Exhibitionism replaces leadership

BY MICHAEL HARTNACK HARARE - There are times when I despair not only of the journalism that comes out of Africa (including my own part in it) but the entire way the world's consciousness works. Our "information order" is so entangled with the social, economic and political malaise that translates in

to so much human misery. One might almost call it a global mental pandemic: crude exhibitionism of the “Big Brother” TV programme sort in place of intelligent leadership by example; craving for the fleeting, exhilarating illusion of celebrity in place of the long quest for integrity which should be the aim of every life. The Zimbabwean government seeks to suppress the facts, detaining Jewish architects “on suspicion of journalism” for photographing old synagogues, hauling American scholars off departing flights and confiscating their research material. A more sinister set feel they own a monopoly of liberal enlightenment, and fight any perspective other than their own. Worst of all, the wide world’s attention is caught, momentarily, only by titbits of Zimbabwean news that arouse the reaction: “Gee whiz!” In 2003-4, I was the cause of a sad contretemps between various prominent personalities in the Catholic church in Zimbabwe. I had been approached by one of them and asked to donate a 40-page chapter to a book on how (in my view as a journalist) the country got into its present mess, and how it might escape. I outlined in advance the controversial gist of what I would say, in the hope of avoiding later unpleasantness-but in vain. I obtained assurances-that were broken. Although I was told my initial draft was a “must have” for the book, powerful voices combined to suppress it from inclusion for publication. What caused distress was not the waste of many weeks’ unpaid work, when I could have been earning, nor failing to see my name in print for the 10 000th time, but the feeling of lost opportunity to curtail suffering by increasing understanding. By contrast, on Sunday January 15, I was on duty for an international news agency when I saw from the front page of the state-controlled Sunday Mail that 22 year old twin brothers had been fined ZWD25 000 (that is less than R2 or 2p) for indecent exposure after donning what they called “pre-colonial” Zimbabwean costume-goatskin kilts that revealed all to the rear. In this garb they had strolled from their home in Harare’s Mount Pleasant suburb to a nearby up-market shopping complex. It took about 20 minutes to tap out a few paragraphs for a mere “filler” item. I received messages at midnight from subscriber newspapers urgently requesting photographs, and calls from the US Government’s own Voice of America radio seeking an interview. Friends around the world e-mailed next day congratulating me on “my marvellous story” which had been placed in all their papers under my byline. I could only groan and wince with shame. Too late, I reflected that if, as I suspect, the brothers are under some sort of identity stress, having recently returned from Britain (their mother is in the United States) it will do them no good at all, psychologically, to receive such global fame. Their exhibitionist behaviour is ominous, but no news agency would have allowed me to discuss that in a four paragraph filler item. Last week I was debating with a close colleague the possibility they constitute a warning of wider social and cultural neurosis. Incidents of bizarre or irrational group behaviour are becoming increasingly common as this country sinks deeper into distress. Civil society is eroding, its leaders forced to emigrate. We might see the emergence of our own crazed “Lord’s Resistence Army”, on the lines of the one that has “immiserated” northern Uganda over the past 20 years. My friend exclaimed: “Anything would be better than this.” I could not disagree more. In my chapter for the churchmen I began by saying that unless we break ancient cycles of violence and impoverishment, we may be crying “Mugabe was better than you are” to whoever succeeds him, just as a drunk shouted at Mugabe at Heroes Acre in 1991: “(Rhodesian prime minister Ian) Smith aiva nani” (was better). This country is a heartbeat away from the clutches of brutal, uneducated warlords with none of Mugabe’s flair for power-broking, and of fanatics inspired by strange fantasies. They may be egged on, at least initially, by the same shallow and dilettant element in the churches and the universities and the news media who will today go to ruthless lengths to silence any implied suggestion they bear responsibility for making this regime what it is and, incidentally, turning a promising provincial schoolmaster into a political Jeckyll and Hyde. It is noteworthy how many of the “progressive” academics who were here 1980-2000, pouring out a stream of books and learned articles in praise of Mugabe, have now quietly slipped away. They have gone off to make exhibitions of themselves in fresh idealistic crusades on behalf of other unfortunate societies. The it-wasn’t-my-fault disillusion among those who leave is, not coincidentally, proportional to the accusatory paranoia among many who stay. Dark suspicions surround the readmission of veteran politician Edgar Tekere to Zanu(PF). He was expelled in 1988 after founding the Zimbabwe Unity Movement, saying there was “a clear trend to repression and dictatorship” in Zanu(PF), of which he was a founder member in 1964. My report on Tekere’s strange rehabilitation got little media interest. Who cares? Mugabe and Tekere were once close friends, crossing together into Mozambique in 1975 to join guerillas fighting white rule in Rhodesia. Tekere was secretary general of Zanu(PF) during the British Government’s fateful 1979-1980 independence election process, when Mugabe was swept to power. Tekere was briefly a cabinet minister before an exhibitionist incident when he donned his combat fatigues before Mugabe and visiting President Samora Machel of Mozambique, and announced he was “going to fight a battle”. He and his bodyguards then went to a place outside Harare where supporters of Joshua Nkomo’s rival ZAPU party were reported to be. Failing to find them, they went to a nearby farm and wantonly shot dead the occupier, Gerald Adams. They were acquitted of murder on a technicality. Dropped from the cabinet and party executive, Tekere made a showy comeback in 1988, denouncing Mugabe’s plans for a one party state. At the 1990 elections, a wave of violence was unleashed by Zanu(PF) militants and the security forces against ZUM supporters, many of whom were students. Former Gweru mayor Patrick Kombayi had six bullets pumped into him while standing as a ZUM election candidate, the gunmen receiving pardons the day they were convicted. Mugabe declared: “If whites in Zimbabwe want to rear their ugly terrorist and racist head by collaborating with ZUM, we will chop that head off.” He threatened to seize all white-owned farms, while his TV adverts depicted a car crash and announced: “That is one way to die-the other is to vote ZUM.” Tekere and his party garnered some 20 percent of the vote, then mysteriously disappeared from view as the “Mandela Era” dawned in South Africa. A chapter by Professor Eldred Masunungure, in the book to which I was supposed to contribute, regurgitated old conspiracy theories that Tekere and ZUM were a “plant” to weaken and confuse opposition. Masunungure quoted a former ZUM official: “Tekere betrayed and cheated us, and the nation. He never left Zanu(PF).” This does not explain, however, why Tekere’s wife, a policewoman, was victimised by the force, and the genuine, undisguised fury in Mugabe’s attacks on him at the time, warning: “You are playing with fire, my boy.” The balance of current evidence is against a conspiracy. It is possible that with funds and admirers exhausted, Tekere just lost interest in his play-acting. Perhaps-like others here-he never had any other platform, any more profound principles, than vulgar exhibitionism and the satisfaction of his own ego. He may have appeased some demon within himself, but he inflicted grievous injury and loss on those who supported him, believing he promised a better Zimbabwe. With acknowledgements to The South African Morning Newspaper Group.

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