Mugabe’s populist rhetoric fools many

Populist rhetoric is Robert Mugabe’s stock in trade. He’s very good at it. He should be – he has had plenty of practice.

He is also a past master in the use of undiplomatic language, routinely cocking a snook at the west, denouncing their leaders and using the podium at international fora to fulminate against western imperialism.

He is unashamedly racist and homophobic. Widespread publication of his “I don’t want to see a white face” comment during his recent state visit to South Africa was greeted with shocked delight in many quarters – particularly among youthful Sowetans.

Decades of resentment at deprivation, injustice and ill-treatment – the wounds of colonialism/apartheid – fester across Africa beneath the bandaid of western aid and tentative democracy.

Fed by the insatiable greed and envy of the African elite, these wounds are not allowed to heal – no matter how far we progress historically from that era, no matter how much money the west pays for bandaids. The AU gets 80% of its funding from western nations.

So Mugabe’s bold posturing and arrogant, unapologetic eloquence resonate with many in Africa – in the corridors of power and among the hungry, unemployed masses alike. When he uses words like land reform, indigenisation and black economic empowerment – Africans applaud. Those in power know it means more money in their foreign bank accounts, and those who have nothing hope that it means they will get something – at last.

Mugabe’s assumption of the chairmanship of the African Union earlier this year has been marked by similar rhetoric – and has met with similar approval. He has made much of going back to the original values of the founding fathers – the revered Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and others – an Africa that is independent, self-sufficient and a respected player on the international scene.

He has fulminated against the continued exclusion of the continent from a permanent seat with veto rights on the UN Security Council. He has also made much of demanding that the resource-rich continent stop giving away its wealth by exporting raw materials. Beneficiation, value addition and industrialisation are his buzzwords. Africans should be masters of their own destiny and own the means of production. He has berated the World Trade Agreement and demanded that tariff barriers to African products be removed.

Noble words indeed, expressing noble sentiments. The problem is that all this has been said over and over again since the original Organisation of African Unity was formed in 1963 – more than 50 years ago. Those in the corridors of power know full well that none of the countries in Africa has either the political will or the wherewithal to make any of it a reality. Africa itself does not even speak with one voice on these topics. But the masses still cheer and dance and hope – blissful in their ignorance.

Take for example the issue of an AU peacekeeping force. Mugabe says the continent must be self-reliant. He doesn’t want the west to interfere in African disputes, or to help with conflicts. At the moment African counties contribute their national forces to UN peace missions as and when necessary – but they are ill-equipped and poorly trained and rely on the French, British and Americans for financial and logistical support.

But the reality is that African governments don’t have the stomach for the fight. Look at Nigeria – the biggest economy in Africa. They have a bunch of Boko Haram terrorists running riot in the country. When these thugs kidnapped some 200 school girls, the Nigerian army was reluctant to go after them.

Yet Africa spends a huge amount on armaments – mainly sourced from Russia and China. Zimbabwe has jet fighters and helicopter gunships. What for? They are not at war. Yet when there is a problem they don’t use these resources – they want the west to come and rescue them.

The other major problem with Mugabe’s rhetoric is that he has systematically destroyed his country’s economy and impoverished millions of citizens, forcing an estimated 25% of the population to leave their homeland as economic refugees.

Zimbabwe was highly industrialised when he took over in 1980. Even blacks, who were second class citizens, enjoyed a better standard of living then than they do today. This was largely due to United Nations-supervised economic sanctions that forced industrialists to develop a wide range of import substitution. With a strong agricultural base, industry was diversified and innovative.

Today most of those industries have collapsed. Factories lie empty. Millions of former workers sell airtime, condoms and plastic zhing-zhong trinkets on the pot-holed streets.

On Mugabe’s watch, my country has been raped. Millions of carats of diamonds, tons of gold, chrome and platinum, countless slabs of granite and marble, and a host of other resources have been ripped from the earth and loaded onto Chinese planes or trucks owned by Grace Mugabe – not an ounce of beneficiation to be seen.

Perhaps worst of all is the cancer of corruption that Mugabe’s elaborate and effective patronage system has spawned, sustained and embedded at every level of Zimbabwean society. The land “reform” programme for which many Africans applaud Mugabe was one of the foundations of this policy – benefitting not landless blacks but cabinet ministers, police and army officers and senior civil servants.

It destroyed the livelihoods of more than 350 000 farm workers and their families. They were dispossessed and made homeless, many creeping back to the farms after the owners had been driven out and squatting on the properties they worked on. The farms – worth many billions of US dollars with nearly 3 million head of cattle, 287 000 hectares of irrigation, 10 000 farm dams and millions of miles of fencing and water pipelines, homes, sheds, 25 000 tractors – were trashed. The assets were stolen and sold for scrap or transferred to new places.

Mugabe presides over a country where citizens live in fear of state-sponsored extra-judicial kidnappings and killings. Zimbabweans are not at liberty to criticise the president. There is even a law against this, which and can be transgressed by such diverse activities as suggesting that he may be ill, or giving a rude sign as his convoy roars by.

Over 90 per cent of Zimbabweans struggle to survive, 70 per cent on less than 35 US cents a day. Life expectancy is just 34 years, our hospitals are morgues, our schools are care centres for kids with nothing else to do. We are among the poorest people in the world. Before Mugabe took charge, we had been a middle income state with the second most advanced economy in Africa and a major net exporter of food.

There is a western proverb: The proof of the pudding is in the eating. But Mugabe does not like to hear anything from the west.

Post published in: Analysis

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