There’s not a lot to say about Zimbabwe that I have not already said. Things are bad, they don’t look to get better, they have the potential to get even worse, hard as that is to imagine. It’s not about Mugabe the person as much as the military, police and top leadership of ZANU-PF. The named political institutions visible on the surface of the Zimbabwean government are now completely hollowed out by the steady violence of the party elite and military-police leadership against any civic institutions, against anyone who actually tries to exercise meaningfully constructive administrative power, against anything but their own power. Under the circumstances, I think Morgan Tsvangirai had no choice but to withdraw from the run-off, though he and his party also never seem to me to have anticipated or thought through what they were doing.
There remains little that most outside interests can do. Even most sanctions don’t strike me as being potentially effective. I had to really stifle a thunderbolt of rage at one posting on a scholarly listserv that I read when one scholar proferred the argument that although Mugabe is a tyrant, it’s really the fault of the United States and Great Britain, and that the real political challenge is to keep them from interfering. That’s a tragic case of stupid addiction to old dogma, dogma that was analytically wrong-headed in the first place. If I could think of a way for the US and UK to usefully interfere beyond what they’re doing already, I’d encourage them to do it. Western intellectuals and scholars concerned with Africa often still treat sovereignty as an obsessive and magical political objective, as if its mere fact insures a better world.
Or more dubiously, treat some African states today as if they have yet to achieve sovereignty. I think it’s perfeclty fair to say that there are postcolonial states in Africa who have never had a functioning government, nor have ever achieved any kind of central control over the territory marked for them on the map. Zimbabwe is not one of those states. The people in power now, who have been in power for twenty-eight years, have long had a great measure of control over their territory. Zimbabwe is the opposite of the conventional “failed state”: its rulers have very significant capacity for violence and political control across most of their national territory, even with the economy in tatters. It demonstrates perfectly that the mere achievement of sovereign power and strong governmental authority guarantees nothing, improves nothing. When some contemporary Zimbabweans mutter that the last twenty years or so of Rhodesian power were preferable to the last decade of independence, it’s hard to disagree. That this statement alone is more likely to horrify concerned Western liberals than any number of ghastly utterances by Zimbabwean authorities in the last decade says a lot about the limited perspectives of those liberals. It’s not that we should have to choose between Smith’s Rhodesia and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: the former was forever stunted, the latter an unending disaster. The problem is with those who believed and sometimes continue to believe that the mere fact of succession by Mugabe over Smith was progress in its own right.
South Africa’s leaders, and to a lesser extent other southern African governments, do have meaningful leverage. As I’ve written in a number of places, they’re not likely to exercise it with some important exceptions because they define their achievement of sovereignty in negative terms against the West, that they are only sovereign as long as they don’t appear to be doing the bidding of the West. Moreover, some, very much including Mbeki and probably Jacob Zuma, don’t want to condemn some of what the Zimbabwean authorities have done because they want to notionally reserve the right to do the same things at some future date. The Zimbabwean government violently cleared out urban populations that they saw as a political danger and a visible sign of disorder; other postcolonial states have done and may anticipate doing similar things. The Zimbabwean government has and is using violence to manage or curtail ostensibly democratic processes, to seize property, to crush the press. Thabo Mbeki made it clear in his time in power that he sees independent or critical forces within civil society as a temporary encumbrance.
The Zimbabwean state is not alone in the world in its undisguised loathing for its own population, as we’ve seen in the last year. One of the interesting problems for the 21st Century is, “How can such a state survive?” The tragic answer so far seems to be, “Rather easily”. The only states which seem in danger of serious, rapid political transformation in the present (as in the past) are those in which the rising expectations of social classes with some independence from governmental power and some measure of independent access to global circulations of money and information push back hard against authoritarian overreach. Zimbabwe or Myanamar are not in that kind of circumstance and for the near-term they’re not likely to be.