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

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.

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