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Letters


Will they ever leave?

The London Review let itself be carried away by an uncharacteristic fit of optimism with the cover line of Patrick Cockburn’s latest report on Iraq, ‘America Surrenders’ (LRB, 18 December 2008). There are nearly 150,000 US troops deployed throughout the country, and while they’re perfectly content to let Iraqis do the killing for them (along the lines of Nixon’s ‘Vietnamisation’ strategy), there’s no telling when (or if) they’ll leave. It’s possible, of course, that the Status of Forces Agreement is being ignored in the US because it shows how little America has achieved for its efforts in Iraq. But the failure of the press to report the story fully may also reflect a sensible recognition that Iraq’s real future is being written in the streets, not in parliament. How likely is it that SOFA won’t end up being as useful a guide to Iraqi reality as Stalin’s 1936 Constitution was to Soviet reality? That constitution, which remained in effect until 1977, was described as the most democratic in the world. It included universal direct suffrage and recognised an impressive range of social and economic rights – and wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

Josh Foster
Boston, Massachusetts


Lessons of Zimbabwe

For a number of scholars, Mahmood Mamdani’s ‘Lessons of Zimbabwe’ requires a further response, given Mamdani’s stature as a scholar and public intellectual (LRB, 4 December 2008). Some aspects of his argument are uncontroversial: there was a real demand for land redistribution – even the World Bank was calling for it in the late 1990s as the best way forward in Zimbabwe – and some of the Western powers’ original pronouncements and actions were hypocritical. There is a real danger, however, in simplifying the lessons of Zimbabwe. It isn’t just a matter of stark ethnic dichotomies, the urban-rural divide, or the part played by ‘the West’.

One of the more difficult tasks for scholars working on Zimbabwe is to convince peers working on other areas of Africa to look more deeply at the crisis and not to be fooled by Mugabe’s rhetoric of imperialist victimisation. Mamdani has, unfortunately, fallen in with this rhetoric by characterising Zimbabwean history and politics as fundamentally a battle between what he sees as an urban-based opposition, supported by the West, and a peasant-based ruling party besieged by external forces. This flight of fantasy portrays Mugabe and his Zanu-PF cronies as heroes of a landless peasantry (which is how they see themselves) and the state – backed up by the paramilitary violence of war veterans and others – as the vanguard of a peasant revolution. We suggest that Mamdani acquaint himself with the large body of Zimbabwean scholarship, which is easily available, rather than selectively using the arguments of scholars such as Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros on land reform, and Gideon Gono, Mugabe’s Reserve Bank governor, as his source on sanctions. Citing Gono is rather like using Milton Obote’s writings as a source for conditions in Uganda in the 1960s and 1970s. A starting point for more informed scholarship is the recent Bulletin of the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars, found at http://concerned africascholars.org.

Mamdani’s portrayal of Zimbabwe’s opposition politics is insulting to those who continue to endure so much in their struggle to build a better Zimbabwe. He argues that urban trade unions have always been marginal to the nationalist movement because of their supposed ‘Ndebele leadership’, and that the current opposition follows in this ‘weak’ trade-union tradition as well as being in thrall to Western interests. What he doesn’t mention is the trade unions’ hard-fought battle against repression before and after 1980. There were many challenges to overcome, among which ethnic politics was hardly the most prominent. That leaders such as Morgan Tsvangirai managed to reshape the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) from what had been a pro-Zanu organisation into a viable political opposition by the early 1990s reflects an Africa-wide and Africa-based phenomenon that Mamdani apparently missed. By accepting Zanu-PF’s argument that the MDC is primarily limited to urban areas and is the product of the West, Mamdani’s account loses credibility.

Mamdani has also sugar-coated his portrayal of political violence in Zimbabwe. He fails even to mention that many ‘peasants’ in Shona-speaking Zanu-PF strongholds turned against Mugabe and major Zanu-PF leaders in the March 2008 elections. It was this reversal that sparked a new round of state-sponsored violence against the same Shona peasantry that Mamdani cites as the beneficiaries of Mugabe’s benevolent dictatorship. In addition, during the months preceding the run-off election (April-June 2008), food relief was denied to rural areas, leaving the World Food Programme and other groups to scramble to re-establish supply to the Zimbabwean peasantry Mamdani suggests are at the centre of Zanu-PF’s concern. Repressive legislation and actions by Zanu-PF activists are magically transformed by Mamdani into acts of generosity to outsiders. After noting discrimination against farm workers in gaining access to land on the grounds they or ‘their elders’ came from another country, Mamdani adds that ‘some were given citizenship.’ Yet he omits the fact that just before the 2002 presidential election the Zanu-PF government removed citizenship from many farm workers and other Zimbabweans whose parents or grandparents had non-Zimbabwean citizenship rights. The disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of perceived opposition supporters disappears in Mamdani’s analysis.

