A shameful silence on Zimbabwe

June 22, 2008|By Cynthia Tucker

During the late 20th century, human rights campaigns led by Western progressives helped to liberate two nations on the tip of the African continent from brutal whites-only rule. In 1980, the apartheid regime of Rhodesia gave way to a black-led Zimbabwe. And in 1994, the first multiracial elections in South Africa delivered the presidency to a black man, the longtime anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela.

In the years since, the two nations have traveled very different paths. South Africa has enjoyed stability, a free press, international investment, an independent judiciary and democratic elections - helped by the graceful exit of Mr. Mandela, who retired after one term. While the nation still struggles with poverty, underdevelopment and an AIDS epidemic, it has become a model for multiracial democracy on the African continent.

Zimbabwe, by contrast, has spiraled downward into disaster. Thirty years ago, the nation was stable and productive, a net exporter of food blessed with a small class of educated black professionals ready to form its governmental bureaucracy. Now Zimbabwe is beset by a thuggish regime that has ushered in starvation, hyperinflation, rampant unemployment, political oppression and corruption.

Yet the tyranny of Zimbabwe's black president, Robert Mugabe, has met with little reaction from America's black elite. Black politicians, Hollywood celebrities and ordinary Americans loudly protested apartheid - staging demonstrations outside the South African Embassy in Washington - but Mr. Mugabe's despotism has produced only muted criticism. What gives?

Though Mr. Mugabe has labored mightily to blame his nation's troubles on others - including the dwindling population of white Zimbabweans and Western human rights activists - Zimbabwe's voters have finally determined he needs to go. His opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, led the opening round of voting in elections in March.

But Mr. Mugabe's henchmen have resorted to murder to make certain the runoff election, scheduled for June 27, is anything but free and fair. Mr. Tsvangirai has been harassed and detained repeatedly by police. The wives of other opposition leaders have been butchered and burned alive. Mr. Mugabe's police even went so far as to seize food sent to schoolchildren by international donors, giving it only to those who promised to vote for him.

His followers maim and murder their opponents and starve children, but few black Americans notice. Why? Why do we ignore the transgressions of black African tyrants while assailing those of white tyrants?

Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young is among those who still manage to see more morality than malice in Mr. Mugabe's rule. "Americans cannot be rational about Mugabe," Mr. Young said. "We've always miscast Mugabe. He's a fundamentalist Roman Catholic. ... He doesn't steal."

Mr. Young traces Zimbabwe's troubles back more than 30 years, to the failure of the United States and Great Britain to fund land reform efforts as generously as promised.

Similarly, Nicole Lee, head of TransAfrica Forum, a Washington-based human rights group founded by black Americans, points to "a larger context" that includes the failure of Western nations to fund programs to grant farmland to poor black Zimbabweans. She, too, says that Americans shouldn't "demonize" Mr. Mugabe.

There's just one problem with that. Mr. Mugabe has become a demon.

Here and there, a courageous human rights activist sees the problem clearly and has the guts to say so. Desmond Tutu recently called for Mr. Mugabe's resignation. "Mugabe began so well more than 30 years ago. We all had such high hopes," said the former Anglican archibishop. "But his regime has turned into a horrendous nightmare. He should stand down."

Georgia Congressman John Lewis said he supports a more forceful response to Mr. Mugabe's tyranny. "Just because he's a black leader of an African nation doesn't mean that we can afford to be silent," he said.

It may be that Americans can do little to influence Mr. Mugabe's course. If he is willing to starve his people, he is probably immune to public condemnation. But those committed to civil and human rights have a duty to register their disgust for Mr. Mugabe's madness, as loudly and as readily as they did for apartheid's brutality.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears regularly in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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