By some measures, the contemporary art of international human rights promotion originated in southern Africa. True, the West’s earliest confrontations with nasty dictators over human rights issues probably occurred in Eastern Europe: From the 1970s onward, Western governments in general, and the U.S. government in particular, interested themselves in the fates of Soviet prisoners, Czech dissidents, and Polish protesters, with varying degrees of success.
Still, for better or worse, the campaign against apartheid and human rights abuse in South Africa was probably the first to have a truly mass appeal—or at least a truly fashionable appeal. In the 1980s, university students, sportsmen, entertainers, and statesmen of all kinds joined the various boycotts of South Africa. Pop songs—”Don’t Play Sun City”—warned singers against performing in South African nightclubs. A friend of mine refused to buy his fiancee a diamond engagement ring, on the grounds that the diamond might have come from a South African mine. All kinds of ad hoc organizations and charities and local governments got involved, special guidelines for investors were written, and some U.S. companies pulled out of South Africa altogether. The anti-apartheid campaign had a profound effect on the leadership of South Africa, which hated its international isolation—and eventually gave up.
All of which makes the silence surrounding Zimbabwe, another southern African nation, so eerie. In recent months—in recent days, even—the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe has deteriorated sharply. This is partly because President Robert Mugabe, who has been ruling the country since it gained independence in 1980, is, for the first time, under serious threat of being unseated. If the elections due to be held in mid-March were free and fair—something many people doubt—his party, ZANU-PF, would probably lose to its main opponents, the Movement for Democratic Change, and President Mugabe would be out of a job.
To prevent this from happening, or even to prevent it from coming close to happening, Mugabe has unleashed a campaign of terror. According to Amnesty International, opposition activists have been systematically arrested, tortured, and murdered over the past few months. Twenty-two were arrested just last weekend. One died while on his way to meet an Amnesty delegation. Journalists have been targets, too—the subservient parliament has recently passed laws criminalizing any criticism of the president—as have businesses. According to one still-independent Zimbabwean newspaper, ZANU-PF has embarked on a massive campaign to extort money from companies. Gangs of thugs now roam the countryside, demanding to see ZANU-PF party cards, threatening those who don’t have them. According to one British newspaper report, one such group stopped a woman and made her chant, “Forward with Osama bin Laden, Forward with Robert Gabriel Mugabe, down with whites”—a sharp reminder that not all future terrorist movements will necessarily arise in the Middle East.
But then, this is nothing new: The same thugs, who call themselves “war veterans,” (from the war for independence) have also spent much of the past two years conducting a terror campaign against the country’s remaining white minority. Violent attacks on white farmers and their black employees are common, sometimes ending in death. The result has been a food crisis of shocking proportions, given that Zimbabwe is one of Africa’s most fertile countries, and an economic crisis on top of that: Zimbabwe is almost entirely dependent on its export crops, now disrupted.
It’s a sad story—but it is made even sadder by the relative silence of Zimbabwe’s neighbors. In South Africa, Bishop Desmond Tutu has expressed his disgust at Mugabe’s behavior, as has the Sowetan, South Africa’s largest black newspaper, and a handful of politicians. Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s leader, has, however, kept his objections to a murmur. And on Monday of this week, 14 African leaders met in Malawi at a summit of the Southern African Development Community—a group originally set up to reduce the region’s economic reliance on apartheid South Africa—and resolutely refused to condemn Mugabe. They called on him to ensure that the forthcoming elections are “peaceful, free, fair and transparent” but didn’t mention the new legislation designed to curb all criticism of the president, didn’t mention the harassment, and didn’t mention the thugs. To keep the meeting running smoothly, the government of Malawi graciously deported four Zimbabwean demonstrators out of the country.
The British government, former colonial rulers of Zimbabwe, has been more forthcoming, but much too late. There have been some criticisms from Tony Blair and his foreign minister, Jack Straw, but all decisions on sanctions and heavier forms of censure have been pushed into the less effective forums of the Commonwealth—the organization of former British colonies—and the European Union. Until this week, Zimbabwean asylum-seekers who made it to the U.K. were still being sent home on the grounds that they had nothing to fear. It seems that Blair’s promise, made at the most recent Labor Party conference, to help “the starving, the wretched, the dispossesed, the ignorant, those living in want and squalor, from the deserts of Northern Africa to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan” doesn’t include either white Zimbabweans or black Zimbabweans who would prefer to be ruled by a different president. Which is odd, given that there is a practical as well as a moral British interest in the place: Up to 75,000 Zimbabweans are thought to have the right to a British passport, and they may well be heading to the U.K. en masse if things get much worse. Zimbabwe may be well out of America’s sphere of interest, but for the immigration issue alone, it is well within Britain’s.
Much of the credit for this relative silence must go to President Mugabe himself. When criticized for the lack of democracy, he simply accuses the critics of racism—or of trying to impose a “new colonialism.” This is an old and extremely weak line as not many really doubt that Mugabe is responsible for wrecking his country. Still, it has already been picked up by other southern African politicians and appears to have worked its magic on everyone else involved, Thabo Mbeki and Tony Blair included. Even a mild fear of appearing to be racist, or of appearing to collaborate with racists, was enough to ensure a delayed reaction.
Which leads me, I’m afraid, to the two morals of the story. No. 1: I know a lot of Americans are in a bullish mood, thanks to the successful military campaign in Afghanistan, but American and Western values are not everywhere triumphant, not even in small, weak countries like Zimbabwe, which are heavily dependent on Western aid. No. 2: If you want sanctions to be placed on your country’s leadership—as Zimbabwe’s opposition does—it helps to be very fashionable. If you want the West to help unseat your country’s leadership, it helps to be very anti-American, and one or two favorable remarks about Osama just won’t do it. Short of that—you’re on your own.