Mugabe's ill-fitting suit of moral outrage

`If dogs and pigs don't do it, why must human beings?'

ZIMBABWE'S President Robert Mugabe is no stranger to the moral high ground. Since the anti-colonial struggle and his first decade in office, when most of his speeches concerned themselves with the iniquitous apartheid regime on his southern border, his natural tone has been that of the champion of right against wrong.

But the moral pose adopted this month in his speeches against homosexuality have a shrill tone: "If dogs and pigs don't do it, why must human beings? Can human beings be human beings if they do worse than pigs?"

Mr Mugabe has made his feelings about practising homosexuals clear before, but his most recent remarks were made in his inaugural address to an international book-fair in Harare whose main theme was "human rights and justice". He said he would not tolerate the open activities of "associations of sodomists and sexual perverts". The Gay and Lesbian Association of Zimbabwe was prevented from exhibiting at the fair.

Mr Mugabe has made something of a habit of attacking easy targets. Sodomy and "unnatural sexual acts" are illegal in Zimbabwe, carrying sentences of up to 10 years. The traditional culture of the country attaches such importance to marriage and child-bearing that anyone side-stepping these rites of passage is likely to be marked down as a misfit or a social outcast.

The Gay and Lesbian Association claims that Shona - the language spoken by 80 per cent of the population - had a word for homosexual (ngochani) before the Europeans arrived late last century. But this is a very flimsy stick with which to beat the president when he insists that homosexuality is a filthy European import. Wallace Zimunya, a gay activist, argues that homosexuality was practised before the arrival of the whites, "but people were silent". It is unlikely, however, that many Zimbabweans would have felt anything but sympathy with Mr Mugabe's riposte to the 70 US Congressmen who wrote to him condemning the "bigotry" of his remarks and who reminded him that attacks on "decent individuals who are . . . responsible citizens but who happen to be gay or lesbian" were simply wrong. Mr Mugabe just told Americans to keep their "sodomy, bestiality, stupid and foolish ways to themselves". "Let the gays be gays in the United States and Europe," he said. "But they shall be sad people here."

As is usual when the presidential neck sticks out, the Women's League were soon massing in the streets eager to hang garlands on it. Some of the marchers praised Adam and Eve as role models, while Oppah Rushesha, secretary for women's affairs in the ruling Zanu (PF) party, claimed "foreign behaviour" was infiltrating Zimbabwe and that human rights should not be allowed to "dehumanise us".

Mr Mugabe has always tailored his words to suit his audience. He is as adept at populist invective at party rallies as he has been at measured restraint on the international stage. But after the latest outburst some observers have started to ask whether the consciously controlled "schizophrenia" of the expert politician who adjusts his tone to his constituency, has started to fray at the edges.

There is a straightforward political advantage to be gained from singling out a vulnerable minority group. Mr Mugabe'sgovernment is riddled with corruption, has a lamentable record of economic management and has failed to satisfy popular expectations in health, education and land reform.

Independence has brought few people outside the ruling Zanu (PF) elite tangible material benefits. Twice as much money is spent on defence as on health, despite the absence of any discernible external threat, while another pounds 3m whack of tax revenue goes straight into the coffers of Zanu (PF). The pestilence of homosexuality is a convenient diversion from popular discontent. Homophobia can be allied to xenophobia - sodomy is a filthy foreign practice - and racism - homosexuals are European, that is, white.

The vitriol may be evidence, however, not of cynical political calculation but of something less rational and more desperate. For Robert Mugabe is a man who has lost his vision. As far as he was concerned Zimbabwe was to be ruled by Zanu (PF) for ever. He was the African Lenin or Mao. He accepts in his mind that the Berlin Wall has fallen, but he gives every impression of keeping a piece of it in his heart. The ideas that minorities must be protected and that governments must be accountable are as foreign to him as sodomy.

Last night, he arrived in Johannesburg for a meeting of the Southern African Development Conference that will discuss forming a human rights commission. Rather than run the gauntlet of 1,000 gay rights protesters chanting slogans such as "Zimbabwe needs a Queen", he left Jan Smuts Airport by a rear exit. But there will be more to worry him on his visit than noisy demonstrators. He finds himself face-to-face with another international statesman of some stature. No one has yet questioned that statesman's respect for human rights, his tolerance or his capacity to put the interests of his country before personal or sectional interests. For Robert Mugabe, it cannot be easy to meet Nelson Mandela.

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