With malice aforethought
25 September 2016 19:19 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

Zimbabwe is not an ‘African’ problem – it’s just a headache

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

There is nothing African about the Zimbabwe situation. Indeed, insisting that Zimbabwe represents an African problem plays into the stereotype that dictatorship and lawlessness are African traits. By accepting that we need to solve this in an ‘African way’ we reinforce the idea that the African continent has the global market cornered on stolen elections and bankrupt leaders like Mugabe and the ZANU-PF acolytes who surround him.

The imbroglio over Ambassador Lindiwe Zulu’s style of diplomacy, and the looming disaster of the Zimbabwean elections scheduled for next week, highlight the need for South Africa to rethink the idea of African solutions to African problems.

The credo of African solutions to African problems was championed by President Thabo Mbeki in the era of a self-confident, cosmopolitan African leadership intent on signaling its independence from neo colonialism and Western paternalism; and rightly so. But inherent in the idea is the notion that there is something unique about Africa's problems, and that the solutions to these unique African problems can be found in some uniquely African approach to solving problems.

For a long time, I have wanted to believe this. But a decade into a strategy that has guided our diplomacy, especially our AU ad SADC engagements, I think it is worth testing the assumptions that underpin this. In other words, does an ‘African’ analysis (whatever that may be) actually help to resolve the ‘African problems that we have confronted?

Using Zimbabwe (our most persistent and pressing foreign policy issue) as a case study, let us first examine the idea of an African problem. Is there something uniquely African about the breakdown of rule of law in Zimbabwe? Is there something African about the failure of one party to depart gracefully when the people vote it out of power, as was the case after the 2008 Zimbabwean elections?

The problem is that there is nothing African about the Zimbabwe situation. Indeed, insisting that Zimbabwe represents an African problem plays into the stereotype that dictatorship and lawlessness are African traits. By accepting that we need to solve this in an ‘African way’ we reinforce the idea that the African continent has the global market cornered on stolen elections and bankrupt leaders like Mugabe and the ZANU-PF acolytes who surround him.

To suggest that there is something inherently African about the tyranny of Mugabe’s rule, is to proceed from the wrong starting point. Indeed, as an African, I find it offensive.

The bottom line is that big problems need big solutions. Zimbabwe is a big problem. If we cloak our problems in African garb it doesn’t make them any prettier. It doesn’t change the nature of the problems. What it does do is distract us from their true nature, and sends us looking for all manner of emissaries instead of doing that which is difficult but necessary. It is only once we strip the Zimbabwe problem of its silly costume that we will find a proper and lasting solution.

We live in a global world. Chinese technology drives African power plants, Indian manufacturing propels African growth, and African minerals are driving Western expansion. Our leaders wear silk ties, order Thai food for lunch, and shop in Malaysia. The political systems they have adopted emerged from Ancient Greece and were heavily influenced by African scholars. In an inter-connected world, the notion of an African solution is in itself a complex idea; one that requires nuancing and thinking through before we swallow it wholesale.

It is therefore disingenuous for African leaders to seek to turn back the clock to find a pristine African way of resolving a problem that is not pristinely African. Frankly, as an African woman whose kind have been historically excluded from processes of African decision-making, I find it hard to defend an elitist and un-transparent model of decision-making.

I am not proposing that South Africa should adopt a Western model (whatever that is). I am under no illusions about the fact that Western democracies are hardly worth emulating with their in-built structural exclusions of minority and poor populations and their seemingly infinite tolerance for regimes that abuse human rights, so long as they work in their economic interests.

The bottom line is that we have a problem in Zimbabwe that no amount of Africanising will resolve. The softly softly African approach has not worked precisely because the primary cause of Zimbabwe’s demise has donned the costume of the most revolutionary and authentic African on the planet. As the anointed Africanist, he successfully pilloried Mandela for his popularity amongst Whites. He played Thabo Mbeki by forcing him to play the subordinate role. Mugabe played the ‘elder statesman’ which required Mbeki – by the conventions of ‘African diplomacy’ to respect him as an elder.

It is in this same vein that Mugabe has used that old sexist trope - control your woman - to put President Zuma in his place. Ambassador Zulu has been treated in a misogynistic manner by an old patriarch, and the Presidency has – unsurprisingly – not defended her.

It is time that South Africa realised that buying into the logic of Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF will not work. They are masters of the Africanist terrain because for many years now they have disempowered and disenfranchised Zimbabweans on the basis of their ‘liberation’ credentials. In other words they have assumed ownership of the mantle of authentic African-ness.

Pulling out of that logic system - not in favour of a western model but in favour of an honest conversation about the conditions for a free and fair system through which Zimbabweans can elect their leader - is the only way to solve this problem. Playing the African card is tired. It will only bring us more of the same: no change for Zimbabweans. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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