The myth of sanctions
If you tell a big lie, and you tell it often enough, people will believe it. The attribution of this to Josef Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, is fiercely contested.
The propaganda ministry of Zimbabwe's President Mugabe would have had little interest over its authorship of this, one of the most widely quoted pieces of Nazi lore. But they recognised the value of the advice and applied it to a problem of their own: sanctions.
Goebbels would have admired President Mugabe and his juniors in the ZANU(PF) party for their performances as they strike their breasts and weep in sham sorrow over the effect that Western sanctions are having on their beloved land.
A special show of the teeth-gnashing will be produced at the summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Victoria Falls later this week.
Outrage against the lie is trebled by the fact that the ruin of what 15 years ago was a nice, go-ahead little African economy has nothing remotely to do with sanctions, but is an obvious consequence of the greed, venality, barbarism and deceit in what is turning out to be one of the most corrupt regimes in Africa.
In parliamentary elections 2000, Mugabe faced the first effective opposition since independence 20 years before. He terrorised the country and rigged the polls to beat a trade unionist called Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC party.
The United States responded by banning Mugabe and 100-odd of his officials from visiting the US and from keeping investments there. Transactions with a small number of ZANU(PF)-related companies were also blocked.
(Another paragraph in the sanctions legislation obliges US representatives on the boards of the IMF and World Bank to veto applications from Zimbabwe for finance. But as Harare is in hock to these two bodies to the tune of some US$8 billion and can't even pay its wage bill, this piece of sanctions is irrelevant.)
Presidential elections in 2002 were much the same, only this time Mugabe had Pierre Schori, the Swedish head of the European Union election observers, arrested and deported. The EU promptly imposed a similar set of restrictions.
A short while later I was watching Mugabe being interviewed on state television. My ears pricked up when the interviewer asked him, were the sanctions just imposed by the US and the EU going to harm the country's economy?
Oh no, Mugabe replied truthfully. They were travel and financial restrictions imposed only on a small number of senior party figures and would have no effect on the economy.
I do not have the exact words, but the import of what he said is stamped on my memory.
It took a few weeks for the devious minds in ZANU(PF) to snap up an opportunity to turn the restrictions to good effect: They became "a regime change agenda orchestrated by the West, led by the UK and the USA," meant to cause "economic destabilisation through illegal economic sanctions." This would "cause hardship among the population so that the resultant frustration would push the populace into revolt against the government."
The quote is from defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi last month, and I use it to show that the mantra has not altered a jot since 2002.
It is repeated at least three times in the state-controlled newspapers every day, as well as unreadable "features" on the same issue each week. Not a government minister's speech passes without "illegal sanctions" being raised. The hyper-inflation of 2008, caused by reckless printing of money, is now attributed to "illegal sanctions," as is the creeping deflation that is sucking the country into yet another economic collapse.
Crop failure, disease outbreaks, poor exam results, water shortages, electricity outages, potholes - all are laid at the door of "illegal sanctions." They have even put a value - of US$42 billion - on the effect of the alleged sanctions, with no discernible explanation.
"We find excuses all the time," remarked Priscilla Misihairabwi, a leading opposition MP. "We have got to the point where if someone cannot find their underpants, they say it is because of sanctions."
Why "illegal"? Because they were not passed by the United Nations. ZANU(PF) made this up. Any nation can impose sanctions on who it likes.
In a country where radio and television is strictly state-controlled (except for satellite TV which only a tiny part of the population can afford), the saturation repetition of the sanctions myth has been hugely successful. It is with difficulty that you can persuade ordinary Zimbabweans that it is a fiction. Even the local independent papers, more than occasionally, repeat the lie.
Consistency should also be the mark of propaganda, but in the case of the Herald, ZANU(PF)'s propaganda flagship, it doesn't seem to matter. The main body of the paper will carry the sanctions refrain, while the business section inside the paper, without a blush, carries reports of lively business between EU and American companies and Zimbabwe.
Like the fact that last year, the EU imported Euros 417 million of goods, and exported Euros 282 to Zimbabwe. Or that this year, the largest importer of Zimbabwean tobacco is Belgium.
Trade with America is a tenth of that, but it has never been a significant trading partner with the country, except in the 70s when pre-independence Rhodesia exported large quantities of chrome to the USA.
Washington's sanctions affect 113 individuals and 70 companies, US ambassador to Harare Bruce Wharton told an audience here last month. "The rest of Zimbabwe's 12 999 887 people are free to conduct business with the US, including importing goods from the US, exporting to the US, investing in the US and transferring funds through the US," he said.
"ZANU(PF)'s sanctions campaign has been devastatingly successful," said political commentator Eldred Masunungure. "There are myths that are more successful than reality. If Mugabe and his wife are removed from the list, ZANU(PF) will continue singing the same song (about sanctions) until the next election."
Lo and behold: in February the EU delisted all of the ZANU(PF) persons from their sanctions list, save only Mugabe and his wife, Grace. In June the European Court sat to hear an application from Harare businessman and Mugabe aficionado Aguy Georgias to nullify the sanctions against, yes, the 113 officials removed from the list four months previously. He is also claiming US$6 million in damages.
Georgias doesn't seem to recognise a lost cause. He hired a team of very expensive lawyers from London (the heart of the beast?) to take his case, and in March was complaining that he couldn't pay them, and no-one appeared willing to assist him in this matter of "national concern."
Also happy to make fools of themselves is a group of whites calling themselves Zimbabweans Against Sanctions. Led by the otherwise widely admired former Zimbabwe cricket captain Heath Streak, they declared in February that Zimbabwe's development had been "hamstrung" by sanctions and called on Mugabe and British premier David Cameron to meet to resolve their differences.
Nothing more has been heard on this group since the press conference.
But if you want to rile a ZANU(PF) supporter about sanctions, remind him or her that the former white-run Rhodesian government was under severe, real UN trade sanctions that included naval blockades by British warships. The Rhodesian government set up a highly successful policy of import substitution, and sanctions-busting of everything from FN rifles to Boeing 707s. The economy boomed. So what's the problem now?
Morgan Tsvangirai last month spoke of his nostalgia for the days of the Rhodesian economy. The Rhodesian dollar was equivalent to the pound sterling and he was paid Rhodesian $450 a month. "We drank beer until we could vomit," he sighed.
This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.
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