Mugabe: From Liberator to Jailer

05/09/2011 05:07 pm 17:07:41 | Updated Jun 25, 2011

On April 18, 2011, the writer Peter Godwin wrote an article for the New York Times about Côte d'Ivoire and South Africa. Reading it awakened in me memories of the late 1970s when I was a Peace Corps director in Lesotho, a republic completely surrounded by South Africa. Before going to the posting, a Jesuit, Father D'Souza, introduced me to the president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, at a dinner in Nyerere's honor. Nyerere asked me what I was doing and I told him that I was just appointed to go to Lesotho as a Peace Corps director. Nyerere quickly made a request that echoes through the years: "You will be in the belly of the beast; please give them indigestion." I said that I would do my best.

I did that by getting to know Phyllis Naidoo and Kalechi Sello, both leaders in Lesotho of the African National Congress (ANC), the party of Mandela, whose first home was nearby in Xhosa country. My staff, some volunteers and I did what we could for the refugees flowing out of South Africa, many damaged by torture and long internments. Phyllis Naidoo and Father John, an Episcopalian priest, were blown up in Naidoo's modest home by a letter bomb planted inside some of the clothes for South African refugees in Lesotho. We continued to help where we could, which always made the US Ambassador uneasy. Chris Hani, the young and brilliant military leader of the ANC, could be seen from time to time in the store where many of us expats would get our newspapers in Maseru. South African forces would often blow up apartments while hunting for Hani and Naidoo. As it turned out, Mr. Hani was executed right after apartheid was overthrown when he went out to collect the daily newspaper.

I used vacation time and weekends to get a layman's Ph.D. in regional politics by traveling all over the southern African region. Due to some earlier work for the Freedom from Hunger Foundation, we had some money and sent it to the NGO Felimo (a fighting force that won the war of Mozambique's independence). As a result, I was invited by Sharfudine Khan, by now an official in the newly independent communist state of Mozambique, to be a guest of his government. I also spent time with the courageous lawyers of South Africa who defended the ANC, especially the barrister Denis Kuny. I spent time in Namibia and Zimbabwe before their names changed from South West Africa and Rhodesia. In Lesotho, one could hike across the country and be clothed, fed and housed by the Basotho. It was a productive time and a great posting for me. I eventually left that post to become the executive director of Amnesty International.

As executive director of Amnesty International, I got to meet Nelson Mandela in Houston at a Jimmy Carter/DeMille event in the early nineties. It was quite an honor. Along with Bill Graham, I got to produce a concert in Zimbabwe on the Human Rights Now Tour in 1988. We sold 70,000 seats. Bruce Springsteen rocked the joint as did Peter Gabriel with appropriate song "Biko." Mbeki, later to be prime minister of South Africa, was asked by Ted Koppel if this concert in Zimbabwe embarrassed him and the ANC. Mbeki's answer was of praise and admiration.

In his article, Peter Godwin's point is along the same lines as Nyere's advice to me all those years ago. In this case, it is Hillary Clinton who needs to give indigestion to Robert Mugabe, the prime minister of Zimbabwe. Recently, the African Union has called on the former prime minister of South Africa, Mr. Mbeki, to influence Zimbabwe to encourage Mugabe to take some control over the human rights abuses there as well as prevent the ongoing destruction of any of the hopes of its white minority farmers. Mbeki's role in Zimbabwe has been a profound failure on all fronts and for many years now.

When Mbeki was prime minister of South Africa, he kept to his own strange rules to help Mugabe stay in power. But Mbeki gave no help to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Mandela of Asia, who lives still under a brutal regime. Realizing this disconnect in behavior may shock some after so many people the world over helped to liberate South Africa of apartheid. The seeming obligation for a reciprocal extension of help to currently oppressed leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi does not seem to be felt by leaders of post-apartheid South Africa. South Africa thus joins China and Russia in this unholy alliance of indifference to the plight of Burma and others.

Peter Godwin calls for Secretary Clinton to pitch in and help Zimbabweans seeking human rights protection. An important meeting of African nations is to be held in May, 2011, and pressure must mount in order to give Mugabe indigestion at this meeting. Mugabe's record is a disaster. His people are suffering. He has driven a beautiful and majestic country into the ground in the name of liberation. He is one more leader who started off in the right direction and ended up in his own created swamp.

On the first day of liberation for Zimbabwe, I saw one of my friends off at the airport. He was finally going home after years in exile. He is a Shona, the largest tribe in Zimbabwe. I told him I would help him once in Zimbabwe if he had a partner from the Ndebele tribe to prove to me things would go well across tribal lines. My friend threw his things on the ground and simply said, 'never.'

Mugabe is a Shona and he gives the very same answer to any democratic effort. I hope that the meeting of Southern African nations to address the issues of Zimbabwe will bring a serious result. Right before they meet, all the representatives might ask to see all the parliamentarians in jail. Check to see how many people and politicians have been killed. Find out the count. Meet with victims of torture. Then go to the meeting and know when Mugabe comes into the room, the delegates will know his hidden baggage. He must not be treated as he has treated his own people. But he must be treated as a jailer instead of a liberator. The latter is a delusional dream of the past and the former is real and here and now.

The huge effort to rid South Africa of oppression must be reignited now for Zimbabwe. We need to turn our energy to cleaning up Zimbabwe from the many abuses of its own prime minister. Zimbabwe can be and should be a success story for Africa. Mugabe's abuses must be reversed.