Robert Mugabe – an appreciation of a revolutionary

Robert Mugame being welcomed by an independent Zimbabwe

Robert Mugame being welcomed by an independent Zimbabwe

I will be one of those today who will be saddened by the news of the death of Robert Mugabe. He was, without a shadow of a doubt, the finest leader the African continent has produced to date and because of this his death will be celebrated, although behind closed doors (hypocrites that they are), by those who regret the loss of the African colonies to the European imperialists.

In a version of the famous phrase of Chairman Mao ‘to be attacked by the enemy is a good thing and not a bad thing’ what commentators will be saying over the next few days about Robert Mugabe will be directly connected to the way in which they see the end of colonialism.

In an attempt to present themselves as ‘impartial’ many will praise Mugabe for the early years of his leadership of the independent state of Zimbabwe. But they will do this as the first 15 to 20 years or so of independence was when Mugabe (an honourable man as he was, sometimes to a fault) adhered strictly to the agreement made at Lancaster House in London at the end of 1979.

As part of that agreement the handful of whites that still lived in the country (an estimated 100,000 out of a population of 7 million in 1980) were given a ten per cent guaranteed representation in the Zimbabwe legislature for a period of ten years. This was as ludicrous a situation as the similar number of people who imposed the buffoon Johnson upon a population of more than 60 million Brits earlier this year.

Whereas the more recent example just demonstrates the stupidity of the British population the acceptance of this ‘crime’ in the Zimbabwean context was to ensure the speedy end of the war against white minority rule that had already cost the lives of 47,000 black Zimbabweans both fighters and civilians – the Rhodesian fascists considering anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time to be a guerrilla and therefore fair game.

Also as part of this agreement there would be no forceful takeover of the lands of the white colonialist farmers who controlled the most fertile land and with access to ample supplies of water – even in the situation of a drought.

As these measures didn’t affect the fundamental situation of who controlled the wealth of the country it’s no surprise that the ex-colonialists will consider this period to be the time of the ‘good’ Mugabe. Revolutionaries – although accepting that Mugabe only did this as he wanted to stand true to an agreement he had made in good faith – will consider this period as a time when the revolution lost momentum.

The British establishment didn’t like Mugabe preferring Joshua Nkomo, who they correctly thought they could use as their puppet and surrogate representative of colonial interests. Over the years many politicians around at the time of the agreement openly stated this. Neither did the British government, whether Conservative throughout the 80s or Labour when they came to power in the 90s, provided the monies and the expertise that was promised in order to transfer a great deal of the agricultural wealth of the country to the black majority. .

If I have any criticism of Mugabe at this time it was that he was too honourable and kept to an agreement which was being ignored by the other signatory.

Droughts caused local problems during the 80s and when the protection to white representation and the restriction on the takeover of white farms was effectively lifted Zimbabwe was hit by another blow in the way the country was denied credit and loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – unless Zimbabweans agreed to the privatisation of the principal wealth generating industries (which included the very lucrative mining industries) in the country. A combination of these varied pressures made things difficult for Mugabe as leader of the government and this allowed for the promotion of a so-called alternative in the jumped up trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

His arrest and removal in 2017 was the result of frustration in the country that was unable to thrive under enforced international isolation. He became, in effect, a scapegoat for the problems that were not of his making.

The way in which the ex-colonialists supported this pretence of a leaders demonstrates the fact that should never be forgotten – the colonialists will NEVER give up and they will continue for decades if need be to re-establish their influence in those countries they have lost to independence struggles by the African majority. The bloodstained hands of the British, French and Portuguese can be seen in South Africa, Rwanda and Angola.

Mugabe also never gave up on the idea that armed struggle was the only way that colonised and oppressed peoples can ever gain their freedom and independence. This was something else for which the capitalist and imperialist could never forgive. Even though the wars they have instigated in the past, and will promote in the future, have cost the lives of millions and the suffering of many millions more with their highly sophisticated weaponry they cannot accept the taking up of the AK47 by the exploited and oppressed of the world. They will even go so far as to destroy the world if need be to achieve their goals.

