Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Hero Dies

With the death of Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa Africa loses a respected and progressive leader. No better epitaph for Mwanawasa exists than his own words regarding the debacle in Zimbabwe

"What is happening in Zimbabwe is a matter of serious embarrassment to all of us. It is scandalous for the SADC [Southern African Development Community] to remain silent in the light of what is happening..."
During his last election, which was hotly contested against the populist xenophobe Michael Sata, Mwanawasa took issue with Sata's call to expel the Chinese, Indian and Lebanese business community. Mwanawasa understood that the rising prosperity in Zambia had more to do with the increases in global copper prices and that the foreigners were a critical component of Zambia's economic life.

Monday, August 18, 2008

What Does the Zimbabwean Constitution Say?

It's all well and good that the negotiations for a government of 'national' unity in Zimbabwe is making progress but there is nothing in the Constitution of Zimbabwe to justify it.



Article 27
(1) There shall be a President who shall be Head of State and Head of Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces.
(2) The President shall take precedence over all other persons in Zimbabwe

What this means, is that everyone agrees that the Constitution has little meaning so what is necessary is an answer to the immediate Mugabe/Tsvangarai debacle. It seems that these governments of national unity are going to be a trend. They should be resisted. They are a short-term solution to an underlying crisis (whether in Zimbabwe or Kenya or Iraq) and merely putting off a meaningful soultion.

And what about the rights of the people to choose a government?

Foolish question.

Friday, August 15, 2008

King "Ubu" Mswati Keeps His Boots On

In a part of the world where abuses of human rights are often government policy, the regime of King Mswati III of Swaziland stands out. Since 1973 the 'royal' family and its enablers have launched a systematic attack on democratic practices, trade unions, press freedom, etc. And what did the grateful citizens get in exchange for the destruction of their human rights? The highest rate of Aids infection in Southern Africa.
On June 22, the King outdid himself by passing Royal Decree #2 which allows for the banning of publications without appeal, the elimination of bail for some crimes and lowering the bar for what constitutes 'defamation' against the government.
Swaziland is often held up as a 'garden-spot' for tourists and nature lovers. Nestled between South Africa and Mozambique it boasts bucolic scenery and friendly natives: what's left out of the picture is a grim little despot intent on squashing all opposition apparently without protest from the international community. Disgraceful.

Vavi Puts COSATU into the Fray

Here are comments from Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions). They show both an overt disgust with the events going on in Zimbabwe as well as a position that is in stark contrast to the 'softly, softly' , pro-Mugabe approach of South African President Thabo Mbeki.

This is part of a speech given at a trade union rally on August 10 in solidarity with freedom fighters in Zimbabwe and Swaziland.

Our message is clear – Zimbabwe and Swaziland cannot continue to be islands of dictatorship surrounded by a sea of democracy in our region. We demand freedom and democracy for citizens of both countries. We want democracy for the citizens of our neighbouring countries today and not tomorrow. For the freedom of workers in those countries we will fight until the last drop of blood in our bodies is dried up. We shall, with the same determination as we fought against the apartheid monster, continue to wage a struggle until all of us in the region can proclaim that we succeeded to free human kind from not only the bondages of oppression and repression but from the clutches of poverty.

As I said to the preparatory meeting for this conference, to us international solidarity is the lifeblood of trade unionism. To us there are no borders when it comes to practicing the universal slogan of the working class – an injury to one is an injury to all.

The need for this conference is underlined by deepening crises in both countries. The human rights abuses in Zimbabwe have scaled new heights. The beatings of ordinary people, the burning down of their property, the killings and torture continue as though the current negotiations means nothing to the illegal Mugabe regime.

Let us again statethat we support the ongoing efforts to negotiate a political settlement to the Zimbabwe crises. We accordingly wish President Thabo Mbeki and the other facilitators of these negotiations together with all parties involved good luck and success as they try to find lasting solutions to the Zimbabwe crises. We must however hurry to say we will not give these negotiations unconditional
support. To us the following issues are not negotiable.

Any settlement that does not recognise the will of the people as expressed in the 29 March elections will not be acceptable. It will represent an elite accord that can never enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of the ordinary people of Zimbabwe.

  • The June elections were illegitimate and therefore the outcomes must not be recognised.
  • The government to be formed should be an interim government whose main task should be mainly limited to preparing for a fresh round of elections that will strictly adhere to the SADC elections protocols.
  • Violence, intimidation and use of state of institutions in a factional and partisan fashion must come to an end.

Whilst all these negotiations proceed and whilst we wish these talks
success, we know that we cannot let up the pressure on the Mugabe government.
There is no contradiction between negotiations to find a peaceful settlement
and the mass struggles and pressure. There is no settlement. There are rumours
to the fact that the settlement is near. We shall accordingly continue to pile
pressure until a settlement is reached that is based on our demands.

