via How my return to Zimbabwe redoubled my enthusiasm for BDS in Israel/Palestine – Mondoweiss August 24, 2015 31
I recently returned to Zimbabwe for the first time in three decades. My visit reminded me that even the best intentioned liberation movements can turn bad, an insight that might be relevant to Israel/Palestine today. In fact, witnessing Zimbabwe’s decline has made me an even more determined supporter of BDS as the best — possibly the only — way to promote lasting justice in Israel/Palestine.
As a young reporter, I had covered Zimbabwe’s first independence elections in 1980, and I went back several times over the next few years. I had been a supporter of Robert Mugabe and the ZANU-PF party, believing they had a good chance to build a genuine multiracial democracy in what had been vicious, white-ruled Rhodesia. I have long since turned against Mugabe, but it was not till this visit that I saw Zimbabwe’s collapse at first hand. I learned that:
* The dire reports about Zimbabwe’s economic, political and human rights collapse are largely accurate.
* The reason usually presented for that disaster — blaming Mugabe and his violent and corrupt political party — is also accurate, but not sufficient. Holding Mugabe alone responsible exonerates the poisonous legacy of British colonialism, which was compounded by an immoral decision taken by Tony Blair’s government in the late 1990s.
Mugabe and ZANU-PF’s turn toward repression is particularly painful if you had witnessed the hopes they once inspired. ZANU-PF came to power branded as terrorists, but their first years in office were marked by reconciliation, which won over even many of their enemies among the white minority. Back in the early 1980s, I had known and liked party activists at all levels, from the grass roots on up. I spent part of an evening with Sydney Sekeramayi, who was then a young medical doctor, intelligent and reasonable. Today, he is the Minister of Defense, and my new younger friends describe him as a ruthless man, who is partly responsible for the killing and torture that has kept the ruling party in power, even though it actually lost elections all through the 2000s.
What is encouraging is that a huge number of Zimbabweans have turned against Mugabe and the ruling party. During my visit, my guides were two teachers in their 30s (I will call them Khaya Mabika and Tendai Tapera) who are too young to remember when ZANU-PF was genuinely popular. They are sharp, humorous and hopeful, even though they have been arrested several times for supporting the opposition.
On top of the political repression, the ruling party has nearly destroyed the country economically. Khaya Mabika says, “We have young people of 15 who do not know that water comes out of a tap.” In the worst year, 2008, gasoline shortages got so bad that people waited in lines for days. Tendai Tapera chuckled: “You were allowed to jump to the front of the queue if your vehicle was carrying a coffin with a corpse inside. So some enterprising businessmen loaded empty coffins with weights, and drove around from one petrol station to another, doing a successful side business.”
By far the biggest issue in colonial, white-ruled Rhodesia was the land. At independence, some 6000 white farmers, British settlers or their descendants, owned half of the countryside; while 4 million black Zimbabweans squeezed into the other half. Just about everyone recognized that newly-independent Zimbabwe was going to need profound land reform. But here is where the British contributed mightily to Zimbabwe’s tragedy. During the 1979 peace talks in London, British negotiators promised a laughably small amount of aid to buy back the land its white colonists had stolen, in many cases within the living memory of older Zimbabweans. The liberation movement pointed out right from the start that it would need more money to carry out a relatively smooth transition – as had to some extent happened farther north in Kenya, another former British settler colony that had won independence in 1964.
After independence, the pressure on land increased, but Mugabe and the ruling party waited patiently. Then, in 1997, the new Labor prime minister, Tony Blair, reneged on even the minimal promises. One of his ministers, Clare Short, made an insensitive, clumsy statement pointing out that her ancestors were Irish; they had also been victims of British colonialism, and so she owed Zimbabweans nothing. Robert Mugabe himself did not launch the widespread land invasions in 2000, but he soon opportunistically recognized that he could shore up his shrinking popularity if he jumped in to support them. At least 7 white farmers (and many more black farmworkers) were killed in the subsequent violence. The upheaval got worldwide publicity, although the British treachery that had indirectly contributed to it was barely mentioned in the reports.
