John Pilger on the silent war on Africa

July 12, 2008

"Zimbabwe shows Africa is still in the despots' grip", said the headline in the London Observer over an article by Keith Richburg.

"Thank God that I am an American", writes this former foreign editor of the Washington Post. An African-American, Richburg says he is very pleased he is not an African.

A decade ago, writes Richburg, Zimbabwe was "a humming economy" with "impressive growth".

No, it was not. In 1998 Zimbabwe was a profoundly unequal society up to its ears in debt, with the International Monetary Fund waging war on its economy, waving off investors and freezing loans.

Moving his gaze north, Richburg describes Somalia as a "failed state" — a term Western governments like to use — while saying nothing about how this oil-rich country was manipulated and abused by Washington during the Cold War.

He mentions only in passing the role of the US and the "international community" as "enablers" in backing Ethiopia's current bloody invasion of Somalia.

It is not surprising he tells us his hero is Democrat presidential candidate Barack Obama who, far from
defying "conventional wisdom about race in America", as Richburg credits him, almost every day falls in with conventional corporate wisdom. Richburg's view of Africa is from the same corporate wisdom.


That Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is an appalling tyrant is beyond all doubt; yet there is a subtext to the overly enthusiastic condemnation of him by the "international community", notably in Europe. "Unacceptable!" says British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, having personally distinguished the campaign to morally rehabilitate the concept of empire.

"The days of Britain having to apologise for the British Empire are over", said Brown not long ago. "We should celebrate."

And what better way to celebrate than with highly selective condemnation of uppity despots like Mugabe, while fawning before equally awful despots such as the Saudi Royal family?

If nothing else, Mugabe has provided retrospective justification for Britain's "glory days". Perhaps his greatest crime is having slipped the leash.

After all, African elites provide an essential service, or as Frantz Fanon put it in The Wretched of the Earth, "the
transmission line between the nation and a capitalism, rampant though camouflaged. [They are] quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie's business agent."

Those who refuse the role of business agent have often paid with their lives: from Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, to Amilcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau, Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria to South Africa's Chris Hani.

The wanton underdevelopment of Africa hardly makes headlines, yet its victims outnumber those of Mugabe's many times over. Dan Kashagama of the African Unification Front, wrote that "Africa would never be allowed to have democratic economic choices ... Europe would decide what kind of economy Africans were to build. Africa was to supply Europe's needs ...\"

Europe's role in underdevelopment

I recommend a succinct analysis by Africa's Roman Catholic bishops of why 300-million Africans live on less than a dollar a day. Their list is as follows: "huge crippling debts" mostly to Europe; an "iniquitous" and "atrociously immoral" system that keeps prices for African raw materials artificially low while those for rich-world exports continue to rise; the desecration of the African environment by Western corporations; the withholding by European banks of wealth looted by deposed and dead dictators; colonial interventions by European powers on the side of armed factions; and a devastating arms trade.

While the British government claims it leads the world in the "fight against poverty", it is the major arms merchant to 10 out of 14 conflict-racked African countries.

Brown, together with his EU partners, is currently demanding free trade deals that will destroy whole African industries, such as Ghana's once thriving tomato canning industry. "Europe", says Gyekye Tanoh of the Third World Network in Accra, "is gaining 80% of our markets in exchange for what is effectively 2% of theirs".

None of this excuses the outrages of Mugabe. But look beyond the West's whipping boy and mark the enduring outrage of an imperial past that remains a war against Africa that Africans must win.

Why is South African President Thabo Mbeki so soft on Mugabe? Is it simply loyalty to a past of "joint struggle", as has been suggested? Here is a clue.

In September 2005, a study submitted to parliament in Cape Town compared the treatment of landless black farmers under apartheid and their treatment today.

During the final decade of apartheid, 737,000 people were evicted from white-owned farmland. In the first decade of democracy, 942,000 were evicted. About half of those forcibly removed were children.

A law intended to protect these people and put an end to peonage, the Security of Tenure Act, was enacted by the government in 1997. That year, Nelson Mandela told me: "We have done something revolutionary, for which we have received no credit at all. There is no country where labour tenants have been given the security we have given them — where a farmer cannot just dismiss them."

The law proved a sham. Most evictions never reached the courts and bitterness among black farm workers has grown inexorably and so too has the whole question of land. When the ANC came to power in 1994, the "priority" of land restitution was allocated 0.3% of the national budget. By 2005, it was still less than 1%.

When Mugabe attended the ceremony to mark Thabo Mbeki's second
term as President of South Africa, the black crowd gave Zimbabwe's dictator a standing ovation.

"This was probably less an endorsement for Mugabe's
despotism", noted the writer Bryan Rostron, "than a symbolic expression of appreciation for an African leader who, many poor blacks think, has given those greedy whites a long-delayed and just come-uppance."

It was also a warning.

[Abridged from the July 7 Mail and Guardian online,]

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