The Last Throes of the Liberation Generation

South African President Thabo Mbeki’s coddling of Robert Mugabe over these last years, culminating in his recent efforts at useless “quiet diplomacy,” has been an incredibly pathetic and maddening spectacle.

The standard explanations about Mbeki’s and other Southern Africanleaders’ coddling of the monster in Harare point to the fact that these leaders were brothers-in-arms in anti-colonial liberation struggles. But the explanations usually stop there, as if loyalty alone, devoid of any self-interest, would be enough to explain the toleration of Mugabe’s crimes.

This kind of explanation seems especially insufficient when one realizes the positive political consequences, in terms of international prestige, that a full-out “betrayal” of Mugabe by Mbeki and others would reap for these leaders.

The standard explanations leave out a significant part of the story. Mbeki and others in Africa who have failed to condemn Mugabe’s actions aren’t just guilty of a mere failure of leadership, as many Western commentators would have it. In fact, it appears, Mbeki, fearing the domestic South African consequences of justice for Mugabe, is engaging in willful deception about his intentions.

As Chenjerai Hove of Brown University put it to Charlie Rose recently,Mbeki is “going there, pretending to mediate, and the next thing they’re seen together at the airport, smiling at each other, shaking hands in brotherly love.”

Mbeki fears the consequences of Mugabe’s ouster for his party’s own legitimacy in South Africa. The ANC, like Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, and many others currently in power around southern Africa, is the party of liberation, and its legitimacy has been based on that fact.

Michelle Gavin of the Council on Foreign Relations put it thusly on the same Charlie Rose program: “Robert Mugabe and those in his inner circle believe that their right to govern is derived simply from their identity as the liberation party. That’s it. . . . There are an awful lot of Zimbaweans who think government legitimacy should come from your capacity to deliver good services.”

Or how about from winning legitimate elections.

Similarly, in South Africa, which was “liberated” from its colonial masters even later than Zimbabwe, the ANC “can’t really imagine an opposition party that seriously contests for national office. It’s almost an offensive idea,” Gavin added.

Phillip Gourevitch added: “What you’re seeing in these struggles . . . is a kind of late death throes chapter of one phase of the liberation struggle. The liberators are now staunching the continued liberation of their countries. . . . The people who fought the bush war, who ran the struggles, who defied the colonialists . . . are absolutely governing wretchedly at this point.”

Add to this the fact that Zimbawe’s opposition movement, which produced Morgan Tsvangirai, has its roots in the trade union movement, which is the same place that the growing opposition to the ANC in South Africa is based.

“The history of the trade union movement, where political parties in southern Africa have come from, is going to repeat itself in South Africa,” said Hove. “So Mbeki doesn’t want that. He wants to make sure that he cannot condone a party which came from the trade union movement.”

More than simple failed leadership, this is pure political calculation, aimed at furthering the most cynical kind of self-interest defined in terms of the maintenance of power no matter what.