HomeOpinionWe have no more need of messiahs

We have no more need of messiahs

By Michael Hartnack

By Michael Hartnack Author: Professor Steven Chan. Title: Citizen of Africa: Conversations with Morgan Tsvangirai. Publisher: Fingerprint Co-operative Ltd, Cape Town, SA.

WHILE the late Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts’ achievements as a statesman remain debatable, lingering admiration for his thought as a naturalist and philosopher, for his books such as Holism and Evolution, may arouse protests at any attempt to compare him with President Robert Mugabe.

Yet what is the modern African nationalist’s view of Smuts?

Is it not that Smuts’ narrow obsession with relations between Afrikaans and English-speaking South Africans caused him again and again to seek coalitions between them at the expense, ultimately, of black and brown? Is it not that Smuts’ attempts to play world statesman distracted him from attending to the best interests of southern Africans?

And does not President Mugabe contend that he sought continually to build coalitions of black ethnic groups? His critics would say he did this at the expense of whites, and of the country, but perhaps Mugabe has proved himself a more wily, more ruthless and more effective coalition-builder than “Slim Jannie”, although Smuts, admittedly, had to respect at least some rules of law and economic common sense.

In the end, an element of Afrikaans-speaking South Africans accused Smuts of betraying their interests, just as some black Zimbabweans now accuse Mugabe.

Like so many African leaders, both suffered an undue degree of adulation at their advent to power, particularly from persons abroad with insufficient knowledge of Africa, persons with confused consciences about recent emotive events – the 1899-1902 Boer War and Zimbabwe’s 1960-80 Independence struggle.

As late as the 1930s, the historian Arnold Toynbee was smugly congratulating “British statesmanship” for conclusively solving South Africa’s ethnic problems by putting Smuts at the helm, just as a later generation prematurely and complacently hailed President Mugabe. Smuts, like Mugabe, was believed to have something to offer Africa and the world.

Learned books deified Smuts and Mugabe while, unnoticed, dire ecological and demographic problems developed on the soil of southern Africa.

Just as I unsay no word of admiration for Smuts as a philosopher, I unsay none for Morgan Tsvangirai as president of the Movement for Democratic Change.

When he was under heavy criticism after the March 31 parliamentary election here, I wrote that he seemed to personify ordinary, sensible Zimbabweans and may represent our last hope of keeping our country together as a unitary state.

Precisely because of this, I am alarmed by publication of Professor Stephen Chan’s set of conversations with him, Citizen of Africa, Conversations with Morgan Tsvangirai, interesting as it is, when compared with Tsvangirai’s jejune regurgitation in the 1980s of Zanu PF Marxist cliches.

Chan’s book is a self-evident attempt to build Tsvangirai up, in Chan’s own eyes and those of the world, into a front-ranking African statesman, a worthy successor to the Mugabe Chan once adulated.

Yet Chan, professor of International Relations at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, fails to perceive Zimbabweans’ (including Tsvangirai’s) enormous achievement to date.

In 2000, less than 20 years after the end of the Independence war, black voters turned out in droves to vote for candidates who were former Rhodesian servicemen.

Likewise, less than 13 years after the Gukurahundi Matabeleland genocide, Ndebele voters turned out to vote for a Shona-led party.

The learned Professor Chan obviously never grasped that the fundamental of African politics for a thousand years was ethnic cleansing, at best forcible assimilation of neighbouring communities, and communities’ corresponding paranoid fear of genocide.

Chan, as a scholar, should have had his ears open for the perceptive comment of Lovemore Madhuku of the National Constitutional Assembly at the February 2000 referendum, that this country was witnessing “the death of nationalist politics”.

In other words, a historic shift was taking place from the politics of ethnic solidarity to demands for good governance, as in any modern, developed state.

Nationalist or ethnic politics was not, alas, giving up without a fight.

Blind, ignorant adulation of Louis Botha and Smuts paved the way under their successors for the system of institutionalised ethnic cleansing that was apartheid. Blind, ignorant adulation has contributed to the tragedy of the past 25 years here, which saw tactics of ethnic cleansing used against the Ndebele, against white farmers, and now the urban poor.

It is a pity to be unkind to so well-meaning a writer but Chan does not see how he was part of the tragedy, how he unknowingly posed a moral danger to Mugabe and Zimbabwe, and now to Tsvangirai.

His conversations with Tsvangirai are informative and valuable. Tsvangirai seems to be saying all the right things to make him acceptable to a 21st century Africa, moving towards women’s rights, confronting the HIV crisis, restoring the economy while at the same time not forgetting the underprivileged.


But southern Africa has no more need of messiahs. With the exception of former South African president Nelson Mandela they all got crucified in the end, anyway. What we need is a strong civil society in which credible leaders can operate.

* Michael Hartnack is a veteran foreign correspondent based in Harare.

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