“I AM hearing only bad news on Radio Africa”, the ’80s rock band Latin Quarter once sang.
The song consisted of a catal
ogue of familiar woes; corrupt politicians, desperate poverty and an overall sense of hopelessness.
For nearly three decades, the image of Africa as the “hopeless continent” has been adapted, embellished, exaggerated and repeated endlessly.
And yet now, almost everywhere, there are signs of a turnaround. More than 20 African states have growth rates of more than 5% and inflation of less than 10%.
In the face of a sustained atmosphere of negativity, this is a heroic achievement.
But in the middle of this continental step forward comes a real blast from the past; an entrenched politician of monumental arrogance, confirming every negative stereotype, every entrenched prejudice, and every bigoted categorisation – President Robert Mugabe.
Mugabe almost perfectly demonstrates everything that Westerners believe in their heart of hearts about Africa’s politicians; that they will use racism against them to justify an even more egregious form of racism against others; that African “elites” feed off their people; that African rulers are arrogant beyond measure; that whatever African leaders say about the rule of law, eventually they will descend into thuggery.
It is true that he is not necessarily the worst or the most despotic African leader, but he has without doubt presided over Africa’s largest economic decline, taking a country on the edge of industrialisation back to the edge of the Dark Ages.
Last week, Mugabe narrowly escaped ejection from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the fate of only one other country in history, by making a surprise US$120 million repayment of its IMF debt of US$295 million – a fraction of Zimbabwe’s total foreign debt of $2,6 billion.
The victory was achieved without help from South Africa, which sought to place conditions on any loan, and consequently constitutes a simultaneous rebuff of South Africa’s “interference”, a rejection of what a blind man could see would be the minimum necessary to restore the country to a semblance of order.
Fresh from this “victory”, Mugabe travelled to one of the decreasing number of countries that will accept him – Cuba.
In the company of his fraternal outcast, he gifted the IMF a great compliment by criticising it severely, which can only be construed an accolade since any organisation castigated by Mugabe can’t be all bad.
He did so notwithstanding the IMF’s patient decision to postpone yet again the day of reckoning by six months, after which it will consider ejection again.
The IMF took this decision despite more than half of Mugabe’s debt to the organisation still being outstanding, and despite it not having been paid any instalments since 2001, until now.
The way events have unfolded confirms many of the things we already know about Mugabe; that his monstrous sense of personal pride somehow allows him to both criticise the IMF while frantically trying to beg and borrow money from everyone – even his quasi-foe South Africa – before finally raiding his own depleted foreign reserves to avoid being cast out by the very organisation he claims to despise.
In a way, Mugabe’s belligerence demonstrates why President Thabo Mbeki has been so careful not to criticise him publicly.
But in another way, it shows how the lack of public criticism is an insufficient condition in advancing a Zimbabwean solution. So what now?
The short answer is the situation in Zimbabwe is going to get worse. What should South Africa do?
Probably the best thing to do is nothing, because nothing can be done if the interlocutor is impervious to reason, which in times of crisis is really the only tool of the diplomat.
Mugabe has the pleasure of wallowing in South Africa’s diplomatic powerlessness; let him enjoy that miserable pleasure until he loses power himself. – Business Day.