We will resist the upside-down view of Africa


By President Thabo Mbeki

THE 2003 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) opened in Abuja, Nigeria at the close of this past week. Its substantial agenda included the controversial issue of Zimbabwe. Contrary to false reports peddled by some, CHOGM dealt with all matters on its agenda, including Zimbabwe.

Its longest session considered a Report entitled “Making Democracy work for Pro-poor Development”, prepared by a Commonwealth High-Level Expert Group on Development and Democracy. This Report was commissioned pursuant to the Fancourt Declaration adopted by CHOGM when it met in our country in 1999.

By the time the Abuja CHOGM concluded, it had continued the suspension of Zimbabwe from the councils of the Commonwealth. Zimbabwe had left the Commonwealth, rendering this decision meaningless. The SADC countries, supported by Uganda, had decided to express their strong disagreement with the CHOGM decision. Time will tell what impact all of this will have on the Commonwealth. But it is necessary to recall some of the history that has led us to this situation.

When it met in Coolum, Australia in 2002, CHOGM charged a Troika made up of the Chair of the Commonwealth, the Prime Minister of Australia, and the Presidents of Nigeria and South Africa, to take action on Zimbabwe, in the event that the Commonwealth Elections Observer Team made a negative finding about the 2002 Zimbabwe Presidential elections. This was the full extent of the mandate given to the Troika.

This Observer Team concluded that “the conditions in Zimbabwe did not adequately allow for a free expression of will by the electors.” On this basis, the Troika decided to suspend Zimbabwe from the councils of the Commonwealth for one year, which should have meant the conclusion of its mandated mission.

However, the Troika also decided that it would meet again in a year’s time to consider the evolution of the situation in Zimbabwe, in the context of various policy decisions taken earlier by the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, later, the then Chair of the Commonwealth, Australian Prime Minister Howard, insisted that the Troika should meet six months earlier than it had decided, which it did out of respect for his position as Chair of the Commonwealth.

The reason he insisted on this otherwise unscheduled meeting was that he wanted the Troika to impose additional sanctions on Zimbabwe, for which it had no mandate. The two other members of the Troika told him as much and argued that the Troika should meet at the end of the one-year, as originally agreed. Nevertheless, the Chair was determined to have his way.

Accordingly, contrary to all normal practice, he decided to announce to the world at a press conference, that he disagreed with his colleagues in the Troika and wanted more Commonwealth sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe. At one stroke, this both destroyed the Troika and put in question the democratic principle of decisions by majority.

The majority on the Troika then advised the Chair that if he wanted additional sanctions, he, and not the Troika, would have to get a mandate from all the Heads of Government of the Commonwealth. They also indicated their opposition to the continuation of the suspension beyond the one-year that had been agreed earlier. Nevertheless, the Chair requested the Secretary General to consult these Heads.

In his report, after this process of consultation, the Secretary General said: “Some member governments take the view that it is time to lift Zimbabwe’s suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth when the one-year period expires on March 19 2003. Some others feel that there is no justification for such a step and that there is in fact reason to impose stronger measures. However, the broadly held view is that Heads of Government wish to review matters at CHOGM in Nigeria in December 2003 and that the suspension of Zimbabwe.should remain in place pending discussions on the matter at CHOGM.The members of the Troika have now concluded that the most appropriate approach in the circumstances is for Zimbabwe’s suspension.to remain in place until.CHOGM in December 2003.”

Unfortunately, the Secretary General has never explained what he meant by “the broadly held view”, especially in the light of the fact that some Heads of Government were not consulted, and others were wrongly led to believe that we supported the continuation of the suspension. The statement that we had expressed ourselves in favour of the continuation of the suspension was false.

We must also make the point that the Zimbabwe government has never been given the possibility to respond to the report of the Commonwealth Observers, contrary both to the principles of natural justice and the rules of the Commonwealth itself.

This is especially important in the light of the fact that other Election Observer Groups, such as our own, made determinations about the Zimbabwe Presidential elections that differ from the finding of the Commonwealth Observers. For instance, the largest of our Observer Teams, made up essentially of representatives of civil society found as follows:

“It appears that the will of the people was demonstrated to a degree reflected by the number of people who came out to vote and who did get an opportunity to vote. The turnout at the polls and the number of people who voted was second only to the first election following the liberation of Zimbabwe. This view must be seen in the context of the obstacles and problems that characterised the pre-election period that is described boldly and frankly in the body of this report. The (Observer) Mission is, therefore, of the view that the outcome of the elections represents the legitimate voice of the people of Zimbabwe.”

We accepted this determination and have no reason to conclude that the eminent South Africans who came to this conclusion were wrong, whereas the Commonwealth Observers were correct. This is particularly so given the fact that they spent a longer period of time in Zimbabwe than the Commonwealth Observers, and did more than any other group to help ensure that the elections were free and fair.

In addition, to ensure the continuous coverage of all parts of Zimbabwe, it worked together with the other South African Observer Teams, as well as the Cabinet Ministers we sent to Harare to ensure the effective access of our Observer Teams to the Zimbabwe government to deal quickly with any problems that could arise.

