Robert Frost was correct (and thank goodness) when he wrote: “George Washington was one of the few men in all of human
history who was not carried away by power.” George Washington was not without sin, but I must congratulate him for refusing a third term as president of the United States. Although it was offered, Washington seemed to realize the value of changing leadership to promote constant renewal in government. His humble perspective laid a foundation for our new republic that has continued successfully for over 200 years.
As American citizens, our historical heroes of colonial times are idealistically remote, with only their legacy remaining in our Constitution and our grade school history books. Our current critiques of their follies are much removed from their living presence.
America has provided strong but distant heroes who are difficult to relate to as anything more than a face on our coinage and current “heroes” who through social rules garner respect regardless of whether or not we agree with the actions that made them a “hero.” With these two points in mind, I want to think more about the heroes of post-colonial times in Africa.
Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, is a true present-day hero to many Africans, despite the fact that he has led the country for almost three decades. Zimbabwe has gone from the route of a newly independent well-paved highway of development onto a quickly deteriorating dirt path of economic failure and disastrous human rights abuses. The economy is in shambles. Unemployment hovers around 80%, and one can note a staggering 20 year drop in life expectancy since Mugabe took office 27 years ago.
The title “hero against colonialism” creates a mentality that has pacified many who would have normally looked for alternatives. Colonialism is viewed as the wrong of all wrongs in Africa and freedom from that concept holds great meaning. Colonial history tends to paint Western nations as evil and exploitative, imperialistic and manipulative. On the other hand, the founding fathers like Obote in Uganda, Kaunda in Zambia, and Mugabe are seen as the source of freedom. These are current heroes who inspire many to believe in a constant “fight against colonialism.” In spite of extremely poor conditions and standards of living, this ideal has impeded on many nations’ ability to move forward into a new era. Just like our inability to criticize our “heroes against terrorism,” many find it difficult in Africa to downplay the significance of “heroes against colonialism.”
Mugabe’s strength has been underestimated in the past, and unfortunately those who now offer counteraction to Mugabe or the Zanu-PF party are labeled “terrorists.” Even non-opposition groups, including religious groups, individuals, journalists, and NGOs, have been branded as political and therefore, according to Mugabe, “should be prepared to face the wrath of the state.” These groups are still providing as much resistance as possible without completely exposing themselves to harm.
In May, Tiseke Kasambala, a Human Rights Watch researcher on Zimbabwe, submitted a report to the 41st Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights saying that “[d]espite widespread international condemnation and calls for an end to the abuses – the beatings, arbitrary arrests and abductions of opposition members and supporters, civil society activists, and the repression of ordinary Zimbabweans – continue unabated.”
Mugabe still plays the “oppressed colony” card by saying that the Western countries have provoked the current economic failures through the use of selective sanctions. In the meantime, the South African Development Community (SADC) has done very little to address the needs of Zimbabwe. South Africa’s President Mbeki has decided to continue “quiet diplomacy” and Zambia’s Kaunda has said that the West is “demonising Mugabe.” How can the West move beyond the negative colonial stereotypes and influence change and how can Africans diminish the draw of anti-colonial heroism?
In order to deter blind loyalty to “heroes against colonialism,” post-colonial countries might want to emphasize the possibility of these leaders to change. The identification of heroism could be applied to certain events rather than allowing for life-long amnesty. Most importantly, the title of hero cannot exempt those deemed with the title from being held accountable for their actions.
I firmly believe that to remedy the belligerent and juvenile personality of Mugabe’s government and improve human rights conditions, the Zanu-PF needs more peer pressure, and Western countries need to modify their strategy on punishing Zimbabwean officials with specified sanctions. The West, especially the UK and US, should enable the countries neighboring Zimbabwe to significantly increase pressure on the Mugabe government. As members of an international community, Western countries have the responsibility to stay engaged without taking an exclusively adversarial role.
With increased international support, neighboring countries and the African community as a whole have the wonderful opportunity to expand and continue working jointly to resolve continental issues. Their aid and influence will hopefully provide for a smooth transition through Zimbabwe’s elections next year.
AFJN intern 2007