Imperialism would rather those calling for reconciliation and a forgetting of the past – such as Nelson Mandela – be the role model for any future wars of independence. The economic situation in Zimbabwe is a result of the isolation and pressures placed upon the country by international capital but it would take a true optimist indeed, if not a blind fool, to argue that the situation in South Africa for the majority of the African population has improved substantially since the end of Apartheid. And South Africa is very much still in the clutches of the imperialists.

If Mugabe’s reputation and past will be trashed by those looking back to a time when the predominantly white countries of the world could rule wherever they wished with impunity his legacy will be treasured by those who fight for a better future for the oppressed and exploited of the world. It must be remembered that whilst the white cretinous leaders were fooling around and taking ‘selfies’ at Mandela’s memorial gathering it was Robert Mugabe who received the warmest welcome by the African crown.

Yes, Robert Mugabe made mistakes. Only those who don’t try something new will never make mistakes. Even the true giants of world Communism, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin and Chairman Mao Tse-tung, made mistakes. Those mistakes don’t detract from their achievements and neither will those of Robert Mugabe detract from his.

Mugabe, Zimbabwe and Anti-Colonialism

Zimbabwe Independence 1980

Zimbabwe Independence 1980

‘The end of an era’ has been used a lot in the last few days in reports and articles about the situation in Zimbabwe. Precipitated by a decision to remove an erstwhile ally in preference for his wife – in a battle over ‘succession’ – the Zimbabwean army took control of the country and placed the country’s President, Robert Mugabe, under house arrest. As I write this the news has broken that Mugabe has resigned as President but whether this is the end of the story is another mater. Whether it be peaceful or violent, will end in smiles or tears, is still unknown.

The events of the last week have only precipitated the inevitable. At the age of 93 Mugabe didn’t have much longer in his role as President and the situation in the country was about to change. But change, although inevitable, does not always happen for the best.

When Mugabe goes it is an end of an era for him but also for the anti-colonial struggle within the continent of Africa.

When Independence was declared in Harare on April 18th 1980 this followed the example of a number of countries that had achieved Independence through armed struggle. Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau/Cape Verde islands had achieved their freedom from Portugal five years earlier and in the process weakening the Fascist regime in Lisbon so that the Portuguese people were able to topple the Caetano regime.

(The so-called bloodless ‘Carnation Revolution’ in Portugal was possible after the shedding of a great deal of blood by fighters who had fought against the colonial power in the country’s African colonies. The Portuguese repaid this debt by a wholesale desertion of those ex-colonies and creating serious problems for the new, independent nations.)

Most of the nations that had achieved independence from their colonial oppressors in the years after World War II quickly became mere client states of imperialism with only a semblance of independence. Any attempts at building a new sort of society, for the benefit of the workers and peasants of the continent, were crushed in the Congo with the murder of Patrice Lumumba at the beginning of 1961 and the experiment in Tanzania had yet to fall apart.

So the group of avowedly left-wing nations, with various levels of developed Socialist ideology, that had gained freedom in the 1970s offered some hope to the poor and oppressed and sent shivers down the spine of imperialism worldwide. Britain was peeved, on both the Tory and Labourite sides of the political spectrum, that Mugabe won a landslide in the elections held in February 1980 – they would have preferred Joshua Nkomo who was much more malleable and pro-capitalist. If Mugabe wasn’t a Marxist-Leninist (although he used Marxist terminology) then the fact that he was so feared by the white, imperialist establishment earned himself a lot of credibility.

There was a great deal of hope and expectation in the newly independent Zimbabwe. During the 1970s most attention in the anti-apartheid movement was directed towards South Africa and its racist Boers. There’s no doubting that South African society was rotten to its core but the figures demonstrate that what used to be known as Rhodesia was a country where the black population existed solely to serve the white minority.

In the early 1980s the whites in South Africa made up a third of the population. Just before the final victory of the Zimbabwean Independence fighters towards the end of 1979 the white population of Rhodesia number was no more than 250,000 – with a black population of about 7 million. That’s a ratio of 28 to 1.

The privilege that came as a consequence of that ratio explains why the Rhodesian army fought in such a vicious manner to maintain their hold on the country. Using techniques that were employed by the Americans in Vietnam, such as chemical warfare as well as the establishment of ‘protected villages’ – to deny the guerrillas contact with the local population – thousands of black Zimbabwean men and women died in the final seven years of the liberation war when the fighting became more intense. In this life and death battle the Rhodesians were supported by the rich and powerful racist regime in Pretoria – who got many of their armaments from the Israeli settler regime in Palestine.