We have also studied and taken seriously the observations and recommendations contained in the 42-page Report of our Observer Mission. These observations include issues of political violence, legislation and state institutions relevant to the elections, the role of the media, and the general political situation. Those who present themselves to the public as experts would do well to study this Report.

When we met in London as the Commonwealth Troika, we were restricted solely and exclusively to the findings of the Commonwealth Observer Report. We also had no mandate to consider the substance of this Report and never did. Neither did the Abuja CHOGM, though it decided to continue the suspension of Zimbabwe, on the untested assumption that the Commonwealth Observer Report was correct in its conclusion.

At its March 19, 2002 meeting in London, at which it suspended Zimbabwe for a year, the Troika reiterated a critically important statement made by the Coolum CHOGM. It said that the land question was at the core of the crisis in Zimbabwe and could not be separated from other issues of concern.

At the Abuja CHOGM, the land question in Zimbabwe was not discussed. Indeed, the land question has disappeared from the global discourse about Zimbabwe, except when it is mentioned to highlight the plight of the former white landowners, and to attribute food shortages in Zimbabwe to the land redistribution programme.

The current Zimbabwe crisis started in 1965 when the then British Labour Government, under Prime Minister Harold Wilson, refused to suppress the rebellion against the British Crown led by Ian Smith. This was because the British Government felt that it could not act against its white “kith and kin”, in favour of the African majority.

At the constitutional negotiations in 1979, the British Conservative Government insisted that the property and other rights and privileges of this “kith and kin” had to be protected. It therefore ensured that Zimbabwe’ s independence constitution had entrenched clauses, valid for ten years, which, among other things, protected the property rights of the white settler colonial “kith and kin”, including the landowners.

The large sums of money promised by both the British and US governments to enable the new government to buy land for African settlement never materialised. The land dispossession carried out by the settler colonial “kith and kin” through the barrel of the gun had to be sustained, despite the fact that even in 1979, the British government recognised the fact that land was at the core of the conflict in Zimbabwe, as did the 2002 Coolum CHOGM.

In 1998 we intervened to help mediate the growing tension between Zimbabwe and the UK on the land question. This, and other factors, led to the international conference on the land question held in Zimbabwe that year.

At that conference, the international community, including the UK, the UN, the EU and others agreed to help finance the programme of land redistribution that had been an essential part of the negotiated settlement of 1979, which, in return for introducing majority rule, guaranteed the privileges of the white settler colonial “kith and kin”. Nothing came of these commitments.

Later, the British government could not find a mere o9 million to buy 118 farms, which purchase had been agreed at the international conference. These would have been used to resettle the war veterans who had begun to occupy farms owned by the white “kith and kin”, continuing a struggle for the return of the land to the indigenous majority, which had started at the end of the 19th century.

Again we intervened to help solve the Zimbabwe land question. We managed to get pledges from various countries, other than the UK, to provide this o9 million. Having handed this matter over to the UN, it collapsed in the intricacies of the UN bureaucracy. Though there were willing sellers and willing buyers, and the necessary funds, the 118 farms were not bought.

With everything having failed to restore the land to its original owners in a peaceful manner, a forcible process of land redistribution perhaps became inevitable. Though we were conscious of the frustration that had built up in Zimbabwe, we urged the government of Zimbabwe both privately and publicly to act against the forcible seizure of white farms and other violence in the country. On one of these occasions, at Victoria Falls and in the presence of President Mugabe, I told the world press that, together with Presidents Nujoma and Chissano, we had raised this matter with President Mugabe.

For the record, we must mention that our national broadcaster did not record my comments on this matter. The SABC television team that covered this press conference later explained that at that point it did not have the necessary cassette to record these comments. Soon after this press conference, the BBC interviewed me to confirm the remarks I had made. And yet afterwards, many worked hard to propagate the blatant untruth that we had said nothing about any of the contentious issues in Zimbabwe.

In his book, “Decolonising the Mind”, the Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiongo, writes about the consternation among some Europeans that he had started writing in his native language, Gikuyu. He says:

“It was almost as if, in choosing to write in Gikuyu, I was doing something abnormal.The very fact that what common sense dictates in the literary practice of other cultures is questioned in an African writer is a measure of how far imperialism has distorted the view of African realities. It has turned reality upside down: the abnormal is viewed as normal and the normal is viewed as abnormal. Africa actually enriches Europe: but Africa is made to believe that it needs Europe to rescue it from poverty. Africa’s natural and human resources continue to develop Europe and America: but Africa is made to feel grateful for aid from the same quarters that still sit on the back of the continent. Africa even produces intellectuals who now rationalise this upside-down way of looking at Africa.”

For example, those who fought for a democratic Zimbabwe, with thousands paying the supreme price during the struggle, and forgave their oppressors and torturers in a spirit of national reconciliation, have been turned into repugnant enemies of democracy. Those who, in the interest of their “kith and kin”, did what they could to deny the people of Zimbabwe their liberty, for as long as they could, have become the eminent defenders of the democratic rights of the people of Zimbabwe.

