July 12, 2003

Who Cares About Africa?

Judging from an article in the July 5th’s New York Times, Ronald Walters doesn’t.

Ronald Walters, who ought to know better, seems to have accepted that the current struggle in Zimbabwe is about the just redistribution of land from white interlopers back to its original African owners, and that to criticize the Mugabe government is to collude in an insidious white-dominated plot to prevent social justice from occurring. Walters says he’s not on Mugabe’s side when it comes to repression (very generous and principled concession!) but that he is “on the side of the people who claim there’s a justice issue in terms of the land”. Fine. That also means you’re not on Mugabe’s side, but Walters, judging from the New York Times article, doesn’t see it that way.

Walters doesn’t want to be one of those guys who want to “beat up on Mugabe jeust because he took land from some white people”. Let’s leave aside the whole issue of consistent governmental respect for law, the economic importance of property rights, and constraints on the power of the state, all issues that are of crucial importance in understanding why postcolonial African states are such perfect case studies of arbitrary misrule.

Let’s just say for the sake of argument that if land was taken from white people who took it and returned to its former black owners, justice would be done. Walters appears to be operating on the assumption that this is actually happening in Zimbabwe, and that it is the reason why Mugabe has become a target of international criticism.

Anyone paying attention to the situation, anyone even modestly knowledgeable, knows that is absolutely not what has happened. There was one round of meaningful land reform in the early 1980s under ZANU-PF rule. Meaningful because it actually involved some kind of real effort, budgetary expenditure and planning, not in terms of results—even that was a distastrous and preventable screw-up made all the worse by some erratic policies with cooperative farming and industry. At least it was a fair try, on a very small scale. Ever since then, land reform in Zimbabwe has been a colossal joke, a carnival of escalating corruption. The land taken since the 1990s has been taken on behalf of the rich and powerful as a vanity possession. Acres once productively worked, acres that once employed many and allowed Zimbabwe to export prepared foodstuffs and grain, now lie empty and fallow of habitation, owned by a party bigwig and unused.

Walters appears to be trying to defend a program of taking land from white people just because it takes land from white people. That’s not the politics of justice: that’s the politics of empty retribution. If Mugabe was interested in programmatic land reform that operated from some consistent principle, had a consistent policy design, and proceeded in a transparent manner, then the whole situation would be different. There is a real issue, and real justice that needs doing, and that shouldn’t be forgotten. But it has nothing to do with Mugabe’s maladministration of Zimbabwe.

It’s not just that Mugabe is not pursuing anything that could be called land reform. It is that the entire issue of land and colonialism is a colossal diversionary tactic that Walters and others have fallen for just as spectacularly naively as the American media. Zimbabwe’s current state has nothing to do with land, except that the land seizures have helped deep-six the economy even further than it already was. Mugabe has pushed the issue precisely because he understands that his one slim hope for hanging on is to hoodwink the network of Western intellectuals and activists who once mobilized on his behalf in the years of the liberation struggle, to make them think that this is the same struggle, 25 years later. It’s not.

Justice on the land issue is a figleaf for a corrupt statist oligarchy that have ravaged their own nation and stolen its birthright as fundamentally and thoroughly as the Rhodesians did. To talk sympathetically about Mugabe’s land objectives is the equivalent of buying snake oil from a carnival barker.

Maybe Walters was misquoted, but that’s how he comes off in the article: morally vacuous and uninterested in what might constitute either good land reform policy or good moral justice in Zimabwe.Certainly if that’s what he thinks, he’s not alone. Robert Mugabe got a surprisingly enthusiastic reception in New York City not long ago from a number of local black politicians.

At least Salih Booker is brave enough to admit that there’s a journey to be travelled from reflexive idolotry for Mugabe and every other nationalist hack turned authoritarian to the real question: where does justice reside in Africa, and with whom? If we desire to show solidarity with the struggles of ordinary Africans, where should our sympathies lie, and where should our condemnation fall? It doesn’t matter who else is playing the condemnation game: wrong is wrong and right is right, and there is no excuse for softball pitches in that game.

I’m like Booker: I used to follow the party line and think that Mugabe and his associates were at least talking about real issues, with a real interest in confronting fundamental problems. I have to say, looking back, that I was wrong not just in terms of their later conduct, but in overlooking the clear, unambiguous signs of Mugabe’s political character right from the moment of his assumption of power and even long before it. He and his coterie have always been authoritarians and brutalists. It is just that we used to excuse that because of the exigencies of the “liberation struggle”, or to attribute stories of their conduct to Rhodesian propaganda. There was certainly plenty of that, to be sure, but just because the wrong people say it for the wrong reasons doesn’t make it untrue.

Which brings me to the other Africa story in the news this week. I have a hard time understanding why the Bush Administration is actually interested in Africa. I don’t really trust much that this President says, for which I think I have ample reason. Sometimes, however, you have to support the words, if not the sayer, and the interest Bush is expressing is, well, interesting.

It may be that the President chose to visit Africa precisely because the stakes are so low there for the US government and because African nations will have to be grateful and pleased by anything the United States offers, regardless of what it might be--contrasted against most of the rest of the world, where the President is now disliked both by general populations and leaders with an intensity that far surpasses garden-variety anti-American carping. It may be that it is also a cost-free way to claim that the United States remains interested in confronting autocracy and the problem of failed governments, as it claimed to be in pursuing war in Iraq. It is at least good to hear our President speaking about Taylor and Mugabe, and confronting Mbeki about his failed HIV and Zimbabwe policies. He doesn’t quite pull off the empathetic “Sorry about slavery thing” as well as Clinton, at any rate.

I don’t know whether we are going to intervene in Liberia, but I feel fairly certain that if we do, we will in a very limited, half-assed way that will probably make things no worse (they can’t get any worse, I think) but won’t make them any better. Don’t hold out for a similarly limited intervention in Congo, however, no matter how bad things are there.

To the deeper issues of poverty, inequity and injustice in Africa, Mr. Bush has few answers, but then, that could be said about Ronald Walters, too. Like Salih Booker and Bill Fletcher, I believe the answers to those issues begins with a consistent, principled understanding of what constitutes justice and injustice, a commitment that we pursue regardless of where it takes us and regardless of whom stands condemned. The moment we exempt someone because of an antiquated reading of the obligations of nationalism or racial politics, because the way we read right and wrong is by seeing who is on which side before we speak ourselves, is the moment we turn away from any kind of meaningful address to Africa’s sufferings.

That’s as true for George Bush as it is for Ronald Walters: you don’t give a dictator a free pass just because he’s supposedly on your team, and you don’t overlook the consequences of failed policies just because they seem favorable to your own ideological hobbyhorses, whether that's nationalism or the free-market.