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Zimbabwe and the Question of Imperialism: A Discussion

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In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe has come under widespread criticism for refusing to cancel a runoff election scheduled for Friday. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai won the first round of elections in March but withdrew from the runoff late last week. He has sought refuge in the Dutch embassy in Harare out of what he says is concern for his life. We host a discussion on Zimbabwe with University of Houston professor Gerald Horne, author of From the Barrel of a Gun: The United States and the War against Zimbabwe, 1965-1980, and Syracuse University professor Horace Campbell, whose latest article is titled “Pan-Africanists: Our Collective Duty to Zimbabwe.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We move now from Iraq to Zimbabwe. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, criticism of Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe and the actions of his ruling Zanu-PF party is growing. The most recent condemnation comes from former South African president Nelson Mandela, who mourned the, quote, “tragic failure of leadership” in Zimbabwe on Wednesday. They were the former leader’s first comments on the situation. President Bush also criticized Mugabe Wednesday for defying international pressure to cancel a runoff election scheduled for Friday.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Friday’s elections, you know, appear to be a sham. You can’t have free elections if a candidate is not allowed to campaign freely and his supporters aren’t allowed to campaign without fear of intimidation. Yet the Mugabe government has been intimidating the people on the ground in Zimbabwe. And this is an incredibly sad development. I hope that the EU — AU will, at their meeting this weekend, continue to highlight the illegitimacy of the elections, continue to remind the world that this election is not free and is not fair.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai won the first round of elections in March but withdrew from the runoff late on Sunday and sought refuge in the Dutch embassy in Harare out of what he says is concern for his safety. On Wednesday, he called for the African Union, backed the United Nations, to lead a, quote, “transitional process” in Zimbabwe. He also emphasized that Friday’s vote would not be recognized.

MORGAN TSVANGIRAI: That our decision to pull out of this shame election was in the best interests of the people of Zimbabwe. Any election conducted arrogantly, unilaterally on Friday will not be recognized by the MDC, by Zimbabweans and by the world over.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But Zimbabwe’s electoral commission has ruled that Tsvangirai’s withdrawal from the election last Sunday was filed too late and has no legal force. Meanwhile, at least 300 Harare residents have taken shelter from the political violence at the South African embassy.

HARARE RESIDENT: My house is destroyed to ground level. And my whole property has been destroyed and looted. And my family — I don’t know where is my family right now. Here I’m alone. My wife — I don’t know where is my wife, my kids.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we host a discussion on Zimbabwe. We’re joined in Washington, DC, by Professor Gerald Horne, chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston and the author of numerous books, including From the Barrel of a Gun: The United States and the War against Zimbabwe, 1965-1980. Joining us on the phone from Syracuse is Professor Horace Campbell. He’s professor of African American Studies and Politics at Syracuse University in New York, has written extensively about Pan-Africanism and Zimbabwe.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I want to begin with Gerald Horne in Washington. Can you talk about what’s happening in Zimbabwe and the coverage of it, how we understand what’s happening in Zimbabwe in the United States?

GERALD HORNE: Well, obviously, what’s happening in Zimbabwe is quite tragic, and I would hope that some of the sympathy that has been extended to Zimbabwe could be extended as well to other African nations that do not have white minorities. I mean, for example, the statement condemning or questioning the Zimbabwean elections emerged from Swaziland, a southern African nation that is one of the last absolute monarchies on this small planet. Some might well question why isn’t Swaziland’s human rights situation being interrogated and investigated? A scant year ago in Nigeria, the continent’s giant, you had shambolic elections, with hundreds killed, yet that barely registered a blip on the international media, at least not in the North Atlantic. Many talk, perhaps understandably, about the fact that President Mugabe has served as president since 1980, but what about Omar Bongo of Gabon, a close ally of the United States, an oil-rich country in West Africa, which, of course, he has served as president since 1967, thirteen years before Mugabe came into power? I mean, I could go on in this vein, but I think that the fact that thousands were killed in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, and yet he received a virtual knighthood from Queen Elizabeth and received an honorary degree from the University of Massachusetts, and yet, today, in 2008, he is a subject of international scorn, after, of course, he expropriates some white farmers, really bespeaks a very profound racism in terms of how this issue has been covered in the North Atlantic media.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Horace Campbell, I’d like to ask about this issue. It does seem that the Western media did not focus on Zimbabwe at all until the expropriations began of land. But does that deal with — the land of the white minority there. But does that deal with the underlying class conflicts that are obviously clearly percolating in reaching a head right now in the country?

