On November 21, after 37 years in power, Zimbabwe's dictator, Robert Mugabe, resigned in infamy.
By contrast, the late South African leader, Nelson Mandela, was revered in the West. His successor, Thabo Mbeki, was well-respected.
Yet over the decades, both Mandela and Mbeki lent their unqualified support to Mugabe.
When the baton was passed from Mbeki to the populist polygamist Jacob Zuma, the current leader of South Africa's dominant-party state, little changed in the country's relationship with Zimbabwe.
And what is the significance of the support Zuma and his predecessors, Mandela and Mbeki, have lent the Zimbabwean dictator over the decades?
Wags in the West love to pit the long-suffering African people vs. their predatory politicians. As this false bifurcation goes, the malevolent Mugabe was opposed by his eternally suffering people.
While ordinary Africans do seem caught eternally between Scylla and Charybdis, the government of Zimbabwe—and others across Africa—doesn’t stand apart from the governed; it reflects them.
Consider: Early on, Mugabe had attempted to heed “a piece of advice that Mozambican president Samora Machel” had given him well before independence. As historian Martin Meredith recounts, in The State of Africa (2006), Machel told Mugabe: "Keep your whites."
Mugabe kept "his whites" a little longer than he had originally envisaged, thanks to the Lancaster House agreements. These had “imposed a ten-year constitutional constraint on redistributing land. … But in the early 1990s, with the expiration of the constitutional prohibition, black Zimbabweans became impatient.”
Nevertheless, noted African-American journalist Keith Richburg, “Mugabe remained ambivalent, recognizing, apparently, that despite the popular appeal of land confiscation, the white commercial farmers still constituted the backbone of Zimbabwe’s economy.”
Restless natives would have none of it. Armed with axes and machetes, gangs of so-called war veterans proceeded to fleece white farmers and 400,000 of their employees without so much as flinching. In the land invasions of 2000, 50,000 of these squatters “seized more than 500 of the country’s 4,500 commercial farms, claiming they were taking back land stolen under British colonial rule.” (CNN, April 14, 2000.)
These Zimbabweans assaulted farmers and their families, “threatened to kill them and forced many to flee their homes, ransacking their possessions. They set up armed camps and roadblocks, stole tractors, slaughtered cattle, destroyed crops and polluted water supplies.”
The “occupation” was extended to private hospitals, hundreds of businesses, foreign embassies, and aid agencies. The looting of white property owners continued apace—with the country’s remaining white-owned commercial farms being invaded and occupied.
This may come as news to the doctrinaire Democrats who doggedly conflate the will of the people with liberty: These weapons-wielding “mobs of so-called war veterans,” converging on Zimbabwe’s remaining productive farms, expressed the democratic aspirations of most black Zimbabweans. And of their South African neighbors, a majority of whom “want the land, cars, houses, and swimming pools of their erstwhile white rulers.” Surmised The Daily Mail’s Max Hastings:
“[M]ost African leaders find it expedient to hand over the white men’s toys to their own people, without all the bother of explaining that these things should be won through education, skills, enterprise and hard labor over generations.”
At the time, former South African president Mbeki had chaired a special session of the United Nations Security Council, during which he ventured that there was no crisis in Zimbabwe. Some American analysts had therefore hastily deduced that Mbeki, who was president of South Africa from 1999 until 2008, was “a sidekick to the man who ruined Zimbabwe.”
How deeply silly. And how little the West knows!
Mbeki led the most powerful country on the continent; Mugabe the least powerful. The better question is this: Given the power differential between South Africa and Zimbabwe, why would Mbeki, and Mandela before him, succor Mugabe? Was Mandela Mugabe’s marionette, too? Yet another preposterous proposition.
The luminaries of Western café society were not the only ones to have given Mugabe a pass for so long. So did very many blacks.
“When Mugabe slaughtered 20,000 black people in southern Zimbabwe in 1983,” observed South-African columnist Andrew Kenny, “nobody outside Zimbabwe, including the ANC, paid it the slightest attention. Nor did they care when, after 2000, he drove thousands of black farm workers out of their livelihoods and committed countless atrocities against his black population. But when Mugabe killed a dozen white farmers and pushed others off their farms, it caused tremendous excitement.”
“Whenever there is a South African radio phone-in program on Zimbabwe, white South Africans and black Zimbabweans denounce Mugabe, and black South Africans applaud him. Therefore, one theory goes, Mbeki could not afford to criticize Mugabe,” who is revered, never reviled, by South African blacks.
Bar Zimbabweans, blacks across Africa and beyond have a soft spot for Mugabe.
Writing in the Mail & Guardian Online, left-liberal journalist John Pilger further untangled the mystery of Mbeki and Mugabe’s cozy relationship:
“When Robert Mugabe attended the ceremony to mark Thabo Mbeki’s second term as president of South Africa, the black crowd gave Zimbabwe’s dictator a standing ovation.” This is a “symbolic expression of appreciation for an African leader who, many poor blacks think, has given those ‘greedy’ whites a long-delayed and just comeuppance.” (July 7, 2008.)
One need only look at the present in Zimbabwe “to see the future of South Africa,” lamented Kenny. When Mugabe took power in 1980, there were about 300,000 whites in Zimbabwe. Pursuant to the purges conducted by the leader and his people, fewer than 20,000 whites remain. Of these, only 200 are farmers, five percent of the total eight years ago, reported the Daily Telegraph, in 2008.
Although most farmland in South Africa is still owned by whites, the government has signaled its intention to change the landowner’s landscape. “Having so far acquired land on a 'willing buyer, willing seller' basis, officials have hinted that large-scale expropriations are on the cards.” (BBC News, February 29, 2008.)
“In South Africa, the main instrument of transformation is Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). This requires whites to hand over big chunks of the ownership of companies to blacks and to surrender top jobs to them. Almost all the blacks so enriched belong to a small elite connected to the ANC. BEE is already happening to mines, banks and factories. In other words, a ... Mugabe-like program is already in progress in South Africa.” (Citation in Into the Cannibal's Pot: Lessons for America From Post-Apartheid South Africa (2011), p. 150.)
This reality the affable Mandela, the imperious Mbeki and Zuma, their successor, all accepted without piety and pity. These South African strongmen were, in a manner, saluting the Alpha Male Mugabe by implementing a slow-motion version of his program.
Back to the original question: Why have the leaders of the most powerful country on the continent (Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma) succored the leader of the most corrupt (Mugabe)?
Simply this: When he socked it to the whites, Mugabe cemented his status as hero to black activists and their sycophants across South Africa.