Zim: Between the Rhodesian peril and new politics

Tendai Biti

Tendai Biti

The Other Side Nathaniel Manheru
As I write this piece, I am reminded of one Dennis Brutus and his “Gore’e”. “Gore’e” is a poem about an island off Senegal by that name, an island from where Africans were loaded into ships for slavery in various parts of the world, including and especially the Americas. Gore’e is thus a symbol of infamy, Africa’s last gatepost into slavery; it is that final, irrevocable plinth to a cruel and turbulent fate away from home. A new destiny full of scars and unmarked graves. I visited Gore’e over 10 years ago. You feel angry as an African, feel abused and owed by the white world.

Where they ravished maiden Africa

I recall my insertion into a dingy room next to the final gate which is sited just above the lapping waters of the gaping ocean. The gate looks across the vast waters of the ocean, towards an America you cannot see. As you stand by the gate, cast your eyes across the vast waters, your mind squints to recreate a horrid history of our people.

The gate gives its back to Africa, to the black continent, to black history, to the black future. The curator told me the dingy room was the white slaver’s harem. In that dark room, the white slaver would rape the continent, literally through its nubial maidens set for export and slave captivity. Rape was the final rite before this uncertain passage. You left the continent loveless white sperms dripping between your legs, unwashed until the salty sweat induced by the package ship cleansed evidence of this sin of history.

The curator did not have to tell me about the use of this structure. You smelled the ugly odours of violent rape, smelled venereal white semen, so many centuries after the sin was committed. You even heard the wailing voices of reluctant, uncourted maidens. You heard tongs falling on the chocolate skin of the abortively resisting maidens. And then the fading sounds of subdued maidens, overwritten by happy groans of a discharging master. A cough, panting breath and a loud, mocking sense of white impunity, against ravished black helplessness. Aah!

Cruelties of civilisation

From that room, you took a fearful leer through a narrow gate into a raging, expectant ocean. The curator’s voice cracks with grief: here some brave maidens, too angry at their violation, simply flung themselves into the frothing waters that bristled with man-eating Sharks. Because of the countless incidences of such self-immolation, Sharks had deserted faraway deeps of the Ocean — their preferred habitats — for the shallow waters around Gore’e which had become easy hunting ground for human, African, flesh.

Even so many centuries after slavery, you still heard and felt the racist notes of the lapping ocean waters, waters that seemed to mock your wish for reparation, even threatening you with their index finger into a second slavery. It is this cruel chapter in black history which Dennis Brutus, a white South African poet, sought to recapture with enormous pain in a few, pregnant lines. Pain arising from a realisation that Africa was beginning to forget the cruelties which history had served it, cruelties that it suffered in its encounter with the civilizing West.

Brutus’ poem

The poem is not long, not opaque, and deserves a re-issue here:

“Bring back the implements of slavery,/manacles, chains, the collar, the gouge,/bring back the instruments of slavery/ hang them in the forest of the mind/ let their wind chimes vibrate/ in the tremors of time,/ and whispers the phrases of guilt/ remorse and compassion:/ Gore’e, Gore’e, send back the chains/ that our hearts may break/ and our tears be unfrozen/ and that the healing may at last begin”.

Again at Sandton Convention Centre

True, my eye is on the Brutus poem. Another is on Robert Mugabe, who has just delivered a defining speech at Sandton Convention Centre, in South Africa, on the occasion of the Forum that brings together China and Africa, a forum called focac. Those with living memories will recall that this is the same place from where the same Robert Mugabe made his signature “so Blair, keep your England and let me keep my Zimbabwe” speech at the Earth Summit about the same time barely more than a decade ago.

President Xi Jinping

President Xi Jinping

Referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Mugabe said, “Here is the representative of a country once called poor. A country which never was our coloniser. He is doing to us what we expected colonizers in history to do. If they have ears to listen, let them hear.” President Xi Jinping had just pledged $60bn to Africa, all of it committed to projects and activities that run the whole gamut of African development endeavour.