Mamdani’s contention that the West, not Mugabe and the Zanu-PF government, is responsible for the current crisis is as dangerous as it is wrong. By selectively citing instances over the past eight years when the West has cancelled donor funding, Mamdani gives the impression that the West has not been involved in sustaining life in Zimbabwe. The reality is that there are whole sections of the Zimbabwean population that the Zanu-PF leadership would rather punish with starvation than allow to support the opposition. ‘We would be better off with only six million people, with our own [ruling party] people who supported the liberation struggle,’ Didymus Mutasa, one of the key insiders in Zanu-PF, said in 2002, when drought again threatened to kill thousands of rural Zimbabweans. ‘We don’t want all these extra people.’ Western food aid has been a lifeline for ‘these extra people’ – when the state has allowed access.

Sanctions cannot excuse the callous disregard for human life Mugabe and his associates have shown, dating back to the Gukurahundi between 1983 and 1986 (which Mamdani glosses over as a brief bout of violence following from the tension between Zanu-PF and the ‘Ndebele unions’ in 1986), or the repeated land seizures which have been going on since the 1980s, the forced removals, violent reprisals, and the withholding of food aid. Furthermore, Mamdani’s suggestion that the fall in direct investment in Zimbabwe is the result of sanctions is dishonest. There are no sanctions against direct investment in Zimbabwe, as shown by Anglo American’s willingness to invest $400 million in Zimbabwe during the summer of 2008 to protect access to platinum mines. There have been large investments from South Africa, India and China, as Mugabe has bartered away the nation’s resources for short-term interests. It is the kleptocracy and violence fostered by Mugabe and Co that has scared off other investors, not sanctions.

At a time when thousands of people in Zimbabwe are threatened by a cholera epidemic – in part at least as a consequence of Zanu-PF’s decision to replace MDC municipal officials with Zanu-PF ‘urban governors’ – and international donors are scrambling to help deal with the collapse of the health sector and widespread hunger, intellectuals such as Mamdani should display more responsibility and less posturing in their attempts to draw meaningful lessons from Zimbabwe.

Jocelyn Alexander, Linacre College, Oxford
Andrea Arrington, University of Arkansas
Michael Bratton, Michigan State University
Bill Derman, Michigan State University
William J. Dewey, The University of Tennessee
Matthew Engelke, London School of Economics
Linda Freeman, Carleton University
Petina Gappah, Zimbabwean writer and lawyer
Kenneth Good, RMIT University Melbourne
David Gordon, Bowdoin College Amanda Hammar, Nordic Africa Institute
David McDermott Hughes, Rutgers University
Diana Jeater, University of the West of England
Tony King, University of the West of England
Bill Kinsey, University of Zimbabwe
Norma Kriger, Cornell University
Todd Leedy, University of Florida
JoAnn McGregor, University College London
Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Showers Mawowa, University of KwaZulu Natal
David Maxwell, Keele University
Donald Mead, Michigan State University
John Metzler, Michigan State University
David Moore, University of Johannesburg
Shylock Muyengwa, University of Florida
Blair Rutherford, Carleton University
John S. Saul, York University
Richard Saunders, York University
Timothy Scarnecchia, Kent State University, Ohio
Anne Schneller, Michigan State University
Marja Spierenburg, Vrije University of Amsterdam
Colin Stoneman, JSAS Editorial Coordinator
Blessing-Miles Tendi, Oxford University
Wendy Urban-Mead, Bard College
Elaine Windrich, Stanford University

Timothy Scarnecchia, Jocelyn Alexander and 33 others

Mahmood Mamdani skates over a number of issues. First, why did Mugabe and the nationalists not opt for a much bigger ‘Kenya-style’ land reform package at their independence negotiations? Several civil servants involved in the process have said they could have got it. Why did they accept the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ clause at all?

Second, Mamdani is silent about the very poor economic performance that got Zimbabwe into the hands of the ‘structural adjusters’ in the first place.

