South Africa’s Great Shame

After finishing yet another one of Peter Godwin’s excellent books, The Fear, I cannot help but think that South Africa and its ANC leadership – just having celebrated themselves jubilantly during the ANC 100-year birthday festivities in Bloemfontein – has much to answer for. Granted, they cannot be blamed for the existence of Robert Mugabe, nor for his increasingly lunatic and megalomaniac behavior, but they could have wielded their considerable influence on this continent to much more effect.

What’s happened in Zimbabwe over the last thirty years is a shame.

The Fear by Peter Godwin [click image for more]
It used to be one of Africa’s most affluent countries, with the highest literacy rate and a vibrant agriculture sector that was the envy of the world. And there was so much hope. Hope among both blacks and whites for their new country after the end of white minority rule and civil war in 1980. The Fear and When a Crocodile Eats the Sun are well-written books chronicling the slow and steady erosion of this hope during Zimbabwe’s subsequent decline, leaving only hardship, misery, and, well, fear. The Fear in particular is not an easy book to stomach. The atrocities Godwin describes are horrific, and there are too many to count. Each time you think it can’t get worse, but it does. And there is really no end in sight.

It all started with the massacres in Matabeleland, engineered by Mugabe and his henchmen to take out the entire leadership of an opposing faction. Then the same tactics were used against Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change when they were perceived as a new threat. There were beatings, kidnappings, burnings, torture, and worse, while most of the white-owned farms were being seized and let go to waste, their owners chased away or arrested.

As a result, Zimbabwe has experienced a torrential brain drain, leaving the country even more depleted. Whoever can manage leaves the country and tries to make a new life somewhere else in the ever expanding diaspora, typically distinguishing themselves with their excellent education and work ethic. And yet there are those who choose to stay and soldier on, despite the destitute conditions and the personal risk they are running of falling afoul of the state, just by exercising their right to vote or perhaps simply by being members of a rival tribe.

And where has South Africa been for all of this? How could these former freedom fighters, struggling for decades for their rights against a repressive regime, forget their own history to such an extent that they don’t recognize another people’s plight right next door? Do they really kid themselves into believing that this is different, because it’s a black dictator and not a white-run government that is guilty of too many human rights abuses to keep count?

More than any other country, South Africa has the standing to be a moral beacon for the rest of Africa.  More than anyone else, its leaders should know that fighting against injustices in one’s country only ever has a chance if the outside world is not only aware, but presses forward with sanctions and other political and economic tools. If South Africa had recognized the 2008 elections in Zimbabwe for what they were, a thorough repudiation of its leadership, despite severe repression and torture of opposition candidates and voters, it might have forced out Mugabe and his generals, instead of half-heartedly brokering a power-sharing deal that almost had no chance from the very beginning. To this day, the violence toward anyone associated with Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC continues, public figures are arrested and purged and voters intimidated or worse, all against the backdrop of a bankrupt country run by thugs only interested in their own enrichment.

Short of forcing regime change, South Africa might at least have pressed for the banning of diamonds from Zimbabwe, which have become almost the sole income of Mugabe’s military junta. It might have recognized that siding with Gaddafi was the wrong thing to do in Lybia. It might have recognized the plight of the Tibetan people by allowing the Dalai Lama to visit last year. But in all these cases, it chose expedience over doing what was right. And, for all I know, I might even violate the new secrecy bill writing about these very things.

As most of you will know, I have come to love this country more than most any other place on Earth. But this moral failure is a dark blotch on my image of it.

Shame on you, South Africa.