Including of course challenging and reversing the age-old baneful colonial legacy of a continent condemned to be a source of un-beneficiated primary commodities. Africa roared in applause. Because of policy differences in sadc, he spoke for sadc and for the African Union.

A Rhodes and a Gates in one?

My third, small eye is on one Tendai Biti, a very small man masquerading as leader of a political party calling itself People’s Democratic Party, PDP. It is one of the numerous shards from Tsvangirai’s MDC. Not to be made irrelevant in the wake of the State Visit by the Chinese leader, Biti said: “This week’s visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping and other Chinese top leaders is no different from Cecil Rhodes-led Pioneer Column which effected the colonisation of our country and put it through almost 100 years of bondage.

Like Rhodes, Jinping is coming at a time when his own version of Charles Rudd has secured various concessions mortgaging our mineral wealth and chaining us to the yoke of debt. Just like Rhodes, Jinping has come to Zimbabwe but his interests are to spread the Chinese empire from Cape to Cairo”. And in a remarkable parody, Biti added that much as he differed on everything else with ZANU-PF, he at least agreed with them on one thing, namely that “Zimbabwe shall never be a colony again.” The punchline was loaded with an anti-Chinese feeling. And seemingly without a sense of self-contradiction, he added: “For our economy to function there is need for agriculture and energy to function.

An economy functions on energy or power. In Zambia companies are closing because there is no power”. It turns out that the Chinese package to Zimbabwe addresses both issues of power and agriculture. More important, the Zambian example which Biti gives, emerges mainly from Chinese investments in copper mines. Surely the Chinese cannot be a Rhodes and a Bill Gates at once!

Politics on history

Of course Zimbabweans have not quite grasped that like many other things in life, contemporary politics seek legitimation in history. Where those politics easily dock onto history, key connections between contemporary policies and actions on the one hand, and a given history on the other, are avidly made. ZANU-PF should not have difficulties on this front. It cited Chinese history and thinking for inspiration, used Chinese weaponry and tactics to defeat Rhodes and his aftermath here.

Xi Jinping walks the road of Chairman Mao and En Lai on this history, which shows remarkable continuities and consistencies. And it’s not opportunism. At the height of his stand-off with the West, Mugabe propounded the prescient “Look East” policy against a chorus of derision and revilement, much of it incorporating Biti and his colleagues in the MDC then. Sooner, the whole world, ironically led by America and Britain, turned East, in acknowledgement of an underdog economy that has since become the second largest economy in the world.

As Biti made his slanderous remarks, the IMF was busy embracing the Chinese yuan into its basket of currencies for global transactions, and for universal storage of value. Did he learn anything from his Treasury days? Or has he regressed ever since his departure from Government?

Repudiating own history

But where history baulks your own politics, you either seek to repudiate it or to re-write it. You do not have to be a trained historian to see that Biti was forcing an analogy between two contradictory histories, two conflictual personalities of history. That he was not insulting the Chinese but Zimbabweans who used Chinese history, ideas and weaponry to free themselves. You cannot liken China to Rhodes without implying nothing happened on 18 April, 1980. But there is a deeper irony.

In delivering that diatribe against the well-meaning Chinese, Biti looked profoundly thoughtful and original. Such is the inevitable mien of a person shorn of a sense of history. Biti’s remarks against the Chinese were neither original nor independent. Rather, they mythopoetically fell neatly within Rhodes’ Rhodesian propaganda ethos. They are vernacular to UDI Rhodesia’s wartime thinking. Nothing really surprising given the origins of Biti’s politics.

Rhodesia’s two perils

For Biti’s benefit, Rhodesia feared two perils, both a creation of its mind. She feared the black peril, which is what you and me represented, both demographically and politically, to a governing white minority whose numbers barely exceeded a quarter of a million. Rhodesians lived in the fear of a black Avalanche, thereby inventing white migration as an antidote. Her second fear was called the “Red Peril”, largely summarised in “communist” Soviet Union and “Red” China.

