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Thabo Mbeki, former South African President, says the time has come for Africans, and African intellectuals, to demand with one voice that the West’s contempt for the African people and African thought must end! He declared this position in a recent lecture at the University of South Africa (UNISA), with reference to the election of President Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe’s indigenisation policy. The text of the lecture is given below; 

We had agreed that I would speak at the opening of your symposium, because I had to go to Zimbabwe yesterday to participate at the ceremony of the inauguration of President [Robert] Mugabe as President of Zimbabwe, and I am told this was [his] seventh as president and more if you include his prime ministership.

The Zimbabweans insisted that I should come, and I agreed with them because they were saying that the inauguration marked the end of the Global Political Agreement which they signed in 2008, in whose evolution we had played a part. So, I am saying all of this to apologise for speaking to you in the evening rather than in the morning. But I [would] really like to say thank you very much for agreeing to participate in this symposium to look at this very important issue, the issue about solutions to Africa’s development. It is indeed very important that as Africans we must focus on all of this and mobilise the intellectual capital that exists among ourselves to answer this question.

What the principal [who introduced him] was saying about the Nelson Mandela Lecture here by Mo Ibrahim, raising questions of leadership on the continent, those remarks were correct. I think this is an important part of our challenge as Africans ourselves to find the solutions to Africa’s development.

So we meet at this symposium to look at what we do, [and what] we say as African thought leaders asking about where should we be tomorrow. It is important. There is nobody else to do this for us. The people who have done it for us in the past, and they are many, have said, who are these Africans? What are they? What is their past? Where should they be tomorrow? Other people have said that about us. And what has it produced? Disaster! A disaster from which we should rescue ourselves. I was saying that yesterday I was in Zimbabwe for the inauguration of President Mugabe. I don’t know who among us here, what opinions we have about Zimbabwe, but there are certain things which worry.

In Zimbabwe

With regard to the [31 July 2013] Zimbabwe elections, one of the things that worried me was a very intense and sustained campaign to discredit the elections before they took place. So I was saying to myself, “why?” And I could see clearly that the intention was in the event that the elections resulted in a victory for President Mugabe and Zanu-PF, they would obviously be unfair. In the event that they resulted in the election of Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC, then they would be free and fair. That was the intention.

Although it didn’t surprise me, what disturbed me was that many among us Africans seemed to buy into the story that was being told. And so I was saying to myself that this is very worrying because what it means is that we, as Africans, don’t know enough about ourselves and continue to be enslaved by a narrative about ourselves told by other people.

Any African, anybody following events in Zimbabwe for some time, would not have been surprised at the election results, not in the least. And indeed some of the people who were communicating these negative messages about the elections before they took place, actually predicted what would happen: That a particular politics of Zimbabwe meant we would have a particular outcome.

There is an old friend of mine in Zimbabwe, another intellectual like yourselves, I won’t mention his name. Shortly before the elections, he said, publicly, that the MDC was going to sweep in its major victory in the rural areas of Zimbabwe. So I read this thing and I said: “But what’s wrong with him?” I haven’t spoken to him for some time, but I [was] going to ask him that question. I said: “What’s wrong with him?” You could never make a prediction like that if you knew what had been happening in the Zimbabwean rural areas in the last 10 years.

Many years ago, and as part of the leadership in this region [the Southern African region], we engaged the Zimbabwean leadership – President Mugabe and [the] others – in a very sustained process to discourage them from the manner in which they were handling the issue of land reform.

We were saying to them: “Yes, indeed we agree [that] land reform is necessary, but the way in which you are handling it is wrong.” We tried very hard. “No, no, you see all of these things about the occupation of the farms by the war veterans, this and that and the other, all of this is wrong.” That’s what we were saying.

