Thirty years ago a racially oppressive white regime was officially overturned in Rhodesia, marking the birth of Zimbabwe as we know it. Well, not really as we know it.
In the years following independence the country had the same name and the same leader as today, but it was a new-born democracy, supporting the struggle against apartheid in neighboring South Africa. It invested in education – with a particular focus on girls and women – reaching literacy rates which were unrivaled in the entire region. Expectations and hopes for a prosperous and peaceful future in Zimbabwe were supported by an amazingly positive economic outlook, based on the country’s agricultural production, which made it become known as Africa’s bread basket.
A bread basket is not exactly what Zimbabwe – a net importer of food products – can be called now, and its government’s records on human rights violations are so embarrassing that, sadly, the country is no longer an example for any other democracy in the continent.
This is despite what many consider as a major political change and diplomacy success in Zimbabwe’s recent history: the formation – a year ago – of a coalition government with former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister and the country’s 86-year old head of three decades Robert Mugabe as president, following a power-sharing agreement between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Welcomed by the then South African president Thabo Mbeki and by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) as a remarkable step forward, this change in the country’s leadership was not enough to convince the European Union – including the U.K. – and the United States to lift the travel and economic sanctions they imposed on Mugabe and his political and business associates.
The South African government has repeatedly criticized foreign sanctions on Zimbabwe. This is why former South African president Nelson Mandela’s wife Graça Machel’s statements in an interview (audio) she gave to British newspaper The Guardian in Johannesburg on Friday did not come as a surprise to me, at least not all of them.
Machel - a founder member of the Elders group of world leaders and former first lady of Mozambique – criticized Britain, which, according to her, was still displaying the attitude of a colonial power towards Zimbabwe.
The U.K. government, which failed to deliver the financial support it had committed to provide for the country’s land reform when the Lancaster House Agreement for Zimbabwe’s independence was signed in 1980, was labeled by Machel as a big brother who is not able to establish “shoulder-to-shoulder” relationships with its former colonies.
While this view can be shared by many, and the poor implementation of a very ambitious land reform by Mugabe’s government – who simply seized white-owned farms and redistributed the land based on controversial criteria – kick-started Zimbabwe’s collapse ten years ago, Machel also expressed a concept I strongly disagree with.
“I really question, when something happens in Zimbabwe and Britain shouts immediately,” Machel told the Guardian. “Can't they just keep quiet? Sometimes you need just to keep quiet. Let them do their own things.”
Keep quiet, do not shout. These words would probably not sound as disturbing as they do to me were they not used in defense of a government whose leader and many officials gained a reputation for intimidating the media, persecuting political rivals and journalists and banning foreign reporters from their country’s territory. Thanks to bans, arrests, censorship and a number of other freedom restrictions, only part of the Zimbabwean population’s unbearable conditions became known outside the country’s borders and many voices remained unheard.
Years after the first forcible closures of independent newspapers in the country – following violent intimidations to their editors and staff – and the implementation of extremely restrictive media laws, Zimbabwe still features among the 40 worst-performing countries on 175 in the latest (2009) Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.
Even the country’s prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who bravely faced torture and detention while leading the MDC, has become worryingly silent in the past year, whilst Mugabe promptly and publicly contradicts him every time he announces changes which are not in line with his will.
The alleged suspension – which was announced by Tsvangirai and denied by Mugabe in the past days – of new rules banning white Zimbabweans’ and foreign ownership of companies valued over $500,000 is only the latest example in this sense.
Machel’s call for silence over Zimbabwe did not target political criticism within the country, as the Zimbabwean political class and the media already refrain – or are forced to refrain – from attacking the president.
What would happen if silence extended outside the Zimbabwean borders and Europe and the U.S. just “let them do their own things”?