In the meantime we do not recognise Mugabe as the President of Zimbabwe. We insist that he should not be invited in the SADC heads of state summit that takes place in South Africa on 15-17 August 2008. We shall accordingly protest his presence here. We call on COSATU members in Gauteng, as well as all progressive civil society formations and other freedom lovers to join us to register our disgust
at his presence through a march we are organising for 16 August 2008.

In this summit we shall present the draft programme we developed in the preparations meeting for discussion and adoption. We want a total isolation of Mugabe and his cronies.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Liberian Rubber Workers Rejoice

Falling right behind coltan mining in the Congo and diamond
mining in Sierra Leone, being a rubber plantation worker in
Liberia has to be one of the most gruelling jobs on the planet.
That's why the recent announcement that the Firestone Agricultural Workers of Liberia (FAWUL) has secured a new contract which guarantees them modest raises and democratically elected representatives comes as a great relief.
For years the management of Firestone Liberia has been trying to undermine collective bargaining efforts and has employed brute-force at times to keep the workers from exercising their right to organize.
It is fair to say that conditions at the Firestone plantation in Liberia are one step above slave labor. It is also fair to say that the workers at Firestone are glad to have a job since there is precious alse to do in Liberia at the moment. This gives the company (owned by the Japanese giant Bridgestone) a lot of leverage in negotiations, but with the help of the United Steel Workers who represent Firestone workers in the United States, FAWUL was able to get the job done.
Whether Firestone actually abides by the contract is another matter since they are downright draconian about letting outside observers wander about their province. The good news for Liberia is that their Minister of Labor, Kofi Woods has been on Firestone's case for quite some time and is unlikely to let them backslide.
Mr. Woods, a charismatic labor leader with much international experience, might be one of the leading candidates to contest the presidency when the election cycle heats up next year. The world has fallen in love with President Ellen Sirleaf, but in Liberia there are many doubters and a tough customer like Woods may have a chance to unseat her.

Botswana's Bravado

All hail Botswana as the first African country to refuse to recognize the sham government of Robert Mugabe. According to reports in the Botswanan media, the government of Botswana felt that the events leading up to the last election were undemocratic so therefore the results could not be considered valid. On the other hand, government spokespeople have made it clear that they will consider reevaluating their opinions in the light on current discussions between Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic change.

If only more African leaders had taken off their 'solidarity' blinders and been willing to look truth in the face, the situation in Zimbabwe may have come to a head much sooner, and many more innocent people would still have their lives and livelihoods.

This blog takes a dim view of South African President Mbeki's role in all of this, even given the fact that the role of mediator was foisted upon him by his weak-sister compatriots in the Southern Africa Development Community. The real deciding factor in the current negotiations is whether the deal that western backs of Tsvangirai offer to Mugabe will be enough to satisfy his ZANU-PF henchmen. Part of that deal will likely be immunity from prosecution and a large pile of cash.
If that's what it takes to put Mugabe into mothballs then everyone should jump on it, though one suspects that Mugabe is not quite finished with Zimbabwe. Not by a long-shot.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Was Mitterand a Murderer?

This has been a bad week for the glory of France. Not only did they have their 'trash talking' about the American Olympic swim team smashed back into their faces: they have also been accused of complicity in the Rwandan genocide by a special commission in Kigali.

To this point, the official French response has been to question the objectivity of the report and to basically distance itself from the whole sordid episode. According to a spokeperson from the French Foreign Ministry the accusations are 'inacceptable'. (Not wrong, or insane...somehow simply inappropriate. Quelle horreur!)

Is it enough to let sleeping dogs lie here? Is French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner going to roll-over on this and follow the 'fog-of-war' party line.

The basic points of the accusation are that:

  • The highest echelons of the French government were active in supporting the Hutu led government and viewed the RPF, Paul Kagame's Tutsi led guerilla movement, as an Anglophone plot to remove Rwanda from the French sphere of influence;
  • Militarily, the French not only materially helped the Rwanda Hutu-led army but also the dreaded interhamwe guerillas

(This from a French journalist who was on the scene:

Je dois d'abord dire que je suis le seul, je dis bien : le seul journaliste français et même européen à avoir été mis en prison puis expulsé par les autorités belges pour avoir pris la défenses de ces pauvres gens. Il était déjà évident, pour tous les gens de bonne foi, qu'un génocide se préparait dans ce pays. Et, pour le gouvernement français, il fallait, à tous prix, garder ce pays dans la françafrique. Le reste... Tout le reste, était sans importance. Plus d'un million de morts. (Basically he is saying that everyone (Belgians, French, etc.) knew a genocide was coming and did nothing about it. For his efforts at tringing the bell this journalist was expelled from the country. )

If true this is a damning blight on the French national honor far beyond other questionable events such as the sinking of Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior in 1985.

