Why hasn't Nelson Mandela spoken out against Robert Mugabe?

A wartime lexicon.
June 9 2008 12:27 PM

The Lion Who Didn't Roar

Why hasn't Nelson Mandela spoken out against Robert Mugabe?

Robert Mugabe. Click image to expand
Robert Mugabe

The scale of state-sponsored crime and terror in Zimbabwe has now escalated to the point where we are compelled to watch not just the systematic demolition of democracy and human rights in that country but something not very far removed from slow-motion mass murder a la Burma. The order from the Mugabe regime that closes down all international aid groups and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations is significant in two ways. It expresses the ambition for total control by the state, and it represents a direct threat—"vote for us or starve"—to the already desperate civilian population. The organization CARE, for example, which reaches half a million impoverished Zimbabweans, has been ordered to suspend operations. And here's a little paragraph, almost buried in a larger report of more comprehensive atrocities but somehow speaking volumes:

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.

The United Nations Children's Fund said Monday that 10,000 children had been displaced by the violence, scores had been beaten and some schools had been taken over by pro-government forces and turned into centers of torture.

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While this politicization of the food situation in "his" country was being completed, President Robert Mugabe benefited from two things: the indulgence of the government of South Africa and the lenience of the authorities in Rome, who allowed him to attend a U.N. conference on the world food crisis—of all things—despite a five-year-old ban on his travel to any member of the European Union. This, in turn, seems to me to implicate two of the supposed sources of moral authority on the planet: Nelson Mandela and the Vatican.

By his silence about what is happening in Zimbabwe, Mandela is making himself complicit in the pillage and murder of an entire nation, as well as the strangulation of an important African democracy. I recently had the chance to speak to George Bizos, the heroic South African attorney who was Mandela's lawyer in the bad old days and who more recently has also represented Morgan Tsvangirai, the much-persecuted leader of the Zimbabwean opposition. Why, I asked him, was his old comrade apparently toeing the scandalous line taken by President Thabo Mbeki and the African National Congress? Bizos gave me one answer that made me wince—that Mandela is now a very old man—and another that made me wince again: that his doctors have advised him to avoid anything stressful. One has a bit more respect for the old lion than to imagine that he doesn't know what's happening in next-door Zimbabwe or to believe that he doesn't understand what a huge difference the smallest word from him would make. It will be something of a tragedy if he ends his career on a note of such squalid compromise.

As for the revolting spectacle of Mugabe flying in to a Food and Agricultural Organization conference in Rome last week, there were quibbling FAO officials who claimed that the ban on his travel to the European Union did not cover meeting places of U.N. organizations. This would not cover the luxury hotel on the Via Veneto where Mugabe and his wife stayed. And it seems he bears a charmed life in Rome. He was there only recently as a guest at the funeral of Pope John Paul II and was able to claim that he was on Vatican soil rather than Italian territory. Which in turn raises an interesting question: What is it going to take before the Roman Catholic Church has anything to say about the conduct of this member of its flock? Mugabe has been a devout Catholic ever since his days in a mission school in what was then colonial Rhodesia, and one is forced to wonder what he tells his priest when he is asked if he has anything he'd like to confess.

By way of contrast, look what happened to Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo. This Catholic churchman in Zimbabwe's second city was a pillar of opposition to the regime and a great defender of its numberless victims. After a long campaign of defiance, and after surviving many threats to his life, the archbishop was caught on video last year having some fairly vigorous sex with a woman not his wife. Indeed, she was someone else's wife, which made it adultery as well as fornication. You might think the church would have been glad of a bit of heterosexual transgression for a change, but a dim view was taken of the whole thing, in spite of the fact that it bore all the marks of a setup and was immediately given wide publicity by the police agencies of the Mugabe state. Ncube is no longer the Roman Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo.

Very well, I do understand that he broke his vows and that the rules are the rules. But he didn't starve or torture any children, he didn't send death squads to silence his critics, he didn't force millions of his fellow countrymen into penury and/or exile, and he didn't openly try to steal an election. Mugabe has done and is doing all these things, and I haven't heard a squeak from the papacy. A man of his age is perhaps unlikely to be caught using a condom, but one still has to hope that Mugabe will be found red-handed in this way because it seems that nothing less is going to bring the condemnation of the church down upon his sinful head.

It is the silence of Mandela, much more than anything else, that bruises the soul. It appears to make a mockery of all the brave talk about international standards for human rights, about the need for internationalist solidarity and the brotherhood of man, and all that. There is perhaps only one person in the world who symbolizes that spirit, and he has chosen to betray it. Or is it possible, before the grisly travesty of the runoff of June 27, that the old lion will summon one last powerful growl?

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