In our era of doublespeak, dictators get peace prizes

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President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has ruled since 1980 as a despot responsible for major human right abuses, yet was offered a peace prize last year in China, and was received warmly in Japan this month

While South Africans have been preoccupied lately about Guptagate and the future of the country in which a liberation movement leader – President Jacob Zuma – has become a betrayer of the struggle for a democratic country, the bizarre antics of another African liberation leader in our northern neighbour should give us pause.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, 92, has led the country since independence in 1980, his rule characterised by violent land seizures, economic decline, mass emigration and systematic human rights abuses. Zimbabwe is a foreboding symbol for South Africans of the direction in which our country should never go. Yet the world of realpolitik is governed by different values.

On Monday, Mugabe was warmly received by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, although the United States and European countries have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe for human rights violations. He was visiting Japan for the fourth time as president.

The Japanese leader said he wanted to work with Mugabe to help with Japan’s push to reform the UN Security Council. He called him an esteemed African elder. Not surprising to some analysts, since Mugabe even chaired the African Union in 2015 – to the chagrin of human rights activists.

In October 2015, Chinese scholars awarded Mugabe the Confucius Peace Prize, which was set up in 2010 as a Chinese alternative to the Nobel Peace Prize. This happened after the Norwegian Nobel committee gave its peace prize to the jailed Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, enraging Chinese leaders who had jailed him for co-writing a pro-democracy manifesto.

At the time of the Confucius award, the Chinese President referred to Mugabe as a renowned African liberation leader and an “old friend” of the Chinese people. Previous winners of the Confucius prize include Vladimir Putin and Fidel Castro. Mugabe, however, was reported to have declined to follow up on the award.

The title “1984” was given by satirical author George Orwell in 1949 to his iconic book about doublespeak – the crazy world of Big Brother in which peace means war, freedom means slavery, love means hate, and other inversions deriving from politicians’ machinations. But he might just as well have called it 2016, so contradictory is the world these days.

Qiao Damo, the chairman of the Confucius award committee, said he supported recognising Mugabe’s achievements: “If Zimbabwe did not have Mugabe as its president, the country would be facing great difficulty…”

We live in a strange world, where a peace prize is offered to the despot of Zimbabwe and the world’s most powerful countries welcome him enthusiastically.

It is not that Japan and China are regarded as rogue regimes, however, engaging in indecent diplomacy. On the contrary, they are respected members of the international community with excellent relations with virtually the entire world, including South Africa and Israel.

The welcome mat laid out for Mugabe comes in the context of competition between China and Japan for influence in Africa, which is seen as presenting major economic growth potential. A conference on African development is due to be held in the near future in Kenya, sponsored by Japan. South Africa has amicable relations with both Asian countries.

When Dore Gold, DG of Israel’s foreign ministry visited South Africa last month, he enthusiastically told a Jewish community gathering in Sandton that Israel was also developing closer ties with both China and Japan, particularly on agriculture and technology, thus disproving allegations that it was becoming isolated internationally due the activities of BDS and its policies towards the Palestinians.

While Guptagate has caused embarrassment and anger among South Africans at the failure of the country’s first black government to govern properly, the fact that there is such a furore across the spectrum about Zuma’s corruption and self-enriching shenanigans should give us satisfaction. The uproar proves that the determination of South Africans for building a free, prosperous, non-racial country remains intact, despite the setbacks.

Also, the fact that it has been exposed by our vigorous free press to all and sundry is cause for celebration. This could not have happened in Zimbabwe, which still stands as a portent for where we don’t want to go.

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email geoffs@icon.co.za)

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