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Don't worry, Zimbabwe is just a hiccup

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 30 March 2007

A 15-year old girl in Florida in the US, recently hiccupped nonstop for five weeks. Before her hiccups stopped, she was hiccupping 50 times a minute. All manner of remedies, including various juices, breathing into a bag and consulting neurologists, were tried but nothing helped. Remarkably, the hiccups stopped on their own. The moral of this tale seems simple: sometimes, despite our best efforts, certain things just go away when they are ready to. There are no logical reasons why this happens – they just do.

It appears that world politics operates largely on this hiccup principle. Seemingly, international relations are governed by the belief that most of the time things tick over smoothly like a healthy functioning human diaphragm. Occasionally, when the hiccups start, like they have for the last number of years in Zimbabwe, the diplomatic response is to sit quietly by, waiting for them to come to a natural end. Some paltry gestures like consulting experts or knocking back the odd glass of beetroot juice can be attempted, but, in the end, the hiccups will end when they are good and ready.

The hiccup principle of international relations is, however, risky. This was evident in the bruised face of Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition in Zimbabwe, after being severely assaulted by Zimbabwean State forces. It was remarkable to watch him give an interview, relating his ordeal calmly and calling for international action, given what had happened. A few statements of condemnation followed, then interest waned and the world retreated into waiting for Robert Mugabe’s tyranny to go into spontaneous remission.

In seems that in Africa a little hiccupping of the Mugabe kind is generally accepted. Imagine if Tony Blair’s police assaulted David Cameron, or George Bush decided to beat the hell out of Hilary Clinton for good measure. What would the world say then? Although the latter might sometimes seem feasible in the US these days, the outrage would be immeasurable. In Zimbabwe, it is treated as a minor malfunction and par for the course.

Well, frankly, I am tired of it. I know all the arguments for and against speaking out about Zimbabwe. I know complaining about Mugabe is some white people’s way, especially in South Africa, of publicly airing racist views without as much as saying it. I know for some trashing Mugabe in this context, and a global environment that loves to portray African leaders as despots and Western leaders as angels, feels like the betrayal of the often unfairly hounded Africa continent. But I also know when enough is enough, and when excuses for silence are no longer acceptable. Should the international community have stayed quiet about apartheid?

Did you know the life expectancy in Zimbabwe is now 37 years old? It was 60 in 1990. The infant mortality was 53 deaths for every 1000 live births in 1990, and it is now 81. The national income per head is $340. In South Africa, a country renowned for excessive poverty, it is $4 960. This means 56% of people in Zimbabwe earn less than $1 a day, compared with 11% in South Africa.

The situation is desperate. The decision to speak out is not a political one; it is a humanitarian one.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, some poor fellow once had the hiccups for 69 straight years. In retrospect, this makes interesting and almost amusing reading. Is that how we are going to look back on the situation in Zimbabwe in years to come? Zimbabwe, the curious little hiccup in history that lasted a mere 30 or so years, forgetting what this meant to the lives of human beings like the unemployed, the tortured, the starving and the mother who just lost her child. Waiting for Zimbabwe’s hiccups to subside is no longer an option – sustained international action led by South Africa is what is needed.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.

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