August 20, 2007

Lil' Bob and the ZimZam Twins

Writing about Zimbabwe this past week has been as fun as it has frustrating. Because as funny as it is to hear Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe proclaim to be "bringing sanity to the pricing arena" or fighting "the brazen imperialist conspiracy," it's deflating to know that too many Africans still believe him.

Zambians have a better vantage point than most, perched atop a long land border with Zimbabwe, sharing Victoria Falls and a colonial heritage as the twin Rhodesias. Having a something of a inferiority complex, Zambians still look south with jealousy. After all, Zimbabwe used to be known as the Bread Basket of Africa and had infrastructure to rival South Africa, even if its independence struggle was considerably messier.

“Zambians are just traders,” a co-worker informs me, as we discuss Zimbabwe over lunch. “Zimbabweans are producers. It’s better there, even now. I know it,” he declares with authority.

It’s easy to see how the perception can be skewed. Zimbabweans that make their way to Lusaka are often economic migrants that cross the border, make money and go home. When I go to see a home available for rent, a stylish Zimbabwean landlady picks me up in her sleek SUV, esoteric computer built into the dashboard. An interior designer, she wants to furnish the place with an African feng shui philosophy.

As she drops me off, reality kicks back in when she receives a disturbing phone call. Her friend, a civil rights activist, has been detained by the Zambian police for printing a protest banner at the local office supply store. During last week’s Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) summit, organizers were careful not to let anyone interrupt the careful stage-management of their flaccid debate on Zimbabwe.

Make the perfunctory pronouncements on finding a regional solution. Vaguely acknowledge something generally not good is happening in the country. Let Mugabe do his routine. Agree with him that Zimbabwe will never again be a colony. Don’t ask why he feels the need to keep restating that stupidly obvious fact.

It didn’t make sense to me. Why would SADC leaders allow one of its most prosperous countries (not a long list) to fester and threaten the stability of the entire region? How can you call 5,000 refugees a week ‘economic migrants?’ Why couldn’t they call for regime change when Mugabe’s has already threatened to sic his youth militias on anyone “disrupting” next year’s to-be-rigged presidential elections? When Weimar Republic-type inflation is so bad Zimbabweans are looking to Zambia as a promised land?

Judging by Mugabe’s rapturous audience at the summit, the answer is obvious: his anti-colonial card is still trump. Even leaders who are blatantly pro-Western, like Zambia’s, dare not swim against the tide of populism. Michael Sata, the leader of the opposition here, nearly won the last year’s election on an anti-Western/China platform.

To most Africans outside Zimbabwe he’s still the formerly-imprisoned hero of the independence era, whatever his faults. Like Nelson Mandela minus the magnanimity of forgiving one’s oppressors and moving forward in a spirit of reconciliation. As South Africa prepares to host the World Cup as the pinnacle of sub-Saharan achievement, and as Zimbabwe slides further into chaos, the value of getting over colonialism will become even more obvious.

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