In order to clear the air the French need to set up a commission of inquiry and send representatives to Kigali to review the evidence in the Rwandan report and stop doing their tit-for-tat dance with the Kagame government over who did what to whom.

The commission should interview, under oath, all living members of the government and military who were involved in Rwandan policy.

French academics and journalists should climb into this and look at the accusations point-by-point and do their own independent analysis.

As is often the case in Africa, people are willing to settle for reconciliation and let justice slide. African governments have real reasons to let this happen, but European ones, especially ones where Bernard Kouchner is the Foreign Minister, have no excuse whatsoever.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Mugabe's 'Golden Girl' Wins Africa's First Medal

Despite the fact that she neither lives nor trains anywhere near Zimbabwe and speaks English with a distinctly American accent, children in Harare have been named after her and even the arch-racist Robert Mugabe seems to swoon in her presence.
Last night Kirsty Coventry, swimming for her native Zimbabwe, won silver in the women's 400 meter individual medley. This after attending the spectacular opening night's ceremony - an event that many of her fellow competitors avoided for fear of fatigue.
Let's hope that Ms. Coventry's success will be a shot-in-the-arm for the morale of all Zimbabweans and that further success on her part might melt the heart of the little Hitler of Harare.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Pet Photos - The Photography of Pieter Hugo

I always get revved when I look at the hyena -men photos of South African photographer Pieter Hugo. I am transfixed by the fierce looking animals with their Hannibal Lecter muzzles. Equally compelling are the men who hold these beasts; usually at the end of a lead of steel chain. What exactly is going on here?
First glimpsed and photographed by Hugo on a cell phone in Abuja, Nigeria Hugo returned with a desire to get to the heart of the mystery that these men and their animals posed.

"The spectacle caused by this group walking down busy market streets was overwhelming. I tried photographing this but failed, perhaps because I wasn't interested in their performances. I realised that what I found fascinating was the hybridisation of the urban and the wild, and the paradoxical relationship that the handlers have with their animals - sometimes doting and affectionate, sometimes brutal and cruel. I started looking for situations where these contrasting elements became apparent. I decided to concentrate on portraits. I would go for a walk with one of the performers, often just in the city streets, and, if opportunity presented itself, take a photograph. We travelled around from city to city, often chartering public mini-buses."


Hugo has gotten a lot of flack about these photos from animal rights groups and even human rights groups who feel that he is showing images of people who are somehow degraded because they are reduced to a side-show existence.

I can't buy this. There is something going on in these photos that is outside the hard-edge frame that Westerners like to bring to their art criticism, not to mention what they bring to their views on Africa. You can't help looking at these men and their animals and not come away with a deep sense of mystery. Hugo's art has a lot to do with revealing that mystery but the subjects are really doing the heavy lifting.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Letter from Zimbabwe

This was received recently from a friend in South Africa who is a friend of the writer. I have no idea whether the events as described are accurate but it comes from a good source and certainly seems to be authentic.

I reckon that these are the last days of TKM and ZPF. The darkest hour is always before dawn. We are all terrified at what they are going to destroy next........I mean they are actually ploughing down brick and mortar houses and one white family with twin boys of 10 had no chance of salvaging anything when 100 riot police came in with AK47's and bulldozers and demolished their beautiful house - 5 bedrooms and pine ceilings - because it was 'too close to the airport', so we are feeling extremely insecure right now. You know - I am aware that this does not help you sleep at night, but if you do not know - how can you help? Even if you put us in your own mental ring of light and send your guardian angels to be with us - that is a help - but I feel so cut off from you all knowing I cannot tell you what's going on here simply because you will feel uncomfortable.

There is no ways we can leave here so that is not an option. I ask that you all pray for us in the way that you know how, and let me know that you are thinking of us and sending out positive vibes... that's all. You can't just be in denial and pretend/believe it's not going on. To be frank with you, it's genocide in the making and if you do not believe me, read the Genocide Report by Amnesty International which says we are - IN level 7 - (level 8 is after it's happened and everyone is in denial). If you don't want me to tell you these things-how bad it is-then it means you have not dealt with your own fear, but it does not help me to think you are turning your back on our situation. We need you, please, to get the news OUT that we are all in a fearfully dangerous situation here. Too many people turn their backs and say - oh well, that's what happens in Africa . This Government has GONE MAD and you need to help us publicize our plight---or how can we be rescued? It's a reality! The petrol queues are a reality, the pall of smoke all around our city is a reality, the thousands of homeless people sleeping outside in 0 Celsius with no food, water, shelter and bedding are a reality. Today a family approached me, brother of the gardener's wife with two small children. Their home was trashed and they will have to sleep outside. We already support 8 adult people and a child on this property, and electricity is going up next month by 250% as is water. How can I take on another family of 4 -----and yet how can I turn them away to sleep out in the open? I am not asking you for money or a ticket out of here - I am asking you to FACE the fact that we are in deep and terrible danger and want you please to pass on our news and pictures.

