The most cynical among bipeds could hardly fail to shudder at a NY Times frontpage photo this week. It showed a tiny Zimbabwean toddler whose legs had been broken by President Robert Mugabe’s thugs to punish his mother for daring to oppose the holy liberator.
Such are the moral depths to which this erstwhile hero of anticolonial revolt has forced ‘his’ nation, similarly crippled by Mugabe’s corruption, demagogy and mismanagement.
African leaders are reluctant to criticize their peers, especially when to do so would align them with the former colonial powers. It is a sign of the extreme gravity of the situation in Zimbabwe that a chorus of such denunciations has arisen in the region while Mugabe’s marauding death squads sow terror throughout the countryside.
But one head of state—the most important one—has lent Mugabe essential ongoing support. While Zimbabwe’s runaway inflation, 80 percent unemployment rate and mass starvation have generated a refugee crisis that recently exploded into an ugly outbreak of xenophobic mob violence in next-door South Africa, hardly in a position to absorb additional millions of the destitute, the execrable South African president, Thabo Mbeki, hasn’t budged from his unctious defense of Mugabe.
Why, when a nudge would save hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives, does Mbeki help keep Mugabe’s nightmare regime alive?
Mbeki is a familiar figure to historians of revolution: the grey bureaucrat who occupies the background of the movement, works tirelessly to build up his influence within the revolutionary infrastructure, favors those cadre blindly loyal to himself over those more competent or more dedicated to the cause and eventually inherits the leadership mantle when the charismatic hero has passed from the scene. In short, Mbeki is South Africa’s Stalin, and it is probably no accident that the South African Communist Party played an important role in the long struggle against apartheid.
Ideology and the personality cult drive these frightening individuals, and had South Africa’s institutions been undermined after a revolutionary overthrow, rather than the negotiated political settlement that did occur, Mbeki might well have evolved into another Jacobin assassin on a massive scale.
As it is, he merely stands to one side with a smile as his pal Mugabe pursues that distinction.
[P.S.] It’s inspiring that Nelson Mandela survived nearly three decades of political prison and very nice that he can have Will Smith and Amy Winehouse celebrate his 90th birthday. But there’s something fetishizing and morally distasteful about 50 thousand people partying blissfully with the man who undermined one brutal dictatorship the same weekend as another one right next door is beating its own citizens to death with metal poles. Nor did any of the glittery stars see fit to mention the irony.