I first took a look around the capital city, Harare, which I spent time in when it was still called Salisbury. Most obviously, far fewer white people were around. The white population in the whole country had peaked at nearly 300,000 in the 1970s, and has now declined to 10 per cent of that or less. But black Zimbabweans have also fled the economic mismanagement and political repression. By some estimates, there were 3 million refugees, most of them in neighboring South Africa.
My two guides and I then drove south from Harare to the rural area of Mashonaland East, a region I also knew from back in the early 1980s. During the first few years after independence, life improved dramatically for the rural poor, who had been the backbone of the national liberation war. The new government built schools, reduced or eliminated school fees, presided over dramatic improvements in health, and paid the small farmers more for their maize and other products.
But no longer. As we drove along rutted dirt roads, Mabika and Tapera gave me an informal Corruption Tour. “This big cattle farm was taken by a high-ranking minister,” they said. “The bottle (liquor) store over there is owned by another minister.” We got deep into the bush, where we met Tendai Tapera’s aunt and uncle, who had not benefited from land reform and who still scratched a living from small maize and peanut plots and from their 7 cows. Uncle’s biggest complaint was that even after he delivered his maize harvest to the local Grain Marketing Board, corruption and inefficiency means he was still waiting to be paid, many months later. He also smiled ruefully as he pulled from his pocket a wad of the now worthless Zimbabwean dollars from the hyperinflation period in 2008-09. He showed me a bill worth One Trillion Dollars. (Zimbabwe now uses the U.S. dollar, so at least the hyperinflation is gone.)
Tapera said both of his relatives had enthusiastically supported ZANU-PF during the war and after independence. “My uncle turned against them some years ago, although he has to keep his opinions to himself to avoid retaliation from the local ZANU-PF Youth League,” he explained. “My aunt still has her party card. She recognizes the problems, but she says we must stay loyal because Mugabe won us our independence.”
Some southern African agricultural experts, people like Ian Scoones and my old friend Ben Cousins, argue that the land reform in Zimbabwe has not been a complete failure. Quite a number of small farmers are starting to make a go of it in some areas, despite little support from the government. But nearly everyone agrees that land changeover has been disfigured by graft and inefficiency, and that the entire country has suffered as a result.
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But the large and hard truth is that even if Britain had met its moral obligation to fund genuine land reform, Zimbabwe would almost certainly still have turned in an authoritarian direction. I had already started to recognize this unpleasant fact back in the early 1980s. At one point in my book about southern Africa (Freedom Rising, which appeared in 1985), I wrote about one of the top four ZANU-PF leaders, a stocky, exuberant man named Enos Nkala, who had spent 12 years in detention under the white-minority Rhodesian regime.
I described Nkala, who died in 2013, as “a hard man.” I went on: “The circumstances called for extraordinary stubbornness, reckless courage and sacrifice. He never flinched. But over the years of suffering he has come to feel an almost religious sense of loyalty to his political party and its destiny, and a corresponding feeling of anathema toward those he thinks stand in its way. There are many like him in the Zimbabwean government.”
I concluded: “These men and women know from personal experience the effectiveness of violence. They know that when they agitated peacefully for an end to minority rule, using the conciliatory language and tactics of Western democracy that they had been taught in their colonial schools, they achieved nothing except lengthy terms in prison.” I pointed out that Zimbabwe only gained independence after ZANU-PF “formed their own army and fought for seven bitter years.”
This militarized zeal among ZANU-PF high officials partly explains why a political movement that had won overwhelming support in the first elections in 1980, and remained genuinely popular through its first decade in power, turned quickly to repression when it was challenged. There are unfortunately plenty of other examples of national liberation movements that betrayed their ideals, including Algeria after independence in 1962, or Eritrea since 1991.
I have almost no first-hand experience with the liberation movements of Palestine. I do know that the Palestinian people have demonstrated superhuman restraint in their fight for freedom. But my visit to Zimbabwe only confirms my recognition that violent resistance, although sometimes morally justifiable and sometimes necessary, can leave a bitter legacy that lasts for generations.
Boycott Divestment and Sanctions is not by itself enough to bring justice to Palestine. But BDS is a necessary start.