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Out of Africa

That Robert Mugabe is destroying Zimbabwe is obvious. Less obvious is what Thabo Mbeki is doing to South Africa and the region, writes Lalita Panicker.

india Updated: Jul 21, 2008 00:00 IST
Lalita Panicker

George Bush is upset with China and Russia for vetoing sanctions against Zimbabwe in the United Nations. Well, that’s hardly likely to send a shiver down the spine of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Since overturning the election results, in which he had been beaten fair and square, the rogue leader has made it clear that irrespective of international condemnation, he will pull his impoverished country further down into an economic and social quagmire. Mugabe knows only too well that if he continues doing business with the Russians and Chinese, it doesn’t matter a toss what the US thinks.

It would be a different matter, however, if condemnation came from closer quarters. Like South Africa where thousands of Zimbabwean refugees have fled from Mugabe’s thuggish regime. But, South African President Thabo Mbeki has opposed the UN Security Council getting too involved in Zimbabwe. And this when Mugabe’s opponents are being systematically slaughtered and women and children are being raped and tortured.

So why is Mbeki so indulgent towards this genocidal regime with its catastrophic policies like seizing all White-owned farms in a ruinous ‘Africanisation’ drive?

The answer, perhaps, is that Mbeki himself is no slouch when it comes to such land redistribution policies. Mbeki’s own racial prejudices are never far from the surface. Now while Nelson Mandela understood the worth of the Whites in keeping the economy afloat, Mbeki is not advised by such wise counsel. The Zimbabwe experiment has put further pressure on Mbeki to speed up land redistribution to Whites and there have been threats from Black South Africans that they would forcibly seize farms if push comes to shove.

Mbeki has maintained a deafening silence on the issue despite having seen how disastrous this has been for Zimbabwe. Grabbing land from Whites is a politically popular move, something Mbeki is not averse to given that the South African economy is not going great guns under him. Of course, his excuse is that the farmers whose lands are being taken will be compensated. But the question is: will those taking possession be able to run them in a productive manner? The Zimbabwe experience shows that this does not always work.

Both the South Africa and Zimbabwe cases show that far from empowering poor landless Blacks, the seized lands have gone into the hands of rich cronies of the regimes. If land redistribution had indeed worked, there would not be the abject poverty that we see in Zimbabwe today, not to mention the colossally high rates of unemployment, as is there in South Africa. Land has been handed out in dribs and drabs to the poor but with no resources or training on how to make this productive. The drive against White farmers has also led to a drastic fall in food production that has affected poor Blacks and not the rich Whites whom they seek to supplant.

Mugabe is an easy man to dislike. He is an arrogant hectoring bully. But the suave Mbeki does not attract that kind of opprobrium. So we don’t get to hear about the nearly 2,000 White farmers killed in South Africa in the post-apartheid years. Some of these crimes are economic, but quite a few are driven by sheer hatred for the Whites. Often, when squatters take over white farmlands, the owner is asked to pay to relocate them.

The bitter truth is that with these seizures, at least 500,000 Black farm hands are now unemployed adding to the spiralling crime rate. So neither the Whites nor the Blacks have benefited. Other countries like Namibia have gone about this issue in a far more mature manner. It has not gone in for a grab-and-loot policy. Rather it is being done in consultation with all the parties concerned. The problem with South Africa is that it does not seem to have learnt any lessons from Zimbabwe. Rather, there seems to be a desire on the part of some of its politicians to be seen as ‘nationalist’ in the same way that many Zimbabweans thought Mugabe was before he unleashed his terror tactics on them.

Mbeki also knows that he has nothing to fear from the human rights champions of the West. The West has invested so heavily in crucial sectors like gold, diamonds and armaments in South Africa that it looks the other way when Mbeki goes about grabbing land and holds back on vital anti-retroviral drugs. The scale of human suffering is looked upon as an internal matter. And as long as the spotlight is on Mugabe, it is not likely that South Africa will get any flak.

When South Africa shook off the shackles of apartheid, it was Mandela’s dream that the country would be a rainbow nation. He did not want to settle old scores or hold on to past hatred. Sadly, as the great leader has faded from public life, much of what the 90-year-old icon envisaged seems to be in tatters. The tragedy is that if things go wrong in South Africa, it will have an impact on all its neighbours, including Zimbabwe, whose desperate people are looking to South Africa for sanctuary as a tyrant makes their country one of the most inhospitable places in the world.

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