Catch more flies with honey

Africans leaders – lugging huge chips on their shoulders – crave external validation

Hope in their president’s sincerity seems to linger among Zimbabweans. Predatory though Mugabe is know to be, it persist because, without it, such cautious optimism as exists in the country’s fragile unity government would not be sustainable. The hope hovers, mind you, alongside desperation and the ever-present fear that Mugabe is busy swallowing the country’s opposition MDC python-like, just as he did his earlier prey, Joshua Nkomo, many years ago.
Everybody knows how unlikely are the chances of Zimbabwe’s dictator becoming a reformed man at 85. What he clearly wants badly enough to play the game, though, is the Western development money that was hitherto proffered on condition of his departure. Only donors can kick-start the beleaguered nation’s economy, in the process keeping Mugabe in office until he dies.
It is an awkward situation for Western governments to resolve while struggling with daunting economic dilemmas of their own. Will they support the shakiest of political alliances out of pity for ordinary Zimbabweans at the risk of being outwitted by one of the least popular of the world’s dictators? Probably not.
The only way Zimbabwe will get international development dosh with Comrade Bob at the helm is if he succeeds in bamboozling the relevant foreign governments into thinking he is a reformed character. That he has undertaken such an apparently impossible public relations mission says much about Mugabe’s enduring belief in his ability to outsmart absolutely anybody.
Ironically, Mugabe’s biggest ally in the campaign to convince hard-nosed Western politicians that he cares all of a sudden for his people in the same way as Morgan Tsvangirai cares for Zimbabweans is none other than the country’s recently appointed prime minister, Tsvangirai himself.
During a press conference in Harare last month, Mugabe’s erstwhile enemy responded irritably when a journalist referred to Zimbabwe’s despot simply as Mugabe: “It’s President Mugabe,” Tsvangirai snapped. In an interview with me during the run-up to the power-sharing arrangement, the MDC leader described an hour-and-a-half dinner he had had with Mugabe in a Harare restaurant – when the two were up close and personal for the first time – as “a lost father-son reunion”. At a time when much of the global media was attacking Tsvangirai’s willingness to make peace with the dictator, he added forthrightly: “I actually have to admit that I have some respect for Mugabe, who used to be my hero.”
Tsvangirai’s unabashed respect for the much older Mugabe – based on a deeply-held African veneration of the aged, which comes naturally to the well-mannered opposition leader – is one of the unity government’s few strengths amid multiple potential deal-breakers. Continuing land grabs, human rights abuses, harassment and imprisonment of MDC supporters, as well as Mugabe’s fraudulent cabinet appointments, could yet derail the uneasy coalition.
It is Tsvangirai’s attitude towards Mugabe that will hold the unity government together. Mugabe will take full political advantage of his prime minister’s respect while also genuinely appreciating it – as is his contradictory wont. And, who knows, Tsvangirai may be wilier in his courtesy than we think.
If ever a man craved respect, it is Mugabe. Had British leader Tony Blair sized him up accurately in all his human frailty as well as bluster when the two first started spitting at each other back in the late Nineties, the British leader could have put an arm (metaphorically if not literally) around his African counterpart – who felt humiliated by New Labour’s rejection of old policy – and slipped Mugabe the disputed land redistribution funding promised by an earlier government, possibly sparing Zimbabwe a decade of suffering. Pragmatic reconciliations have been a feature of diplomacy throughout history, after all. Blair’s failure to patch things up with Mugabe before the situation in Zimbabwe became totally toxic probably had a bit to do with the British leader’s intuitive arrogance, something to do with New Labour’s unholy alliance with the right wing British media, and a lot to do with perceived as well as real  Western disrespect towards African leaders.
Well, hell, no, you might argue: discredited leaders, African or otherwise, forfeit respect. True. But there is little doubt that people like Mugabe, Mbeki and now Jacob Zuma – all of whom have come from a traditional leadership system akin to that of medieval England – become so accustomed to widespread deference, indeed adulation, at home that they simply cannot tolerate the slights of strangers. Add to that formidable narcissistic barrier the inferiority complexes bequeathed to so many in Africa by colonialism and white settler rule and you have a compelling psycho-drama for Western power-brokers (including the media) to fathom – or ignore at the African country’s peril.
A few months ago, a US diplomat told me how difficult it had been to engage with South Africa while Mbeki was at the helm because our former president, lugging a sizeable shoulder chip, simply refused to deal with anyone other than the supreme leader of the world’s superpower. “It makes doing international business very difficult,” the American sighed. Similarly, a British government official engaged in public health in South Africa says she felt obliged to bow and scrape to Manto Tshabalala Msimang while nowadays being free to treat Barbara Hogan, who understands Western manners, with normal rather than exaggerated respect.
On a day to day basis, it is the independent local media that bears the brunt of our leadership’s intolerance of criticism or, sometimes, of informal journalistic behaviour. You might argue that this sensitivity ought not to be factored into the methods and logic by which power and its abuses are challenged. True. But there are petty humiliations that could be resisted without remotely compromising press freedom. Such an unnecessary taunt, which ran on the front page of a Johannesburg newspaper recently, showed Zuma giving “the bird” to the camera. In fact, he was using his middle finger to push his glasses back onto his nose. Was this an example of amusing photography – or a cheap shot in the circumstances?

Rude signs that convey contempt to those with the muscle to react oppressively may not be the way to go in these days of reckless rule. Which reminds me: Zimbabwe’s draconian media laws remain unaltered, not surprisingly. Of all the unity government’s designated reforms, Mugabe can be expected to resist this one the longest. Why? Because journalism’s job is to confront politicians with their failures. Mugabe, having contemplated nothing but his omnipotence for decades, will hardly be keen to encounter an accurate view of himself now.

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