The Rhodesian propaganda against ZPRA highlighted Soviet mementoes by way of books by Lenin, Soviet uniforms, caps and ultimately their “communist guns” found in camps or on dead comrades. That intense propaganda seared into the minds of black Rhodesians, leaving a lasting, haunting legacy. From that perspective, Biti represents an unsuspecting tragedy and pitfall in national consciousness.

When we did not need examples from communism

The Rhodesian propaganda against ZANLA paraded Chinese mementoes which included the “little red book” of Chairman Mao, and of course Chinese weaponry. The liberation ideologies of both the Soviet Union and China were parodied to generate worst fears in Africans, themselves beneficiaries of those same liberating ideas. In that vein, once Independence came, which meant the departure of Rhodes’ children, all women would be communally exploited, especially by “communist-inspired” black leaders who were projected as animal monsters, in Rhodesian black propaganda.

China, itself the supposed source of those monstrous ideas, was projected as in the throes of perennial hunger and indigence. It was not supposed to be a source of inspiration to us who were exhorted against looking East. Meanwhile, history taught us of white ravishment of black women: during slavery, before colonialism, at colonisation and much after. There are painful stories of freed male slaves who could not buy back the freedom of their girlfriends and wives because the boundless lust of white slave masters who would not let go.

White slave masters kept them in their harems. The first recorded case of sexually transmitted disease at Lobengula’s court was traced to a rogue white trader who carried a hot waist. He had consorted with a local girl, infecting her in the process. Both were banished from the land by Lobengula who feared the spread of deadly STDs from a promiscuous community of whites who included some libidinous missionaries. A key grievance of the Ndebele war of resistance in 1896 related to the violation of Ndebele women by triumphant whites. At a personal level, one of Chiwashira’s sisters is abducted and turned into a sex slave by a white man who ended up farming in the Mvuma area.

I trace my lineage to Chiwashira. So, this land did not need the example of “bad” communism to inspire itself into aggressive and violent sexual masculinity. Or to warn itself against abuse of women. All it needed was a good sense of history — its own history in which Rhodes’ whites were lead actors. And hey, even on homosexuality, all it needed was the example of one John Cecil Rhodes.

No second colonialism

In respect of colonisation now, Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa do not need the Chinese. And of course the first fallacy stems from falsely counting colonialism. There is no first or second colonialism, only a continuing colonialism whose ideological basis is, ironically enough, personified in persons like Biti employed to rehash the myth of the red peril to frighten Africans.

The French talk about the “long dureè”, a reference to an insidious and persistent phenomenon with no cut-off point. Biti is not being original. He wades within a long discredited Rhodesian historiography, hoping to raise new life in it, hoping to enkindle new fears in us. Three-quarters of Zimbabwe’s mineral claims are held by Rhodes’ scions from whom we are having to forcibly expropriate to make room for rival, developmental capital represented by the Chinese and the Russians.

You can’t count a second colonialism when you are in the throes of western colonialism — the first and only one — which has never been dislodged. The Chinese cannot be our colonisers even if they wished to do so. We are colonised already, with our look East policy being a strategy and tactic to wriggle out of this long colonialism. And in typical fashion of colonial propaganda, its black acolytes give a timeline to colonialism, all to falsely suggest that it left the country after nearly 100 years. Well, it didn’t, it hasn’t.

The one burning question from West

Biti might want to know that one key question which keeps recurring in conversations between Zimbabwe and the sanctioning West relates to the Chinese involvement in Zimbabwe’s economy. The Americans raise it; the British raise it; the Germans raise it. They want to know why the Chinese are being preferred ahead of them. None of them care a hoot about human rights or multiparty democracy, as our opposition wish and hope.

