Zimbabwe watcher Chan set for Mugabe's end
5:00AM Saturday October 27, 2007 By Chris Barton
Stephen Chan insists Robert Mugabe isn't mad. But he understands why many think the 83-year-old president of Zimbabwe has lost the plot.
"It does seem so because he's let go and sabotaged the whole foundation of the economic well-being of the country," says the professor of international relations and dean of law and social sciences at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.
"Anybody who does something like that has to seem as if he's not completely balanced."
Chan was there when Mugabe came to power in 1980 and is determined to be in Zimbabwe again at the next elections to bear witness to the machinations he believes will bring about the tyrant's end.
Here to deliver the 2007 Chapman Lectures at Auckland University, Chan argues Mugabe is clearly extreme, but not mad. He points to the president's masterly diplomatic tactics that have out-manoeuvred the likes of Tony Blair and other Western leaders who have wanted him removed. And how, despite the country's atrocious situation - in the midst of perilous food shortages, an Aids pandemic and economic meltdown resulting in an estimated 3500 deaths every week - Mugabe is still able to garner "an awful lot of pan-African sympathy". Hence the title of Chan's lecture yesterday - "The Perplexing and Complex Enigma of Mugabe: Rightly Atrocious or Atrociously Right?"
But if Mugabe is an enigma, so is the 58-year-old Chan. Born in New Zealand to immigrant parents, he rose to fame in the 60s and early 70s as a student activist. He was president of the Auckland University Students Association in 1973 and editor of Craccum in 1971. Of his many protest efforts, the storming of the American Consulate for a sit-in in 1969 is one of the more memorable - the event required synchronisation of the building's lifts so 33 protesters could storm the premises at the same time.
The same year he stood as an independent Labour candidate in New Lynn. He was at university with Helen Clark and Phil Goff and while he admires Helen as "one of the best prime ministers in the world", their political path was not for him.
"By God, they were straight down the line - I didn't want to be like that."
After university he edited the arts newspaper New Argot and, in 1975, the weekly newspaper City News. He also battled the literary establishment of the day, negotiating a place for avant-garde, beat generation poetry among guru figures like James K. Baxter and the "controlled and polished" Karl Stead. "A great deal of the ethos was to try and introduce at least a little bit of anarchy into the whole proceedings." And then, in 1976, the poetry-writing activist with anarchist leanings and a brown belt in karate left, vowing to stay away for at least 10 years.
Was he angry with New Zealand? "Angry is too strong a word. I was a little bit pissed off - frustrated perhaps," says Chan on the phone from London. "I was frustrated that it had been relatively easy to do a very great deal in a short space of time - what I was looking for when I went overseas was to find harder tests."
Which is what he did, gaining another MA and a PhD in London and then making a career out of Africa - first as civil servant with the Commonwealth Secretariat, then in a variety of academic and advisory posts in Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritius, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
In preparation for this trip Chan weighed the pluses and minuses of an eventual New Zealand return.
"I think I'm going to stay out. I'll come back without the ambivalence of the past - I think I have grown out of that now."
Not that he doesn't have feelings for the place. When the All Blacks crashed out the Rugby World Cup he watched the game in South Africa and had to retire to his room with a bottle of whisky. And when he saw Lord of the Rings: Return of the King - in Croatia where his wife, Ranka, is from - the landscape got to him. " It was beautiful and really nostalgic. I got very sentimental and people wondered why this mad Chinese person was blubbering in the middle of a Zagreb cinema."
But Chan cannot live on good scenery alone. "I like going to great orchestras of the world and being involved with great philosophical debates." He likes the intellectual and cultural life he now has: Europe on his doorstep, 100 universities he can "dip in and out of" and the ability to engage with the life of emerging nations in Africa.
"I don't identify myself as a New Zealander. I'm grateful for what it gave me but I see myself far more these days as a cosmopolitan type." Despite his quietly-spoken, cultured British tones, Chan doesn't see himself as particularly British either. But he does admit to European tendencies - strongly advocating the European Union as vital for the international relations of tomorrow. His Chinese heritage is problematic too.
