The striking racism behind US sanctions on Zimbabwe *nothing to do with democracy


Ranga Mberi and Ranga Mataire

Just days after the elections in Zimbabwe, US President Donald Trump signed the amended sanctions law on Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA).

Trump would not have paused much before signing it. Once it had passed both Congress and Senate, he had no reason to stop and think about it.

Some commentary would have the public believe that this had to do with the tragic events of August 1, when at least six people were killed when the army was deployed to quell riots in Harare. But even before the results were out, and before that tragedy, US Congresswoman Karen Bass, who was part of the American IRI-NDI observer mission, had said Trump was going to sign the new ZIDERA Bill, whatever the outcome of the poll and its aftermath.

“It went through both houses, so I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t sign it,” she told a press conference in Harare.

There are a few myths being hawked by commentators regarding the US sanctions and these must be dispensed with swiftly. Firstly, is the damaging myth that sanctions would have been lifted had Zimbabwe held an election whose outcome was accepted by all.

There is no guarantee that this would have done the trick. First of all, we must discuss the facts in the demands of the amended sanctions law.  The US senators behind the law demanded to see a transparent poll, the presence of international observers, a free media open to all, a clean voters’ roll, free campaigning for all parties, among many other reasonable demands.

These are steps that any government should take anyway, whether demanded by a foreign power or not. These are the bare minimum for any country that, as Zimbabwe has done since President Emmerson Mnangagwa came to power, aspires to be a democratic State that is “Open for Business”. That it is the US demanding these steps to be taken does not mean they are not also the demands of ordinary Zimbabweans.

However, it would be naïve to ignore the fact that these would never have been enough to stay Trump’s pen. To understand why, one has to look beyond these reasonable demands. You have to look at the core of the sanctions law, and the history of the sanctions on Zimbabwe. Even more importantly, one has to look at the politics of those that have sponsored the sanctions law, from back in 2001 when the law first came, and today, with the amendments.

So, let us begin where ZIDERA started. On March 8, 2001, US senators Bill Frist and Russ Feingold introduced the bill. It was a bipartisan effort; politicians from across the aisle pushed for the law.

But it is not the likes of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, who were also part of the sponsors, who tell the story best. It is one Senator Jesse Helms in 2001, and Senator Jeff Flake in 2018.

Helms, one of the longest-serving US senators, was the arch-promoter of the sanctions bill. It should not have been surprising. Sifting through all the chaff in that original bill, from demands for Zimbabwe to withdraw from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to democracy, at the core of ZIDERA was the land issue.

Helms was a friend of racist Rhodesia, a massive supporter of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). He was an unabashed racist, throughout his career. Once, while campaigning for a racist candidate back in the USA, against a pro-integration candidate, Helms ran an advert. It screamed: “White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favours mingling of the races.”

When the Civil Rights Act passed through Congress in 1964, removing discrimination against blacks, Helms denounced it as "the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced". He described civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King, and his followers as "communists and sex perverts".

Here is the irony. While Helms campaigned for sanctions against Zimbabwe, he campaigned against sanctions on Rhodesia. In July 1979, Bishop Abel Muzorewa visited the US at Helms’ invitation. Helms wanted to introduce him to US powerbrokers, including President Jimmy Carter, as the legitimate leader of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia.

Carter was required by law to end the sanctions if the 1979 sham election, which brought Muzorewa to power, was deemed representative enough. The election had disenfranchised large parts of the population and Carter was obviously reluctant. Still, here was Helms, handholding the Bishop through Capitol Hill, seeking endorsement for an illegitimate leader and demanding that Carter lifts sanctions.

Helms wrote to say “by any objective standard” Rhodesia's elections were free and fair.

In the 1980s, Jesse Helms and Bob Dole, later a US presidential candidate, campaigned to have the US suspend support for Mozambique government and support Renamo, a rebel movement founded and supported by apartheid South Africa. Helms also campaigned for sanctions against the new black government in Zimbabwe, demanding the cutting off of all aid and trade as early as 1981.

Despite the embargo on Rhodesia, US corporations like Ford, Standard Oil, and General Motors all conducted secret but profitable business in Rhodesia via South Africa.

In 1969, Thomas M. Pelly, a Republican congressman from Washington, introduced a resolution urging the US to immediately stop buying chrome from the Soviet, but to trade with Rhodesia instead. Rhodesia, he said, was a “nation that never has been responsible for the death of even one US citizen”.

During the Lancaster House negotiations, Helms dispatched two of his aides to support Ian Smith’s delegation. So, a friend of Rhodesia was never going to let the land reform that began in Zimbabwe in 2000 go unpunished.

Helms died in 2008. What did not die were his ultra-conservative ideals. The likes of Jeff Flake were there to pick up the baton and run with it.

Flake, who together with Chris Coons is one of the sponsors of this new ZIDERA amendment, is no less colourful in the racial stakes than his mentor Helms was.

In 1987, Flake testified before the Utah State Senate in support of a resolution expressing support for the apartheid government of South Africa.

And here is more irony. While Flake today supports sanctions on Zimbabwe, Flake at the time said he opposed sanctions on the apartheid regime because they only worsened the living conditions for black South Africans. So, while ordinary Zimbabweans matter little under sanctions today, ordinary South Africans had to be protected?

But while Flake has since tried to paint himself as a progressive conservative, evidence close to home points elsewhere. This year, it was reported that Jeff Flake's teenage son, Tanner, went by the name “n1ggerkiller” in an online game, and posted YouTube comments using the word “nigger”. Flake had to apologise on his son’s behalf.

With such history of Helms and Flake, it is no surprise that at the core of the new sanctions law is a demand for Zimbabwe to respect the SADC Tribunal ruling on land reform.

“It is the sense of Congress that the Government of 25 Zimbabwe and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) should enforce the SADC tribunal rulings from 2007 to 2010, including 18 disputes involving employment, commercial, and human rights cases u surrounding dispossessed Zimbabwean commercial farmers and agricultural companies.”

The SADC Tribunal ruling is no insignificant matter, on several accounts. Firstly, it basically demands that white farmers be compensated for the land lost. According to their unions, they want at least $30 billion for the land. The Zimbabwe government has promised only compensation for improvements, not the land itself.

Secondly, the SADC Tribunal made two more serious rulings. First, that land reform was racially motivated and therefore discriminatory and illegal under the Constitution. Secondly, that those affected must get back their land. The sum total, then, of anyone obeying the SADC Tribunal, is that land reform will be declared illegal and reversible.

This is never going to be possible, whether under the current Zanu-PF government or even under any current opposition party.

The demand for Zimbabwe to observe the SADC Tribunal ruling stands out among all the other demands in this amended sanctions bill. All other matters are there to make weight, in reality.

Whether it is today and Flake, an apartheid defender, or yesterday and Helms, a supporter of Rhodesia, the central demand has always been on land. None of the parties in Zimbabwe today can deliver on that demand. None ever will.

The reality is that whoever takes charge of Zimbabwe, now or in the future, has to live with the reality of working under the punishment of US sanctions. You took land and you must be made an example of. If it was really about democracy and all the other reasonable demands, half the world would be under their versions of ZIDERA.

The question is: are local opposition leaders supporting the continuation of sanctions really aware of what is at stake?

Anyone who thinks that this is just about free elections is either naïve or refusing to read history. We all know what this is about.






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