Which western country cares a fraction about human rights except in circumstances in which these are expediently used to advance economic interests? They want Zimbabwe to remain a western backyard. A Mugabe who blocks the Chinese and the Russians will emerge as a western hero even if he bashed Tsvangirai or Biti the morning before. Our re-engagement with the West falters not over human rights; it falters on our look East policy. And not because it is wrong to look East; only because it is wrong for anyone else other than the West itself to look East.

Undermining own permanence

Therein comes my big argument about the big idea Zimbabwe so sorely needs. I restate: the big idea is not Zim-Asset. Zim-Asset is a small, time-bound programmatic expression of the big idea, namely that of looking East. To assist those with short memories, including some professors who should know better. Our embarking on Zimprest did not make Zimprest the big idea.

In fact we used Zimprest to hide and secure the big idea which had to do with consolidating land reforms and introducing economic empowerment and indigenisation. And that ZIMPREST soon gave way to Zim-Asset bears out my point that it could not have been the big idea. No short-to-medium-term plan is ever the big idea that moves a society. It may, nay should, express and advance a facet of that big idea. And as should be clear, today Zim-Asset stands to benefit from the Look East policy by way of its infrastructural and agricultural goals. And possibly by way of value-addition goals.

Zim-Asset has had to turn to President Mugabe’s big idea for its funding and realisation. Which is where my gripe is. We had appeared to have put the big Look East idea on the back burner, ironically at a time when it was gaining global currency and beginning to yield results at home. Why? The fact of having a divided mind on the Chinese to me does suggest a Nation unclear about who its allies and friends are, where it must look, and who it must partner.

The fact of having a nation intensely focused on succession, of having a ruling party intensely communicating a sense of impending but indeterminate change, instead of projecting robust permanence and continuity, suggests a national mind obsessing on the petty and immaterial. I know of no ruling party which governs on the ticket of its own impermanence, on the mantra of the fear of a change it can’t structure or show confidence of structuring. Until I read reactions and twists to my previous instalment, I took this to be an easily accessible point.

Making the world safe for Zimbabwe

I conclude by revealing another aspect of the confusion spawned by the absence of, or lack or failure to embrace, a big idea. A few years back, I visited China. I asked one of the Chinese professors what China’s foreign policy was, how it could be summarised. To make the world safe for China’s rise, came the simple answer.

Looking back, it was clear China was still consolidating on the economy, and rebuilding its defences. China knew pretty well that challenging America economically often triggers destabilisation or even a military response. Look at what has happened to all BRICS countries, including China itself. Russia is under sanctions. Brazil is in turmoil. China is just recovering from a stocks attack. South Africa is facing a currency attack we all know and recognise from our own experiences. Only India seems free and unaffected for now.

For China, it is much more than the economy: there is an American-led attempt to turn all countries in its neighbourhood against it. But China is much stronger, both economically and militarily. We saw what fist it now wields when it paraded its capabilities at the recent Anniversary against fascism. It no longer needs a world which is safe for its rise, for it can now write facts on the world. The new idea is a global new order in which China enjoys preeminence.

In the forest of the national mind

What opportunities do we see? How do we tap into them? Surely it cannot be by exhibiting a Rhodesia-like fear of a “red peril”. We don’t need that Rhodesian invention. Secondly, surely it cannot be by confusing our Look East policy with the policy of re-engaging the West. We need to look east for recovery and growth. We need to re-engage the West to de-escalate ruinous conflict with the West.

To reengage the West not to turn it into an ally, a development partner at all. But merely to stop it from playing obstacle to the realisation of our vision. In other words to make the world safe for Zimbabwe’s recovery and rise. But those who seek a new politics, a new vision, must be able to grasp the past, read from it and move on. It is to know and avoid a bad history that has scalded us. Yes, to grasp its propaganda subterfuges so we don’t repeat its thinking, believing we are being original, blazing a new trail. One key way bring back the instruments of a bad history all to “hang them in the forest of the mind”.


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