Some months ago, President Robert Gabriel Mugabe of Zimbabwe traveled to the Namibian capital of Windhoek for a regional economic conference. He attended seminars on globalization and technology. When I asked Mugabe about his country's tottering economy, the response was forthright. "I'm here to learn," Mugabe said. "Africa's leaders can teach others about building peaceful societies. But they must also learn more from others about how to build their own economies."
Last week a more combative Mugabe was on display when he unveiled an election manifesto for his Zimbabwe African National Union for voting that must be held by July. Mugabe seemed to be accelerating his relentless drumbeat against the country's whites, whom he has accused, among other things, of conspiring with a surprisingly strong opposition party that's posing a threat to his presidential tenure. The 76-year-old Mugabe, a lifelong Marxist, attributed his country's woes to economic sabotage by capitalist powers. He blamed "neocolonialism" for social tensions in his nation of 12.5 million, mostly poor tribal people. He vowed to seize half of Zimbabwe's arable 12 million hectares from some 4,000 white farmers--who currently hold about 70 percent of such land--and "redistribute" it to peasants. Mugabe reiterated that he would not evict armed black squatters who'd been occupying nearly 1,000 white-owned farms since February. (More than 20 people have been killed in violence related to this issue.) He demanded that Britain, the former colonial power, should compensate his government for undertaking land reform--a demand that was met with scorn in Whitehall.
The reaction from Zimbabwe's 70,000 whites as well as much of the non-African international community was one of deepening alarm. At the weekend, the Australian, British, New Zealand and U.S. embassies were reporting long lines of white applicants for permanent visas. On Saturday a U.N. Security Council delegation led by U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was scheduled to make a detour from a crisis mission to Congo and meet with Mugabe--the same day that Zimbabwe police briefly detained Mugabe's main foe, Morgan Tsvangirai, and four members of his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
On Friday, President Thabo Mbeki of neighboring South Africa linked up with Mugabe at a Zimbabwe trade fair in Bulawayo; the meeting had been scheduled well before Mugabe's tirade. Mbeki surely had reason for concern. The South African rand hit a new low of 6.98 to the dollar on Friday, partly in reaction to the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe. But there was also worry among South African whites that Mbeki hadn't sufficiently distanced himself from Mugabe's anti-white moves. Indeed, Mbeki said that South Africa would not adopt a "counterproductive holier-than-thou attitude" toward Zimbabwe, although he added that "this important matter [should be] dealt with in a cooperative and nonconfrontational manner among all the people of this sister country, both black and white."
Mbeki wasn't alone in his refusal to engage in plain talk with Mugabe. Not one African statesman--including U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan--has publicly criticized Mugabe. Why? It isn't necessarily because of any great admiration for his accomplishments. In his 20 years of power since Britain formally granted Rhodesia independence at the Lancaster House talks, Mugabe has steadily run his economy to the ground through profligate government spending and governance that's negligent about poverty alleviation and delivery of social services.
Part of the reason Robert Mugabe has been able to sustain his politics of racial confrontation is that it's long been traditional for African leaders to willfully overlook the follies of their brethren. The Organization of African Unity actively discourages internal criticism of its 53 member states. Uganda was once a showcase for a multiracial society in postcolonial Africa until military dictator Idi Amin Dada seized power, threw out the mercantile Asian community and murdered tens of thousands of his fellow blacks. No condemnation was forthcoming from African leaders--until the then President Julius K. Nyerere of Tanzania unilaterally dispatched his troops to topple Amin. In sympathy for Amin's plight, the Saudis gave him sanctuary.
If there's some prospect of greater social stability in Africa, it may lie in the recent determination of donor countries to link aid and investment to better governance and transparency in policymaking. Mugabe can thunder about white hegemony and neoimperialism, but without hard currency and technical expertise from the non-African world, Zimbabwe's future will be bleak. Even his most rabid followers are unlikely to savor living in an impoverished society riven with racial tensions. That also doesn't augur well for Mugabe's political longevity.