HORACE CAMPBELL: Well, thank you for having me on. And first of all, I would say that this platform on Democracy Now! is a platform for the progressives, the left, and those who are involved in the peace movement. So our discussions on what’s going on in Zimbabwe or any other part of Africa should be guided by how our solidarity with the peoples of Zimbabwe, with the oppressed workers of southern Africa, and in all parts of Africa, can assist our own struggle in this country against all forms of oppression. And so, comparing Zimbabwe’s oppression with other oppression in Africa does not excuse the oppression of the Zimbabwean people by any means. I think Gerald is very right about these oppressions across Africa, but organizations in this country that are in solidarity with the peace movement across the world ,that are in solidarity with the Zimbabwean people, should take the cue from the Congress of South African Trade Union that is calling for a blockade of Zimbabwe because of the oppression.

And I think what distinguished Zimbabwe from those countries that Gerald speaks about is that none of those countries is representing themselves as being in the forefront of liberation. Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF started out like they were Lumumba in the Congo, and they ended up like Mobutu, killing from the people, arresting opposition leaders, killing people, calling homosexual “pigs” and “dogs,” and killing hundreds, tens of thousands of people. Eighty percent of the Zimbabwean people are now unemployed, while the Zimbabwe stock exchange is the most successful in Africa.

We on the left, in the peace movement, we acknowledge that George Bush nor Brown have any moral authority to criticize Zimbabwe, because of the unjust war that they are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. But having said that, we on the left and the progressives, we must take the moral leadership in having solidarity with those opposition leaders, those workers, those human rights workers in Zimbabwe and southern Africa who are being oppressed by the Mugabe government.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response, Gerald Horne?

GERALD HORNE: Well, I think there is much to recommend, what Horace Campbell said. But as a taxpayer to this government here in Washington, my first approach must be to this regime of George W. Bush. And I think we have to question the hypocrisy of George Bush, who has engaged in questionable elections in Florida and Ohio, questioning the legitimacy of the elections in Zimbabwe.

But more than that, if the situation in Zimbabwe is so terrible — and I agree that it is — well, why is it that the Bush administration continues to send undocumented Zimbabwe workers back to Zimbabwe? There has been talk about a so-called genocide unfolding in Zimbabwe, yet you see the Gordon Brown administration in London not giving asylum to Zimbabwe workers who are exiled now in London.

We talk about the Mugabe regime, but just the other day it was revealed that Anglo American, the major transnational corporation with close South African ties and headquartered in London, is about to make a $400 million investment in Zimbabwe. Barclays Bank is in Zimbabwe. Rio Tinto-Zinc, the major minerals conglomerate, is in Zimbabwe. It seems to me that in the first place, we in the North Atlantic should be focusing on these kinds of contradictions that we can affect and, as the African National Congress has said, leave Zimbabwe to the Zimbabwean peoples themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to a break and then come back to this discussion. Our guest in Washington, Professor Gerald Horne, professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, he has lived in Zimbabwe. Professor Horace Campbell also joins us, professor of African American Studies at Syracuse University. We’ll be back with them both in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about Zimbabwe. Professor Gerald Horne of the University of Houston is in Washington. Professor Horace Campbell of African American Studies and Political Science at Syracuse University is speaking to us from Syracuse. If you could respond, Professor Campbell, to what Gerald Horne said before the break.

HORACE CAMPBELL: Yes, I want to reiterate the point that any kind of political work we do on Zimbabwe should assist us in educating our people here, so that when the Zimbabwean political leadership represents itself to say that it is being persecuted because it expropriated the land of the former white settlers, we have to interrogate what does the expropriation of the land mean for the millions of Zimbabweans workers, small farmers. It is very clear that the Zimbabwean people needed to reclaim the land from the white settlers. But the Mugabe government, when he was receiving his knighthood from the British government, never negotiated about the land when he was getting his knighthood, because throughout the period from 1980 to 1992, Zimbabwe had the legal powers to be able to set in motion the possibilities for strengthening the working peoples, the farm workers, the women, the plantation and agricultural workers.

