Rian Malan is appalled that Zimbabwe has been put in charge of Sustainable Development by the UN — and says it is symptomatic of the way in which Mugabe is indulged by foolish go-gooders from New York to South Africa
On the day that Bob Mugabe’s genocidal regime acceded to the chair of the UN’s Commission on Sustainable Development, I found myself in the lovely Cape village of Franschhoek, once a Boer farming town but now more French and precious than Provence. Even as bitter debate broke out in the distant UN, I was checking into a luxurious hostelry and trimming my nostril hairs in preparation for meeting such luminaries as Liz Calder, publisher of the Harry Potter books, and the glamorous American novelist Siri Hustvedt, author of Things I Loved. I had come to participate in the inaugural Franschhoek Literary Festival, but my thoughts were in New York with the UK Environment Minister Ian Pearson, who was attempting to explain to African diplomats that one could not appoint a malignant regime like Zimbabwe’s to the chairmanship of anything, let alone a committee on development. The Africans did not take kindly to this. ‘It’s an insult to our intelligence,’ explained Boniface Chidyausiku, Zimbabwe’s UN ambassador. The African bloc agreed, and Pearson went down in flames, victim of what the press called an ‘overwhelming’ snub to the West.
I would not presume to liken my experience to Pearson’s, but I stood at his shoulder in the righteous fight and paid the price, shouted down as ‘pathetic’ by an eminent white liberal at a posh dinner attended by such grandees as Bevil Rudd, grandson of Rhodes’s right-hand man, and Mrs Astor, widow of David Astor, for many years publisher and editor of the Observer. If it seems odd that events in New York should have almost instant repercussions at posh dinners in Africa, well, it shouldn’t. The world has grown tiny and the march of history has turned Franschhoek into a playground for Europe’s civilised rich. Also resident here is Tokyo Sexwale, a revolutionary turned billionaire who is often seen dining at Le Quartier Français, ‘South Africa’s finest restaurant’, or shopping for delicacies at shops such as Le Verger. An excited socialite told me Sexwale was in town for the festival weekend, entertaining no less a personage than President Mbeki himself. In such rarefied air, the wise man watches what he says about Zimbabwe. I was not up to it, however.
I first saw Robert Mugabe in the flesh at a UN Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002. His arrival on the podium was preceded by US defence secretary Colin Powell, who was booed and jeered, and by Tony Blair, who met with similar indignities. Mugabe, on the other hand, was greeted by a tumultuous standing ovation. I wrote it off as a passing fad. At the time, black power fanatics were still pumped up over Mugabe’s ethnic cleansing of white farmers, and one assumed their enthusiasm would wear off once the consequences of Mugabe’s folly manifested themselves.
Not so. By 2004, Zimbabwe’s economy was in freefall and his subjects were growing hungry, but Mugabe was more popular than ever. No, not in Zimbabwe. His fans were black people elsewhere. He received standing ovations in many African capitals, and at President Mbeki’s 2004 swearing-in ceremony. By then, it was clear that his ‘fast-track land-reform programme’ had not significantly reversed his unpopularity at home, and he had already taken to bludgeoning black opponents and rigging elections in order to stay in power. His black supporters didn’t care. Mugabe was giving the whites hell. Mugabe was therefore a hero. ‘Mugabe is speaking for black people worldwide,’ wrote the Johannesburg commentator Harry Mashabela.
One assumed this accounted for the Mbeki administration’s reluctance to criticise Mugabe in public. We were told that the situation in Zimbabwe was delicate, and that ‘quiet diplomacy’ offered the best shot at staving off anarchy. For a while this seemed plausible, but in time it became clear that quiet diplomacy was mostly a cover for covert support. When Western members of the Commonwealth moved to expel Mugabe, South Africa helped block them. South Africa also thwarted attempts to place his atrocities on the agenda at the UN Security Council and the UN Human Rights Committee. Meanwhile, the rape of Zimbabwe gained momentum, and Mugabe’s popularity swelled to rock-star proportions. Last year, the cocky little psychopath informed an audience of African-American New Yorkers that his rule had created ‘an unprecedented era of peace and tranquillity’ back home. They gave him a standing ovation.
One understands the wounds of history, but even so one believed there would come a day when Mugabe’s militant fans realised their behaviour was restoring the reputation of Ian Smith, who prophesised that Rhodesia would be ‘buggered’ if the black took over. By the beginning of this year, Smith was utterly vindicated. Eight out of ten Zimbabweans were jobless, and those who had work were screwed anyway, because inflation was 2,200 per cent and they couldn’t afford anything. Hospitals and schools were collapsing, factories closing. Millions were facing starvation. In a report for the Sunday Times four months ago R.W. Johnson interviewed a game ranger who said Zimbabwe’s hyenas were developing a taste for human flesh, the result of scavenging on corpses ‘cast into collective pits like cattle’. He concluded that Mugabe’s misrule had resulted in as many as two million deaths — twice as many as perished in the Rwandan genocide — and that ‘the number is now heading into regions previously explored only by Stalin, Mao and Adolf Eichmann.’
It was against this backdrop that the UN’s Commission on Sustainable Development met to elect a new leader last Friday. The chair of this body rotates between regions; this year it fell to Africa to make an appointment, and African countries were bent on installing Mugabe’s man. Western diplomats initially thought this was some sort of joke, but as the day passed, it emerged that Africans were indeed of the opinion that a body dedicated to fostering development could credibly be chaired by a murderous regime that had reduced a once-thriving nation to absolute penury. The West was dumbfounded. ‘Beyond parody,’ said an Australian newspaper columnist. ‘Appalling,’ said his Prime Minister, John Howard. ‘Preposterous,’ said the American human rights lobby Freedom House. But Africans wangled support from Latin America and their motion was carried.