So PLEASE don't just press the delete button! Help best in the way that you know how. Do face the reality of what is going on here and help us SEND OUT THE WORD.. The more people who know about it, the more chance we have of the United Nations coming to our aid. Please don't ignore or deny what's happening. Some would like to be protected from the truth BUT then, if we are eliminated, how would you feel? 'If only we knew how bad it really was we could have helped in some way'. [I know we chose to stay here and that some feel we deserve what's coming to us] For now,--- we ourselves have food, shelter, a little fuel and a bit of money for the next meal - but what is going to happen next? Will they start on our houses? All property is going to belong to the State now. I want to send out my Title Deeds to one of you because if they get a hold of those, I can't fight for my rights. Censorship!We no longer have SW radio [which told us everything that was happening] because the Government jammed it out of existence - we don't have any reporters, and no one is allowed to photograph. If we had reporters here, they would have an absolute field day. Even the pro-Government Herald has written that people are shocked, stunned, bewildered and blown mindless by the wanton destruction of many folks homes, which are supposed to be 'illegal' but for which a huge percentage actually do have licenses. Please! - do have some compassion and HELP by sending out the articles and personal reports so that something can/may be done.

The Way of Kagame

Stephen Kinzer, former Times correspondent, has written a curious book about Paul Kagame, current leader of Rwanda. Kinzer's approach is to tell Kagame's story from the beginning and then let Kagame, in his own italicized words, comment on the ideas and incidents that Kinzer has highlighted. This makes for a nice balance of author and subject but more often than not Kinzer seems uncertain whether Kagame's particular approach is really as wonderful as Kinzer desperately wants it to be.

Why is Kinzer so eager to see Kagame succeed? That's a simple enough question to answer. The Rwandan genocide was a horrendous event and one can only feel sympathy for the Rwandan people and wish them well in overcoming the disastrous effects of that grusome episode. One also senses a real affection for Kagame on the part of Kinzer who undoubtedly views him as an immensely heroic (even romantic?) figure. A true guerrilla leader/statesman in the mold of Che Guevara. A man who also bent history to his own will.

One of the most remarkable revelations in this book is that fact that foreign diplomats posted in Kigali are often at odds with their home governments in how to deal with the overtly authoritarian and at times repressive actions of Kagame's government. When Kinzer interviews these diplomats the same rationale seems to emerge: we don't like everything Kagame is doing but it seems to be working so let's not rock the boat. Kinzer also makes short work of critical analysts from organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch who according, to Kinzer, are short-sighted and may even have an anti-Kagame bias.

This is not to say that Kinzer himself is totally on board with the Kagame Way. Far from it. He asks all the right questions about all the appropriate issues, but his bias is always to give Kagame the benefit of the doubt. In fact he gives more than a benefit: he ends up suggesting that the Kagame Way might be the most appropriate way for the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa.
What would this mean? Basically a shift away from democratically elected governments to one party, 'enlightened' authoritarianism. Highly aggressive population control schemes, coupled with an emphasis on education, particularly of the technical kind. It also means state involvement in all aspects of the economy as well as hyper-security measures that are designed to undermine any organized resistance to the state's control. In other contexts, these measures would be reviled by the international community: in Rwanda the diplomats note that the streets are clean, that there is no visible crime in their particular neighborhoods and that the people are industrious, punctual, and polite. (What's there for a foreigner not to like?)

Given what Rwanda has been through it is hard to argue that what exists there now is much better than what went on before. It is also hard not to admire Paul Kagame. He is 'serious' (a 'serious' word in Rwanda), and fearless and does seem to be in the mold of other enlightened strong-men like Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore and Mahatir of Malaysia.

Whether there are other Kagames waiting in the wings of other African nations is highly doubtful. The best hope is that young politicians in other African countries will see that Kagame is offering a way that is not totally dependent on the 'kindness of strangers' i.e. foreign aid, and a way that stresses hard work and honesty over corruption and greed.

As for enlightened despotism: well let's hope that the world and Mr. Kinzer believe that even Africans deserve better.

A Thousand Hills:Rwanda's Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It
John Wiley & Sons 2008