And when we speak about land, we must understand that whether the land is owned by white farmers or black farmers, the fundamental productivity on the land emanates from the labor of the working peoples. So our task is, how is it we should defend the working peoples of Zimbabwe, the hundreds of thousands of workers who live under conditions of wretchedness, who have been exploited by the black capitalist farmers who are in the Zimbabwean government, just as the whites have done? So any kind of transition in Zimbabwe must involve strengthening the rights of the workers, the women, and the use in Zimbabwe. I think that what Gerald said should throw away all of the talk about Mugabe being against imperialism, because it was very clear that Anglo American, Barclays Bank, Rio Tinto and diamond dealers have made billions of dollars while Mugabe was talking about the land. And what we’re calling for is for any transitional period in Zimbabwe to be one where there is intervention by the African Union so that that theft of billions that have been carried out by the clique around the ruling elements in Zimbabwe, that we do not have them carrying out repression of the workers with impunity and then stealing the money, as they have done the past eight to ten years.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Gerald Horne, I’d like to ask you, obviously Mugabe has been an icon and a hero, a giant in terms of the liberation movements in Africa for decades. But your sense now? Do you believe that he still represents any forces for progress in Africa, or has he gradually transformed himself into a dictator?

GERALD HORNE: Well, I think that President Mugabe is a force to be reckoned with in Zimbabwe. And I agree with those leaders in the region who feel that he and his party must be contended with, if there is to be a settlement of this controversy in Zimbabwe.

I should also say that with regard to Professor Campbell, I’m here not to carry a brief for Zanu-PF, but they have argued that they did not move on land reform before 1994, i.e. the date of the South African elections, so as not to unsettle the situation in neighboring South Africa, which of course has outstanding land claims of its own. We all know that there have been more white farmers killed in South Africa than have been killed in Zimbabwe. And likewise, of course, there are outstanding land claims in neighboring Namibia, as well.

I think it’s understandable why there is a focus on Zanu-PF. After all, it’s the ruling party. But standing in the wings is the opposition, the MDC. And sadly and unfortunately, there has not been considerable focus on them, such as their leaders. Roy Bennett, a top leader, a former major land owner in Zimbabwe, who of course throttled an African on the floor of the Zimbabwean parliament — I would have thought that that kind of behavior would have ended in independence in 1980. You have other leading Rhodesians in the leadership of MDC. And one of the things that worries many of us is that if MDC does come to power, there will be a split, and quite frankly, they will pave the way for the rise of certain retrograde elements, like Roy Bennett, to come back into power. In some ways, MDC, a trade union-led movement, is akin to Solidarity in Poland, which of course paved the way for the present right-wing leadership in Poland to come to power in Warsaw.

So we have to be very careful when we try to butt in to the internal affairs of a sovereign state. I think our energies would be better served by putting pressure on this government here in Washington and its comical sidekick in London.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Horace Campbell?

HORACE CAMPBELL: Well, the intellectual subservience of the MDC and the leadership of the MDC is clear to most workers in southern Africa. But at this point in the history of Zimbabwe, the MDC does not have political power. The social forces that are organized in Zimbabwe against the government have thrown their weight behind the MDC at the present moment — the women, Women of Zimbabwe Arise, these are independent organizations, Padare, the workers, agricultural and plantation workers. And I think we do not have the right to say to the Zimbabwean workers that “You are under oppression, and therefore we should decide for you that because of the history of Mugabe’s relationship to the liberation movement twenty-eight years ago, then we should be saying to you what your choices should be.” In southern Africa, the Congress of South African Trade Union movement has called for a blockade of the Zimbabwean government and the Zimbabwe leadership, and the Congress of South African Trade Union, which is the largest trade union movement in southern Africa, is a movement which is calling for the isolation of Mugabe government.

What we agree with Gerald on is the following: that the land question in southern Africa is an urgent question in the media, in South Africa and in Zimbabwe. But having said that, we must learn lessons from Zimbabwe. To say that when land is being reclaimed, it should not be reclaimed for rich black farmers to replace white farmers. Land, when it is being reclaimed in South Africa or Nambia, should be reclaimed in a condition where there is health and safety conditions for the working peoples. So yes, we should take lessons from Zimbabwe, and we should introduce new politics in southern Africa that is coming out of the politics of reconciliation, that no concept of victory should be victory which gives power to one group over another. There should be ways in which the transition towards a new political dispensation in southern Africa is one that strengthens the producing classes, the workers, the small farmers, students. And these are the forces that have been repressed, brutalized.

The trade union leaders that are in jail right now in Zimbabwe should be released. Opposition leaders should be released. Women should be released. Human rights workers should be released. So that, yes, we can criticize the leadership of the MDC, and I have done so in my writing, in my book Reclaiming Zimbabwe. But the government of Zimbabwe must now arise in a situation where we provide leadership in a condition where 80 percent of the people are unemployed, where women have been persecuted as prostitutes when they walk on the streets, where homosexuals have been called “pigs” and “dogs,” and where men go around trying to have sexual relations with young virgins, saying that this would prevent HIV/AIDS. We need a new political leadership to go against this kind of backwardness that came out of the kind of patriarchal leadership that we had under Zanu-PF for the past twenty-eight years.

