Why has South Africa tolerated Robert Mugabe's years of lawless misrule?

A wartime lexicon.
April 21 2008 11:55 AM

Mandela Envy

Is Robert Mugabe's lawless misrule founded in jealousy?

 Robert Mugabe. Click image to expand.
Robert Mugabe

The stirring news—that the dockworkers of Durban, South Africa, had refused to unload a shipload of Chinese weapons ordered by the lawless government of Zimbabwe—made me remember very piercingly how good it sometimes felt to be a socialist. Here's a clear-cut case of solidarity and internationalism in which the laboring class of one country affirms the rights—"concretely"affirms the rights, as we used to say—of its brothers and sisters in another country. In doing so, it improves the chances of democracy worldwide. This is how socialism began, with Karl Marx and his allies organizing a boycott of Confederate slave-harvested cotton during the American Civil War, and however often a thieving megalomaniac like Robert Mugabe claims to be a socialist, there are still brave and honest workers who, by contemptuously folding their arms, can deny him the sinews of oppression.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

This principled decision by the South African unions is also clarifying in another way. It helps explain the long, cowardly ambiguity of the post-Mandela South African regime in respect to Zimbabwe, and it also helps explain why this shameful accommodation might at long last be drawing to a close.

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As it happened, Zimbabwe became independent—and free of white settler rule—more than a decade before South Africa did. Among other things, this sequence of development threw into sharp relief the distinction between the Zimbabwe African National Union (Robert Mugabe's vaunted ZANU-PF or Patriotic Front) and the Zimbabwe African People's Union, or ZAPU, which had been led by veteran Joshua Nkomo. Not only did this division reflect the ethnic makeup of Zimbabwe as between the majority Shona and the minority Matabele, respectively. It also involved the Russo-Chinese split in the world Communist movement, with Nkomo being backed by Moscow and Mugabe by Beijing. The same split was evident in the larger South African liberation movement, though in that case Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, with its heavy Communist Party influence, effectively dwarfed the renegade Maoist forces of the Pan Africanist Congress, which stood for an unreconstructed form of blacks-only Stalinism and which was to be obliterated in the first South African elections.

I can remember South African President Thabo Mbeki pretty well from that tense transitional time between the end of Ian Smith's Rhodesia and the end of apartheid. He was then a rising star of the ANC, and his father, Govan Mbeki, was one of Mandela's most famous long-term comrades in the quarter-century they all spent in Robben Island prison. (Govan was also a senior member of the South African Communist Party.) Thabo had come to Zimbabwe to be as close to the dramatic developments across the frontier as he could manage. But the life of an ANC official in Robert Mugabe's Harare was not an easy one. "The regime openly prefers the PAC," he told me, "and they treat us with contempt." At the time, also, supporters of Joshua Nkomo, an old friend of the ANC, were going in fear of their lives as Mugabe's North Korean-trained special forces vengefully roamed Matabeleland.

So all this invites a question: Knowing what they knew about his primitive politics and even more primitive methods, why did the leaders of the ANC continue to tolerate Mugabe when they themselves succeeded in coming to power democratically in the post-apartheid state? The answers are both illuminating and depressing. At one point, in desperation, Nkomo had actually sought white South African help against Mugabe, which meant that he had betrayed his comrades in the ANC and isolated himself in Zimbabwe. Then again, Mugabe had pretended to be a great "conciliator" à la Mandela, at least in the early days of his rule, making warm gestures toward white and Asian investors. So there was no special need to stress ancient intraparty grievances. There is also considerable pressure within the African Union not to ostracize member governments who make themselves unpopular on the world stage. It's this lowest-common-denominator, not-in-front-of-the-goyim instinct that at one point made Idi Amin the chairman of the A.U.—or, rather, of that organization's predecessor—and that more recently allowed the disgusting Omar al-Bashir of Sudan to be the host of the A.U. summit. Still, one had the right to expect that the party of Mandela would have standards that were a bit more elevated than that.

Since meeting Mugabe in 1977 in exile, and again in 1979 and later, I must have sat though several dozen "what went wrong" discussions. There are those who say that his sadism and corruption and self-destructive paranoia are a delayed result of his own decade of incarceration. There are those who attribute it to the death of his lovely Ghanaian wife, Sally, in 1992 (after which, it must be admitted, he never was the same). There are those who speculate that his obsession with homosexuality and vice—which was one of the first symptoms of his breakdown—is an aspect of his old-school missionary Catholicism. Then, of course, there were all those years of fervent admiration for the Cultural Revolution in China, and for the even more purist system of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il. None of these are, or were, particularly good signs. But I have a theory of my very own: I believe that Mugabe was also driven into a permanent rage by the adulation heaped internationally on Nelson Mandela, an accolade of praise and recognition that he felt was more properly due to himself. And, harboring this grievance, he decided to denude his own unhappy country of anything that might remind anybody of Mandela's legacy.

In doing this, he had only to dust off the old "one settler, one bullet" propaganda of the past. But it has been that very thing, finally, that has cost him some South African support. The leader of the Zimbabwean opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai, is a celebrated labor-union man. The South African unions have a long record of allegiance to old-line communism, highly disdainful of Maoist adventures and Chinese meddling. China may now be a capitalist dictatorship and Mugabe a capitalist dictator, but these are not the least of history's ironies if it's an old-style red-labor-union tactic that begins to bring Mugabe down.

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