When I was a child I remember once playing a game about Idi Amin with my sister. In our home he was the devil himself, having devastated my mother’s country and sent many of my family into exile. The game was about what we would do if we caught him. It was clear to us that a mere hanging or shooting would not be enough. We needed to torture him alive, boil him in oil, cut his limbs into little pieces.
But this was not enough: nothing we could do, it seemed, could be enough for all he had done. So we allowed ourselves supernatural power. The only way would be to kill him off in some horrible way, then revive him and find a more inventive way to kill him; and this would go on and on until eternity.
Once we had solved that problem, we felt free to bounce around and play some other children’s game. For the process had nothing to do with us. It was simply a way for us to feel less vulnerable.
A few weeks ago I wrote a column where I compared Mugabe with a haemorrhoid. It seemed appropriate at the time — like so many, I become infected with the “what do we do about Mugabe” disease.
Here is the stupidity of this approach: the moment I had finished writing the piece, I changed my mind. I decided that Mugabe is not a haemorrhoid. He is a cancer and so to remove him needs chemotherapy. Ah! Here was a more horrible thing to call him.
Meanwhile, a Mr AC Grayling, in a similar froth to mine, decided to suggest in the British Guardian newspaper that Mugabe be arrested, sent to The Hague and tried. An unworkable and hysterical idea.
Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah had no time for Grayling. She responded: “Let’s take away his honorary degrees. Let’s remove his knighthood. We won’t play games with him, it’s simply not cricket. Keep him away from international summits. And if he goes, we won’t go — Let’s lock him up in The Hague and throw away the key. Put his effigy on a donkey and do a skimmity ride through the town.
“Calls for Mugabe to be tried in The Hague may seem like substantive proposals and not dramatic stunts, but they are more of the same ineffectual busy nothingness; the West must be seen to be doing something even if ultimately it is doing nothing.
“Not only do these empty gestures fail to address the problem, they prevent proper analysis and examination and, by setting the terms of the debate, become part of the problem.”
Meanwhile Mugabe’s primary source of power becomes the power we give him. The man is bouncing around Zimbabwe with the energy of a five-year-old powered by Duracell. It is him and his against the world. The New York Times will headline him. The BBC and George Bush too. Mugabe is getting the attention no African leader ever gets. He is a big deal. And this is his fuel. He wakes up each morning to see the world screaming at him — and it fails. He dominates the whole narrative.
And the narrative has become base and simple: we will heave and haemorrhoid Mugabe, the whole world pushes and pushes and then he topples. We say. And in our fantasy, Mbeki switches off the electricity, stands and wags his finger at Mugabe and the man implodes like a balloon.
If Mbeki uses all his muscles, Mugabe and his allies will grow. They will buy generators and play war games. If the African Union condemns him, he will thrive. We know this; we refuse to accept the messiness of the situation. All those old Chimurenga warhorses are reliving the war — it is them against the world. The personal economies of Mugabe’s allies benefit from the anarchy and fear.
But much of our impotence is manufactured: the truth is that Mugabe’s regime is on its last legs. The hysteria of his actions now, the escalating political violence and the general incoherence of things are more about his sticky end than any sort of meaningful triumph. He knows this and wants to go down grandly. We may not see the vengeance we want.
The more meaningful story about Zimbabwe now is how it has held together; how its citizens inside and outside the country have mobilised; how the electoral commission has managed to put together a relatively free and fair election under what must be unbearable pressure. What is remarkable to me is the sheer variety and quality of Zimbabweans working abroad and doing well; that property prices in Harare continue to rise, as locals refuse to sell up and diaspora Zimbabweans buy homes that wait for the coming change. If nothing, that is the clearest sign that there is a hidden tensile strength in that nation. It will stand strong again.