ZIMBABWE: ‘There is not much difference between Mandela and Mugabe’
Thomas Cromwell

16 April 2007

There is considerable sympathy in the world for Africans and the difficult circumstances most face in their life. This sympathy usually translates into various forms of aid, from food donations and World Bank loans to funds for education and healthcare.

Not on the list of African countries favored for Western aid is Zimbabwe, which in the eyes of most of the international community has become an exemplar of the worst sort of government oppression and corruption that Africa has suffered from in the modern era.

British Rhodesia became independent, black-ruled Zimbabwe in 1980, under Prime Minister Robert Mugabe. Zimbabwe under Mugabe, who then became president in 1987, looked for a while like an African success story, with its rich agricultural output earning well, and Harare one of the finest cities on the continent.

Twenty-seven years on, however, Mugabe’s authoritarian rule over what is now an impoverished and corrupt state is widely condemned in the West. His program of forced land redistribution has been a disaster, his control of the organs of government and the media dictatorial, and his intimidation of the opposition dismaying for a country that claims to be a democracy. 

Zimbabwe today has 80 percent unemployment, and 80 percent of the population living below the poverty line, figures that compare with Liberia, a country ruined by years of civil war, the flight of foreign investors and an almost complete destruction of infrastructure.

The economy, long sustained by white farmers and businessmen, has been ruined following implementation of policies enabling the government to seize their farms and greatly limit their opportunities for business. Inflation was running at about 1,000 percent last year as the economy shrank by 4.4 percent.

Life expectancy in this country the size of Montana, with 12.2 million people, is only 40 years. And a quarter of the population is infected with HIV/AIDS. (Ironically, the literacy rate of 90 percent is high for the continent.)

Zimbabwe is represented in Washington by Machivenyika Mapuranga, a career diplomat with a degree PhD in history from the University of London. The ambassador has no easy task in defending his government in Washington, and he has found that doors to power here are largely closed to him.

He noted that it is typically the custom for an ambassador to meet with the secretary of state after presenting his credentials to the president. He arrived in November 2005, but he has not been invited to meet the secretary yet. “Our relations have been frigid,” he said, bluntly.

He added that “The message from the Bush administration is that the days of Robert Mugabe and [his party] Zanu PF are numbered.”

The ambassador complained that Washington’s ambassador to Harare, Christopher W. Dell, openly criticizes Mugabe and “works closely and vigorously with the opposition for regime change.” He said Dell is there “on a mission to topple the Mugabe government.”

And when he raises this issue at the State Department, he is rebuffed. “When I go to the State Department I always request that they tell the ambassador who works with the opposition to abandon the politics of violence and follow the path of democracy,” he said. But the US policy has not changed.

Zimbabwe’s ambassador does have a few supporters in America. There is a very small segment of the US population that supports Mugabe because they see him as a victim of American and British policies that include economic sanctions and a travel ban on senior Zimbabwean officials. One such group is the radical Pan African Liberation Organization (PALO), which is critical of the United States’ foreign policy in general and supports close ties between Zimbabwe and Cuba through the Zimbabwe-Cuba Friendship Association.

To get a flavor of PALO and its support for Zimbabwe, one need only read an interview with one of its founders, Obi Egbuna: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/elich211206.html. Egbuna explains: “For progressive and revolutionary forces in African communities worldwide, Zimbabwe means what Cuba and Venezuela mean to Latin American anti-imperialist resistance.” He adds: “Mugabe received a replica of Simon Bolivar's sword in 2003 and we are grateful to Comrade Chavez for that.”

In other words, Zimbabwe is a success story only to leftists who dream of a united socialist Africa. “Our main objective is One Unified African People at home and abroad and One Unified Socialist African Continent,” Egbuna said in the same interview.  

In a recent column, South Africa’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi explained Mugabe’s appeal to international socialists this way: “Mugabe has skillfully justified his authoritarian misrule within a discourse of legitimate redress for colonial injustice and imperialism. These sentiments have resonated across Africa. Large numbers of Africans feel marginalized by the global economy and its mighty supranational institutions and remain wedded to the Marxist narrative of the liberation struggle.”

