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Zimbabwe: should we all just shut up?

Published 17th April 2010 - 14 comments - 3917 views -

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”?




  • Bart Knols on 17th April 2010:

    Hi Tiziana. Nice blog - well researched. To try and answer your question, my feeling is that the Mugabe regime would love to go back to the days where the outside world is not aware of what os going on. Think about Idi Amin’s days in Uganda, of Bokassa’s days in the Central African Republic. What they don’t realise is that this will never be possible anymore, due to things like, well, TH!NK3. You, us, all the media writing about what is happening in Zim. That’s a good thing, and it is here to stay. Sorry Robert M.

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 18th April 2010:

    Tiziana, interesting post indeed! As an Asian, I feel really distant from Africa. Reading posts like this helps me learn so much more about Africa. Yes, we can’t shut up. I’ve read in the past about human rights and the rape of democracy there.

    @Bart, I agree, we won’t stop.

  • Jodi Bush on 18th April 2010:

    Interesting post. The situation in Zimbabwe is so desperate. When I watched the film Zimbabwe’s Lost Children, it really brought that home to me. It’s easy to focus on the “bad government” of Mugabe, but that somehow overlooks the human side of things. What’s happening to the millions of people suffering the results of those policies. It’s really awful. I think it would be wholly wrong for us to look the other way.

  • Pedro on 18th April 2010:

    Indeed, very interesting.

    However… everytime I read about Africa I always come to the conclusion that the main problem is the lack of GOOD leaders. Mugabe, Bokassa and others are leaders, yes, but they are only so of a part of the population, and finally they become dictators (Even if well-intentioned initially). They, pure and simply, don´t believe in democracy… and maybe in some cases, when the country is not ready, democracy can too easily bring dictators.

    The Rule of Law, 3 independent powers, press freedom, religious freedom… those are essentials, sometimes forgotten even in the so-called “developed” countries.

    Such a shame… but sometimes one wonders if the best we could do is simply let them find their way. But, of course, too many foreign interests there (multinationals of the raw mats, weapons for dictators and revolutionaries… and a history of violence and stupidity in the country organisation… countries that so many times were not even decided by them!).

  • Elsje Fourie on 18th April 2010:

    I agree with you, Tiziana.  It’s one thing for us to refrain from holding leaders in developing countries to such high standards that they feel constantly unable to measure up. I can think of a few countries where the argument that we need to give local leaders a little space to find their own way, seems valid.  But Zimbabwe is not one of them—the level of repression simply cannot be justified and must be challenged in the strongest possible terms.  I was disappointed to learn of Graça Machel’s views on this.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 18th April 2010:

    Hi guys, thank you all for your comments.

    @Bart: Mugabe and many other leaders who took part in the struggle for independence or against dictatorship in different African countries just adopt the same policies as their former oppressors, including their tendency to use censorship. But you are right, censorship just cannot work today as it’s much easier for the rest of the world to watch and act. And I agree, these new forms of tyranny cannot last forever due to international pressure, but they can last long enough to turn a prosperous country into what Zimbabwe is now.

    @Iris: I am glad you found my post interesting and it made you feel a bit closer to Africa smile

    @Jodi: You are right, the human side of it is too often ignored. This is why when I hear prominent African leaders or former leaders like Machel say the world should just “let them do their things” it sounds to me like an insult to all of those people. And I find these comments even more difficult to believe when they come from somebody who knows what oppression means for common people and fought against it.

    @Pedro: I think there are some very good leaders in Africa, and many very bad ones, but also several ordinary leaders who are not that different from their counterparts outside the continent. As Elsje wrote, sometimes expectations from Europe and elsewhere are just too high. But Zimbabwe is a different story. It’s oppression, pain, poverty, violence in a country which could have been so much better off. It’s a humanitarian emergency and the rest of the world cannot afford to ignore it.

    @Elsje: I was also very disappointed by what Graça Machel said. I understand the South African government has a very clear position on Zimbabwe but she does not have to share it, does she? And when a prominent person like her speaks, she can do a lot of damage. What she said just sounds like political propaganda to me and I find it very sad. It’s definetely not the kind of statements you would expect from such a highly respected person.

  • Luan Galani on 18th April 2010:

    I couldn’t agree more with you, Tiziana. An insightful post, a great overview. Thanks for that. Some points Graça Machel highlighted are true, but when it comes to shutting up, it is totally unacceptable. Specially coming from her.

  • Daniel Nylin Nilsson on 18th April 2010:

    We should definitely not shut up about Zimbawe… There is a great blog of activists form Zimbawe that I would love to share:

  • Hanna Clarys on 18th April 2010:

    Letting them do their own things doesn’t mean we have to keep those things quiet.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 18th April 2010:

    @Luan: I agree, she was right on more than one thing, but that bit about not shouting sounds very wrong.

    @Daniel: That’s really a very interesting blog. Thanks for sharing.

    @Hanna: I absolutely agree. In fact, I am glad you made that point. I think that’s the heart of the matter: criticism should not be perceived as an attempt to deprive the country of its automony.

  • Johan Knols on 19th April 2010:

    Hi Tiziana,

    Nice post.
    To give an answer to your question:
    I believe that every country should be able to do its own thing. But of course only if that ‘thing’ is not to only enrich the elite of that country. Have a look at Bob’s house:
    What is a lot more scary is that a man in South Africa, called Julius Malema, is under the impression that he should copy R. Mugabe’s politics. It would cripple the whole of Southern Africa, if not the whole of Africa:

  • Tiziana Cauli on 19th April 2010:

    Hi Johan,
    there are two very interestiing articles. Thanks!
    I agree, Malema is very dangerous for the stability of South Africa’s politics. And he has a worryingly high number of supporters in the country. It’s sad that he leads a prominent organization such as the ANC Youth League.

  • Helena Goldon on 23rd July 2010:

    Hi Tiziana,
    I am referring to this post of yours just here:

  • Tiziana Cauli on 24th July 2010:

    Thank you Helena,
    can’t wait to read it!

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