are forced to admit that he had played his cards skilfully in the sharp pre-independence infighting that characterized the world of the Zimbabwean liberation movements. And that he and his colleagues had been equally skilful in finessing ZANU-PF's political victory out from under the noses of the British, the South Africans and the settlers during the tense transition period. Moreover, in the aftermath of that victory, Mugabe earned an even greater reputation for statesmanship, "realistically" conceding a great deal to white control of important sectors of the economy for example, while never quite acting on his own stated preference to institutionalize the narrowly defined one-party state he apparently had in mind.

Nonetheless, from very early on it was also evident that a vast gulf separated Mugabe's sometimes highly vocal leftist rhetoric - an apparent residue of the heady ideological wars of liberation struggle days - from ZANU-PF's actual practice, as a party and as the vehicle of a new African elite, of enrichissez-vous , and the devil take the hindmost. (This latter is the reading of the substance of the nationalist achievement in Zimbabwe on which Brian Raftopoulos builds his analysis of the current "indigenization" debate in Zimbabwe in the present issue, for example). Evident, too, was both a distinct arrogance of power (linked to a ruthless drive to entrench his own political party ever more firmly and unassailably in power), and a certain querulous cultural nationalism that, for example, brought Mugabe into much closer sympathy, during the 1980s, with South Africa's racially-driven Pan-Africanist Congress than with the ANC.

Now, as much more of the sheen of liberation has worn away from the Zimbabwean experience and the cruel light of globalization and structural adjustment, of "guided democracy" and popular demobilization, plays across the land, the meaner side of Mugabe's character stands even more cruelly revealed. What may have looked momentarily like statesmanship was often, one now suspects, little more than low cunning, and the cruelty that launched the bloody Fifth Brigade assault on Matabeleland in the 1980s has come to seem to many observers the truer measure of the man. Case in point: the viciousness of his recent attack on gays in Zimbabwe, an attack premised, as Iden Wetherell argues below, as much on cold- blooded political calculation - this despite the fact that, as Marc Epprecht suggests in a companion article, Mugabe's tactic may yet backfire on him politically (internationally if not nationally) - as on conviction (however bizarre and spiteful).

Small wonder, as well, that Mugabe has recently had so little trouble in upping the stakes of racial name-calling when, pushed to advance the interests of a newly emergent black entrepreneurial class, it has seemed politically opportune to do so. Of course, as Raftopoulos notes, this too could be a dangerous and contradictory political gambit for Mugabe to adopt: since the extent to which a Zimbabwean state now firmly in the thrall of the World Bank and the global system can advance such local interests is very much in doubt. It is rather easy, therefore, to dismiss Mugabe's racially-charged rhetoric - replacing so easily his previous invocations of socialism and "Marxism-Leninism" - as merely one more ploy to buy political space.

But is this too sour an interpretation? Might this attack on "white control" not, instead, represent some sign of a populist revival in Zimbabwe, the projection of a renewed attempt to advance the interests of ordinary Zimbabweans against those of their historical oppressors? Unfortunately, any such interpretation is difficult to sustain, given the manner (as documented by Richard Saunders in this issue) in which the ZANU government has also allowed its embrace of structural adjustment to drive many more Zimbabweans closer to the wall of poverty. In the process, and without much apology from the political powers-that-be, an ever leaner state has been stripped of many of the functions - in the spheres of popular education and health services, in particular - that once marked the most positive achievements of Zimbabwe's post-colonial period.

For the moment, then, it is difficult to feel very positive about the quality of the leadership offered the Zimbabwean people by Robert Mugabe, or indeed, more broadly, by his party, ZANU-PF. Rather, a further, quite mean-spirited debasing of the coinage of political discussion seems to be his principle current contribution to the political scene in his country. Time alone will tell the full costs of this approach.

* * *

Lean and mean? Elsewhere in this issue, Alexander Costy writes of a state, in Mozambique, so lean that it threatens to disappear altogether - at least in the important rural district he recently studied. And into the resultant vacuum rush the various NGOs whose activity he chronicles in his article. For her part, Lauren Dobell writes of a ruling party - Swapo in Namibia - that threatens to turn very mean indeed in its fevered reaction to a book that reveals more about its abuses of power as a liberation movement in exile than it cares to have known.

Add to this, for South Africa, Patrick Bond's heartfelt reflections on the contradictions that continue to stalk efforts to craft a progressive post-apartheid future - his concerns shadowed, in turn, by David Pottie in a review of a recent book on the urban popular movement in that country. Colleen O'Manique targets the disturbing trend towards "neo-liberalization" of responses to the AIDS epidemic in Africa, a continent-wide phenomenon that we hope to specify further with case-studies of AIDs in southern Africa in future issues.

Not that SAR itself is any leaner than usual, we hasten to add (even if we do continue to be rather too thin on financial resources!): you're getting your customary 36 pages. As for "mean": no, we're trying to keep our equanimity, and even something of our sense of humour, in a global situation that, North and South, is none too encouraging. We look forward to our twelfth year of publication after a brief summer hiatus. See you then.

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Southern Africa Report
Contents - Vol 11 No 4
"Why is this man snarling?
Robert Mugabe and the Souring of Zimbabwe"

Editorial: Lean and Mean - 1

Fighting for Control: The Indigenization Debate in Zimbabwe - 3
by Brian Raftopoulos

ESAP's Fables II - 8
by Richard Saunders

Gay Bashing in Zimbabwe:
I - Mugabe's Unholy War
- 13
by Iden Wetherell

Gay Bashing in Zimbabwe:
II - Outing the Gay Debate
- 14
by Marc Epprecht

Who Governs? NGOs in Rural Mozambique - 17
by Alexander Costy

Liberalizing AIDS in Africa: The World Bank Role - 21
by Colleen O'Manique

Confronting the ANC's Thatcherism - 25
by Patrick Bond

Namibia's Wall of Silence - 30
by Lauren Dobell

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