Whatever happened to you, Aziz, my comrade?

By David Aaronovitch (THE TIMES, 20/03/07):

In another life I used to go on “delegations”. One of my first was to Lisbon in 1976, to represent the National Union of Students at a grand meeting of antiapartheid movements from all over the world. We were a jolly bunch on the British team: Commies, Liberals, Labour people, as well as London-based exiles from South Africa. There was the fabulously brave South African lawyer, Albie Sachs, later terribly injured by a South African car bomb in Mozambique, and I think Aziz Pahad attended too.

I liked Aziz. A pale-skinned Indian South African, wiry and short-bearded, with a chalky, high voice, he had left South Africa after the Rivonia trial, in which Nelson Mandela was condemned to prison, and came to London to work for the African National Congress. It would be Aziz who advised us on the ANC’s call for sporting and economic boycotts of what we called the “apartheid regime”. His cause was just, and we listened. Once I argued Aziz’s case for sanctions with an annoyed David Owen, then Foreign Secretary, after a meeting he had held at Leicester Polytechnic.

Back in Lisbon, we delegates were the NCOs of the protest movement, but the stars were the representatives of the African liberation movements: Oliver Tambo, of the ANC, Sam Nujoma from Swapo of Namibia, and the huge, hilarious figure of Joshua Nkomo, from Zapu of Rhodesia. One leader could only send a message, however: the other Rhodesian and leader of Zanu, Robert Mugabe. We all applauded, and imagined the day when whites no longer held the whip-hand over the blacks.

Thirty years on and the current putative saviour of Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai, had his skull beaten for him by Mugabe’s police goons after a demonstration in Harare. The world’s gaze turned again, for a few moments at least, to the country that Mugabe had unmade. The deputy Foreign Minister of neighbouring South Africa, to whom Zimbabweans were looking for the first signs of salvation, was obliged to release a statement. It was not one of condemnation of brutality, or the need for international action. The “current difficulties,” said Aziz Pahad, “are symptomatic of the broader political and economic challenges facing Zimbabwe.”

My old, passionate comrade urged the Zimbabwean Government to show respect for the rights of all Zimbabweans, but added: “Similarly, we appeal to leaders of opposition political parties to work towards a climate that is conducive to finding a lasting solution to the current challenges faced by the people of Zimbabwe.”

How “similarly”, Aziz? Must Tsvangirai help to create the conducive climate by desisting from assaulting the police sjamboks with his head and kidneys? Should he possibly help to defuse the situation by leaving the country for good, and persuading opposition sources to refrain from publishing material critical of Mugabe’s success in turning his nation into one of the most phenomenal failures in modern history? Is it in some way Tsvangirai’s fault that a Zimbabwean could expect to live to 60 in 1990, but today can look forward to conking out before his 38th birthday? Aziz, what happened to you?

In another universe there is another protester like Brian Haw, the ever-present Iraq demonstrator in Parliament Square: but this one bull-horns his leaders about how their diplomacy has killed Zimbabwean kids. His banners would tell the story. Mugabe throttles the press in 2002, and the EU imposes limited sanctions. The same year Mugabe rigs the elections, and the Commonwealth suspends him, so he walks out of it for good. The same year there’s a famine, aided by Mugabe’s disastrous land seizure programme, and his Secretary for Administration in charge of food distribution, Didymus Mutasa, comments: “We would be better off with only six million people, with our own people who support the liberation struggle; we don’t want all these extra people.”

2003: further crackdowns and brutality. Much foreign media is excluded. 2005, and hundreds of thousands are made homeless by the destruction of illegal dwellings. The UN condemns the action. 2006, and inflation reaches 1,000 per cent per annum. There are two million Zimbabweans now in South Africa. Union leaders are beaten up by police for protesting. Says Mugabe: “Some are crying that they were beaten. Yes, you will be thoroughly beaten. When the police say move, you move.”

In the real world, where Haw is silent on African children, we’ve tried isolation, only to see Mugabe fêted as a new BolÍvar by Hugo Chávez. “He continues, alongside his people,” said Chávez, “to confront the pretensions of new imperialists.” (His people are dying at 38, and Mr Mugabe celebrated his recent 83rd birthday with a lavish feast, Hugo — he isn’t doing anything alongside them.)

We’ve tried limited sanctions, only to find ourselves at every step in danger of being thwarted by allies who can’t quite bring themselves to be nasty to Mugabe, lest it cause trouble with other African states, including South Africa. We’ve tried relying on regional diplomacy, only to have Mugabe celebrated by the African Union.

What should we have done? One left-of-centre British newspaper recently editorialised that “Britain has mishandled Mugabe. Our verbal attacks have made him stronger”, going on to argue that President Thabo Mbeki, of South Africa, “must be convinced to stand up to his neighbouring leader”. Presumably, Mbeki will be persuaded to do so by Britain refraining from verbal attacks on Mugabe. That’s so likely to work where diplomacy, sanctions, talking and cajoling have failed.

Aziz, remember what you asked for, back in the bad old days. You demanded action. You demanded solidarity. Listen to Desmond Tutu. When he says “We Africans should hang our heads in shame”, he means you — you are the David Owen cubed of 2007. “How can what is happening in Zimbabwe elicit hardly a word of concern, let alone condemnation from us leaders of Africa?” asks Tutu. About you.

Perhaps Zimbabweans, like Darfurians, just die too quietly. They don’t blow themselves up in Arab or African capitals, unleashing reams of conjecture about how desperate they must be, and how their grievances must be dealt with.

Aziz, what do you have to say to the beaten dissidents of Harare and Bulawayo? Where is your solidarity now? It may not be what we expected back in ’76, but the cause of liberation demands only one thing — you must get rid of Mugabe.