Saturday, January 24, 2009


23rd January 2009

Dear Friends,

Along with billions of others worldwide I watched the television coverage of President Obama's inauguration. An estimated two million people were there in the bitter sub-zero temperatures to witness this truly historic event. They had waited all night, huddled in blankets to see the first African American installed as President of the most powerful nation on earth. They had to see it for themselves, they said, or they would never believe it was true; the 'dream' of Martin Luther King was one big step closer to reality.

It was awe-inspiring to see the huge crowds stretching down the Mall in front of the Capitol - built incidentally by African slaves - an endless sea of waving flags and cheering people. 'O-bama,O-bama,O-bama, they chanted and then there was absolute silence, not a single sound from that vast crowd as he started to speak. From his very first words, "My fellow citizens" we knew that we were witnessing a democratic transition of power. This was the people's victory, a victory of "Hope over fear".

For Africans watching, and I count myself a white African, the event itself and the words President Obama spoke had a tragic resonance. It was impossible not to apply his message to our own situation in Zimbabwe, every phrase, every nuance of meaning seemed to strike directly at the very heart of our own tragic situation where a dictatorship rules through violence and fear. Obama seemed to speak to oppressed people all over the world while at the same time honestly acknowledging America's mistakes of the past: "the greed and irresponsibility on the part of some that had brought about the economic collapse, the worn our dogmas that for far too long have strangled our nation." One after another, the phrases leapt out of the new President's speech, " All are equal, all are free, all deserve a chance to pursue happiness." He spoke of power and the need to establish trust between those who wield power and the people they govern. Power that does not entitle governments to do as they please, he said, but to establish, "Vital trust between the people and their government…the rule of law and the rights of man…ideals that still light the world." And in words which could have been addressed directly to our own dictator in Harare he said, " To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society's ills on the west, know that history will judge you on what you can build not on what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
Was Robert Mugabe watching as President Obama spoke these words? Certainly his state broadcasting corporation did not give the Zimbabwean masses a chance to see this momentous event on their screens. They totally ignored President Obama's Inauguration and showed an old movie instead - but then reality is not something the regime knows much about. And having lambasted the US as the wicked western imperialist power in the past, what will they find to say now about a country " whose patchwork heritage" of men and women of different races and religions has freely elected the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother to govern them for the next four years? Zimbabwe too has a patchwork heritage, men and women of different ethnic backgrounds which, as Obama pointed out is a strength not a weakness. It is Mugabe and Zanu PF who have divided us; like the racist colonial regimes of the past they have used race and ethnic difference to divide us one from another. There has been no national vision, no leadership from the top, no honest admission of mistakes made and none of the "humility and restraint" that Obama spoke about. All we have seen and continue to see is arrogance and brute force. Witness Grace Mugabe's outrageous attack on a hapless photographer who spotted her leaving a £2000 a day hotel in Hong Kong and dared to take a picture of her. Her guards held the man down while she beat him about the face with her diamond encrusted hands. No "tempering quality of humility and restraint" there.

For me the over-riding memory of President Obama's Inauguration is not just the power and eloquence of his speech, though that was memorable enough, it was his appeal to all that is best in human nature, all that is noble and good. He reached out to every man and woman and spoke to their "willingness to find meaning in something other than themselves". No doubt in the years to come the new President will make mistakes, maybe not fulfil all his goals but feeling the love that poured out to him from the millions of people, black, white and every colour in between, standing there in the bitter cold of that January day he can be sure that he has the trust and affection of the people he governs. Can Robert Mugabe say the same? Can he unclench his fist long enough to take the hand of friendship held out to him by this fellow African in the White House? Sadly, from everything we know of Mugabe, we can say that is highly unlikely. Neither is it likely, judging from various comments I have read this week, that Zimbabweans themselves will do more than grumble and blame the politicians, Morgan Tsvangirai in particular, for failing to bring about change. They appear to have forgotten that it was not Morgan Tsvangirai who destroyed our economy; it was not Morgan Tsvangirai who made us a nation of near-starving beggars or almost destroyed the rule of law through subornation of the judiciary and police force. It was not Morgan Tsvangirai who made the name Zimbabwe synonymous with human rights abuse and wrongful arrest. It was Robert Mugabe whose corrupt and totally incompetent government brought about this tragic transformation of our once prosperous land, forcing millions of Zimbabweans into exile. Instead of blaming the opposition leader, would it not be more honest for us to admit that it is in part our own failure to support the few brave men and women who have overcome their own fear and dared to hope for a better Zimbabwe. Have we, the people done enough to bring about the longed-for change? In the words of an earlier President of the United States: "Ask not what your country can do for you but rather what you can do for your country."

Yours in the (continuing) struggle, PH.



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