By Zakes Mda, a South African writer and the author of Cion (THE GUARDIAN, 21/06/08):
In Johannesburg, Robert Mugabe was given a rousing welcome by Africans from across the continent. As he addressed the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, we ululated and sang his praises, and after his brief speech we gave him a standing ovation. He spoke of the wonderful work he had achieved in Zimbabwe with his “agrarian reforms” in a country where 70% of prime land had been owned by just 4,000 white farmers.
Here was an African leader who was prepared to redress the injustices of the past by giving land back to its rightful indigenous owners. Here was a government doing what our own was afraid to: dealing with the problems of inequitable distribution through one short, swift surgical action. Here was a black man giving the former colonial masters the finger. We went into frenzied applause when he thundered: “So, Blair, keep your England and let me keep my Zimbabwe!”
It did not matter to us that the process was not done in a way that respected the rule of law, or that the so-called agrarian reforms were an election ploy to win votes from a peasantry that had been marginalised since 1980. We condemned our South African newspapers as lackeys of the west when they reported in the previous two years that the “war veterans” (most of whom had never fought any war) murdered black workers as well as white farmers when they occupied white-owned farms in the Mugabe-sponsored violence and mayhem. We dismissed as mere western propaganda reports that began to filter into the country that the farms – confiscated not only from whites but from those black farmers who were deemed to be supporters of the opposition – were in fact redistributed to leaders of the ruling Zanu-PF party.
In any case, most of us did not read newspapers, which had exposed Mugabe from the beginning, but got our news from the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which did not dare be critical of Zimbabwe and even banned independent commentators who were deemed to be anti-Zanu-PF – including the South African president’s brother, Moeletsi Mbeki.
Our unwavering support for Mugabe continued over the years, despite outrageous acts of violence against his own people, such as Operation Murambatsvina (Sweep Away the Filth) when he destroyed more than 700,000 homes in urban areas deemed to be opposition strongholds. We were encouraged by the line our government was taking. Our president, Thabo Mbeki, was the official mediator between Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, and he was engaged in what was euphemistically called “quiet diplomacy”.
We understood that Mbeki could not be neutral because Zanu-PF was a fraternal organisation. It had been our ally during the struggle, and as South Africans we were well known for being loyal to those who took our side – hence our continued close friendship with Fidel Castro and Muammar Gadafy, despite protestations from America. We were proud of our independent foreign policy. Despite the “mediator” title, we never expected Mbeki to be an honest broker. We were not about to desert Mugabe in his time of need; “quiet diplomacy” was another name for “complicity”.
But last December a new leadership took over the ANC. The new party leader, Jacob Zuma, attained his position through the support of the trade union movement and the South African Communist Party, both of which had been vocal in condemning Mugabe’s actions as soon as the “war veterans” began their farm invasions. And for the first time we heard the ANC publicly condemning Mugabe for trying to hijack the electoral process, even as a lame-duck Mbeki continued to defend Mugabe in international forums and to declare that there was no crisis.
Two weeks ago I was in Johannesburg talking to reporters who have been covering the xenophobic anti-Zimbabwean attacks of the past few months. It became clear to me that the support that Mugabe used to enjoy among black South Africans is beginning to wane. For the first time our people are beginning to talk openly about the South African government’s complicity in the total collapse of Zimbabwe. They are beginning to say South Africa should bear some of the blame for the millions of Zimbabweans who have had to flee state violence only to compete for scarce resources in the poor townships of South Africa.
Yes, the jokes about “those millionaire Zimbos” – an allusion to the fact that a million in Zimbabwe adds up to less than one US dollar – still abound. But there is growing recognition that the chickens are coming home to roost, as thousands more continue to cross the border in search of a better life and are welcomed with hate attacks.