October 24, 2007

August 18, 2007—Lusaka, Zambia


The leafy avenues surrounding the Mulungushi International Conference Centre are spotless; pedestrian crossings have been handed a coat of paint and traffic islands host manicured grass patches. Today, many a Merc carrying many an African leader will travel these very streets. The national signature of Zambia, the pot hole, has therefore been addressed—giving these very streets a polka dot appeal with fresh gravel mounds.


Now travel south, 2300 km to be exact, to a rambling, dilapidated complex — one of many on the edges of Johannesburg city ghetto. Gideon Moyo, a 70-year-old Zimbabwean gentleman, and I are watching a computer on the floor of his bedsit. The place emits a rancid concoction of onions, shit, paraffin, mustard and wet towels (the suburb is too dangerous for garbage removals) and the only decorations are empty bottles of Camphor cream and a collection of multi-coloured African blankets.


Gideon Moyo, however, is no peasant. Once a manager, turned part owner of a successful private tobacco plantation in Rhodesia (then Zimbabwe) for 34 years, this black Zimbabwean can deliver a precise account of events leading to the Falklands War. He has advised the Sri Lankan government on tobacco cultivation and religiously polishes a set of Aspreys cufflinks he bought in London in 1981. Thanks to the modern wonders of instant RSS feeds, we can sit and shoot the breeze until we hear what we came for: the sound of African leaders finally, publicly — unanimously — rebuking Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe for, amongst other things, his tyrannical, murderous regime. Moyo is excited: he lifts the avocado curtain of the cubicle kitchen and puts the kettle on. While he is making instant coffee for two, the first feeds start coming through. They’re not what we hoped to read: “Mugabe receives standing ovation before summit commences,” one reports. In the kitchen Moyo is singing while he heaps the sugar into the mugs. It’s not even 10 am. There is a problem.


Moyo has his fair share of problems. More a soldier of the pen than a typical “war veteran,” Moyo entered the tobacco business in 1965. Moyo loathed the minority-led government of the Rhodesian Front and Ian Smith, but chose to oppose it quietly, intelligently. Working in a menial capacity, Moyo penned letters to newspapers by candlelight — letters that were posted by his sympathetic employers. The Rhodesia of then was vastly different from the Zimbabwe of today. Under Smith, whites held 95% of the political vote, yet were never more than 5% of the population. This flimsy grasp would prove impossible to sustain, regardless of Smith’s assertions that there was “nothing fundamentally racist in the Rhodesian Front’s policies.” When a black nationalist movement began in the early 1960s, comprised of both the majority Shona people and the minority Sindebele peoples, the prospect of self-determined African rule won Moyo’s loyalty. He went from writing letters to organizing.


Fast forward to the year 2003. The World Summit for Sustainable Development is taking centre stage in Sandton and the suburb, usually a hijacking hotspot, is abuzz with excitement — black excitement — because Robert Gabriel Mugabe will address a conference. But he won’t speak of “sustainable development”—a prospect that has become nearly impossible, due to a ludicrous policy masquerading as “land reform.” Instead he’ll use the platform to call Tony Blair a homosexual and Colin Powell a “sell-out.” He’ll receive another standing ovation. What you won’t know is that the land he represents is in dire straits, and not just because of a crippling drought. Of the 11 million hectares that used to produce 40% of this country’s GDP, nearly all of it will soon lie barren. South Africa’s black politicians cheer: “That’s right, Mugabe. You tell them.”


Once the “bread basket of Africa,” Zimbabwe today is a rape victim, a cripple, a subject of its own persecution—a dirty, belligerent vagrant. Inflation stands officially at nearly 8000% (unofficially its more like 12,000%). Its ruling party politicians are little more than smiling, corrupt goons in cheap green suits who threaten the international community, claiming that they’re the victims of conspiracies manufactured in London or Langley.


But Robert Mugabe hates black people more than the most technical architects of apartheid ever could and he’s never been shy about demonstrating it. From 1982-1985, he waged a full scale slaughter against the minority Ndebele people that saw mass graves holding some 20,000 dead. To this murder campaign he gave a colorful, upbeat name — Gukurahundi — meaning “the early rains that washes the chaff away.” In 2005, he launched yet another attack on black Zimbabwean peasants — Murambatsvai — “Operation Clean Out The Trash,” leaving over 10,000 supporters of the opposition MDC homeless. But these are mere details: for the man fresh from the Adolf Hitler school of grooming, Robert Mugabe has relentlessly pursued a course in convincing the world that the devil is white and European, and thus his greatest accomplishment is to have earned the recognition of his blinded peers at the cost of the dreams of good men like Gideon Moyo.


Mugabe claims that his land reforms reward heroic “war veterans.” This is nothing more than a colorful attempt to appropriate a rich, struggle-based history. The Lancaster House Agreements of 1979 (which brought Mugabe to power) were characterized by ‘willing seller, willing buyer’ covenant, supported by both parties. This peaceful transfer of power, which protected much private property, was merely a political smokescreen—as Mugabe would make clear in 1999. In that year, restless “war veterans” and disaffected youths began to demand white land for themselves, and threatened to upset the fascist ocotgenarian’s fragile and increasingly unpopular control. To appease them, Mugabe dreamed up what we know today as “land reform,” launching a series of lawless invasions of productive private farms. Mugabe’s local supporters and other African leaders were duly impressed. To them it didn’t matter a sausage that Mugabe is a murderous despot who systemically butchers his own people. No, so long as white farmers were dispossessed (and a handful murdered) Mugabe qualified as a leader.


