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Victor Dlamini

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Urge to Condemn Mugabe Threatens Intellectual Independence

The urge to condemn Robert Mugabe seems to create an irresistible desire for acquiescence and a reckless disregard for intellectual independence, as shown by the overzealous “review” and profile of Ngugi wa Thiong’o by Maureen Isaacson in her 18 March Sunday Independent piece, “Mugabe surprisingly not on Thiong’ O’s list of goofball dictators”. (Note that only Independent subscribers can read articles online.)

Isaacson seems to have thrown away any interest in what Ngugi has to say in his novel Wizard of the Crow, and instead embarked on a one-woman drive to use her literary space to launch an assault on Robert Mugabe. It is doubtful if Isaacson read Wizard of the Crow ahead of the interview, because if she did she would have known that the text denounces in no uncertain terms any form of dictatorship, obviating the need to press Ngugi to “name names”.

I’m privy to a first-hand report of the interview that suggests Isaacson was only interested in getting Ngugi to utter an inflamatory statement against Mugabe, and that she had no interest whatsoever in the condemnation of dictatorship that Ngugi articulates with such creative zeal in the 766 pages of his fable of a crazed dictator, the second “Ruler of Aburiaria”, and his assortment of henchmen (including the colourful but dreadful Machokali). When Ngugi would not be drawn into an attack of the sort that would satisy Isaacson, she decided to go for the writer’s literary jugular, with the piece linked to above. (She followed it with a more literary-minded article about Ngugi in the following week’s paper, “Ngugi’s life of reversals and essential connections”, but that doesn’t mitigate the problems with her original piece.)

The following letter by Sandile Ngidi, written in response to Isaacson’s piece, has not been printed by the Sunday Independent, even though Ngidi sent it to them as soon as her article appeared, and it is indeed unfortunate that there is this high handed manner of dealing with writers when their texts should be enough to deduce what their position is on any topic.

    To the editor:
    Maureen Isaacson’s ‘Mugabe surprisingly not on Thiong’O’ list of goofball dictators,” (March 18) is ridiculous and fundamentalist. Since a respected Sunday Independent books editor wrote it, the prejudicial reductionism is even more unfortunate.

    Isaacson wrote in her column, “This week, news of the crackdown in Zimbabwe on the skull of Morgan Tsvangrai, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change leader, has bloodied the mood. But Thiong O’s not talking about the breakdown of ubuntu and uhuru. All he will say when I ask him about Robert Mugabe’s rule in Zimbabwe is: ‘I am fascinated by Britain’s hypocrisy on the land question.’” Later she says: “For a man who has himself come under the boot for refusing to lick up to power, Thiong’O is oddly silent on this one. When pressed to comment on Mugabe, he says that he does ‘not condone torture and the breakdown of the democratic space.’” Why re-imprison Ngugi by caging him in this warped fashion?

    Judging from the very words Isaacson attributes to Ngugi, the distinguished author is not a fan of Mugabe nor does he derive pleasure from the chaos and bloodletting that is going on in Zimbabwe. The insinuation to the contrary is therefore cheap and clumsy. For her it is not good enough that Ngugi makes a statement of principle and condemns the injustices in that country whilst also locating it within a historical context. As is often the case with fundamentalism, Isaacson asks a question whose answer she has already determined. Since her first prize is Mugabe’s head, Ngugi dismally fails her righteous cause when he does not deliver this trophy. Why should Ngugi or anyone for that matter be subjected to this fanatical brainwashing?

    In every respect the crisis in Zimbabwe is abominable and cannot be justified. On the same token it does not help the situation if people who should know better settle for cheap jibes and pious self-assuring attacks on others. This is a disturbing trend that unfortunately is advanced in a knee-jerk manner that only sensationalises instead of rationalising issues. It thrives on forcing people to mistake being a patriot with being a parrot Isaacson’s conclusion that because South Africans have for decades been listening to Thiong’O’s urgings to decolonise our colonised minds, “we should not have to beg him to discuss the state of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe,” is spurious.

    Ironically it is against this very kind of barbaric fundamentalism that Ngugi warns us about when he says our minds ought to be decolonised. After all, colonialists told Africans, it’s either you accept our god or face the raging inferno of hell. It’s either you disown your linguistic, cultural and religious heritage or we condemn you as a pagan and an uncivilised lot. Ngugi, like any other human being – let alone an intellectual figure of his stature – does not need anyone to beg him to behave like a parrot. Suggestions that if he does not jump on the bandwagon, he is pardoning Mugabe and his minions, are simply outrageous, just a desperate effort reach for a headline.

    Sandile Ngidi
    Brixton, Johannesburg