At Large

Mugabe and the Grand Tradition

Race baiters gave the Zimbabwean brute a friendly New York welcome last week -- causing no small amount of anguish at the N.Y. Times.

By 9.19.02

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The Times had to make a decision. The story could not be ignored, but how should it be played? President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who has impoverished his country, while suspending the rule of law and doing his best to incur a famine, was cheered last week by members of the New York City Council. A dozen or so Council members, mostly black or Latino, attended a reception for the old tyrant at City Hall. If the Times had put that on page one, it might have been seen as an expression of disapproval, and opened the exquisitely sensitive Times to a charge of racism. Obviously that would not do, and so the story ran under a scrupulously neutral headline -- "President of Zimbabwe Visits City Hall" -- way back on page B3.

Actually, you could make a case for B3 and not page one. Mugabe spoke at City Hall for an hour, but apparently did not say anything he had not said before. Consequently, the only news, such as it was, was that the spirit of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson lived on: Race hustlers still thrived in New York City.

For Mugabe had been invited to City Hall by Councilman Charles Barron, an ambitious black politician eager to attract attention. He customarily wears a Nehru jacket, and he hustles in the grand tradition. Since joining the City Council in January, he has called Thomas Jefferson a "pedophile" and Mayor Bloomberg a "racist." Barron is also reported to have said, at a rally for slave reparations, that sometimes he wants to walk up to a white person, and say, "'You can't understand this, it's a black thing,' and then slap him just for my mental health."

Meanwhile, Barron's repeated affirmations of love for, and interest in, all things African are also part of the grand tradition. The Times quoted his chief of staff, one Paul Washington, as saying that the Mugabe visit fulfilled Barron's old campaign promise "to bring mother Africa to the hall in which she belongs." The Times also reported that Barron said he would travel to Zimbabwe next month with a City Council delegation on a fact-finding mission. Poor Zimbabwe -- as if it did not have enough problems already.

Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia, suffered through a 19-year civil war before Britain granted it independence in 1980. At the time, the tiny white minority owned nearly all of the arable land; the rural poor had almost none, and it was widely recognized that something had to be done. On the eve of independence, Britain had said it would help to finance a "willing buyer, willing seller" program for land redistribution, but after independence it reneged on its promise. Subsequently the little land that was acquired for black ownership went mostly to undeserving politicians.

But this is not the place for a lesson in Zimbabwean politics, and anyway all you have to know about the politics is that they are more complex than they seem, and that, one way or another, President-for-life Mugabe has always been at their center. He and his cronies sent Zimbabwe into a downward spiral while they brutalized their opponents.

Nonetheless few in the West seemed to notice or care until Mugabe started ranting about colonialism and white oppression. Then his "war veterans" began occupying the land owned by white farmers. Mugabe, of course, needed a scapegoat for his own sins, and colonialism, an old African standby, did that very well. At the same time, the white farmers were a plump and easy target. Although they numbered only a few thousand in a country of more than 11 million, they owned something like a third of the arable land. Meanwhile, in a country, indeed on a continent, where fertile land is at a premium, and peasant farmers work quarter-acre plots, the white farmers in Zimbabwe have allowed about half of their land to lie fallow and unused. The media may present the farmers as helpless victims, but the reality is more complicated than that.

But back now to Councilman Barron and his proposed fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe. He really should cancel the trip; he has done enough damage already. Mugabe's visit to City Hall might only have been page B3 in New York, but government flacks in Zimbabwe cited it as proof of Mugabe's international popularity in their on-going campaign to intimidate the democratic opposition. Race hustling has its consequences.

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.