To Ambassador Mapuranga, a basic problem is the lack of respect in the West for African institutions. He says that the African Union determined that the last parliamentary election in Zimbabwe, in 2005, was free and fair, a view strongly rejected by Washington and most western governments.

The ambassador also rejected criticism of the recent government crackdown on the opposition, that left many of its leading members bloodied and in hospital, suggesting that any government worth its salt would have acted in a similar manner.

He pointed to a recent emergency meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) heads of state in Tanzania, called to address the Zimbabwe political crisis, at which Mugabe and his government received support, and the mediation between Mugabe and the opposition in Zimbabwe by South African President Thabo Mbeki was extended.

The ambassador said that, “Americans think we are introducing a new paradigm of development that is a bad example… They think Zimbabwe is a test case and it must not succeed.”

To replace traditional economic relations with the West, and particularly former colonial power Britain, Harare has been looking east, and is cultivating ties with China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Iran. Zimbabwe is seeking both economic aid and investments.

And for every critical question asked, the ambassador had a ready answer. For example, when questioned about the length of Mugabe’s tenure at the top, he said: “We follow our British mentors… no term limits.” And “we insist on the right of the electorate to choose their own leaders.”

He also noted that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has been in power for a similar length of time, and receives little if any criticism for that, and other African leaders, like President Omar Bongo in Gabon, have been in power even longer (Bongo has ruled for 40 years so far).

Asked about the force used against the opposition, the ambassador pointed to the 100 deaths in recent riots in Guinea over the appointment of a new prime minister by the long-term president there.

But, for sure, it is the issue of land distribution that has most soured relations with the West. The ambassador said that at independence Mugabe got a promise from then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher committing Britain to pay for a land distribution program. The program lost its funding under Tony Blair’s Labour government that took power in 1997. He noted that relations with Washington “are not very good since we embarked on the land reform program.”

Ambassador Mapuranga said that parliament adopted legislation allowing the government to seize private farms only after a “peasant revolt.” 

Washington’s displeasure was expressed through the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001, which enjoyed bipartisan support. The act gives the Treasury Department authority to block all Zimbabwean access to credit and forbids debt forgiveness. And through executive orders the US president limits Zimbabweans allowed into the United States.

Against its miserable performance on the ground, the Mugabe government is buoyed by its own sense of African destiny and the rhetoric that supports it. “There is not much difference between Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe,” the ambassador said.

He added: “I’m optimistic because I have been in this struggle all my life. People told us we could not beat the Rhodesian army, but we did. Now we know with the solidarity of Africa and the support of a majority of Zimbabweans we will win the struggle for economic empowerment.”

But, he also acknowledged the path ahead will be difficult: “No one is saying it will be an easy and short affair,” he said.

Biography of Ambassador Machivenyika Mapuranga

Educational Qualifications
a)      BA (Hons) University of London, 1971
b)      Post Graduate Diploma in Development Studies, Oxford, 1972
c)      MLitt (History and Political Thought), Edinburgh University, 1974
d)      PhD (history) University of London, 1980

Professional Experience (Academic)
a)      Lecturer, University of Ibadan, Jos Campus, Nigeria, 1975 – 1976
b)      Lecturer, University of Jos, Nigeria, 1975 – 1979
c)      Lecturer, University of Zimbabwe, 1979 – 1980

Professional Experience (Diplomatic)
a)      Consular and Charge d’Affaires,
b)      Zimbabwe High Commission, Lusaka 1980 –1981
c)      Ambassador to Tanzania, 1982 –1986
d)      Assistant Secretary General representing Southern Africa Region, OAU, 1987 – 1995
e)      Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, New York, 1996 – 1998
f)        Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1999 – 2001
g)      First Resident Ambassador to Ghana, 2001 – 2005
h)      Ambassador to the USA, Washington DC, 2005
Special Assignments
a)      Special Representative of the OAU Secretary General to Rwanda, 1993 – 1994
b)      Chairman, Non-Aligned Countries Political Committee, 1997
c)      OAU Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Somalia, Sierra-Leone and Burundi
d)      Chairman, UN Special Political Committee (4th Committee), 1997
e)      Head, Zimbabwe Official Delegation to Commonwealth Summit, Australia, 1999