Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: When loyalty gets the better of morality

Monday 23 June 2008 00:00

Zimbabwe bleeds, burns and moans as vicious cruelty and political intimidation destroy the democratic process. Thabo Mbeki, the one leader in Southern Africa who could deal with Mugabe, will not do so because this Zebra man, as he's been described, thinks in black and white stripes, trajectories that never can meet or merge. He once tellingly wrote: "Those who, in the interests of their white 'kith and kin', did what they could to deny the people of Zimbabwe their liberty for as long as they could, have become eminent defenders of the democratic rights of the people of Zimbabwe."

It was a bitter and not wholly inaccurate observation, even though he himself has been an irredeemable disgrace. The "kith and kin" factor impels the West to attend to the violations in Zimbabwe relentlessly; the same "ethnic" empathy was also aroused when Kenya, home of white settlers, was in danger of blowing apart. Congo, Uganda, Somalia and other conflict regions, even Darfur, are of less concern because it is only blacks killing each other.

It is also a fact that after Zimbabwe gained independence, too many white farmers treated their workers exactly as they did under Ian Smith's regime, as subhuman beasts of burden. Clare Short was appallingly wrong-headed when she, in government, refused to honour Britain's obligations to help compensate white farmers losing their lands to indigenous people. In contravention of the spirit of the Lancaster House agreement, she wrote a letter to Mugabe, in that Shortish, brusque tone she takes, saying that previous history was over and as someone of Irish origins she was the "colonised, not a coloniser". She should have witnessed some of the Irish upholders of the empire in Africa.

Many white readers will, by now, be thinking that I am sounding off again only to blame them for everything in perpetuity. Not so. The treatment of white Zimbabweans today is indefensible. What Mbeki describes above, the "kith and kin" affinity, is also his affliction, and one that shamefully infects leading Africans who do not protect populations from cruelly capricious, megalomaniac leaders. Not much public concern is apparent in Africa over the killings in Congo, Uganda, Somalia and Darfur. An unspoken code warns that you do not criticise your own, even when they are destroying your own.

The revered Mandela is here for his 90th birthday celebrations, a great soul without a doubt. He could, indeed should, condemn what is going on in Zimbabwe, which must be breaking his fragile heart. I don't think he will, because of the anxiety that to do so is to side with whiteness. Yes, even the great Mandela cannot always rise above race.

What a terrible thing this ancestral loyalty is, and yet so powerful and pervasive. So, vociferously anti-Zionist Muslims damn Israel but will not condemn murderous Arabs in Darfur. Kinship ties the tongues of too many Jewish people around the world who should be speaking up against the systematic brutalisation by Israel of Palestinians in Gaza.

Individuals, groups, and nations need to break out. Can be done. As gun crime increases, Afro-Caribbean Britons, who once were closed in and overprotective of their folk, today speak out and act with grim determination to deal with the problem. Those who most opposed the war in Iraq were citizens whose governments committed to the venture. When morality is trapped in ethnicity or race, it ceases to be moral. And we see the result of that moral collapse in Zimbabwe.

Let's hear it from a real hero

Guests gasped last week as a light illuminated a new BBC memorial to journalists victimised for revealing truths about war, oppression and corruption. The inverted glass cone on a rooftop near Broadcasting House is at once delicate and breakable, transparent and bold.

The poet and war correspondent James Fenton wrote poignant verses for the occasion, which John Simpson read out. Bad choice. Brilliant but vain. The globe, for Simpson, exists inside himself. It should have been Frank Gardner. Shot and disabled while on duty in Saudi Arabia, he stood straight-backed, holding on to his walking frame, the embodiment of the pluck, integrity and humility of great journalism. Yes, it should have been him.

* Watching Gordon Brown sucking up to George Bush was nauseating for the many proud Britons who really do believe it is time for a more grown-up and equal relationship between us and the US.

But while we understand the perils of political surrender, we don't see that other danger, cultural domination. American stuff, like, spreads across our isles, like, from vacuous words to horrid fads and rites. Halloween first. Then came ghastly children's pageants too.

Touring with my show in the north of England, I discovered at several hotels High School proms – teenagers in taffeta and tails copying their US counterparts. My American sister-in-law tells me that they now have graduation ceremonies with gowns and hats for kids moving from nursery to primary schools. Soon bound to show up here. Oh ye gods.


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