Mary was born in 1903. A gentle, generous soul, she lived in her farmhouse by herself following the death of her husband after 65 years of marriage.
Mary watched the television news each evening, often being troubled by the images she saw. One day, bringing in tea in china cups from her kitchen, she talked about a report from Africa she had seen the previous evening.
“Every country is entitled to its freedom”, she said, “but I don’t think anyone starved in the days of the Empire”.
I recoiled at her comment. It was like something from a bygone age, but I reflected on it many times in the years since, I don’t think Mary would have known the meaning of the word ‘racist’, nor would she have known words like ‘paternalistic’. Mary called things as she saw them from her little farmhouse and who was I to say that I was right and she was wrong?
Mary’s comments came back to me when reading an Irish Times report yesterday that fourteen African leaders had come out in support of Robert Mugabe.
It continues to astonish me that a man who has robbed his country, bloodily suppressed any opposition and reduced his people to destitution should still command any respect.
I remember meeting a black Zimbabwean priest two years ago. Strongly opposed to the corruption of the Mugabe regime, he could not understand people he met in Britain who still thought Mugabe had been a good leader. He told me about going to another African country where the official at the passport control had seen his Zimbabwean passport and said, “You have a good leader. He stands up to the whites”.
Had a European immigration officer made such a comment about a politician opposing blacks, he would quite rightly have been dismissed from his post, but the reverse seems almost acceptable in some quarters.
Racism is at the very heart of Mugabe’s survival. Racism is racism whatever the direction of the prejudice and the prejudice has been against those who don’t share Mugabe’s ethnic identity. The racist card is always the refuge of the scoundrel trying to deflect blame from himself for his ineptitude and robbery. The people who suffer are, of course, not the United Kingdom, against whom Mugabe directs so much of his ire, but the poor of his own country.
It is not politically correct to call things as they are – even democratic South Africa has been loathe to criticise its neighbour – but the choice must be between political correctness and the survival of millions of African people. Courageous church leaders in Zimbabwe have spoken against the evil of the Mugabe regime; it behoves the rest of us to support them, to name the truth, no matter how uncomfortable that might be.