News of this triumph cast me into abject gloom, and at the festival I predicted inevitable catastrophe. This was not what civilised white South Africans wanted to hear on a lovely autumn day, what with the economy growing at five per cent and surprising numbers capable of forking out R500 a plate to dine with visiting writers. One such dinner took place on an achingly lovely wine estate that styles itself Haute Cabrière. I was seated alongside Bevil John Rudd, a genial old fellow with a mad-scientist hairdo, whose family once owned a big chunk of De Beers Consolidated. The aforementioned Mrs Astor regaled us with stories of her family’s role in the downfall of apartheid, which consisted of being good chums with Mandela and hiring Anthony Sampson and Colin Legum to agitate against the dreadful Boers.
Opposite us a spiky-haired codger was rattling on in a dismissive way about sceptics who doubt the sustainability of the South African miracle. ‘This is a wonderful country,’ said Ken Owen, the esteemed former editor of South Africa’s dominant Sunday paper. ‘I just get richer and richer. Read this week’s Economist! Our economy is roaring ahead at four times the rate of New Zealand’s,’ and s
o on. With several glasses of wine under my belt, I was emboldened to say, ‘Pardon me, but in the light of what just happened in New York, your optimism seems unfounded.’ My fellow diners looked mystified, so I explained. ‘You’d have to be blind to misread the writing on the wall here,’ I said.
It went down badly. Owen said he’d been reading my scribblings in this very paper, and hadn’t liked them at all. ‘I thought you were just playing up to the Brits for the money,’ he said, ‘but you actually believe this stuff!’ Then he explained to the gathering that ANC policy toward Mugabe was entirely rational and designed to prevent Zimbabwe imploding. I said, ‘Oh, come on! Zimbabwe imploded years ago.’ Jonathan Shapiro, aka the eminent leftish political cartoonist Zapiro, intervened at this point. He was willing to allow that the ANC was guilty of double standards when it came to human rights in Zimbabwe, but I wasn’t having any of that. ‘Screw double standards,’ I said. ‘Mugabe’s country is ruined and his people are starving, but he smashed the white farmers, so blacks — our government included — support him regardless. These people hate us,’ I concluded. ‘This is war.’ Whereupon Owen lost it entirely. ‘You’re pathetic,’ he shouted. ‘Pathetic!’
It seems to me that last week’s events in New York render a terrible verdict on well-intentioned do-gooders and the climate of impunity they create for African dictators. These thugs and kleptocrats know there is no downside; blacks — some blacks — don’t care what horrors they inflict on black people, so long as they can make anti-imperialist noises. As for whites, they will take any insults you dish out and come to feed your people anyway, thereby sparing you from the consequences of your incompetence and criminality. There can be little doubt that this was an essential part of Mugabe’s calculations. I mean, the man has something like eight university degrees. It cannot possibly have escaped his notice that elimination of white commercial farmers would precipitate a food crisis. But why worry? He knew that the UN and allied charities would step in to feed the starving. Indeed, he was so confident of their generosity that he did not scruple to use donated food as a political weapon, rewarding loyalists with free grub and punishing rebellious villages by withholding same while loudly proclaiming that food shortages and spiralling prices were caused by drought, rather than deranged government policy.
This year the rains truly failed, and millions face starvation. The response of Mugabe’s government was dumbfounding: it announced last month that it was revoking the licences of every aid group operating in Zimbabwe. Later, the regime relented somewhat: charity would be tolerated provided donors ‘stuck to their core business’ and otherwise behaved themselves. ‘Government will not accept food offers from anyone for political purposes,’ said the information minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu. Furthermore, aid would be accepted only if it was ‘not attached with innuendoes of failure’. The reason for this, explained Comrade Ndlovu, is that ‘Zimbabwe deserves the same dignity as any other country’.
As I read this I seethed with outrage. This parasite didn’t even have the manners to say please or thank you. But this is beyond etiquette. In the absence of food aid, a ruler who behaved like Mugabe would long since have been torn limb from limb by his starving subjects. One recalls the demise of Louis XVI, of Mussolini and Ceausescu. Is it not time to abandon Mugabe to a similar fate?
Liberals will think this unfair to innocent people, and they are right: hundreds of thousands might die if the food convoys do not start rolling into Zimbabwe soon. On the other hand, as R.W. Johnson reminds us, armies of the innocent have already perished at Mugabe’s hand, but he continues to thrive. His party recently announced that his reign has been extended to at least 2010. He presumes to dictate terms to charities. Blacks everywhere continue to adulate him, and to insult the West by appointing his despicable government to positions of honour. There is only one way to end to end this farce: cut off the aid and let Mugabe face the music.
No, I am not advocating anything as dire as regime change. The trick would be to tie food aid to acceptance of some very modest preconditions — an end to torture, respect for the rule of law, untrammelled free speech and no interference in the distribution of food aid. In other words, conditions so mild and reasonable that even Mugabe’s most ardent fans cannot dispute their justness. If he rejects them, his disciples will be left in no doubt as to his moral repugnance, and his long-suffering subjects will know exactly who to blame for their hunger pangs. The end, one hopes, should come swiftly.