AMY GOODMAN: We wanted to bring South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu into this. He also came out forcefully against the violence and intimidation in Zimbabwe. Speaking in Cape Town Tuesday, he warned Mugabe should bend to international pressure or could risk facing universal sanctions and being brought before an International Criminal Court.

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU: We are seeing a country not just steadily, but rapidly going down the precipice into chaos. The international community should, I believe, have intervened long ago, when some of us appealed for a peacekeeping force to ensure that people were not intimidated, people were not attacked, and that the conditions for a free and fair election would then have been sustained. Now, I think, obviously, the efforts should continue where we are hoping against hope that good sense might get to prevail and Mr. Mugabe would agree that really his time is up. It’s twenty years or more, I mean, that he has been head of state. I think, I mean, that they’ve got to tell him, you know, that he still has the chance of a reasonably soft landing. But if he continues and everybody decides to brand his administration illegitimate, then he stands a very, very good chance of being arraigned before the ICC for human rights violations.

AMY GOODMAN: Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Gerald Horne, your response both to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Professor Campbell?

GERALD HORNE: Well, obviously, we have enormous respect for Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But I must return to the question that should occupy us in the North Atlantic, which is, why is it that Zimbabwe gets so much focus and attention on this side of the Atlantic, when Paul Biya, the leader of Cameroon, a few weeks ago basically makes himself president for life and it barely registers a blip? A similar situation unfolding in Uganda with Yoweri Museveni.

I think that part of the reason is not only the race and racism question, but it’s also the question that many of the former Rhodesians have kith and kin on the side of the Atlantic — the spouse of Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State; the spouse of Chester Crocker, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa under the Reagan administration; even some relatives, distant relatives of George Washington, for whom this city in which I’m sitting is named. Ian Smith, the former Rhodesian leader, of course, had relatives in San Diego. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of white mercenaries from the United States who flocked to Rhodesia in the 1970s and the 1980s to fight against liberation of that particular country. And it befuddles and baffles me why this kind of basic historical background is not integrated into the conversation, integrated into the discourse on Zimbabwe. I think it gives a very bad impression on the African continent, which leads many Africans to consider that there is only focus in the North Atlantic on Zimbabwe because there is a white minority, and that perhaps helps to explain why there has been such a lethargy, perhaps, in responding to some of the human rights violations that are unfolding in Zimbabwe. And until that kind of situation is rectified, I dare say that there will continue to be an unsettled situation in Zimbabwe.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Gerald, all that being true — and we clearly recognize that disparity in approach and coverage — back in 2005, there were massive forced relocations of hundreds of thousands of people by the Mugabe government that really stunned people, even in the progressive community here in the United States who supported — who have supported Mugabe in the past. Your response to those relocations and, again, to the issue of whether the government has increasingly become iron-handed and dictatorial in dealing with its own people?

GERALD HORNE: Well, those dislocations were tragic and unfortunate. And I know about them, because I hail from St. Louis, Missouri. And, of course, it used to be said, with regard to that city and many other cities, that urban renewal meant Negro removal. That kind of a situation is not unique to Zimbabwe. In Casamance region of Senegal, as we speak, there have been tens of thousands of Africans who have been displaced because of a civil conflict that stretches back twenty-five years. It’s barely registered a blip on the international press screen. So, yes, those situations that you refer to in Zimbabwe are quite tragic and unfortunate, and they need to be criticized, as well as other analogous situations. And when those analogous situations are not criticized, it basically provides fodder for those who would like to downplay the situation in Zimbabwe.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Horace Campbell, we just have about thirty seconds. Your response and your summary?

HORACE CAMPBELL: My response is that the government of Senegal, the government of Cameroon, does not represent itself as a liberation government. The Zimbabwean government is very aware of the racism that exists in North America, and it’s exploiting that racism and the anti-racist sentiment among Africans in the West in order to legitimize its repression on the people. The government of Zimbabwe at this moment is illegitimate. We must avoid war at all costs. Mugabe says only God can remove him, and he will go to war. At present, he is at war against the Zimbabwean people, and we must end the silence in the progressive and Pan-African community against this kind of manipulation and repression in the name of liberation.

AMY GOODMAN: We leave it there. Professor Horace Campbell of Syracuse University and Professor Gerald Horne of Houston University, thanks so much for joining us.

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