By the time of independence the white settler population in the new Zimbabwe was down to about 100,000 but the agreement made in London, the Lancaster House Agreement of December 1979, maintained many of the privileges the whites had enjoyed for decades. Mugabe kept to this agreement – much to the anger of many of those who had fought in the Chimurenga (Liberation War), presumably with the idea that the British would keep to their side of the agreement in assisting the country to move to a situation where the wealth created in the country would be for the benefit of the majority. If that was the case that was foolish – no one should ever trust the British. The term ‘perfidious Albion’ exists for a reason.

The whole society was skewed in favour of a very small group of people and to change that so the majority could have a decent lifestyle was both difficult and expensive. Promises made during the 1970s that education and health would be provided for all were, in the main kept, but this took a huge amount of resources. Education is something that has to be paid for now in the expectation of returns in the future. But by the time these young people had been educated the situation had moved on – and not to the benefit of Zimbabwe.

Although the battle had been won against the Rhodesians the white South Africans continued the war, taking it into the sovereign country of Zimbabwe itself by making a number of assassination attempts against members of the African National Congress (ANC) who were living there. In October 1986 the President of Portugal-free Mozambique was assassinated by the South African government. The Boers also supported the collaborationist forces of UNITA in Angola. So after gaining independence from colonialism Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau/Cape Verde Islands and Zimbabwe found themselves, to a greater or lesser extent, continuing to have to fight for their existence. The failure of the ANC in South Africa to mount a real and determined liberation war against their own government didn’t help.

Corruption started to appear in all these countries and in Zimbabwe by the middle of the 1980s. A report produced by the Domestic Workers Union in 1986 concluded that the black ‘servants’ were even being treated more harshly by their black employers than they were by the whites. (That shouldn’t be a surprise. Southern African racism was heavily paternalistic and considered the black population like children – something I consider even more insidious than the vicious form of racism that exists in the United States. On the other hand the black employers who took on some of the roles of those whites who had fled the country just treated their servants as people who they had to get as much from whilst giving as little as possible in return.) Mugabe made a serious mistake by not stamping down on this corruption and abuse of power with an iron fist as soon as it arose.

For the whites in Zimbabwe it was very much business as usual – they carried on their colonial lifestyle very much in the same way as they had since WWII, when there had been a large influx of settlers from Britain – many of them working class. They owned the best land, that being the land closest to reliable water resources, and whilst the maize (the basic food stuff) of the small farmers wilted during the drought of 1986-7 the commercial crops, like tobacco, of the large white farmers thrived being irrigated from the waters of Lake Chivero (formerly Lake McIlwaine).

Support, both financial and logistical, promised by the UK government to reverse the inequalities created by colonialism (especially in land redistribution) weren’t forthcoming and by 1990, after the ten year period of grace for the whites, Zimbabwe found itself in a shaky situation economically. The world had also moved on in that ten year period. Neo-liberal economics dominated and any money from the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank came with conditions – primarily the selling off of state enterprises and the opening up of the country to foreign interference, the unequal agreements that have caused havoc throughout the poorer parts of the world. A small group can benefit but society in general loses out. To his credit Mugabe resisted these pressures but it came at a cost.

When land redistribution became a major issue at the end of the 1990s the matter was pursued chaotically and on an individual basis. This taking back of the land should have occurred in the 1980s and in a structured manner, establishing something akin to collective/State farms on the bigger and most productive properties. Once capitalist property rights were challenged imperialism got together and imposed sanctions on the country in the hope that the colonies they once dominated could be brought under their control again.

But Mugabe stood out against this interference but by now the situation in the country was worsening. In isolation, all the other countries that had gained independence in the 1970s having fallen into the arms of imperialism earlier, Zimbabwe’s situation had no real way forward that would benefit the people of the country.

Opportunists saw their chance and when Mugabe made a silly political error they were ready to pounce. That brings us to the situation at the moment where Mugabe has just resigned as President. But this military and political coup was a long time in the planning, the rebels just waiting for an opportunity to take action. A simple look at the sort of professionally produced posters that were seen on the streets at the ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations over the weekend of the 18-19th November 2017 indicates that this crisis had been anticipated and prepared for long since.

