“THE African is a special human type with some wonderful characteristics.
It hasÂ Â largely remained a child-type with a child psychology and outlook. First we had looked upon the African as essentially inferior or sub-human, as having no soul, and as only fit to be a slave. Then we changed to the opposite extreme. The African became a man and a brother. We were wrong, we were very wrong. The African is just a child.”
These words were uttered by Jan Smuts, the then South African premier in 1929 during his Rhodes Memorial lecture at Oxford. Smuts, today celebrated by some as a statesman and political philosopher, went further to argue how Africans must never be beneficiaries of the human rights discourse occasioned by the French revolution in 1789. In his view, human rights and Africans were incompatible. Needless to say, such stereotypes obviously reflected the dominant thinking of the time.
Apart from the myths of darkness and brutishness, the colonial discourse had always constructed the African as a child, a poor little thing of dependence and irrational faculties. No surprise then that revered old men could easily be called a tea-boy, houseboy, or office-boy even by little white kids without them taking offence.
As Africans in general and Zimbabweans in particular, the decolonisation of the country led by the valiant and selfless fighters such as Joshua Nkomo, Josiah Tongogara, and Robert Mugabe himself, helped to prove that we were subjects and not objects of history. Across Africa, the emancipatory project of the liberation struggles proved once and for all that we were a people who could organise, mobilise and achieve a national vision without any prodding. The struggle itself affirmed that the values human rights were not an alien concept. We all as Zimbabweans and Africans, across the gender, ethnic and geographical divides, played a part in this communal project.
Yet our post-colonial national experience as typified by our debilitating crisis has seemingly reversed all our gains in terms of the collective affirmation of our integrity, personal liberties and national vision achieved through the anti-colonial struggle. As a result, the floodgates of the colonial myths and stereotypes from other societies have opened up and the Zimbabwean leadership must take full responsibility for this humiliation of its citizens and African dignity as a whole.
As national leaders, Mugabe, Tsvangirai, and Mutambara must not only be bound by a sense of responsibility to the suffering masses, but should also demonstrate full commitment to the spirit of the negotiations that must be underlined by unrelenting political maturity and an unshakable resolve to prevail over their differences. In this vein, the failure of Tsvangirai to attend the recent Sadc summit in Swaziland because he was denied a passport on the pretext of printing paper shortages, portrays the Zimbabwean leadership as big babies who are playing toy games in political office when the country is on fire.
What better way can there be to portray Africans as unsophisticated and child-like human beings, than to be bickering over passports and travel documents when the economy is imploding and citizens are dying for lack of panodol? How else can we better affirm colonial and neo-colonial stereotypes of incompetence and irrationality, than to congregate Sadc nations in the name of Pan-African brotherhood just to help us share government ministries?
Given the mammoth challenges of post-conflict reconstruction and development that will soon face the nation, this impasse created by trivialities shows that the men that we call our leaders cannot think beyond their personal and sectarian interests. Like the colonial stereotype of the black leadership greed and selfishness, egocentricity – not love and sacrifice for fellow citizens – is the actuating motive of those we see as gallant. Mutambara is therefore correct to admonish both Mugabe and Tsvangirai to put national interest before all else because all else cannot exist without Zimbabwe and the Zimbabweans who they both seek to govern.
Clearly, these negotiations have also taken far too long to conclude because of the much ado about nothing of the so-called key ministries. The hopes of Zimbabweans and indeed of those who are supportive of the GNU initiative are beginning to wane because of lack of seriousness and babyish games by the leadership. Yet Mugabe, Mutambara and Tsvangirai know only to well that there were sections of the global community who stereotypically framed the whole exercise as bound to fail because it was a project pursued by “children” who were confusing a mountain for molehill.
Mugabe himself has lived up to the stereotype of an African dictator who is so blinded by child-like selfishness to the extent he is no longer able to separate national interest from personal interest like a child who grabs all toys just for the sake of it. So when the talks are characterised by child-like squabbles and endless unfruitful seesaws within the region, isn’t Mugabe and the African leadership presenting the prophets of doom with the real gloom of a dark continent that is seen by others as a white man’s burden?
The other well-known post-colonial stereotype is that of protecting African citizens from their brutish and ruthless leadership. This stereotype of an African dictator is usually constructed through the selective appropriation of human rights and history so that Western post-colonial representations would generally ignore the colonial legacy and the negative impact of neo-liberal globalisation on the continent when discussing crises within the continent. In this regard, fair-minded African leaders who fight for the interests of their people are sometimes demonised as visionless autocrats. Mugabe doesn’t seem to me to belong to this crop of leaders.
The Gugurahundi massacres, Murambatsvina nightmares, and the recent electoral violence that was perpetrated in full public view as seen through global television networks, project him as a leader who has excelled in embracing Western stereotypes to the extent of even pushing the initial boundaries of the stereotypical frame. His claim that he has “degrees in violence” is as much a reality of his lived experience as it is a candid acceptance of myths that are used to construct the political identities of African leaders.
The negotiations provided an opportunity to say we can do better as Zimbabweans in spite of our differences and political affiliation. They are still a chance that we can use to redeem ourselves and once again affirm our dignity, rights and responsibilities just as we did during the anti-colonial struggle. However, something has to be done in terms of changing our mindsets so that we begin to see ourselves as one family or one country. The talks lack the promise for change because the attitudes of the leaders have not changed. There is still a lot of child-like selfishness and bigotry.
As Zimbabwean citizens we must demand that these unelected – or better still, unelectable, for some of them – leaders must shake off colonial stereotypical labels and get down to the business of national reconciliation and national economic recovery. They must inoculate themselves against playing to the neo/colonial stereotypical badges that are mortgaging Africa’s dignity, vision and the simple values of ubuntu.
By Dr LastÂ Moyo whoÂ writes from Seoul, South Korea. E-mail him: firstname.lastname@example.org
“THE African is a special human type with some wonderful characteristics.