The African Wall of Silence Must Crumble: My Exchange with Thabo Mbeki Over Zimbabwe

06/24/2008 04:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thabo Mbeki inherited the South African presidency from Nelson Mandela. Though not of the same stature, Mbeki was a leading activist with the African National Congress against European colonialism and white supremacy.

Working mostly from abroad, Mbeki was a comrade of Robert Mugabe, who was engaged in a similar struggle in neighboring Rhodesia.

Their determination to end oppression is undisputed. But oppression comes in many forms. It is not exclusively British, Western or white.

The triumph of Mugabe's Zanu PF party in 1980 that turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe was rightly hailed around the world. But 30 years later, still clinging to power with an iron fist, Mugabe has proven that a one-time, ardent fighter for liberty can morph into the very bastion of repression that he once overthrew.

Mbeki has been the recognized mediator in the dispute between Mugabe and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, who has pulled out of Friday's runoff presidential election and taken refuge in the Dutch embassy in Harare.

Mbeki hides behind his mediator status to steadfastly refuse to criticize his comrade Mugabe, despite the mounting state violence against the opposition, not to mention Mugabe's disastrous handling of the economy.

Mbeki even refused to say Zimbabwe is in a political crisis. The South African president was recently at UN headquarters in New York where I got to confront him at a press conference.

I asked him: "Do you feel you can be objective about Robert Mugabe, given his legendary status as a fighter against colonialism and the loyalty you might feel towards him that may make you unable to see what he is today, 30 years later?"

Mbeki scoffed at my question. "No, I've heard that story told. I think that one thing that could happen is that the people might credit us with the capacity to think. I know as much as you do," he said, "that when something is wrong, it is wrong. The fact that I came from the liberation struggle doesn't mean I can't recognize a wrong thing. So this argument, that because all of us come from liberation struggles, when something goes wrong, even in our own movement, we won't recognize it because of some loyalty to ourselves ... We are perfectly capable of recognizing something that is wrong."

Mbeki defended his "quiet diplomacy" to the hilt, widely denounced as enabling Mugabe. The furthest he would go with my question was: "There are many things wrong with the politics of Zimbabwe, otherwise why go mediate something that is right?"

That colonialism and indigenous dictatorships cannot both be denounced as evil seems to be lost on the generation of Mbeki and Mugabe. The revival of colonial-style US and British invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have not helped. But the crimes of the West in the developing world cannot be used as an excuse to cover up the crimes of a man like Mugabe. Agreeing with the US and UK on Mugabe does not mean embracing the entirety of Anglo-American foreign policy.

It is really about time that Thabo Mbeki and liked-minded Africans realize that.

Mandela got into trouble in 1995 with other African leaders when he called for Nigerian strongman Sani Abacha's downfall. But this has gone on for too long. The African wall of silence must crumble.

Joe Lauria's new book is A Political Odyssey, The Rise of American Militarism and One Man's Fight to Stop It, written with former U.S. Senator Mike Gravel.

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