LAST week I met new US ambassador to Zimbabwe James McGee, a day after he presented his credentials to President Mugabe.
The answers he gave to questions at the press briefing showed that his coming to Harare was not going to us
her in a new epoch in the US/Zimbabwe relations.
He said he was here to implement US policy and not necessarily to make any personal changes. That means speaking out on issues of human rights and the growing democratic deficit in Zimbabwe.
I asked him how he was going to react to government’s expectation that he should behave differently because he was a black. He was taken aback. “Why? What does colour have to do with this?”
He said he was first and foremost a US citizen and his mandate was to implement his government’s policy as a diplomat and not as a black, white or yellow man.
That is easier said than done. The government is expecting him to behave differently from his predecessor, Christopher Dell, whose sharp criticism of President Mugabe made him an unwanted diplomat in Harare.
McGee said he was not here to “poke his finger into the eye of government all the time” but also that he would not be coy about speaking against the violation of human rights in the country. This is the ideal expected of any diplomat.
But there is no doubt that there will be more than just one yardstick — that he is an American diplomat — to measure McGee.
He is going to be viewed through the jaundiced eyes of a regime that believes that black brothers must stand together to fight the white colonialists. He is going to be labelled an Uncle Tom, a traitor or something worse for simply doing his job of representing his government.
Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell was often labelled a sellout for accepting to serve under the Bush administration. The most pointed attack on the former Chief of Staff came in October 2002 when Blues singer Harry Belafonte took to shortwave radio to slam Powell.
Belafonte said Powell was like a plantation slave who moves into the slave owner’s house and only says what his master wants him to say.
“There’s an old saying,” Belafonte said, “In the days of slavery, there were those slaves who lived on the plantation and were those slaves that lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master… exactly the way the master intended to have you serve him.
“Colin Powell’s committed to come into the house of the master. When Colin Powell dares to suggest something other than what the master wants to hear, he will be turned back out to pasture.”
Powell responded on CNN’s Larry King Live: “If Harry had wanted to attack my politics that was fine. If he wanted to attack a particular position I hold, that was fine. But to use a slave reference, I think, is unfortunate and is a throwback to another time and another place that I wish Harry had thought twice about using.”
This was not the first time Powell had been attacked by fellow brothers for working at the White House.
A month earlier at the Earth Summit in South Africa, he was heckled by a coterie of anti-globalisation lobbyists and hirelings from Zimbabwe who waved placards labelling him an Uncle Tom. One of his crimes was criticising President Mugabe at the summit.
We got a teaser of what is on the menu for McGee on the leader page in the Herald this week when he was crudely reminded that he is “descended from slave ancestors…”
That is not the only challenge to hand for the new diplomat. Mugabe last Thursday at State House said he wanted to work with the diplomat to improve bilateral relations between Zimbabwe and the US.
There is still a flicker in Mugabe’s mind that Zimbabwe can build bridges with the West but he believes this is only possible when targeted sanctions against him and his lieutenants are lifted.
On the other hand, McGee wants to work “with like-minded members of the international community to increase this pressure” on Mugabe. In fact McGee has said Zimbabwe has to meet certain conditionalities of democratisation before sanctions are lifted.
Both parties have dug in into their entrenched positions. There is a diplomatic logjam here. Noone wants to take the first step.
The government expects McGee to start mending fences because he is a brother. He should not be another Powell or Condoleezza Rice.
Mr Ambassador, our rulers here believe a black brother should be blind to acts of misrule, corruption and repression. We wait to see another diplomatic drama unfold.