But fortunately the Zimbabweans didn’t listen to us, they went ahead. The consequence of it is that, I have looked at at least four books that have been written about the land reform in Zimbabwe, all of which say in fact the process of land reform has given land to at least 300,000 [to] 400,000 new land owners; the peasants of Zimbabwe at last own the land! The programme succeeded and has this direct benefit on these huge numbers of Zimbabweans. And so I found it very strange that this intellectual friend of mine could say the MDC would win the elections in the rural areas. They couldn’t, essentially because they were identified by the rural population to have opposed land reform, rightly or wrongly, we can discuss that.

The African reality

The point I am making is that we still have a challenge to understand our own reality, and I am using the example of Zimbabwe to say that I have a sense that even with regards to this issue, which for some reason for years has been a major issue in the international media and politics and so on, that even we as Africans still have not quite understood Zimbabwe. I think it is your task to change that, so that we understand ourselves better.

I think we should also ask ourselves the question: Why is Zimbabwe such a major issue for some people? Zimbabwe is a small country by any standard; there is no particular reason why Zimbabwe should be a matter to which The New York Times, the London Guardian and whoever else … why are they paying so much attention to Zimbabwe? Why?

I know why they pay particular attention to us [here in South Africa], because they explained it. They said: “You have too many white people in South Africa. We are concerned about their future. They are our kith and kin. We are worried about what you would do to them, so we keep a very close eye on what happens [in South Africa].” So we understand [their attitude about South Africa], we may not agree with the thinking, but we understand. But I am saying, why this focus on Zimbabwe?

Towards the end of last year, they asked me to speak at a conference on Zimbabwe diamonds. So I went, and what surprised me about the conference held at Victoria Falls was that everybody and anybody who has anything to do with diamonds in the world was there. From America, from Israel, from India, from Brussels, everybody! It was not about diamonds in the world, it was about Zimbabwe diamonds! So I was puzzled, saying, but why have they all come?

Maybe two hours before we left the conference to come back, we sat in a session which was addressed by one of the Indian diamond people. In the course of his presentation, he explained why [they had all come to the conference]. He gave an answer to this query in my head. He said in a few years’ time, Zimbabwe would account for 25 per cent of world production of diamonds. So I said, “I now understand. I understand why everybody is here.”

But I think the reason there has been this kind of focus on Zimbabwe is that for many years now the political leadership in Zimbabwe have been communicating a message which many among the powerful players in the world find unacceptable. I was saying earlier we opposed, [that] we tried to discourage the Zimbabweans from taking the particular steps they took with regard to land reform, acknowledging that it was indeed necessary to have land reform, and I was saying they ignored us. It is, I think, exactly the manner in which they came at that question of land reform that offended other forces in the world who said: “This is wrong, we don’t like it.”

And unlike us who said: “Well, they are not listening. They have done what they want to do about their country, we have to accept that”, these others [the powerful players in the world] said: “They have set a bad example which we don’t want anybody else in Africa and the rest of the world to follow. So they must pay a price for setting a bad example.” Bad example. Bad in the instance of the interests of these other people; not bad in terms of the interests of the people of


So I think this is part of the reason that there is so much attention, globally, on a country in a continent which actually in itself – never mind the diamonds – is not particularly important, but is important because [Zimbabwe] is setting in the minds of some a bad example which must be defeated. But principally, are we as intellectuals telling that story? Are we explaining that in the first instance to ourselves so that we know what is the correct position to take in our own interests, in our own defence?

My sense is that we are not doing it, we are not explaining why. What is this enormous interest in a small African country here in Southern Africa which really … basically I can’t think of any particular reason why [Zimbabwe] would have such enormous, global, [and] geo-strategic importance, but it has. Why?

The 31 July elections

You know, all of us know, that the African Union and SADC, among others, deployed large numbers of observers for these recent elections. The African Union had even placed its observers there at least a month ahead of the elections. This was to ensure … I don’t think, at least I know of no deployment of African observers of this size; because between the AU and SADC, just those two, I think they had at least 1,000 observers. I know of no [other] instance when the continent has deployed that kind of number. Both observer teams have essentially said the elections were peaceful and everybody agrees with that. And they have said the elections were free, representing the opinion of the people of Zimbabwe.

