Zimbabwe’s embattled president, Robert Mugabe, is actually a wonderful statesman who champions human rights, democracy and the pursuit of individual happiness. But lately, the 83-year-old revolutionary has become the victim of a vicious smear campaign by racist Western media—all because he righted a historic wrong by taking away land from wealthy white farmers and giving it to landless black peasants.
At least, that’s how Machivenyika Mapuranga wants the rest of the world to see things.
“We have the greatest record of human rights in Africa because our human rights are not just about the right to speak, but the right to own one’s land,” he says. “Right now, as we speak, over 90 percent of the vast mineral resources of South Africa are in white hands, but nobody’s talking about this as a violation of human rights.”
Mapuranga, Zimbabwe’s ambassador to the United States, spent an hour and a half last month telling The Washington Diplomat why all those nasty things we’ve been hearing about Mugabe are simply untrue.
“I have tremendous, profound respect for Robert Mugabe, the great freedom fighter,” declares Mapuranga, whose office right off Dupont Circle is decorated with large wall maps of Zimbabwe and the United States, as well as the obligatory portrait of his beloved president. “He is a man who cherishes freedom and the dignity of his people, and he wants Africans to control their own natural resources.”
Mugabe’s enemies might beg to differ. Saddled with the world’s highest annual inflation rate—1,700 percent at last count—the 12 million people of Zimbabwe are hungry, miserable and getting more desperate by the day. Some 80 percent of the workforce is unemployed, an estimated 3 million people have fled the country, and toilet paper is now said to be more valuable than banknotes—even after the Reserve Bank lopped off three zeroes from the national currency and made it illegal to hold more than the equivalent of in cash.
“The cause of Zimbabwe’s collapse, ultimately, is Mr. Mugabe’s refusal to leave office,” the Economist magazine recently editorialized. “Increasingly under pressure from unhappy Zimbabweans, he has lashed out at an array of enemies, including black opposition leaders, white farmers, trade unions, women’s groups, urban voters and Britain—the former colonial power. By seizing commercial farms and handing them to political cronies, Mr. Mugabe may have staved off the end of his political career, but at the cost of ruining an economy dominated by agriculture.”
On Feb. 19, the European Union renewed “smart” sanctions against Zimbabwe that have been in place for years, including an arms embargo and travel ban for Zimbabwe’s leadership.
Mapuranga argues that sanctions such as the ones imposed by the EU and the United States are what’s destroying the economy—not Mugabe or his systematic confiscation of white-owned farms that crippled Zimbabwe’s ability to feed itself, let alone export crops to neighboring countries as it once used to do.
In 2000, landless black peasants began invading white-owned commercial farms at the encouragement of Mugabe, who has ruled the Montana-size country ever since its independence from Great Britain in 1980.
At the time, only 4,500 white families controlled the vast majority of Zimbabwe’s best farmland. Since then, more than 90 percent of those farms have been expropriated by the government, although Mugabe recently announced that the government will soon issue long-term leases to commercial farmers without regard to race.
“Mugabe is a very popular man because of the land reform program—something people thought would never happen. But you have a very vocal minority in the urban areas who were hit very badly by the sanctions,” the ambassador says. “And they’re the ones who make headlines in CNN, BBC and other Western media. So that creates the impression that the whole country is in turmoil—even though ordinary Zimbabweans are extremely happy.”
Evidently, Morgan Tsvangirai isn’t among the happy ones.
Tsvangirai leads the main opposition party in Zimbabwe, the Movement for Democratic Change. On April 13, he said government agents had arrested or beaten at least 600 party members in the previous two months, and that 150 had suffered life-threatening injuries. Tsvangirai himself has been the victim of at least three assassination attempts, and in mid-March, he said he was badly beaten and tortured by police following an anti-government rally in Harare, the capital.
“It’s very structured,” said a Harare human-rights advocate who is not an opposition party member. “They know exactly what they’re doing and who they’re going after. People are told not to seek medical treatment. They don’t come to us and tell what happened, because they’re simply terrified.”
Yet Mapuranga says it’s all a problem of perception, rooted in the fact that African countries are so negatively depicted by American newspapers, magazines and television programs.
