In October 1960, in the heat of the closest presidential race in memory, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was arrested during a de-segregation demonstration in Georgia and transferred to Reidsville State Prison. There were legitimate concerns about his safety.
Senator John Kennedy placed a call to Coretta King and interceded in her husband's behalf, securing his quick release on bail. The gesture was appreciated in the black community, which went massively for Kennedy in a year when its allegiance to the Democratic Party was not taken for granted. President Eisenhower had sent troops to enforce school integration in Little Rock a few years earlier.
Now I do not believe in making inapt comparisons, but consider that in an African nation called Zimbabwe, which some conservatives noticed when it was called Southern Rhodesia and then lost track of, inflation is in the upper hundred-thousand percents, and that's the benign news. More grimly, at least three score members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change have been murdered. The independent print press and radio, once vibrant in this beautiful country, have been muzzled.
Indeed, the election, scheduled for this week, may not even happen. President Robert Mugabe, 84, leader of ZANU-PF and president since independence (1980), stated he would not let an X on a ballot turn the country over to British imperialism, whatever that is. You'd have to be Mort Sahl to see the grim humor in this improvement on the old chestnut of communist militants and African strongmen, "one man, one vote, once."
Mugabe and his men and the generals, not well-known outside the country, who back them, are by all evidence determined to prevent the popular leader of the MDC, labor-leader Morgan Tsvangirai, from taking over. Well aware of what they are capable of, he withdrew from the runoff race, scheduled for June 27, making it clear that a sham election was not worth the risk of people getting hurt or killed while trying to vote.
BUT THE DEMOCRATIC movement will continue. With it will come some accounting. Why is it that land reform in Zimbabwe -- which, truth be told, was a legitimate issue considering how land was appropriated during the colonial years -- turned into a spoils system for ruling clique? How is it that no one has ever been put on trial for a long train of crimes and abuses in the years since independence, going back to the massacres (20,000 killed by some estimates) in the Matabeleland which decimated the regime's Ndebele opposition?
Tsvangirai, in an attempt to calm things down and pre-empt a descent into total repression and the civil war that would follow, suggested last year that a national conference might work out a way to trade amnesty for respect of democratic procedures. He was thanked for this by a savage beating that almost killed him and repeated arrests during this year's election season, which has been drawn out by the regime's brazen tampering with the rules. The MDC number 2, Tendai Biti, was arrested June 12 and charged with treason, which carries the death penalty.
Our country is one thing and other countries are another. We have a long and wise tradition of befriending liberty everywhere while understanding that we can be the guardians only of our own. But what if a U.S. presidential candidate suggested loudly and clearly that the whole world would applaud if southern Africa's ex-breadbasket (whose people are now starving, while Mugabe accuses organizations like CARE of being in cahoots with the British imperialists, whoever they are) pulled back from the brink? There is an unwritten tradition that American politicians do not get involved in the internal politics of foreign nations, but it is perfectly ordinary for them to say that such and such a country is to be commended for its respect of law and freedom, or such and such a country is sadly missing the bus for its disrespect of same.
Of course, in this case it would not have the same ordinary impact that the routine trips American politicians make to the three I's, Ireland, Italy and Israel. The shot would be heard 'round the Continent and, perchance, at home too. But there is more.
The lives of brave democrats like Tsvangirai and Biti and their comrades matter. Moreover, in the larger perspective of building a U.S. African policy that is consequential, American leaders can point to Zimbabwe as a sorry example of the consequences of libertycide. Until now, the ZANU-PF regime has received support from its neighbors, notably South Africa's Thado Mbeki, who is loath to criticize a veteran of the anti-white wars in southern Africa that, of course, formed much of Mbeki's political consciousness. His brother Moeletsi Mbeki, along with Graca Machel, wife of Nelson Mandela, and many other prominent figures, signed a call for free and fair elections.
Thado Mbeki's tacit support for Robert Mugabe at any rate may be revised for practical reasons. The wreck of Zimbabwe's economy is causing refugees to flee south in the tens of thousands. This has led to murderous riots in areas where, unfortunately, the locals view the refugees as unwanted competition for scarce jobs.
IT IS IN THIS CONTEXT that should be seen the refusal of dockworkers in Durban to unload a shipment of Chinese guns and send them on their overland journey to Harare. The Chinese have supplied ZANU-PF with its weapons since before independence, but this brazen reinforcement of its repressive capacities seemed grotesque. The regime was all but claiming that guns would trump ballots, and one of the generals actually stated that the army would defend Mugabe "against Western agents." The guns were last reported to have got to their destination by way of Mozambique.
Apart from Zimbabwe, the best known recipient of Chinese military help has been Sudan, whose government has been countenancing, when not aiding and abetting, some major bloodletting in its southern provinces as well as in the western province of Darfur. A U.S. brokered peace supposedly put an end to the southern wars in 2003, but they commenced again this year in oil-rich Abyei, which is in the south. Chinese military assistance to the Omar el-Bashir government in Khartoum includes supersonic aircraft. A Congressional report noted that there are anywhere from four to ten thousand PLA soldiers in Sudan, thinly disguised as petroleum engineers.
Chinese military missions have been active in many other countries; indeed they tend to follow the patterns of Chinese economic interest, which is insatiable. The Chinese are not only extracting hydrocarbons and minerals, they are putting down infrastructure, opening restaurants (this is not a joke), and developing markets. Surely this can have positive effects, but it is impossible not to notice, as did Durban's longshoremen, that all this investment is accompanied by a preference for thuggish political regimes.
China's African scramble is, in fact, becoming a big topic across the continent, and it would not be a bad idea if American leaders, to the extent they can bring themselves to discuss the "challenges" the next administration will face, at least mentioned it. The Chinese themselves might even listen -- after all, lately they have warned the Bashir government quite publicly to cooperate in stopping the violence in Darfur. It may be a mere gesture, Olympics-related public relations. But people notice, as they will notice who says or does what about what happens in Zimbabwe this week, and as with that phone call in 1960, they will remember.
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