Zimbabwe: Where Are You, Comrades?

This is a guest post by Ben Cohen, editor of Z-Word 

Consider the following scenario:

An international mining conglomerate is poised to honor a $400m deal which will bolster an African dictator currently visiting murderous violence upon his people. Said dictator is following through with a sham election which the opposition, as a result of grotesque intimidation, has been forced to pull out of. The conglomerate is headquartered in a democratic country governed by a party affiliated with the Socialist International; said government has urged companies not to conduct business with the dictator. But the mining conglomerate is defending its position by pointing to the economic benefits of the deal, neglecting to mention that, as a result of the dictator’s abuses, inflation is so off the charts that not even the IMF can track it anymore.

Now the question: what should the left do?

As most of you will have worked out, the above isn’t a hypothetical. The dictator is Robert Mugabe, the country is Zimbabwe, the conglomerate is Anglo-American and the left is…where, exactly?

One would be correct in thinking that all the elements are in place for an energetic public campaign led by the left. You’ve got the profit motive, you’ve got one of the beneficiaries of those profits using them to step up repression against democracy activists and trade unionists, you’ve got a proud tradition of solidarity with Africa on the left, best exemplified by the campaign against the former apartheid regime in South Africa.

But, so far as I can tell, that campaign doesn’t exist. Anglo-American has been targeted in the past by activists and NGOs protesting its international operations, from The Philippines to Alaska, but I cannot find a mention of Zimbabwe.

More to the point, whatever individual protests might have taken place are hardly a substitute for a coherent strategy which targets Mugabe and those doing business with him.

Yet that coherent strategy does exist in the case of another country. Those pushing this strategy have made it so well-known that it can be recognized by an acronym – BDS (that’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, for those of you not with the program.) One company in particular – Caterpillar , which produces tractors and bulldozers – has been the object of sustained protests, even inside its Annual General Meeting.

Again, no prizes for guessing that the country I’m referring to here is Israel. And no, I’m not trying to get into a debate about whether Mugabe is worse than the Israeli government, because it should be evident to anyone with a moral compass that he is.

I am raising a different issue. I am asking why the left refuses to elevate Zimbabwe to Palestinian levels of importance. I am asking why the left does not devote its time and its resources to making the streets shake with outrage over the Anglo-American deal, as happens when George W. Bush flies into London or Paris or Rome.

There will be many answers, most of which I am familiar with. The most obvious one is that the “anti-imperialist” paradigm which determines who is worthy of solidarity precludes a country like Zimbabwe and, more broadly, any country with a historically progressive reputation that happens to be repressing its own people. It is a viewpoint which is common among activists and in UN circles – for example, the former Special Rapporteur for the Palestinian Territories, John Dugard, who identified “apartheid, occupation and colonialism” as the greatest offences a state can commit, but didn’t mention genocide or systemic denial of democratic rights.

How much longer can the left (more accurately, large parts of it) identify with these politics? I ask this now not as someone who writes about, among other things, anti-Zionism, but as someone who believes that Zimbabwe has reached a stage where mass protests – the sorts of protests like those under the slogan “Don’t Attack Iraq! Freedom for Palestine!” – are sorely needed.

Where are you, comrades?