“It’s really amazing how Africa is portrayed in the Western media—as a land of HIV/AIDS, violence, poverty and so forth. Nothing good comes out of Africa. The good stories are never really shown. I’m really astonished by this.”
And Zimbabwe, he adds, is portrayed more unfairly than any other country in Africa. “Last year, there were elections in Ethiopia. When the results were out several months later, people started agitating and over 100 people were shot dead. Last month, an opposition leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo refused to disband his private army, and there was a shootout with government forces, and he had to seek refuge in the South African Embassy. A few months ago, people were demonstrating in Conakry [Guinea], and over 100 people were shot. But this did not invoke much interest in the Western media.”
That, he says, is because six years ago, Mugabe dared to “redistribute” land owned by white farmers to black peasants, many of whom did not have the slightest idea of how to work the land.
Mapuranga, who speaks perfectly accented British English—the result of being educated at the University of London, Edinburgh University and Oxford—blames Zimbabwe’s problems on the racism that began in the 19th century by those who settled the country, then known as Rhodesia.
In 1894, he says, there was only one white for every 17,000 blacks in Rhodesia. But by the 1950s, at the height of white settlement, that ratio had changed to one white for every 13 blacks.
“In Rhodesia, as well as Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, indigenous people were herded into highly populated areas called native reserves. We ended up with just 25 percent of the land, and they took 75 percent,” Mapuranga charges.
“Ian Smith, the last ruler of Rhodesia, did not have the wisdom of [South Africa’s F.W.] de Klerk, who foresaw the explosion. Smith said, ‘No, not in a thousand years will we have democracy in this country.’ What Nelson Mandela did in South Africa is exactly what Mugabe did at the time of independence in 1980. He said let us forgive and forget. Mugabe gave a speech on national reconciliation and told the white people not to leave. For 20 years, this was the policy—and he was even given a knighthood by the [British] Queen.”
Mapuranga says his president was “placed on a pedestal” by the United States and Europe, until black peasants started to revolt and occupy white farms, challenging Mugabe to shoot them.
“They asked, ‘Where is the land our sons and daughters fought for?’” Mapuranga says. “The veterans of our war of liberation were about to lead a revolt against him. Now, all of a sudden, he’s called a dictator and a tyrant.”
The ambassador scoffed at the notion that Mugabe’s Public Order and Security Act is repressive, suggesting that it “pales in significance when you juxtapose it with the U.S. Patriot Act.”
He also defends Zimbabwe’s Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which critics say has been used to silence opposition newspapers by denying registration permits to publishers. But he concedes that in Zimbabwe, it is indeed against the law to criticize the legitimacy of Mugabe’s presidency.
“To say the president is not legal is illegal,” he explains. “In fact, Mugabe was popularly elected by the people. But the opposition openly says the time has now come for the final push, for a so-called Orange Revolution.”
He notes that “when this [opposition] party was formed, the first election they won 57 seats and the ruling party won 63. That’s a mere difference of six seats, making it the largest opposition party in Africa. Even today, we have Africa’s largest parliamentary opposition.”
He adds: “For all the bad publicity, we have a flood of American tourists to Zimbabwe—at least 1,000 every month are coming” to visit the game lodges, nature reserves and world-famous Victoria Falls, which Zimbabwe shares with Zambia.
Mapuranga has been interviewed by CNN, C-SPAN and other major networks and newspapers, but says he’s received fair treatment only by the African American media.
“The Western media completely misleads the people of the world,” he complains. “Since I’ve arrived in Washington, I can tell you that not a single week passes here without some kind of conference or seminar about the Chinese threat. And yet China does not have a single soldier on foreign soil or a single military base outside China. The U.S. has maybe 1,000 military bases and more than a million troops all over the world, yet Americans feel China’s a threat to world peace? The real threat to world peace is American imperialism!”
Not surprisingly, Mapuranga has nothing nice to say about his counterpart in Harare, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Dell.
In mid-March, Dell walked out of a meeting between Zimbabwe’s foreign minister and diplomats from a number of countries after the foreign minister criticized the United States for backing opposition activists.
“As an ambassador, you’re not supposed to undermine the government that accepted your credentials,” says Mapuranga. “Under the terms of the Vienna Convention, you are not allowed to interfere in the internal affairs of another country. But Ambassador Dell has been working openly with the opposition and mincing no words about the need for regime change, preaching against the government that received him and calling the elected president a dictator, a tyrant and a despot. That’s undiplomatic. I wouldn’t do that here.”