During the Abuja CHOGM, those accustomed to the practice of disinformation, described as “spin”, did everything to communicate false reports to the media. They campaigned and lobbied to ensure the continued suspension of Zimbabwe. We deliberately avoided engaging in any of these activities. We fed no stories to the media. We did not campaign. We lobbied nobody. Yet the story is put out that we lobbied, blocked agreements, and dismally failed to achieve our objectives.

We are not, and should not be surprised at this kind of behaviour and the turning of reality upside down on the part of those that Ngugi wa Thiongo described as those “that still sit on the back of the continent.” The tragedy is that there are some among us, those that have the possibility to occupy the media spaces, who claim that they are Africans, among them intellectuals, “who now rationalise this upside-down way of looking at Africa”, according to which “the abnormal is viewed as normal and the normal is viewed as abnormal”.

In his book “Diplomacy”, Dr Henry Kissinger discusses the place of the issue of human rights in the East-West struggle during the Cold War. He writes that:

“Reagan and his advisers invoked (human rights) to try to undermine the Soviet system. To be sure, his immediate predecessors had also affirmed the importance of human rights. Reagan and his advisers went a step further by treating human rights as a tool for overthrowing communism and democratising the Soviet Union.At Westminster in 1982, Reagan, hailing the tide of democracy around the world, called on free nations ‘to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means’.America would not wait passively for free institutions to evolve.”

In time, and in the interest of “kith and kin”, the core of the challenge facing the people of Zimbabwe, as identified by the Coolum CHOGM, has disappeared from public view. Its place has been taken by the issue of human rights. Those who have achieved this miracle are not waiting passively for free institutions to evolve.

It is clear that some within Zimbabwe and elsewhere in the world, including our country, are following the example set by “Reagan and his advisers”, to “treat human rights as a tool” for overthrowing the government of Zimbabwe and rebuilding Zimbabwe as they wish. In modern parlance, this is called regime change.

In its statement after the Abuja CHOGM, SADC and Uganda said: “We also wish to express our displeasure and deep concern with the dismissive, intolerant and rigid attitude displayed by some members of the Commonwealth during the deliberations. The Commonwealth has always operated on the basis of consensus. We fear that this attitude is destined to undermine the spirit that makes the Commonwealth a unique family of nations. This development does not augur well for the future of the Commonwealth.”

But, once more, some Africans have turned things upside down. They argue that, internationally, we face some trouble or other because we confirmed positions at the Abuja CHOGM that we have explained before, publicly. They will not say that the Commonwealth is faced with an impending crisis because of the positions it took, which have very little to do with the urgent task to encourage the entire political leadership of Zimbabwe to act together to resolve the political, economic and social problems facing the people of this sister country.

In its Report, having made its determination about the 2002 Zimbabwe Presidential elections, the Commonwealth Observer Team said: “We call on all Zimbabweans to put aside their differences and to work together for the future of their country. We believe national reconciliation is a priority and that the Commonwealth should assist in this process.”

Our own Observer Mission said: “The Mission recommends an urgent programme of political reconciliation and economic restructuring and transformation that places the people and country of Zimbabwe first and transcends the differences that were demonstrated in the election process.”

This is also what the Heads of Government from Uganda and the SADC countries said to their colleagues at the Abuja CHOGM, arguing that the continued isolation of Zimbabwe would not facilitate the achievement of this goal. Unfortunately, others had already made public statements that one of the principal outcomes of this meeting would be, not a Commonwealth commitment to this goal, but the continuing suspension of Zimbabwe from the councils of the Commonwealth. For them, it was important that this objective should be achieved, to maintain their credibility especially with the media, whatever else was decided that might actually relate to the future of the people of Zimbabwe.

Many things have gone wrong in Zimbabwe leading, among other things, to a high degree of polarisation in the country and a serious economic crisis. Together with the rest of the SADC countries, we have discussed these negative developments with the government and people of Zimbabwe, and will continue to do so. At the same time, we have made a commitment to work with the people of Zimbabwe, represented by both the ruling party and the opposition, to arrive at the situation in which “all Zimbabweans put aside their differences and work together for the future of their country”.

Whatever happened at the Abuja CHOGM, and perhaps because of what happened at the Abuja CHOGM, the outcome visualised by the Commonwealth and South African Election Observers will be realised, regardless of the negative speculations made by some that so-called quiet diplomacy has failed. This outcome demands of us that, regardless of the fact that we are poor and need the support of others richer than ourselves to overcome our problems, we should always refuse to “rationalise the upside-down way of looking at Africa.”

Our poverty and underdevelopment will never serve as reason for us to abandon our dignity as human beings, turning ourselves into grateful and subservient recipients of alms, happy to submit to a dismissive, intolerant and rigid attitude of some in our country and the rest of the world, towards what we believe and know is right, who are richer and more powerful than we are.


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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


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