An Uncomfortable Sympathy
First, let me state clearly that Robert Mugabe is perpetrating a tragedy. With any self-reflexivity or genuine concern for the nation he helped to liberate from colonial rule, he would see his recent behavior as pure hubris, a hubris negatively impacting his nation and its poorest far more than himself.
With the above in mind, I still can’t help but feel some sympathy for Mr. Mugabe. And it is not his desperate effort to retain his power that evokes sympathy. Rather, I find sympathy in the fact that Mr. Mugabe represents a generation of women and men who sacrificed nearly everything in the quest for freedom. Fifty-five to sixty years ago, the maps of Africa and Asia were still mostly the subtle purple and orange of empire. Mr. Mugabe and his now mostly dead contemporaries changed this largely two-tone geopolitical reality. Under their leadership, Africa and Asia liberated themselves after often brutal wars Europe waged to retain its colonial possessions. I can’t image the euphoria of living through the early years of freedom. I can’t imagine the perceived potential and emergence of hope engendered by political liberation. Mr. Mugabe and his contemporaries likely envisioned themselves and their newly liberated nations as co-equals with the former colonial powers on the world stage. After all, they had just defeated both the militaries and the political wills of their former colonial lords.
I also can’t imagine the bitterness felt as the optimism of political freedom was hobbled by the Faustian promise of “development.” Vijay Prashad’s recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, offers compelling insight into the demise of the Third World as a counterweight to the bipolar world of Cold War superpowers. The hand of equality was simply never extended to the decolonized nations; instead, “developing” the primitives was the new mantra of the West. As Africa and Asia became submerged under the weight of development loans, staggering debt robbed these independent nations of their economic autonomy. Western capital effectively re-conquered the continent. Not without fault of their own, Mr. Mugabe and his contemporaries witnessed their new found freedoms leveraged away. The re-colonization of Africa has been an economic one. Maybe, such is the bitterness of Mr. Mugabe.
Unfortunately, instead of reviving the freedom fighter he was, Mr. Mugabe descends into the realm of tyranny best exemplified by ugly Cold War puppet regimes. Crushing his own people who must certainly continue to wish for personal liberty, Mr. Mugabe cruelly attempts to exorcize the specter of loss. The Third World’s freedom is increasingly lost: lost to multinational consortiums, lost to Western nations who hold the titles to loans, lost to seemingly never ending cycles of poverty and disease that play in cyclical loops on CNN and BBC while the citizens of the West lament, make promises, and then turn away—all the way away; the West forever forgets the its wealth is built on a base of centuries of colonial redistribution of wealth from the global South to the North. Mr. Mugabe likely has not forgotten; Africans and Asians have likely not forgotten.
Unfortunately, Mr. Mugabe, rather than be a reasoned, forceful voice against the re-colonization of Africa, and the hand played in it by the West, has quickly become a symbol of contemporary despotism. The impact and legacy of Western barbarism, economic exploitation, and humanitarian indifference, as well as Africa’s own legacies of violence, has found a ruthless Gestalt in Mr. Mugabe. The horror of colonization, the promise of decolonization, and the tragedy of re-conquest undergird Mr. Mugabe’s atrocities. However, history is primarily about people, and as large as Mr. Mugabe looms in the pantheon of struggle for decolonization, his indifference to the plight of the people of Zimbabwe is horrifying. He himself has come to ignore the history of his people.
However, I still can’t help but feel some sympathy for a man who fought for and achieved a nation’s freedom only to see his home continent re-conquered, a re-conquest that has meant untold wealth, just not for Africa. In this rise and fall, Mr. Mugabe seems to have broken with reality. That said, and with some sympathy, I can only wonder if Mugabe’s insanity is a sane reaction?
Robert Soza is a Bad Subjects editor.