Mapuranga would probably never get the chance to do that because he wouldn’t be invited to such a meeting in the first place. In fact, Zimbabwe’s man in Washington is persona non grata in this city, having been shut out of virtually all official U.S. functions.
“There is no access at all,” says the ambassador, who directs a staff of 16. “The only meetings I’ve been having these last few weeks were when I was called to the State Department because they wanted to register their displeasure. Besides that, there are no normal diplomatic relations with the United States.”
Mapuranga doesn’t deny that Zimbabwe’s economy is near collapse, but he blames the situation on international sanctions, not Mugabe’s own policies. “The U.S. State Department don’t want people to know the real nature of these sanctions. The Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act [signed in 2001] directs all U.S. citizens who are directors or governors at international financial institutions to deny Zimbabwe access to credit and block any debt relief we might apply for.”
Europe and the United States support Britain in punishing Zimbabwe, he claims, because both are essentially racist societies. “The Europeans think what [Mugabe did] is a challenge to white power. We thought it was an act of economic justice, but to them, we were victimizing their kith and kin. This is why they all rallied behind Britain,” he argues.
“The United States doesn’t think this development paradigm is good for Africa. But this is the same case as with Venezuela. When Hugo Chávez says he wants Venezuelans to own the country’s oil, he becomes a despot. It’s as simple as that,” Mapuranga says. “Has it ever occurred to you why India or Brazil or any other country didn’t go to that extent? It’s because the rest of the world—Africa, Asia and Latin America—has a quite normal situation with Zimbabwe.”
In fact, China recently infused a much-needed million to help revive Zimbabwe’s ailing tobacco industry—in return for large quantities of the country’s tobacco crop. Zimbabwe also recently signed an agreement with Iran that calls for using minerals as collateral in exchange for desperately needed oil. According to media reports, Zimbabwe has promised Iran an array of minerals as a way of meeting its fuel consumption needs. Under the deal, Iran will help renovate Zimbabwe’s crippled oil refineries and also build a 1,600-megawatt hydroelectric dam on the Zambezi River.
Mapuranga doesn’t see anything wrong with such deals and rejected opposition criticism that Zimbabwe is mortgaging its mineral wealth to keep the economy afloat.
“Zimbabwe has no problems with Iran,” he says. “The mistake people make is that they think their enemies are our enemies too. But Iran is not our enemy. They have no history of trying to dominate us. These are friends of choice—the Iranians, Indians, Chinese, Indonesians and Malaysians. We want to do business with them, and it’s our sovereign right. Friendship between nations is not an altruistic friendship. It’s about mutual advantages. They know they will gain something.”
In late March, Zimbabwe also signed a security deal with nearby Angola, under which 2,500 paramilitaries are reportedly being sent to Zimbabwe to help Mugabe control anti-government riots.
But Mapuranga disparaged a Financial Times article on the subject, saying he knew nothing about any such agreement. “This is untrue,” he says. “Zimbabwe has not requested foreign military personnel. I checked this with my government.”
Stung by criticism of its land reform program and worried about the country’s increasing poverty, Mugabe last year reversed his 2000 land grab and began offering some white farmers the chance to lease back their holdings in Zimbabwe—yet most of those farmers have long since left the country, and the few who remain are skeptical about anything Mugabe promises at this point.
“The government has started a new exercise recently, giving 99-year leases to farmers. And we are giving that to white farmers as well. We are not discriminating,” says Mapuranga. “Some people say that’s a reversal [of policy], but it is not.”
What happens next in Zimbabwe is anybody’s guess—some experts are predicting the country could slide into a bloody civil war, bringing its neighbors into the conflict as well. In any event, it seems unlikely that in the long run, history will treat Mugabe as kindly as it has his hero, South Africa’s Mandela.
Nevertheless, Mapuranga seems unfazed by his diplomatic isolation and appears determined to continue defending his president.
“This is my whole life. We are the freedom fighters,” the ambassador told us proudly. “We spent 14 years waging a war of liberation, and now we have embarked on a war of economic liberation. We are optimistic about the path we have chosen, and we would like all of Africa to follow us.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.