SADC have said they need a bit of time to look at the matter of the fairness of the elections [following their initial appraisal when they said:] “Yes indeed the elections are credible, they represent the views of the people of Zimbabwe.” The reason the SADC observers said they want to look at this is because they want to look at it in detail and say, for instance, was the media coverage of the contending parties fair and balanced? Was the location of voting stations done in such a way that it would ensure equal access, [and] relatively [was] the access between rural and urban areas [equal]?

They are not questioning the credibility of the elections, but want to look at this matter about what is meant by “fair” in order to ensure that as a continent when we do indeed conduct elections in the future, we have some standards to follow in terms of what will constitute this element of “fair”. So they decided to leave a residual group in Zimbabwe to look at that question, and the AU agreed to join them [and also] left another group there to do that, which is fine.

I was talking three-four days ago to a member of the executive of the SADC Lawyers Association which includes all the lawyers in this region and their lawyer societies and this and that and the other. They decided to send an observer team to Zimbabwe, which they did. They have done their report and I have asked for a copy, but they said they would send it.

But what they are telling me is that one of the things that surprised them was that as soon as they made the announcement that they would be deploying an observer team in Zimbabwe, out of the blue, completely unsolicited, they got huge offers of money from the United States to say: “Look, we want to pay for your observer mission.”

And they said that we never asked for this money. We had never ever been in contact with these people. We don’t know how they got to know that we were going to do this, but they were very, very happy to support us with huge sums of money. But we said no. We refused. We said no, “we will finance ourselves”.  The reason we did it was because we knew that if we accepted that money, then we would have to produce a report consistent with the views of the paymaster. So we said no.

Now, the very strange thing at the end of this story which I am telling you … well, let me say what the Zimbabwe government did was of course to refuse the organisations like the EU which have imposed sanctions against Zimbabwe, countries like the US which have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe, [to] have election observers [in Zimbabwe] for the natural, and I think logical, reason that: “You declared yourselves as an enemy, in what way would you then send observers who are going to be objective in terms of observing these elections; please don’t come.”

I think they were right. Nevertheless, they said all the countries that had embassies in Zimbabwe, the embassies [were] free to observe the elections, which they did. African, European, Asian – all of them.

But I am saying one of the strange things is that you have the entire continent [of Africa] in terms of its credible and legitimate institutions say, “Yes indeed there were problems, and we are going to detail those problems, but these elections represent the will of the people of Zimbabwe”.

Then you have an alternative voice in Washington, London and Brussels which says, “No, you Africans are wrong”. How does that happen? Why this absolute contempt for the view of the Africans themselves? I was saying just these two organisations – the AU and SADC – had at least 1,000 observers in Zimbabwe. Even the ACP community had an observer team there.

When the chair of the AU Commission was in Harare and talked to all the political leaders, she said none of them raised any issues about serious problems with the elections. They hadn’t. And yet when all of these Africans say: “Yes problems, we will tell you what these problems were, but the [election] result presents a credible view of the Zimbabweans”, you have people in America and Europe who say the Africans are wrong. Why? Maybe because the Africans are stupid. The Africans can’t count or something.

British pressure

The latest SADC summit has just taken place in Malawi, in Lilongwe. In the days before the summit [and] during the summit, the British government was putting pressure on the government of Malawi to persuade the summit that there should be an audit done of the Zimbabwean elections.

The MDC decided to go to court in Zimbabwe to contest, as you know, the elections, and then suddenly withdrew the petition. Personally I was very pleased that they submitted the petition, because it would give a possibility actually to look in detail at all the allegations that had been made about what went wrong with the elections. So, I was quite upset when they said they were withdrawing the petition, because it denied us the possibility to do this thing.

But later I understood why they withdrew, because even in the petition they made various allegations and did not submit to the court any document to substantiate any of the allegations. At some point during this electoral process, the British ambassador to Zimbabwe spoke to one of the British television channels, and said in one constituency 17,000 people voted of whom 10,000 were assisted to vote. Now, this is allowed in terms of Zimbabwean processes: If you are illiterate, you might be old, you might be blind – whatever – that the people at the voting station can assist you [to vote].

