Today is Human Rights Day in South Africa.
It commemorates the massacre of a group of peaceful protesters outside a police station in Sharpeville, near Vereeniging, on 21 March 1960. The protesters had gone to the police station without the passes that blacks had to carry on them at all times, and ask to be arrested for not having a pass. The campaign was started by the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC).
A couple of days later a young PAC leader, Philip Kgosana, led a march of 20000 people into the middle of Cape Town. There was a strong police presence, and after discussions with the senior police officer present, Philip Kgosana led the 20000 protesters peacefully back to the townships. The National Party cabinet was furious, because there had been no bloodshed. They wanted another massacre like Sharpeville, and the career of that police officer was ruined as a result.
There was a storm of protest from the leaders of other countries over the Sharpeville massacre, and one of Dr Verwoerd’s favourite mantras at the time was “we will not tolerate any outside interference in our domestic affairs.”
This was trotted out whenever other countries, especially those in Western Europe and North America, criticised the policy of apartheid, or the use of violence against political opponents, as at Sharpeville massacre.
Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has been uttering the same mantra for the last few years, and his policies look more and more Verwoerdian, with the violent suppression of political opposition. He has had as many Sharpevilles as Dr Verwoerd ever had, if not more. For years Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa have been telling how they have been beaten up by the police, had their homes burnt down or demolished and worse. Until recently this happened mainly to the less prominent opponents of the government. The beating up of Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the parliamentary opposition, puts it on a different level. In Verwoerd’s South Africa, opponents of the National Party regime were beaten up, detained without trial, banned, banished, exiled, and sometimes killed. And the response to criticism of this from the USA or Europe was, “We will not tolerate any outside interference in our domestic affairs.”
A cartoon in the Johannesburg Star of 2 April 1960 showed Dr Verwoerd surrounded by a group of world leaders preparing to throw stones at Verwoerd, with a Sharpeville label round his neck. There is an anonymous USA figure, with a label of “Little Rock, negro lynchings, Ku Klux Klan”, Nehru of India with the label “Kashmir”, Krushchev of the USSR with the label “Hungary”, and Nkrumah of Ghana with the label “prison for political opponents”. And the caption is, “‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone…’ St John, Chapter 8”
Today Mugabe is taking a similar line, and it could be argued that the other world leaders have more blood on their hands than those of 1960. The US government was not itself responsible for the Ku Klux Klan or lynchings, but it is responsible for Guantanamo Bay and the endemic violence in Iraq, which is worse than anything taking place in Zimbabwe, a state of affairs for which Tony Blair of the UK is equally responsible, along with the continuing human rights violations in Kosovo. Tony Blair indeed wanted to introduce 90-day detention in Britain, as was done in South Africa under Verwoerd, and was lauded by the British media for “taking the moral high ground” in doing so — how the mighty have fallen! They certainly have no room to point fingers at Mugabe, but neither does Mugabe have any room to point fingers at them. Mugabe and his detractors are indeed birds of a feather. But the behaviour of other world leaders does excuse Mugabe for the human rights violations that are taking place in Zimbabwe.
Where the situation differs is that South Africa did not get into serious foreign military adventures until after the death of Verwoerd.
What brought Zimbabwe to its present state?
The main cause was, ironically, its interference in the domestic affairs of the Democratic Republic of Congo, when Mugabe sent troops to support one of the factions in the civil war raging there in the 1990s. Zimbabwe could not afford this, however, and the result of the foreign military adventure was a critical shortage of foreign exchange. This led to a shortage of fuel, which disrupted imports and exports. Zimbabwean businesses that relied on imports and exports began to go bankrupt, unemployment rose, and the urban workers, in particular, became disgruntled with Mugabe’s government. The opposition coalesced in the movement for Democratic Change, which derives its main support from the urban workers, much as Cosatu does in South Africa.
Mugabe saw the writing on the wall when he lost a referendum that would increase his executive powers as president. He adopted a two-pronged strategy to win back his lost electoral support: intimidate the urban workers, who were unlikely to switch to supporting him, and bribe the rural peasants. The bribe he could offer the rural peasants was agricultural land owned by commercial farmers, most of whom were white. Farms were expropriated and redistributed to ZANU-PF supporters, or potential supporters, to win back their support at the polls. The farm workers for the most part were evicted, and lost not only their jobs but their homes.
The resulting disruption to agricultural production meant a further dramatic drop in export earnings, which exacerbated the foreign exchange crisis. There was even less money to buy fuel, which meant it was more difficult to export the dwindling cash crops. Maize production also dropped, and Zimbabwe hd to import maize to feed its population, whose army of unemployed was growing and couldn’t afford to buy the maise at ever increasing prices. Thousands of Zimbabweans have emigrated as political and economic refugees to other countries, including South Africa, where many have taken to a life of crime.
People sometimes talk of economic sanctions on Zimbabwe, but that would make no difference at all. Economic sanctions imposed from outside could not possibly harm the economy of Zimbabwe any more than the policies of Mugabe’s government has done. Mugabe has already imposed the most effective sanctions himself.
Some have suggested that the South African government should “do something”, but it is difficult to see exactly what it could do. It could, possibly, emulate George Bush, and send in the army to bring about “regime change” as Bush did in Iraq. But the result of the Iraq adventure is not very encouraging. Life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, bad as it was, was nothing like as bad as life in Iraq is under George Bush. There is no reason to believe that Zimbabwe would be any better.
And the South African government is divided on the issue. The South African government is a tripartite alliance of the ANC, Cosatu and the Communist Party. Cosatu and the Communist Party have protested vociferously about human rights violations in Zimbabwe, because it is their class allies, the urban workers, who are suffering most under Mugabe’s regime. A Cosatu delegation to Zimbabwe was turned back at the Harare airport, with minimal protest from the ANC.
And the spectre of Zimbabwe looms over the tripartite alliance: if Cosatu and the Communist Party split from the ANC, they could very soon find themselves in a similar position vis-a-vis the government as the MDC does in Zimbabwe. Some have suggested that there should be a break, with the Thatcherist ANC and the socialist Cosatu and Commubnist Party appealing for support for their policies from the voters. But if they were outside the government, Cosatu and the Communist Party would have less influence in moderating the Thatcherism of the ANC. So the alliance as a whole would prefer to shut its eyes and hope the Zimbabwe problem would go away. It is one of the roads South Africa could go down, and we don’t want to go there.
Today is Human Rights Day.
And while the focus in human rights violations has shifted from South Africa to Zimbabwe, we are no nearer to a solution to the problem of human rights violations in southern Africa than we were 47 years ago.