“Go hang!” or gang ho?

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I am not one of those who think that bashing President Robert Mugabe is the way to show how "progressive" you are.

Fortunately I am just old enough to remember the excitement and pride so many of us felt when the freedom fighter Robert Mugabe took over from the repressive and racist minority regime of Ian Smith. I also remember with respect the tough and principled manner in which he negotiated the liberation of his country as compared with the shameful sell-out performances of the likes of Bishop Abel Muzorewa, as well as the many good developmental policies that he implemented after becoming the first democratically elected premier of Zimbabwe. (After 1987 the position of premier was abolished and he became executive president). In my mind there is no doubt that the credentials of Robert Mugabe as liberation fighter and great son of Africa is well established and beyond reproach.

I am also old enough to remember how awful the collusion between successive British governments was with the illegitimate UDI government of Ian Smith. How every democratic concession had to be fought for and squeezed out of them during the far too dragged-out negotiating process; and how ungracefully they accepted the negotiated compromise that the Lancaster Agreement was and which anyhow secured far too many privileges (including land ownership rights) for those whites who had in the first place illegitimately gained those, and who had suddenly rediscovered their "British roots". Why on earth Britain had to accept these prodigal sons and daughters back into the fold I have never understood - but I suppose blood is thicker than water ...

It is a matter of well-established record that having pushed as far as Britain did to protect the illegitimate colonial gains of their lost-and-found citizens, successive British governments shamefully did not even honour the bare minimum with regard to financial commitments for land restitution that it had agreed to. Neither Britain, nor the USA, who had agreed to stand as guarantors in case the UK failed their undertakings, come out of this looking good at all. In fact they have no moral leg to stand on to attack President Mugabe on the principal need for land reform.

The following two quotes by President Mugabe taken from a recent interview with Gil Noble are apt, and only those who deliberately do not want to understand the land issue in Zimbabwe will disagree:

The land is ours. It's not European and we have taken it, we have given it to the rightful people ... Those of white extraction who happen to be in the country and are farming are welcome to do so, but they must do so on the basis of equality."

It was a robbery. Daylight robbery. And we are building up a case, a separate case for that one – for compensating us not just for the land, but for the whole act; an act of robbery; a colonial act of seizing our land; subjecting our people for a hundred years nearly, and exploiting our resources without our permission." (For the full interview, and further interesting comments on Zimbabwe, click here.)

There is no doubt in my mind that President Mugabe and ZANU (PF) have reason to be deeply frustrated and angered by the behaviour of Britain since the independence of Zimbabwe. I also have no doubt that the land restitution steps that have been undertaken have legitimate origins.

Yet, despite all of this, I am deeply disappointed with the way that President Mugabe and ZANU (PF) have handled the situation. This is almost a classical text book example of how to undermine a good cause. What saddens me even more is that President Mugabe and the senior leadership of ZANU (PF) should know better than going gang ho, committing gross human rights abuses against the rather feeble MDC opposition. President Mugabe and many of the ZANU (PF) leaders, having spent long years in prison, and suffered severe human rights abuses under Ian Smith's regime, should know better than most that this is just not on! However legitimate your cause may be, once you allow human rights abuses, either to promote it or to defend it, you are on a slippery slope descending into the nowhere land of moral bankruptcy.

No doubt the tardy behaviour of Britain and her Western allies has played a significant role in determining the manner in which President Thabo Mbeki and the other SADC leaders approach the crisis that Zimbabwe finds itself in. None of these African leaders can talk to their peer and African liberation struggle hero with the screechy pontificating of a British tabloid, nor can any of them afford to look like the policemen of Britain or the USA. (An article that appeared recently on the website of The Guardian reveals the extent of meddling by the USA in the internal affairs of Zimbabwe.).

But to seemingly find it impossible to develop an approach that allows for making a clear and vocal distinction between the issues of land reform and human rights abuses is a serious failure to conduct principled diplomacy, to say the least. In fact, it is a serious failure of leadership, which also undermines so much else of what we are trying to achieve in Africa with regard to good governance and democracy. It surely can't be so difficult to find the right words and formulation to condemn – publicly and in no uncertain terms - President Mugabe's excesses and human rights abuses and to make him understand that he should stop forthwith, while still acknowledging that the land restitution issues are legitimate concerns. It will also not harm to strongly criticise Britain and her allies for the central role that they played in having created the current disaster.