Mugabe made many mistakes however he did maintain independence for his country, he didn’t cave in to international pressures (although he did look east towards capitalist China to help in recent years).

And it is here that we have the ‘end of another era’. The era of anti-colonialism, the era of independence for those countries that had thrown off the yolk of colonialism, the era when ordinary working people had the hope that freedom from white, European rule could mean they could take their fate into their own hands, that they could use the immense wealth of their countries for the betterment of themselves and their children.

Those that now hold the reigns of power, even if they were fighters in the Chimurenga, do not hold have a view of the future that is for the people. They are openly ‘free trade’ in their outlook and it will only be a matter of days before they are opening their country to the ravages of globalisation. State industries won’t stay in public hands for long and the ‘prosperity’ that might arrive in the future will be that for a selective view.

With the fall of Mugabe Africa no longer has a country which isn’t, in one form or another, under the control of those very forces so many fought against from the end of the 19th century, culminating in the liberation wars of the 1970s.

Those brave and courageous men and women who died thinking they did so for a better future have finally been betrayed by all the nations of the continent. What has happened in November 2017 is indeed an ‘end of an era’ – the end of an era where people were prepared to fight, and give their lives, for dignity, freedom and the right to determine their own future.

When shall we see their likes again?

 

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) – dir. Justin Chadwick

Sharpville Massacre May 1960

Sharpville Massacre May 1960

Considering that the period covered was one of the most dynamic and crucial in the development of Black Southern Africa the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom is remarkably pedestrian, slow, ponderous and ultimately unsatisfying. This isn’t surprising when you consider that the whole emphasis is placed on an individual with political events merely being a historical backdrop rather than looking at those events and analysing how any individual relates to the greater whole.

Being based on Mandela’s autobiography (of the same name) published in 1994 (a 750 pages doorstop that seems to have been his primary aim after release as he wrote this prior to his being elected South Africa’s first Black President in April 1994) this perhaps is not surprising but I would have thought that a film based in a period of massive upheaval and conflict should have recognised that social movements have a momentum of their own and that an individual’s role should be measured, for good or bad, in how it progresses that social movement.

The film is basically in three parts.

At the very beginning we are presented with an idealised childhood and youth in the South African bush. When he goes off to study at University Mandela’s wish is only to become a successful and wealthy lawyer. He’s a smart-arse lawyer and we are shown an episode in court where he wins a case by playing on the racism of a white woman. She is so disgusted at having to answer questions from a ‘kaffir’ and having to justify to him that a pair of knickers are hers that she walks out of the courtroom and the case collapses. So we are introduced to the Mandela who is a clever and astute lawyer.

But in this period he’s not especially interested in politics. This is the 1940s, before the formal establishment of Apartheid, and although the formal and legal institution of that system has yet to be written into law we are still dealing with a racist and segregated society. But Mandela, although having contact with the African National Congress (ANC), seems more concerned about using the pistol in his trousers than any true weapon against the State.

When, as a result of the openly racist National Party in the whites only election in 1948, strict segregation of the races is enforced and Mandela moves into a house in the Orlando township he is given a speech were it gives the impression that he is the only one who really understands what is going on in the country – here the film seems to play around with the timeline of events for dramatic effect. This establishes a theme that continues throughout the rest of the film, Mandela knows best, Mandela is the one who doesn’t break when the pressure is applied, Mandela is the clear and thoughtful leader who sees the future whilst others are lost in a wilderness. In this way any voices, either in agreement of otherwise are totally ignored.

We get the start of the hagiography that is the film with demonstrations of his ability as a public speaker, a demagogue who says what everyone else is afraid to say – and throughout the rest of the film very few significant statements are made by any of the other characters. In such street meetings the camera flashes to other ANC supporters who look concerned when Mandela makes a statement that might be construed as inflammatory and going too far and which might bring down the wrath and anger of the white racists. This despite the fact that the film, in an earlier scene, shows that many in the ANC were challenging the system BEFORE the active involvement of Mandela. He was not a leader from the off and, in fact, although not shown in the film, Mandela later became instrumental in side-lining the more radical elements within the movement.

