Sunday, 16 May 2010
This weekend while sitting at my mothers kitchen table with a cup of tea and the newspaper, an article in the International section caught my eye. It told of how the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe plans to send a "modern day ark" of wild animals taken from a Zimbabwean national park to North Korea as a gift to that countries 'Supreme Leader' Kim Jong-il.
The story seemed one of those everyday coincidences in that I am at present reading David Maines, The Flood - a fictional retelling of the biblical story of Noah. It is a fascinating book in which Noah is depicted as a slightly mad old goat whose 'visions' must be humoured by his loyal and subservient family. When he receives word from Yahweh that there is to be a flood, he sends one of his daughters in law (a tough, cynical character) on a mission to collect some of the more exotic animals that are to be kept aboard the ark. The imagery of her return journey is startlingly beautiful. You are asked to imagine many rafts attached in a line to a boat, snaking out behind it like a 'desert caravan' on a glittering sea, bamboo cages atop the rafts filled with huge cats, gazelles, and monkeys, sailing their way slowly back to Noahs shore under a bright blistering sun.
I imagine that the reality will be a catastrophe. Conservationists are already expressing concerns that two baby elephants will likely not survive what will in fact be an airlift to North Korea, and that there may also be plans to include a pair of endangered rhinos in the mix. The whole idea sounds completely fantastical and frankly, the product of an ill mind. An unimaginably grandiose gift from one megalomaniac to another. I suspect the biblical allusions are not lost on Mugabe - himself a roman catholic - and that they in fact fit in rather nicely with his distorted view of his own omnipotence.
It is all too easy though to dismiss Mugabe as being simply mad and bad. In much the same way as some sought to dismiss the killers of James Bulger as being simply evil - therefore neatly avoiding any obligation to examine the ways in which society as a whole might bear some responsibility for turning out children who were capable of committing such a dreadful crime - so does the world denounce Mugabe in such glib terms as seem to forget that he is in many ways a product of his countries history.
I am no apologist for Robert Mugabe. He has brought a country that was once considered to be the 'bread basket of Africa' to its knees, using violence and intimidation against his own people in order to maintain his grip on power. His policies have created an economic meltdown, with sky high inflation rendering the Zimbabwean dollar completely worthless. But no man comes to rule in a vacuum - context is key if we are to understand how this disaster has come about. Let's not forget that when he first came to power in 1980 he was a democratically elected leader who enjoyed huge popular support. Indeed he was considered by many to be a hero, a man who had both spent time as a political prisoner and been forced into exile as a result of his efforts to liberate his country from white minority rule.
Whatever our abhorrence at the scenes on television of white farmers being violently evicted from their homes and land by Mugabes 'war veterans', it is nevertheless true that Zimbabwes tiny white population did not come by their wealth legitimately. Initially colonized by the British, Rhodesia (as it was then called) quickly found all of its best land appropriated by the white settlers who used all means of oppression at their disposal to create and legislate a system in which they could rule over the black majority. It was a brutal racist system that continued unabated untill 1980, and so the understandable bitterness and resentment felt by the majority of Zimbabweans of course then created the perfect climate for the rise to power of someone like Mugabe who (with a degree of tacit support from some other African leaders) has been able to dismiss all criticism of his land reform policies by other countries as being simply neocolonialist meddling - never mind that all the most profitable farmland has in fact been divvied up amongst his cronies rather than redistributed fairly to the people as promised.
Todays people cannot be held responsible for the actions of their ancestors. But they can be held responsible for continuing to perpetuate a system that is unfair and immoral. Mugabe is happy to still use the emotive language of the anti imperialist freedom fighter that he once was in order to justify his clinging to power by violent means while his terrorised population starve. It is inexcusable. But I also think that it is a mistake for Western countries to dismiss as now past and irrelevant, the horrific legacy of colonialism and the huge part that it still has to play in this and other humanitarian disasters in Africa.