Such an approach will create the moral space within which "quiet diplomacy" can be conducted and enriched. And this should not necessarily turn into pampering President Mugabe, because as legitimate as the land reform issues are, the manner in which he implemented land restitution smacks of political expediency. Sitting behind closed doors, and with no BBC and CNN cameras and microphones around, President Mbeki and the SADC leaders should ask why for so many years President Mugabe was not strongly raising the issue of Britain's non-compliance with Lancaster, and seemed to be quite happy to have an arrangement of convenience with the white farming community that they are left alone as long as they do not cause him any political trouble. It was only when President Mugabe started to feel the heat of economic decline and growing opposition (also within his own party) that he seized on the land restitution issue as a convenient mobilisation tool.

As serious is the legitimate question why President Mugabe did not, during all those years, before he suddenly decided to act so forcefully on land, create training institutions and programmes to equip Zimbabweans with the necessary skills to take over the land and to be able do so as successful commercial farmers. It is totally unjustifiable to have massive tracts of valuable farm land now lying unattended and literally going to rack and ruin. These are issues of policy implementation and governance that seriously undermine not only the legitimate cause that land reform is, but generally brought Zimbabwe to the brink of economic collapse and untold hardships for its citizens.

It was not so long ago that Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of Southern Africa. Surely its disastrous decline is not necessarily a consequence of land restitution and the departure of many white farmers; surely responsibility for the manner in which things have been mismanaged should be placed at the door of President Mugabe and the ZANU (PF) government. During those sessions of quiet diplomacy President Mugabe should not be allowed to get off the hook about any of these issues. And the dubious alliances and feebleness of the divided MDC opposition can also not be an excuse to allow him to escape the heat.

I have no doubt that despite all the mistakes that have been made, ZANU (PF) still has huge legitimacy and majority support in Zimbabwe. It is the party that brought liberation to Zimbabwe, and that dividend cannot easily be discarded and should not be squandered. The sad thing is that ZANU (PF) would anyhow have won the last parliamentary elections, and for that matter President Mugabe the presidential elections, without all the intimidation and political thuggery that they indulged in. It was a classic case of shooting yourself in the foot, and eventually their victories seemed rather empty, having given the MDC and its Western allies enough evidence of intimidation to claim that ZANU (PF) did not really get majority support. We now seem to be heading down the same road for next year's parliamentary and presidential elections. ZANU (PF) should not allow this to happen; it cannot afford itself to betray its own liberation history and the legitimate hopes and aspirations of the people of Zimbabwe so badly. Within its own ranks it should garner the political leadership and moral courage to get Zimbabwe out of the current quagmire. Land restitution has to be re-established as a moral and politically legitimate cause which, if handled correctly, can greatly improve the lives of many Zimbabweans. If this is to happen they cannot have President Mugabe as their candidate for the presidential elections. It is exactly this issue that the quiet diplomacy of the SADC leaders has to concentrate on. The issue of the retirement of President Mugabe can no longer be a matter of “whether”; it should be simply a matter of “how”.

Such retirement should be handled in such a way that it does not become a humiliation for President Mugabe. No matter what the headlines of the tabloid press scream, he deserves to be respected and honoured for his central role in the liberation of Zimbabwe. At 83 he deserves to be granted the respect and rest of a well-earned and well-looked-after retirement that comes with the recognition of him as liberation struggle hero and elderly statesman.

I am not talking about "regime change" with all its negative, undemocratic and interventionist connotations, but about a legitimate democratic process where the retired President Mugabe will be succeeded by a new president elected during next year's scheduled elections, which must be free and fair. I have very little doubt that the presidential candidate of ZANU (PF) will be elected, and that ZANU (PF) will also gain a decisive parliamentary majority.

All of this is possible – in fact, it is more than just an option; it is a necessity. The one thing that the quiet diplomacy of the SADC leaders has to be as hard as nails about - both towards President Mugabe and towards his party – is that he cannot stay on any longer than next year as President of Zimbabwe. The alternative is too ghastly to contemplate, especially for the people of Zimbabwe, but also for ZANU (PF) and - although he may not think so - for President Mugabe himself too.

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