Towards the end of this first third he develops as an egoist and self publicist having the newspaper cameras around when he burns his passbook. This follows the Sharpville massacre of May 1960 in which 69 people were butchered during a Pan-African Congress (PAC) organised protest against the obligatory carrying of identification papers. The PAC was much further to the left than the ANC and the two organisations vied for the mass support of the South African population. In those pictures he’s smiling as if it were yet another photo opportunity and demonstrates how he rode on the backs of others who had taken the initiative – not for the last time.

After Sharpville - Mandela burns his passbook

After Sharpville – Mandela burns his passbook

The only period in the whole of his life where Mandela might be vaguely considered to have followed a revolutionary road was during the first couple of years of the 1960s. Then he followed some military training in Algeria and this period saw the establishment of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, known in shorthand as MK), the military wing of the ANC. This organisation limited itself to sabotage activities in its beginning and rarely went much further for the rest of its existence and it was the activities of MK that led to the arrest and trial of Mandela and others from the ANC leadership.

Much has been made of Mandela’s closing speech at the Rivonia trial of 1964 where his last words were ‘it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die’. This was inspired by Fidel Castro’s speech after the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 7th 1953 and considered the start of the Cuban revolution. Castro’s last words were: ‘Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me’. (Don’t you ever get the impression they were speaking with history in mind rather than anything else?) It is true that they could have been sentenced to death at this trial but the Afrikaaners were to deny them their desire for martyrdom and instead sentenced them to life imprisonment. Fine, stirring and defiant these final words might have been but a better idea of Mandela’s political thinking, which he maintained till the end, can be understood if the whole of the speech is read, where, among other things he speaks of his admiration for the British establishment.

The second section of the film concerns his time in prison. Yet again all the other inmates become mere cyphers. For example, on arrival at Robben Island prison he is shown as the only one remaining defiant as when he shouts out ‘Amandla’ (meaning ‘power’) which would expect the reply ‘Awethu’ (‘to us’) Mandela’s call is met with total, demoralised, silence.

Being a prisoner was the most significant role that Mandela played in the South African liberation struggle and became the symbol for anti-Apartheid campaigns throughout the world. For 18 years he was isolated from the struggle like all the other prisoners on Robben Island and wasn’t aware of or in any way involved in the direction of the struggle as it intensified. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s one after another of the countries that had been dominated by European colonial powers gained their independence, often after bitter, bloody and determined armed struggles. It was in this way that Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola gained their freedom from direct foreign control (but not from international capitalist interference). Things were starting to get out of control in South Africa and fearing the country would move much further to the left after any possible victory in the liberation struggle Mandela was brought back into the political process to create division and promote moderation.

This very selection of someone who had been out of contact with the everyday struggle becoming the representative of the black population says a lot about the failure of the ANC to make any significant inroads during their so-called ‘armed struggle’.

This, third, section of the film plainly shows the attitude Mandela had to any sort of collective leadership and decision-making process. Probably the most significant discussion amongst his fellow prisoners and the clearest political stance (and the only one in the film) they took was totally ignored by Mandela. When they voted that he shouldn’t be meeting with the ‘The Boer’ leadership by himself his response was ‘I take note, comrades, but I will do what I think is right.’ He assumes the inalienable right to be the only capable of making the ‘correct’ decisions!

At the same time we are shown that he is becoming increasingly estranged from his second wife, Winnie Madikizela, who, living and fighting in the townships, had realised that the situation had changed radically from what it had been at the beginning of the 1960s when he had been tried and imprisoned.

In this third part of the film we see Mandela playing everything as a one man show. He calls for unity when it’s his ideas that are being challenged, using his international reputation to beat down his opponents. He accuses Winnie of not following the capitulation ANC leadership as she calls for the struggle to become a true armed struggle and not to continue to throw unarmed children in the battle against machine gun-toting thugs in armoured vehicles.

Despite this open individualism and depicting his political manoeuvring the film still arrives at the general consensus in the end, that of a patient, elder statesmen who considers that peace with the white oppressors is preferable to true liberation for the South African working class, both black and white.

It was for that reason he was so fêted at the end of last year after his death on 5th December. His legacy being a South Africa where the same political and economic forces are in control, albeit with some black faces feeding at the trough, and an increasingly desperate situation for the majority.