Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Zimbabwe's Kurtz

At the beginning of the last century, Joseph Conrad published what is generally acknowledged as the definitive analysis of what colonization had done to both Africans and their European masters. "The conquest of the earth," he wrote in Heart of Darkness, "which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."

Conrad embodied that conquest in the character of Mr. Kurtz, who was admired in Europe as a paragon of virtue. But as he travelled upriver, into the heart of the Belgian Congo, "many powers of darkness claimed him for their own," until "he had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land."

In the nineteenth century, Cecil Rhodes embodied European colonization. He did not meet Kurtz' end. In fact, he returned to Britain -- enriched by diamonds, not ivory -- where he established the scholarship fund which has helped educate the likes of Ontario's Bob Rae and America's Bill Clinton. Along the way, he also bequeathed his name to that part of Africa which we used to call Rhodesia -- where, eventually, his descendents established a system of apartheid, which ensured that the colonizers would remain rich while the natives would be discarded -- after they could no longer do hard labour.

In time, in Rhodesia and South Africa, the natives (led by well educated and committed men) rose in rebellion. They smashed the legal system which had separated the races; and, in the case of Rhodesia, they renamed the country. In South Africa, Nelson Mandella was elected president, established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and -- his job done -- retired. In Rhodesia, Robert Mugabe was elected president; and he is still there twenty-eight years later -- even though the little information available suggests that he and his party lost the last election.

The results of the presidential vote have been suppressed for a month, while Mugabe has ordered arms from China -- and roving gangs of thugs have scoured the countryside, breaking heads and legs, attempting to persuade the population to vote the right way in what, Mugabe insists, will be a second run-off election.

To some degree, this is the result of Britain's failure to support her former colony. As Gwynne Dyer has written, "Britain did nothing when the local white minority illegally seized independence." And, even though the mother country "promised to provide large amounts of money to buy out the white farmers . . . it reneged on its promise." Mugabe has fumed at Britain ever since, telling his audiences that he is the best candidate to look after their interests. Tony Blair's former International Development Secretary, Clare Short, added fuel to the fire when -- in what Dyer calls "a famously stupid letter" -- she claimed, "we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish, and, as you know, we were colonized, not colonizers."

To this day Mugabe argues that there is a European plot to recolonize Zimbabwe. In the meantime, unemployment is around 80%; and inflation is currently running at 160,000%. According to Dyer, "70% of working-age Zimbabweans have fled the country in search of work;" and, for those who stay, the average life expectancy is "in the mid 30's." In the midst of such chaos, Mugabe continues to hold court. Like the central character in Conrad's novel he "lack(s) restraint in the gratification of his various lusts . . .there (is) something wanting in him." Like Kurtz, one suspects that he is "hallow at the core." It is one of history's deepest ironies that the man who evicted those who had oppressed his people should, in turn, become their oppressor.

But Zimbabwe is a land locked country. The tools which Mugabe requires to maintain his regime must be delivered to him over land. If his neighbours refuse to grant him access to those tools -- with the support of the international community -- his regime (like the one he overthrew) will wither and die. It would be fitting if, as Mugabe left, he would recognize "The horror! The horror!" But such confessions belong in the realm of fiction.

No comments: