Friday, April 16, 2010

The Thinkpiece, as Advertised

I kept meaning to write, I promise. As I was driving (or not driving, since my car is falling apart piece by piece), or spacing out, or whatever, I'd think about what to post up here next. But I'm in one of those writing slumps that I go through every few months, and I feel like I don't have anything interesting to contribute. The opinions are all still there (don't worry), I'm just not sure how to write about them.

Things in South Africa are crazy, which is no longer so extraordinary. In the past few weeks, the train workers went on strike, the taxi drivers went on strike, and now the municipal workers are on strike, so I think things have come full circle since I arrived in July 2009. I can't believe I've been here for so long!

Tensions have been extremely high for a few weeks now, ever since Julius Malema (note: just read that whole Wiki article to see how...controversial...Malema is and to get a short version of SA current events), the head of the ANC Youth League, sang the infamous lyrics "Kill the Boer, kill the farmer," from the anti-Apartheid song "Ayasaba Amagwala." Which I can't find online. Killings of white farmers have been a much discussed, debated, and contested issue in South Africa for a while--from before the end of Apartheid. But things have heated up recently. Eugene Terre'Blanche, a notorious pro-Apartheid/white separatist/etc was murdered almost two weeks ago by two of his (black) farm workers. It did not appear to be politically motivated but rather was apparently due to unfair wages. As one of the murderers was brought to court, two groups formed, one that chanted "hero" in support of the crime, the other to protest it and to express their desire for a white nation (the Volkstaat; sorry for all the Wikipedia!). What this amounted to was two factions, one mostly, if not all, black and one that almost certainly was all white, barricaded from each other by the police. Race relations are not at all rosy in South Africa by any means, but that's not a nice visual.

Julius Malema then traveled to Zimbabwe to meet with leaders's kind of unclear. But not only did he kick a BBC reporter out of a press conference, he also railed on the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC...if this and the name Morgan Tsvangirai don't ring a bell, head back to Wikipedia for the background) and praised Robert Mugabe, his party (ZANU-PF), and the human rights record of the Zim government. Which is just awesome, since Zimbabwe is authoritarian, enjoys torturing and killing opposition leaders, and has one of the worst human rights records on the planet. I won't get into blood diamonds here, but you can through the Human Rights Watch report on it (and here are all of the HRW reports on Zim).

South Africa, one of the leading countries in Africa in terms of a progressive constitution and protection for human rights, does not have a great history with Zimbabwe--choosing to support Mugabe and sweep the dirty stuff under the rug. It's difficult for old veterans of the liberation struggle to criticize each other, I get that. However, since Zuma took office, he has shifted his stance a little bit, raising hopes that he'll be tougher on Mugabe.

Zimbabwe was once the great hope of Africa, economically and (mostly) politically sound. ZANU-PF's credentials as the liberator of its country, with Mugabe painted as a hero of the freedom struggle, are completely legitimate. What's happened since independence from minority white rule, especially in the last decade or so, however, has been very different. You can see this excellent column by Douglas Rogers and another by Nick Kristof for a good picture. ZANU-PF rhetoric became increasingly aggressive against whites and opposition figures, while attacking all Western attempts to censure the government or to help out Zimbabwe's citizens as neo-colonialism. By playing the freedom fighter and anti-colonial race card, Mugabe and ZANU-PF have been able to polarize the debate to the point where any criticism of Zimbabwe is a racist, neo-colonialist move. Violent and repressive tactics against the opposition, rampant corruption, and complete state control of media and other free speech hasn't hurt ZANU-PF's power, either. What was once an inspiring story of a country gaining its freedom has been twisted to keep the power in the hands of a few, to the extreme detriment of the Zimbabwean people.

All right, that was a lot of exposition. The unifying theme for me, then, is that there are some interesting parallels between Zimbabwe and South Africa. The liberation struggle and the fall of Apartheid are now over fifteen years old. The ANC has had supreme control of most of the country ever since 1994. But the rhetoric is changing. The ANC's credentials as the liberators of South Africa begin to fade as the end of Apartheid moves farther back in time. More parties have emerged. And the uniting factor of the fall of Apartheid--Mandela--has moved into the background. His "rainbow nation" has been polarized--Malema and even other less controversial ANC leaders have used race baiting as a political tactic and to silence media criticism--white journalists who don't toe the party line are racist; black journalists are traitors to the cause and to their race. Malema (who, let's hope, is going to suffer political setbacks from his recent antics, since the ANC and Zuma have criticized him roundly more than a few times over the last couple of weeks) is part of a larger trend. Zuma campaigned with the song "Lethu Mshini Wani," or "Bring Me My Machine Gun," an anti-Apartheid song. Like Mugabe and ZANU-PF, when the power begins to recede, it's time to turn on the freedom struggle credentials, the polarizing factor of race, and hint at some violence.

I'm not saying that South Africa is the next Zimbabwe (though I have heard that argument voiced many, many times). I just find it interesting that in these two countries with similar histories, there are parallels. In studying the end of colonialism across Africa, you can see patterns--where the charismatic and inspiring leaders of liberation--Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea, to name a few--who failed to unite their countries or to build them up, turning to authoritarianism to instate their idealistic policies. Both Nkrumah and Touré were ousted in coup d'états, like so many other African leaders. One of the most heartbreaking stories being that of Patrice Lumumba. I have great hope that South Africa will be able to make the transition to the post-struggle period (it wasn't exactly easy in the US, either), once the great anti-Apartheid activists are retired or gone, but it's hard to watch the difficulties of a still young democracy, especially when one can see what's happened elsewhere in Africa (and globally, for that matter), where there's not always a lot of hope for good governance, even if there is hope for good people, for good citizens, as I have found again and again.

And Mugabe, if you're out there reading this, I hope I'm still allowed into Zimbabwe to see Vic Falls next weekend.

And to all of you still reading out there, thanks for checking and for putting up with all those Wiki links. I can't help being a historian, even if I have to use Wikipedia to do it.

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