By 2000, things got even uglier. One morning Gideon Moyo woke up to find his own home surrounded by chanting youths, led by an aging invalid on crutches wearing torn blue overalls. His once employers — now partners — had successfully managed to obtain three court orders from a magistrate in Harare supporting their title to the farm, but this mattered nothing to the frenzied invaders. Two months and countless attacks later — including one in which a packing shed was destroyed by fire — Moyo was left with two choices: leave and live or stay and die. He moved into a small flat in Harare and wondered what to do next. He made the mistake of joining the divided, ineffective opposition MDC—and by 2002, Moyo had been locked up, his wife threatened with rape and his children with death. He fled to South Africa, his wife to Wales and his children to various parts of the UK. Ironically, the very land Moyo once farmed is today owned by one of Mugabe’s chief enforcers in the Gukurahundi murder campaign.


The best index by which to compare the governments of Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe is not to be found in the “Intelligence Squared” debates in civilized SW1 surroundings, nor in the speeches of Gordon Brown, Peter Thatchell or Peter Hain.


The touchstone of the two regimes is a simple loaf of bread, the staple diet for most of this continent. Under Ian Smith, buying bread was as easy as dreaming about an end to his minority rule. In less than 10 years, Mugabe managed to forge both land and food into political weapons. His gangs of drunken youth militias hoarded food supplies from road blocks into warehouses—but nowadays, not even they can afford it. Instead, white volunteers in blue vests distribute flour and grain at aid points. “I hate to say it,” Moyo admits, “but Ian Smith would never have allowed such anarchy.” Ironically, Smith was something of an African patriot—to the point where he wouldn’t have dreamed of looting his government for private gain. If we judge him by his actions, Mugabe hates Africa—which is why he has allowed his nefarious cabinet to pillage his corner of the continent.


Moyo understands this all too well, explaining to me: “Most of the ‘sanctions’ are travel bans aimed at stopping Mugabe and his ilk from entering Europe.” Even as he cannot stop sniping at the West, Mugabe revels in Eurocentric accoutrements—wearing suits from Saville Row, unleashing his wife at Harrods, and decorating his house with images of the English countryside in summer. Indeed, many a critic has suggested that Mugabe’s resentment stems from envy—that for some reason, Mugabe wishes he were white.


Such speculations seem beside the point here in Yeoville, the crime ridden near-wasteland where Gideon Moyo finds himself a reluctant resident. Our day ends walking to a Congolese bar, where Moyo sits and stares into a pitcher of whiskey. Prior to Operation “Clean Out The Trash,” Moyo had never so much as touched a glass of harmless cider. Now he’s a raging alcoholic, too frightened to acknowledge the Nigerian peddlars, whores and merchants who surround him and whom he secretly despises. Earlier, he told me he wanted a gun for protection but I worry about him carrying one—since he’s rarely sober. A group of young African girls walk past us and seat themselves in front of a television where the ANC-partial South African State Broadcasting is showing scenes from the South African Development Conference, adorned with magical phrases such as: “There was an overall feeling of tremendous success,” and “There is a feeling that SADC is making enormous achievements.” Robert Mugabe appears on screen and the girls chuckle. “He’s my hero,” one of the girls says.


Moyo, two whiskeys later, cannot ignore it: “Tell me, my child” he says, leaning across, “is a hero a man who plays Russian Roulette with his own people, before he murders his own country?” The girl jumps out of her seat and rushes to our table. “Old man, this is not Russia. Fuck off.” She sticks her finger into his chest and swaggers off to the shrieking encouragement of her friends. At the best of times, this area is not suitable for young white men, but now it’s a dangerous place for old black men, too.


Mention these bare facts to Polly Toynbee and her neo-liberal brigade and you’ll probably be shouted down and called a bigot. Mention this to Thabo Mbeki and his clique of black racists and they’ll evade, stutter and potter around irrelevant (but always useful) excuses such as “colonialism.” Mention this to the sons of Zimbabwean cabinet ministers (one recently expelled from a university in Australia for assaulting a female student) and you’ll probably be threatened.


Statistics I’ve heard estimate that the odds of being shot in Johannesburg are so high that it is only a matter of time. Neither of us are in the mood to test this theory, so we depart. En route back to his complex, Moyo talks about the inevitable celebrations in surgically enhanced Lusaka. “It’s ironic,” he says. “We also dreamed of celebrating when Ian Smith’s power began to crack. We were so galvanized that we said things like, ‘It’s better to die believing.’”


Tomorrow, Moyo will wake up and like the thousands of black and white dispersed Zimbabweans. Mugabe has left them nothing more than such slogans. One day Robert Mugabe, like Ian Smith, will relinquish power. With the latter’s departure, however, belief in change was born. When Mugabe eventually goes, one wonders whether there’ll be anything left to believe in.


Postscript, 28 September 2007: Since this article was written, Gideon Moyo was attacked by a group of men who broke down the door of his flat. The Zimbabwean Consulate has refused to divulge any information as to whether its intelligence operatives are working in South Africa. Moyo’s broken leg is in plaster, but his spirits are good: On Friday, October 12, Moyo will travel to Canada, where he intends to apply for full political asylum.


Simon Reader was born in South Africa. He has served as an international consultant to the U.S. Department of Defence and the U.S. National Institute of Health, and worked with MTV Viacom and the governments of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. He currently serves as chairman of Ballet Africa, and is a senior student of Kung Fu. Image courtesy of Oracle Syndicate.


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