You come and say: “Look, I can’t read but I like Morgan Tsvangirai, please tick for me where it says Morgan Tsvangirai.” That is assisted voting which is allowed. So the British ambassador says there was this one constituency, 17,000 voters, 10,000 of whom were assisted, so many, but she doesn’t identify the constituency, up to today.

Morgan Tsvangirai, in his affidavit to the Constitutional Court, includes this. “There was a constituency where 17,000 people voted, 10,000 of whom were assisted voters.” He doesn’t identify the constituency like the British ambassador.

In the end, I can say [Mr So and So] is a very ugly fellow, but if I accuse him of that in court I should prove it. And that became a problem. So, we still don’t know what was the substance, what is the substance of all the allegations made, which Washington and London and Brussels have used to say the elections were not credible. We don’t know. In reality, the only reason they were not credible is because Robert Mugabe got elected. That’s all.

The African question

I am using this talk about Zimbabwe, as an example about our continent because all of these things I am saying relating to Zimbabwe you can find the same [or] similar examples [of] on the continent, but we are not challenging it as intellectuals. We are not challenging a narrative, a perspective about our continent which is wrong and self-serving in terms of our people’s interests.

The Zimbabweans are now talking about indigenisation and I can see that there is a big storm brewing about indigenisation. But what is wrong about indigenisation?

What is wrong with saying: “Here we are, as Africans, with all our resources, sure we are ready and very willing to interact with the rest of the world about the exploitation of all these resources, but what is the indigenous benefit from the exploitation of this, and even the control?”

You have seen examples of this, all of us have, when Chinese companies in terms of all this theory about free markets, have sought to acquire US firms [and] they got prohibited. “No, [it is] indigenisation of US intellectual property. We can’t allow it to be owned by the Chinese, so no!”

So when the Africans say “indigenisation”, why is this a strange notion? And yet when we talk about solutions to Africa’s development, one of the issues that we have to address is exactly this indigenisation. How are we utilising our resources to impact positively on African development?

I am saying that because I can see that there is a cloud that is building up somewhere on the horizon when Zimbabweans say “indigenisation”. But we have to, as intellectuals and thought leaders, address that and say: “Yes, indeed as Africans we are concerned about our own renaissance, our own development, and we must as indigenous people make sure that we have control of our development, our future, and that includes our resources. And therefore indigenisation is correct.” We must demonstrate it even intellectually, which I am quite sure we can. I wasn’t intending to speak for so long, but as you can see I get very, very agitated about Zimbabwe, because it’s very, very clear that the offensive against Zimbabwe is an offensive against the rest of the continent, and what has facilitated that offensive is indeed [the] wrong things that the Zimbabweans have done.

They have done wrong things. They have acted in ways that have been incorrect. So it has been possible for some people to stand up and say: “Look, look, look, there is a violation of democracy and human rights”, and all of us say: “Yes, yes, yes, what they did there was not quite right.”

But all of us make mistakes. We have made mistakes here [in South Africa], but they have used those mistakes to mount a particular offensive against Zimbabwe. [Of course] that offensive is not in the first instance about Zimbabwe, it’s about the future of our continent.

So the Zimbabweans have been in the frontline in terms of defending our right as Africans to determine our future, and they are paying a price for that. I think it is our responsibility as African intellectuals to join them, the Zimbabweans, to say No!

We have a common responsibility as Africans to determine our destiny and are quite ready to stand up against anybody else who thinks that, “never mind what the thousand African observers say about the elections in Zimbabwe, we sitting in Washington and London are wiser than they are. They say the elections are credible, we say that they are very foolish, those elections were not.

We stand up as Africans to say [there must be] an end, and really an end, to that contempt for African thought! We have to. If we don’t, this development we are talking about will not happen.

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