‘Air-brushing Mugabe’s image futile’

AS President Robert Mugabe steps up his efforts to stampede the nation into early elections without implementing key reforms to ensure peaceful and credible polls, there appears to be a series of efforts, underpinned by relentless revisionism, to revamp his image battered by his own leadership and policy failures.

Report by Herbert Moyo

In recent months, some politicians, journalists and academics even from countries and publications hitherto deemed anti-Mugabe, have been falling over each other in trying to whitewash his grubby reputation ahead of elections.

Recent interviews and books by African and Western journalists, accused of attempting to salvage Mugabe’s reputation and legacy towards the end of his long career, have met sharp criticism across the globe with some political pundits insisting whatever the public relations stunts, he will bequeath the nation poverty, corruption and suffering, as well as racial and ethnic divisions.

While his supporters say Mugabe has done well through social programmes, mainly education and land reform, for instance, his critics say even on those fronts he will leave schools collapsing and graduates jobless, while formerly productive farms all over the country will be mainly derelict.

The darkest chapters though on Mugabe’s record largely concerns human rights issues. His trail cuts across the Gukurahundi massacres which left over 20 000 people in south-western regions dead; Operation Murambatsvina, which the United Nations said left 700 000 homeless; the Patrick Kombayi shooting; and the 2008 electoral killings, among other abuses.

With such a tainted legacy, it seems there is a co-ordinated revisionist campaign to salvage his legacy by portraying him as “an African statesman”. Analysts say such efforts might be too late as Mugabe has failed to apologise for his mistakes and sought to reunite the nation to bequeath it with peace and stability.

Last Sunday, Dali Tambo, son of South Africa’s liberation struggle icon Oliver Tambo, joined the fray when his controversial interview with Mugabe was aired on SABC 3’s People of the South programme.

Tambo came under fire for his interview which critics said was a shoddy public relations exercise, but came out guns blazing defending the interview saying he never meant to put Mugabe “on trial”.

“Why is that (human rights) central to 89 years of a man’s life,” an irate Tambo asked 567 Cape-talk radio presenter Kieno Kammies. “How many human rights reports do you think there are on Britain, US, on all kinds of great countries?”

Tambo particularly attracted the wrath of human rights activists by describing Mugabe as a “warm, charismatic man who has been misunderstood and ill-judged”.

While his interview provided useful insights into Mugabe’s political life history and family, it was widely seen as an attempt to facelift his battered reputation.

Prior to Tambo’s interview, Ghanaian film-maker Roy Agyemang and producer Neville Hendricks released a documentary titled Mugabe: Hero or Villain in December last year.

Some welcomed it for providing a fresh perspective on the Mugabe story, truly engaging with the thorny issue of African post-colonial international relations and for securing incredibly close access to an undeniably fascinating figure.

However, others said it was also a puff piece because in close-up, Mugabe is seen to be a fiercely charismatic nationalist with more support among the Zimbabwean populace than Western audiences might expect.

Although it has plenty of compelling archival news material, as well as great footage of reggae superstar Bob Marley’s historic appearance at Independence celebrations in 1980 — reggae had actually been banned in Rhodesia — it was criticised as too romantic and out of touch with Zimbabweans’ current popular sentiment.

Crtics argued that it was not true Mugabe’s image is a Western construct, but a result of his excesses in power. They said even if the film allowed audiences a rare opportunity to see Mugabe as a human being, and not, for a change, as a Western media construct, while broadening debate, the truth is that his regime has been brutal and unprogressive.

Apart from Tambo’s controversial interview with Mugabe, academic Joseph Hanlon tried to cleanse the aged leader’s image in his book Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land, in which he wrote glowingly about the chaotic and violent land reform exercise which left the economy in ruins.

The writer claims 245 000 new black farmers who received land are farming it and have already reached the production levels of former white farmers.

Hanlon and his black co-authors join Ian Scoones, who also had black co-authors in writing an equally plaudits-gushing Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities (2010).

Politicians have also come to the party with Scottish MP Christian Allard saying land reform was necessary. He said he felt sorry for what happened to the white farmers although the black majority suffered more.

Despite the praises and attempts at vindication, Zimbabwe is now a basket case relying on food hand-outs from Western donors and imports from Malawi and Zambia — where some of the evicted white farmers went.

Zimbabwe’s food dependency was clearly demonstrated by the state-run Herald just three weeks ago in its story “Zim, Zambia finalise grain deal” where Mugabe met Zambia’s Vice-President Guy Scott to finalise arrangements for Zimbabwe to import 150 000 tonnes of maize. Zimbabwe requires 1 800 000 tonnes of maize annually against current national yield a mere 300 000 tonnes per annum.

The Commercial Farmers Union (CFU) says Hanlon and his co-authors’ claims that the new farmers matched tobacco production levels of the pre-land reform era are “simplistic” and “reflect a failure to appreciate that the land reform destroyed a diverse agricultural base that included other produce like coffee, tea and timber”.

The CFU’s claims are backed by economic analyst Tony Hawkins who says the impact of Mugabe’s policies has been catastrophic on the economy with real GDP falling 40% from US$6,6 billion in 2000 to US$4,1 billion in 2010.

“Despite these harsh truths, there is no shortage of apologists determined to gainsay them,” said Hawkins who has added these praise-singers range from “itinerant British academics seeking to establish a reputation for themselves using specious, carefully-sanitised case study data to the political scientists, journalists and politicians determined to prove that sub-Saharan Africa would be a better place without commercial agriculture”.

Political analyst Godwin Phiri says concerns about food security are being sacrificed at the altar of political expediency where Western countries are seeking to re-engage Zimbabwe in order to tap into its mineral resources currently being exploited by the Chinese.

“They (Western countries) are alive to the fact that Zanu PF may be around longer than many would desire and therefore the party cannot be ignored. One way of dealing with the Zanu PF question therefore is to offer incentives for reform, hence the changes in the sanctions regime and the new discourse on land reform,” said Phiri.

This may well be the case given that former American Democratic Party presidential aspirant Jesse Jackson recently visited Mugabe and spoke on the need to remove sanctions. His visit came hot on the heels of a similar one by former US ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, lending credence to claims Western countries are seeking to mend relations with Zimbabwe regardless of who wins the elections, particularly after the recent Friends of Zimbabwe meeting in London.

Zimbabwe Democracy Institute director Pedzisai Ruhanya said attempts by to spruce up Mugabe’s image will fail because he has continued with the same ruinous policies that led voters to reject him in the March 2008 elections.

While attempts to re-engage and rehabilitate Zimbabwe into the international fold are desirable if the country is to recover socio-economically, analysts say air-brushing Mugabe’s appalling record will not work.