"I certainly see myself as Oriental - when you look like me you can't get away from that." But at a recent meeting in Beijing he overheard his host describe him as "sort of Chinese".
A strange hybrid. It's a phrase Chan uses to describe the work he does - like the tripartite talks between Africa, America and China - "an interesting cocktail". He was with the African delegation - "the chemistry is a fun gig". The Americans - "scared shitless about how much power Chinese might have in the future" - thought he ran the Africans, something, he hastens to add, isn't true. The Chinese used him as an avenue to sweet talk the Americans, and the Africans - many of whom were Chan's friends - were quietly amused. "They're enjoying it, because finally they get to play one off against the other - so they've actually got some muscle to flex."
CHAN has been a Mugabe watcher for some time. One of his books, Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence, published in 2003, chronicles the path of the freedom fighter turned despot. " ... if before it had been possible to speak both well and ill of Mugabe, after the 2000 election it was possible to speak only overwhelmingly ill of him. Complexly bad - not mad - but complexly bad."
In 1980, as a civil servant with the Commonwealth Secretariat, he was part of reconnaissance team sent to what was then Rhodesia to oversee its transition to independence. But while Chan has a long involvement in Zimbabwe, he has never actually met Mugabe.
"I think he knows who I am - I'm told my book was hand-delivered to him and to every member of his politburo but we have never actually exchanged greetings and I'm not really sure that I'd want to right now."
Chan says Mugabe sees himself as a Chairman Mao-like figure who wants to go down in history as a great pioneer of nationalism and who regards the hardship he's caused as something that will eventually bottom out.
"This is very much the case where the grand vision causes so much chaos and so much hurt and hardship to his people that the vision isn't worth it and I don't think it is, quite frankly."
But while Mugabe's farm invasions have been a disaster, what may play out over the coming months to allow the aging megalomaniac a dignified exit is going to cause more outrage.
Chan expects an announcement at the coming African-European summit in December to signal the beginning of the end for Mugabe.
He says a formula has already been brokered by South Africa which will allow for the four million-plus Zimbabweans in exile to vote at the next elections in March. There are also plans for changes to public order legislation and how the vote should be conducted - vital because previous elections were widely viewed as rigged. Chan says the South Africans are hoping they can twist Mugabe's arm enough to make him play along.
"Despite all his tactical brilliance he is running out of options," he says, noting Mugabe is being treated for cancer. "Not even the great Mugabe is immortal."
The bargaining point is what "basket of immunities" Mugabe might be granted. Chan says behind-the-scenes lobbying is under way not to pursue calls to have Mugabe indicted before the Hague for crimes against humanity.
"Most of the people [in Zimbabwe] are struggling to survive - all they want is for an end to this nightmare." Getting their lives back on track in exchange for Mugabe getting to live out the rest of his life in his palatial retirement home is a price Chan claims many are prepared to tolerate.
The scenario he paints is Mugabe winning the election then "going out in a blaze of glory" by handing over to a successor and retiring to a package. His party - the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front - would still be in power, but the new president would magnanimously bring opposition parties such as the Movement for Democratic Change into coalition. "If opposition parties and Mugabe's own party come to an agreement about what they are prepared to tolerate, that's probably about as good as you're going to get."
Chan agrees it's an unsavoury and cynically pragmatic solution. With South Africa in the driving seat, Zimbabwe will, at least, get infrastructural reinvestment it so desperately needs. "In the long run South Africa will be the major beneficiary - they are going to wind up owning Zimbabwe, their engineers and infrastructural experts will lead the way in investment."
As for Mugabe's legacy, Chan says that will be left to history.
Today, Chan still writes poetry and is an 8th dan in Shorin ryu karate and similarly seriously graded in several other martial art forms. He regularly teaches his skills for free to poorer communities in Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Whenever he goes to Zimbabwe, he's aware of being monitored, but he says he'll be there next year. "It would be being untrue to not go back - I'm quite determined, having played a small part in his [Mugabe] getting to power in the first place, that I'm bloody well going to be there when the man goes."
Stephen Chan lectures at Auckland University on October 30 and November 1 - more information at www.auckland.ac.nz.