On a live broadcast at the end of last month, the US National Security Advisor to the White House made reference to the nation of Zimbabwe as a ‘foreign adversary’ of America, stating that along with Russia and China, Zimbabwe was involved in instigating unrest over the killing of George Floyd.
Zimbabweans reacted with shock at the comments on social media, questioning how ‘little Zimbabwe’ could pose such a threat to America. This shock was compounded by the fact that the Zimbabwean government had made no official comment on George Floyd’s death. The accusation appeared to be an unprovoked verbal attack on a nation with little importance for American geopolitical strategy. Many media outlets wrote off the accusation as another bizarre statement in the long history of media gaffes in Trump’s administration.
In fact, something more complex was at play, involving Zimbabwean national politics and the recent Chinese charm offensive on the African continent.
From America to New Zealand, outrage has swept the world over the killing of George Floyd, and Africa has been no exception. For example, in South Africa, a country already in the middle of a heated debate about land expropriation, George Floyd’s killing has added fuel to the national discussion surrounding issues of racial privilege and restitution.
In Zimbabwe, the impact has been profoundly mixed. As a former settler colony with a long history of racial violence, one would be forgiven for thinking the response to George Floyd’s killing would focus on white privilege in a similar way to South Africa.
However, Zimbabwe’s small white population no longer controls farmland in the way South Africa’s larger white population does. In fact, by 2013 every piece of white owned farmland had been forcibly expropriated by the Zimbabwean government, leading to an exodus of many white farmers to neighbouring Zambia and Mozambique.
Over the past three decades internal political struggles have focused on issues of democracy, corruption and economic mismanagement. Robert Mugabe, the countries de-facto dictator since 1987, oversaw a government that was increasingly corrupt and abusive, and a failing economy which was forced to demonetize its own currency in 2015.
When in Mugabe died in 2019 many hoped change was on the horizon. Instead, after a contested election, the people of Zimbabwe have been forced to accept a similarly brutal government under Emmerson Mnangagwa, and more severe economic woes.
Limited sanctions have been imposed on Zimbabwe by America and the EU for several years now. The ruling party, ZANU-PF, has used these sanctions to explain economic failings, whilst the opposition have argued such failings are in fact the result of extreme levels of corruption. Supporters of ZANU-PF frequently accuse any democratic opposition parties within Zimbabwe of being neo-imperialist puppets backed by Western governments.
Initially, the Zimbabwean government did not officially comment on George Floyd’s killing. However, within Zimbabwe, propagandists for the regime were quick to exploit Floyd’s killing for political capital. The most notable proponent of such tactics was Obert Gutu, a former opposition leader, turned de-facto mouthpiece for ZANU-PF. Gutu was quick to argue the killing demonstrated the American government’s innate racism. American sanctions on Zimbabwe were therefore revenge on a country which had thrown off the imperial yoke. Going a step further, Gutu suggested if such a killing had taken place in a developing nation, sanctions would be imposed. Yet America’s privileged position in global politics prevented this.
Although this narrative fit well with traditional ZANU-PF rhetoric, it also aligned nicely with comments concerning George Floyd coming out of China at this point. Chinese-Zimbabwe relations have flourished in recent years, with many Zimbabwean students going to study in China on new scholarship deals. China has also invested heavily into Zimbabwe’s economy, especially the mining sector. The politics of Floyd in Zimbabwe are best demonstrated by Obert Gutu’s comment that schools with colonial names should be renamed after Fay Chung, a Zimbabwean minister of Chinese ethnicity who served in Mugabe’s government.
It may have been this social media offensive which lead to the ‘foreign adversary’ comments in America. Globally, the ‘imperialist America’ narrative fit perfectly when placed alongside state sanctioned commentary from China.
Even as this narrative was being deployed, a vastly different interpretation of events was coming out of the Movement for Democratic Change (Zimbabwe’s main opposition party). When ZANU-PF commentators asked, ‘what if such a killing occurred here?’, MDC was quick to respond, ‘it has, or at least something very similar to it’. Whilst ZANU-PF supporters have focused on broad concepts, like sanctions and neo-imperialism, MDC activists have talked about real life cases of abuse at the hands of Zimbabwe’s police.
On May 17th, MDC reported the abuse and sexual assault of three opposition activists at the hands of the police. Unspecified charges were brought all three women. The three have recently been granted bail on the condition they do not communicate with the media or use social media. The potential for a George Floyd comparison is certainly on the mind of the Zimbabwean judiciary. After all, journalists like Hopewell Chin’ono have been unrelenting in their social media posts attempting to link America’s police violence to Zimbabwean police violence. The case of these three female activists is just one of many stories of abuse at the hands of Zimbabwe’s police.
Opposition activists have also compared the international publicity George Floyd’s death has garnered to the silence over the abuse of opposition activists at the hands of Zimbabwe’s police. The African Union has yet to comment on the treatment of opposition activists in Zimbabwe, whilst it released a statement on George Floyd’s killing almost immediately.
Interestingly, when two Zimbabwean’s were shot by a Chinese mine owner in Gweru a few days ago, ZANU-PF commentators decided George Floyd was an irrelevant comparison. But, whilst the Floyd narrative seems to have diminished in usefulness amongst pro-government commentators, opposition supporters have doubled down, using the statement ‘I can’t breathe’ to describe the impact of corruption and state sanctioned violence in Zimbabwe. The question they must ask: ‘Is anyone listening?’.