Many had hoped that the coming of a new administration led by President Donald Trump in America was going to usher in a fresh foreign policy trajectory. This deduction was wrong. Let me explain.
A few days after elections in Zimbabwe in 2018, US President Donald Trump signed the amended sanctions law on Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act.
Once it had passed both Congress and Senate, President Trump had no need for ruminating on it.
Some analysts would have the public believe that this had to do with the tragic events of August 1. This was not the case.
Before the results were out, and before that tragedy, US Congresswoman Karen Bass, who was part of the American IRI-NDI observer mission, had said Trump was going to sign the new ZIDERA Bill, whatever the outcome of the poll.
“It went through both houses, so I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t sign it,” she told a press conference in Harare.
I sincerely think we need to swiftly dispel certain misconceptions and outright lies about the US sanctions on Zimbabwe. The first misconception is that sanctions would have been lifted had Zimbabwe held an election whose outcome was accepted by all.
This misconception is blatant misinformation. If we are knowledgeable about the demands of the amended sanctions law then we would easily come to the obvious conclusion that there is more to the demands of a transparent poll, the presence of international observers, a free media open to all, a clean voters’ roll and free campaigning for all parties.
Suffice to say these are steps that any government takes, whether demanded by a foreign power or not.
These are the bare minimum for any country. Since President Emmerson Mnangagwa came to power, he has consistently said that he aspires to establish a democratic State that is “Open for Business”.
So the fact that the US demands these steps to be taken does not mean they are not also the demands of ordinary Zimbabweans.
However, it would be absurd and naive to ignore the fact that these would never have been enough to stay Trump’s pen.
We need to look at the core of the sanctions law, and the history of the sanctions on Zimbabwe. Even more importantly, one has to look at the politics of those that have sponsored the sanctions law, from back in 2001 when the law first came, and today, with the amendments.
Let us begin where it all started. On March 8, 2001, US senators Bill Frist and Russ Feingold introduced the bill. It was a bipartisan effort; politicians from across the aisle pushed for the law. But it is not the likes of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, who were also part of the sponsors, who tell the story best.
It is one Senator Jesse Helms in 2001, and Senator Jeff Flake in 2018.
Helms was the arch-promoter of the sanctions bill. It is barely surprising. Sifting through all the debris in that original bill, from demands for Zimbabwe to withdraw from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to democracy, the fulcrum of the law was the land issue.
Helms was a strong supporter of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). An unapologetic racist, throughout his career, Helms once ran an advert that screamed: “White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories? Frank Graham favours mingling of the races.”
When the Civil Rights Act passed through Congress in 1964, removing discrimination against blacks, Helms denounced it as “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced”.
He described civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King, and his followers as “communists and sex perverts”.
Here is the irony. While Helms campaigned for sanctions to be imposed on Zimbabwe in the post-independence era, he once campaigned against sanctions on Rhodesia. In July 1979, Bishop Abel Muzorewa visited the US at Helms’ invitation. Helms wanted to introduce him to US power-brokers, including President Jimmy Carter, as the legitimate leader of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia.
Carter was required by law to end the sanctions if the 1979 sham election, which brought Muzorewa to power, was deemed representative enough. The election had disenfranchised large parts of the population and Carter was obviously reluctant. Still, here was Helms, hand-holding the House Negro Bishop through Capitol Hill, seeking endorsement for an illegitimate leader and demanding that Carter lifts sanctions.
Helms wrote to say “by any objective standard” Rhodesia’s elections were free and fair.
In the 1980s, Helms and Bob Dole, later a US presidential candidate, campaigned to have the US suspend support for Mozambique government and support Renamo, a rebel movement founded and supported by apartheid South Africa. Not surprisingly Helms campaigned for sanctions against the new black government in Zimbabwe, demanding the cutting off of all aid and trade as early as 1981.
In 1969, Thomas M Pelly, a Republican congressman from Washington, introduced a resolution urging the US to immediately stop buying chrome from the Soviet, but to trade with Rhodesia instead.
Rhodesia, he said, was a “nation that never has been responsible for the death of even one US citizen”.
During the Lancaster House negotiations, Helms dispatched two of his aides to support Ian Smith’s delegation. So, a friend of Rhodesia was never going to let the land reform that began in Zimbabwe in 2000 go unpunished.
Helms died in 2008. However, what did not die are his ultra-conservative ideals. The likes of Jeff Flake were there to pick up the baton.
Flake, who together with Chris Coons is one of the sponsors of this new ZIDERA amendment, is no less colourful in the racial stakes than his mentor Helms.
In 1987, Flake testified before the Utah State Senate in support of a resolution expressing support for the apartheid government of South Africa.
And here is more irony. While Flake today supports sanctions on Zimbabwe, Flake at the time said he opposed sanctions on the apartheid regime because they only worsened the living conditions for black South Africans.
So, while ordinary Zimbabweans matter little under sanctions today, ordinary white South Africans had to be protected?
But while Flake has since tried to paint himself as a progressive conservative, evidence close home points elsewhere. Not so long ago, the former Senator’s teenage son, Tanner, went by the name “n1ggerkiller” in an online game, and posted YouTube comments using the word “nigger”. Flake had to apologise on his son’s behalf.
With such history of Helms and Flake, it is no surprise that at the core of the new sanctions law is a demand for Zimbabwe to respect the SADC Tribunal ruling on land reform.
“It is the sense of Congress that the Government of 25 Zimbabwe and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) should enforce the SADC tribunal rulings from 2007 to 2010, including 18 disputes involving employment, commercial, and human rights cases u surrounding dispossessed Zimbabwean commercial farmers and agricultural companies.”
The demand for Zimbabwe to observe the SADC Tribunal ruling stands out among all the other demands in this amended sanctions bill. All other matters are there to make weight, in reality.
Whether it is today and Flake, an apartheid defender, or yesterday and Helms, a supporter of Rhodesia, the central demand has always been on land. The reality is that whoever takes charge of Zimbabwe, now or in the future, has to live with the reality of working under the punishment of US sanctions.
You took land and you must be made an example of. If it was really about democracy and all the other reasonable demands, half the world would be under their versions of ZIDERA.
Are local opposition leaders supporting the continuation of sanctions really aware of what is at stake?
Anyone who thinks that this is just about democracy and human rights is either naïve or refusing to read history.
We all know what this is about.