Tony Leon

Why South Africa backs Mugabe

Tony Leon says the Zimbabwean leader’s histrionics appeal to the resentment and Soviet nostalgia of southern Africa’s elite

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Tony Leon says the Zimbabwean leader’s histrionics appeal to the resentment and Soviet nostalgia of southern Africa’s elite

Cape Town

It was a proud moment for aviation in Zimbabwe. The country was suffering the worst fuel crisis in its history; hospitals were reverting to ox-drawn ambulances. But still the Zimbabwean air force managed to stage a spectacular air show last month to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

In recognition of this astounding logistical feat, the South African air force sent its own planes to join the fun, including a squadron of fighter jets, two helicopters and the Silver Falcons aerobatics team. Our defence minister explained that it was necessary for South African pilots ‘to test their skills against other defence forces’.

Not that our two countries are likely to go to war any time soon. South Africa is, in fact, Robert Mugabe’s best and last remaining friend in the world. Brother leader Gaddafi has lost interest, and when Mugabe went to China last month to beg for aid, all he came back with was $6 million for grain, 100 computers and a promise to send four breeding pairs of endangered Siberian tigers.

The tigers will be delivered in exchange for zebras, elephants and impala, which will no doubt feel relieved to be leaving. Animals in Zimbabwean game reserves are being killed by poachers, and their habitat is being destroyed by land invasions. But they still have it better than the human beings, four million of whom — roughly a third of the population — are facing famine this year.

Thousands of desperate Zimbabweans cross South Africa’s porous northern border every day. Most are looking for food and jobs, but many are also on the run from the Zimbabwean police, army and intelligence services.

Mugabe, quite plausibly, claims to have an iron grasp of the problems at hand. His people, he declared at the UN in September, are ‘very, very happy’. If there’s not enough maize, he said, in a Monty-Python-meets-Marie-Antoinette moment, ‘we have heaps of potatoes’. Heaps of rubble, too, he could have added, after his bulldozers razed several hundred thousand homes this past winter in Operation Murambatsvina — ‘Drive Out the Trash’.

This dramatic gesture of African solidarity did not go unheralded. The manic Afrocentrists who write in the monthly New African — published in London, of course — celebrated the demolitions with the headline: ‘From Dust Springs Hope’.

Not to be outdone, the South African government offered Mugabe a loan of up to 1 billion rand to pay off his debt to the IMF and rescue his country’s economy. Rumour has it that the South African Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni, one of the few officials here who understands the scale of the Zimbabwe crisis, insisted that Mugabe talk to opposition parties as a condition of the loan. Mugabe suddenly turned cold, and miraculously discovered $120 million under his mattress, which bought off the IMF for another six months. Still, a South African cabinet spokesperson promised that ‘discussions would continue’, and the loan looks like a done deal.

My wife, although not African-born, loves this continent and is no timid soul. Yet she describes the cheer that went up for Mugabe at President Thabo Mbeki’s second inauguration last year as her ‘most depressing moment’ in Africa. Why do Africans love Mugabe?

Actually, most don’t. A recent survey found that only 14 per cent of black South Africans approve of him. Ordinary Zimbabweans queuing up to buy potatoes — an outrageous extravagance at Z$20 per sack — are, privately, Mugabe’s most embittered critics. Mugabe’s real constituents are not the African ‘masses’ he claims to represent, but the crusty southern African post-colonial elites. Mugabe’s anti-Western histrionics appeal to their lingering insecurity, resentment and Soviet nostalgia.

The liberation elites are bound by common interests and a common theology — a millenarian belief that the parties of independence are the final prophets of a messianic age who can do no wrong and after whom shall come no other. They regard opposition leaders, black and white, not only as political rivals but as dangerous religious heretics.

The truth is that Zimbabwe’s problems cannot be solved without getting rid of Mugabe. But to call for political change in Zimbabwe is not to call for a military invasion — for which our air force, no doubt, is aerobatically prepared. There are clearly other options available.

When I was a small boy growing up in Durban, which regarded itself as the last outpost of the British empire, virtually the entire white population was pro-Rhodesia, regarded Harold Wilson as a sell-out and Ian Smith as a saviour. In the streets, cars sported purple and white bumper stickers crying ‘Forward Rhodesia’ and ‘Good Old Smith’. Many living-room walls were adorned with copper relief sculptures of Smith’s face. Those of us youngsters who were inclined to see some merit in the case of black Zimbabweans were viewed with disdain.

Yet the South African prime minister John Vorster, notwithstanding the near-uniformity of white public opinion in apartheid South Africa, turned his back on Rhodesia in what Smith was later to describe, in his autobiography of the same name, as ‘The Great Betrayal’.

The question is why Mbeki cannot bring himself to do the same. The pages of The Zimbabwean, a new weekly newspaper published by Zimbabwean exiles, are filled with speculation on this matter. One theory is that Mbeki is waiting for Zimbabwe’s economy to sink into helpless insolvency, whereupon he will take over the country’s assets and redistribute them to South African cronies as part of our government’s ‘black economic empowerment’ policy. This would, indeed, be a novel form of colonialism: invasion by foreclosure. And, to be sure, South African firms have shown some interest in snapping up Zimbabwean companies at fire-sale prices.

But Mbeki knows well that with Zimbabwean loot come Zimbabwean problems. As he and his government keep reminding us, ‘we don’t want Zimbabwe collapsing next door’.

The threat of collapse in Zimbabwe is South Africa’s latest apology for its failed policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’. Zimbabwe is collapsing already — but never mind. The fact is that Mbeki finds Zimbabwe’s plight politically useful in dealing with his most restive constituencies at home.

The fate of Zimbabwe’s white farmers and business owners is constantly dangled before South Africa’s racial minorities as a warning of what could happen if they don’t play along. To South Africa’s massive, sometimes unruly population of urban poor, Mbeki uses Zimbabwe’s economic collapse to teach a lesson: if you demand progress too quickly, you get hyperinflation, debt and ruin. And so Mbeki flies onward in his presidential jet, en route to another pressing diplomatic engagement.

South Africa has brokered peace deals in Burundi, the Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We even argued the Palestinian case at the International Court of Justice last year, one of the few democratic nations to do so.

But in Zimbabwe? Hardly a whisper.

Tony Leon MP is leader of the opposition in the Parliament of South Africa.