The Problem With the Problem of Zimbabwe

I have some issues with Daniel Davies’ post about Zimbabwe at Crooked Timber (but maybe less of a problem with his post at Aaronovitch Watch on the same subject, if I read it right.)

I start by wondering what civil war is he imagining might happen in Zimbabwe and thus threatening South Africa? I can imagine a general civil collapse, a military coup, portions of the Zimbabwean state fighting each other, but not a civil war in the sense of an active insurgency located in one region or portion of the country fighting the central government. I can also imagine something rather like a revolution or popular uprising, but it’s unlikely. Presumably though he might welcome that. I would. Maybe even South Africa would, though perhaps not.

In any event, from the perspective of narrowly South African national interest, I don’t see how those things would make South Africa any worse off than it already is in terms of the consequences of disorder in Zimbabwe, unless South Africa decided that the situation posed a national security danger to South Africa and required an expensive military intervention. Considering how South Africa’s incursion into teeny Lesotho went, I doubt that. A further collapse of the current situation in Zimbabwe is simply going to lead to more refugees into South Africa, but given that a very sizeable proportion of Zimbabwe’s population as measured a decade ago is already in or attempting to get into South Africa, that only makes a bad situation slightly worse.

So I don’t see that South Africa has much to lose in this sense by taking a more aggressive public stand on Zimbabwe.

What it has to lose is something Daniel doesn’t discuss at all in the posting (though I think he’s referring to this a bit in his Aaronovitch Watch piece), which I think is the main driver for the Mbeki government. It has to lose its nationalist sense of an independent sovereignty.

Mbeki is all about claiming that he has “African solutions to African problems”. The problem with Zimbabwe from the standpoint of the ANC government is not that there is a problem with Zimbabwe. To be honest, I think the ANC wants to reserve for itself the possible sovereign right to do, in a less destructive way, some of the things that Mugabe has done, including destroying squatter communities and forcibly moving populations. I’m not saying that they plan to do any such thing, but they do not want to undertake a commitment which says a sovereign nation may never do such a thing.

The problem with Zimbabwe for Mbeki is that do-gooders and governments in the West say they have a problem with Zimbabwe. So if Mbeki takes a much more forceful stand, he looks like he’s just the errand boy for the West, a mouthpiece. That’s extra distasteful now in the context of the Blair-Bush era of systemic hypocrisy on the matter of liberalism: who the fuck is Tony Blair to be talking about anybody else’s human rights record, or about the need to stand up and be counted? Plus, also, as Daniel points out, some of the decents seem to think that standing up to be counted is a necessary prelude to sending invasion troops. I run into that every time I get involved in online discussions of Zimbabwe: a small handful of people who are like, “Just land some Navy Seals or something in the presidential palace, or bomb something, problem solved”.

Plus there’s also the problem that at least some of the people in the West who pay attention to Zimbabwe are less disgusted by an African authoritarian behaving badly than they were drawn to the situation by the treatment of the white farmers. The white farmers, pardon my color metaphors, have always been a red herring, at best a minor symptom of a systematic disease deep in the bones of the Mugabe government. Otherwise at least some of the people most loudly found on the op-ed pages in London and New York talking about Zimbabwe should also be talking about Gabon, Angola, and Ethiopia, and demanding that people and governments stand up and be counted there too.

I sound like I agree with Daniel here. But I don’t. I don’t because I think he strongly underrates the actual and potential influence that the South African state could have on the situation in Zimbabwe, even just by constant, harsh public criticism. I don’t because I suspect that just as Mbeki doesn’t want to look like he’s following the West’s lead, Daniel is carping because the “decent left” is interested in Zimbabwe, and whatever the decents care about must be bad.

I don’t because I think in the end it is just as much a loss of South African sovereignty to let the West define its politics in negative terms. Mbeki is still carrying water for somebody, still following somebody else’s script, if he feels compelled to piss off whitey by refusing to condemn Zimbabwe in strong terms.

And that’s the real issue for me. South Africa was born as a nation through the commitment of many around the world. In the end, the global commitment to ending apartheid made a big difference, sometimes despite itself, or in surprising ways, but a big difference nevertheless. South Africa’s nationhood was proposed as a new moral covenant for the 21st Century, through an extensive process of constitutionalism and a strong commitment to far-reaching liberal political ideals. It wasn’t just a failed colonial project dropped like a bomb on Africans by a European power hastily scrambling to extricate itself from an accelerating disaster.

The commitments made to South Africa and by South Africa in the early 1990s should be what instructs Mbeki and his government to act and speak more forcefully about Zimbabwe. Screw what Blair or Aaronovitch or anyone else says, screw whether it looks like Mbeki is the West’s errand boy. What the South African government says and does should come from what the South African government and South African society believes and has committed to believing, for South Africa’s sake.

It tastes like ashes in my mouth to hear an argument about “constructive engagement” coming from Mbeki (or anyone else) in rhetorical terms that could just as easily have come from the Reagan Administration circa 1986. That argument wasn’t wrong on just the particulars of South Africa in 1986, it’s wrong in general. Because sometimes, often times, the only thing, and everything, that we can do is to speak forcefully about the injustices committed by others. If South Africa is indeed as weak in this situation as Daniel says, then why the hell NOT yell loudly from every rooftop about the wrongness of the Mugabe government? If it is strong in ways that require speaking softly, what are those ways? That’s precisely what Chester Crocker used to say: let us talk to P.W. Botha quietly, because the guy listens to us. Wrong and wrong. He didn’t. He wouldn’t. We didn’t have any big sticks. All we had was talking loudly.

South Africa owes the world moral clarity on this point because the men and women who are now part of the government of South Africa demanded moral clarity from the world when it was their turn on the cross. They had a right to demand it, and what they received actually made a meaningful difference. It is obscene to hear them mutter the apologetics that they used to properly excoriate, and no less disturbing to see apologetics for the apologetics.

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5 Responses to The Problem With the Problem of Zimbabwe

  1. Dance says:

    Sorry to open the commenting with a side issue–

    Great phrase of yours–

    [nationhood…was] a failed colonial project dropped like a bomb on Africans by a European power hastily scrambling to extricate itself from an accelerating disaster.

    I’d love to read anything (blog or academic) that articulates this idea for an undergrad audience.

  2. Timothy Burke says:


    One recent book that I think makes this case fairly well is Basil Davidson’s Black Man’s Burden. I find the second half of the book flawed and a little confusing, but the first half is very forceful in its arguments about the inappropriateness of the European form of the nation-state for postcolonial Africa.

  3. Doug says:

    And of course there’s the whole European Union, which in many ways is about the inappropriateness of the European form of the nation-state for Europe.

    Which is by way of adding the idea that Westphalian sovereignty is changing a great deal, here in the early part of the 21st century. The right of governments to do any damn thing they want to the people within national borders, if ever that right existed, is rapidly eroding.

  4. cjlee says:

    I agree entirely with your comments though I would add culpability to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) as a whole. It’s earlier manifestation, SADCC, was a key voice in critiquing apartheid South Africa during the 1980s. Why hasn’t SADC performed the same task against authoritarianism this time? Where are the Frontline States against Zimbabwe? The real regional heroes in this situation today have been COSATU and the SACP. If only it were enough.

  5. Dance says:

    Slow return to say thanks very much for the recommendation. I will check out Black Man’s Burden.

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