Jun 21, 2005

Zimbabwe and Revolutionaries Who Lose Their Way

Last Friday, I listened to a program on the Brian Lehrer Show on NPR, in which he was speaking with journalist Andrew Meldrum, who has recently written a book called Where We Have Hope about Robert Mugabe's reign in Zimbabwe, which can be listened to in its entirety here. I was riveted by the broadcast - first because Brian Lehrer is bright, an excellent interviewer, and has enough time to explore issues with more depth than the traditional news report of 1,500 words or 3 minutes.

More importantly, I was reminded that as a product of the education system of the United States, and the choices that I have made to dig deeper in particular areas of United States and world history, I have a very limited frame of reference regarding most African and South/Central American anti-colonial struggles, as well as current political climates around most of the world. It is not for lack of interest now - but I almost feel like I need time and determination to delve into primers to buttress my less than adequate knowledge base.

In Zimbabwe, Mugabe was part of the anti-colonial movement and eventually became Prime Minister and then President. Mugabe has initiated a very controversial and violent land reform movement, to redistribute the land (70% of which was held by a fraction of the population, the descendants of the original white settlers). As Meldrum mentions, the land reform resulted in the distribution of the land to the elite, rather than the peasant farmers.

It seems like this is a case of what we've seen again and again: the idealistic, iconoclastic, charismatic leader of the people's movement bought into the cult of personality, drank from the chalice of power, and started consolidating the channels of control, shutting down the outlets of dissent, and becoming the dictator that he seemed ideologically opposed to in the first place. Perhaps they realize at some point that democracy is a messy thing in which consensus development takes too long and results in less than ideal decisions (at least from the point of view of the "leader"). Perhaps they grow too accustomed to their identification with the people's movement - buying into the world distillation of great revolutions into soundbites and individual leaders - to the point where the sacrifices and losses of the people are washed out in the white noise of personal achievement.

What is very interesting, however, especially in this broadcast, which can be downloaded (or podcast)1, is that despite the state policies that abuse the human rights of their people, and the mismanagement of the Zimbabwe economy, Mugabe is actually still held with high regard by many world leaders (although, of course, he is now on the Bush Administration's new hitlist - the Outposts of Tyranny)2.

The questionable American moral highground aside, even South African leader Thabo Mbeki, is still supportive of Mugabe. Meldrum assigned this position to the reluctance to proclaim that a former liberation leader is now a despot, especially for Mbeki, who is part of a former liberation movement. No one wants to create a guilty by association scenario, though I can't imagine South Africa being in the same boat as other nations in Africa, or even the world, given the way that the ANC and others have handled the end of apartheid and the reconciliation of a population that's been through so much.

After all - radicals in the U.S. sometimes wave Fidel Castro in the face of American imperial/neocolonial tendencies, but Castro is not really a revolutionary anymore. He's more or less irrelevant, removed from his revolutionary beginnings as the reality of running Cuba and navigating between the third world/non-aligned movement, and his strategic relationship with the USSR have worn down both he and the vision of a truly different world. He is now further isolated as some of the remaining communist governments, namely China and Vietnam, are warming their ties with the United States and embracing more bold forms of capitalism. The point is - he represented hope as a revolutionary, but no matter what he did in the 50s and early 60s, he has suppressed his people, been responsible for the imprisonment, torture, and death of countless dissenters, and torn the population, both in Cuba and in the diaspora, apart politically, between those who are strongly opposed to him (and have extended this to include all left-of-center ideology, leading to the well-known Cuban Republican phenomenon) and those who are more supportive of his stand against the United States, and commitment to socialist ideals of education and health care for most of the population.

Anyway - the point is, are there revolutionaries who we can point to who don't fall into the trap of tossing out the old power structure, but then repeating the sins of former leaders, or worse, creating a more totalitarian or oppressive regime? I know of very few - either they are taken from us too early, or they haven't "won" in their revolutions and are still fighting, or they become despots or dictators. Where is the hope? Perhaps that's why South Africa is so amazing...


[1] Though I can't do that yet, since I don't have Mac OS 10.3 or higher. The lovable bastards at Apple keep coming up with cool innovations in their operating system, but I can't afford to upgrade every year, my machine doesn't have the skull to tolerate more complicated brainware, and I haven't found my community of friends to do a little trading on the side. Yet.

[2] The list, which includes Cuba, Burma, and Belarus, also has two oldies but goodies, namely Iran and North Korea. Do you really think that they won't be attacking either in the near future?


someone else said...

"are there revolutionaries who we can point to who don't fall into the trap of tossing out the old power structure, but then resorting to repeating the sins of former leaders, or worse, creating a more totalitarian or oppressive regime?"

Vaclav Havel, maybe? I know they're infrequently out there...they just tend to be poets or preachers in power rather than politicians :)

Rage said...

Excellent reference. Thanks for the tip - I read more about Havel. I know that there have to be others out there, but it's slim pickings!

Rage said...

In case anyone wants to see more of what's happening in Zimbabwe - here's a before/after picture of the recent razing of a shantytown of ~200,000 residents.

someone else said...

Also, I think this underlines the real point, which is that revolutionary changes that actually help people don't come from a person from the top instigating change, but the development of a system that calls people at the top, regardless of who they are, to account. Of course a person at the top, regardless of their prior history, can help that along (like Gorbachev, sort of, although the end results don't seem to be too good). But to some degree, I think that the culture of a place will dictate the political system in the long run unless significant changes are made to the ways in which people interact with each other and the state; I think that's why so many "revolutions" fall into tyranny or revert back to the values of the preexisting system in one guise or another.

But just to add to the list, Marcos of the Zapatistas is a favorite among bourgie civil-society "lefists" like me :) I don't know enough about him though.

Rage said...

I definitely hear you on that. I mean - it's more a question about how people who are placed as the face of a movement are human, and usually are not able to transcend the allure of being the spokesperson for the people.

someone else said...

"people who are placed as the face of a movement are human, and usually are not able to transcend the allure of being the spokesperson for the people"

yeah, as well as the huge salaries, the perqs, the total lack of accountability because they haven't been involved in bottom-up movement building work (sounds like a queer movement :) and, above all, the amount of conrol and power they have over everyone else.

to err is human, to rule is diabolically calculating.

Rage said...

Well - huge salaries may not actually be the case for everyone - but I hear what you're saying. Also - I don't know if we're talking about the same folks - because there are quite a few folks who were involved in movement building and liberation, but then got sucked into the power game.

I was thinking about actors on the global scene more than the five-and-dime folks in professional non-profit-land.