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Switch off Mugabe’s Power

by Peter Tatchell

ROBERT Mugabe has murdered more black Africans than the entire South African apartheid regime. In just one region of Zimbabwe, in just one decade – Matabeleland in the 1980s – his army slaughtered 20,000 civilians. This is the equivalent of a Sharpeville massacre every day for more than nine months.

The world was outraged by Sharpeville but not by Matabeleland. There were international sanctions against P.W. Botha’s tyranny, but barely a murmur of disapproval against Muagbe’s far worse excesses. Why the double standards?

A black state murdering black citizens does not, apparently, merit the same outrage as a white state murdering black citizens. Responding to black murderers differently from white ones is a form of racism; it judges black human rights abusers by a lower ethical criterion. That is patronising and infantalising, and regards black Africans as less capable of moral behaviour.

South Africa’s ANC-led government stands accused of betraying black Zimbabwe. During the apartheid era, the ANC urged the international community to exert economic pressure against the regime led by Botha and F.W. de Klerk. The demise of apartheid was, according to the ANC, aided by such boycotts. Zimbabwean activists now argue that President Thabo Mbeki’s government in Pretoria should use its leverage to support their struggle for democracy and human rights.

Yet Mbeki is silent about the ongoing disappearance, imprisonment, torture, rape and murder of thousands of supporters of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). He has actively blocked UN action against Mugabe, and endorsed as free and fair a succession of fraudulent parliamentary and presidential elections. His so-called ‘quiet diplomacy’ has achieved nothing; Mugabe’s abuses have increased, not lessened.

Africa’s shining prince, Nelson Mandela, has likewise failed to speak out against Mugabe’s misrule, not least his use of food as a weapon of war. The UN reports that withholding food aid has put six million people – out of a population of around ten million – at risk of death by starvation. A top Mugabe official has remarked that it doesn’t matter if millions die, because most will be MDC supporters: “We would be better off with only six million people, with our own people who support the liberation struggle”. This policy of genocide-by-starvation is unprecedented since the mass hunger inflicted on Cambodia by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

The response of the international community has been feeble and ineffectual. Zimbabwe’s suspension from the Commonwealth did nothing to weaken Mugabe’s dictatorship, and the EU travel ban on him and his top officials is lifted whenever they apply to attend diplomatic conferences, even though they often make only fleeting appearances and spend the rest of their time wining and dining in Europe’s top hotels.

World leaders who rail against Mugabe’s barbarisms, including Tony Blair and George Bush, refuse to prosecute international human rights laws against him. Under the UN’s Convention Against Torture, they could issue arrest warrants and extradition orders to put Mugabe on trial, as was done with Slobodan Milosevic. But the US and UK governments plead that, as a serving head of state, he has immunity from prosecution. What is the point of having international human rights laws if the chief abusers cannot be prosecuted? Besides, under the Rome Treaty that established the International Criminal Court, head of state immunity is now removed.

Moreover, there is still one sanction that could force Mugabe to the negotiating table within weeks: South Africa cutting off its electricity to Zimbabwe. In the late 1970s, when South Africa threatened to switch off Rhodesia’s power, it forced Ian Smith’s white minority government to agree to negotiate black majority rule. The mere threat to cut the electricity supply worked then – perhaps it can work now.

Zimbabwe’s electricity authority, Zesa, buys 15 percent of its power – nearly half of its imported electricity – from South Africa’s supplier, Eskom. Without this, the Zimba-bwean economy would collapse. South Africa should issue Mugabe an ultimatum: agree to free and fair elections or the power will be cut. The mere threat to pull the plug on electricity supplies could be enough to precipitate a coup by military officers or government ministers, many of whom are privately appalled by what they are witnessing.

As leader of the ANC’s liberation struggle two decades ago, Thabo Mbeki argued that the world had a moral duty to challenge the abusive apartheid government. Must we ask whether black Zimbabwean lives are less worthy of saving than those of their South African counterparts?

Peter Tatchell is a leading human rights campaigner.

For more information about his work, visit

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