Third, land reform programmes that put large farms into the hands of peasants always lead to reductions in marketed surpluses at first (they did in Kenya), because small farmers’ first priority is to feed their families. Reforms need to be enacted gradually, with as much help as possible to the new smaller-scale producers.

Fourth, I doubt very much whether it makes sense to distinguish the effects of chaotic reform from the effects of drought. Large farms usually have the means to protect themselves from drought, small farmers generally don’t – or not without a lot of help.

Mamdani’s account understates the incompetence of the Zanu-PF government as a factor in Zimbabwe’s economic decline since 1980. Zimbabwe’s land needed to be decolonised, there is no doubt about that. It should have been a priority for the nationalists even before they took power. Thereafter, the aim should have been to maintain and increase exports – and thus foreign exchange earnings from other sources, including inedible cash crops – while reform was brought to bear on food-producing land as quickly as possible. Attention could then have been turned to ‘cash crop’ land. Zanu-PF could, and should, have sought international aid funding to do all this once it was clear the British were not prepared to meet their original commitments.

Mugabe has never, from day one, exercised power with any real regard for the welfare of his people. And that is why he should be got rid of.

Gavin Kitching
University of New South Wales, Sydney

Mahmood Mamdani writes: Returns in the 2008 election suggest that Zimbabwe is a deeply divided society. This is so whether you go by the official count or that of the government. I have argued that this split has three fault lines: urban-rural, ethnic and class. R.W. Johnson (Letters, 18 December 2008) and Timothy Scarnecchia et al disagree, but they have not offered a satisfactory alternative explanation. Instead, they suggest, apparently in unison, that the splits in Zimbabwean society are a result of the machinations of those in power – ‘Mugabe and his cronies’ – who wish to hang on to it at all costs.

In a utopian variation on this argument, Gavin Kitching gives a blueprint of policies that ‘should have been’ followed: he assumes that the will of rulers translates into policies, with no intervening factors, internal or external, historical or contemporary, acting as checks and constraints. Terence Ranger (Letters, 18 December 2008) concludes that whereas ‘Mugabe’s policy may be an inspiration to those in South Africa who want to redress gross inequalities in landholding … it should also be a warning of how not to go about it.’ This is the same verdict I heard in Kampala in 1980 on Amin’s expulsion of Ugandan Asians: he should not have done it this way! My object is not to propose the ‘fast-track reforms’ as a model of land redistribution for South Africa, but to sound a warning about the kind of demagoguery that is likely to follow, should those in power continue to ignore historically just demands.

I do not question that Mugabe and Co desire to hang on to power – at considerable cost – but I do argue that this single fact cannot explain their ability to do so. Nor can fear or intimidation by itself explain why so many who have no power – almost half the Zimbabwean electorate – would vote for the regime. This is not just a split between state and society, as critics of my article suggest, but a case of a society itself being deeply divided.

In my article I identified two divisive issues in particular. The primary issue, in a predominantly rural society just emerging from the settler colonial era, was the land question. The second – whose importance is bound to grow in the aftermath of land redistribution – is the freedom to organise independently of the regime.

The government responded to the exercise of that freedom with a mixture of repression and incorporation. Critics of my article focus only on the former. Repression – especially of trade unions and civil society organisations – has been very marked in the urban areas. A far more nuanced relationship developed between the regime and the war veterans’ organisation, partly because of its historical links to the liberation struggle, and partly because it straddled the two major divisions, between state and society and urban and rural.

The explanation for the fast-track reforms of 2000-3 does not lie in the machinations of government, as these letters suggest, but in the success of the veterans’ mobilisation. The regime’s response evolved as the organisation grew: as I explain in the article, the same government that was initially showered with plaudits for using force to evict squatters was later condemned for using force to redistribute land. I do not believe the official embrace and co-option of the veterans’ organisation can be explained as a conspiracy; the debate on how to respond culminated in a split at the highest levels of power.

Scarnecchia et al dismiss the destructive impact of Western countries, both as drivers of sanctions and as powerful opponents of any regional effort to resolve the Zimbabwean crisis. Let me recall that the sanctions predated fast-track reforms: they were a response to Zimbabwe’s involvement in the Congo war. As early as November 2001, Jack Straw as foreign secretary publicly boasted of building coalitions against Zimbabwe. There were reports of British threats to withhold budgetary support – some claimed even food aid – from Malawi and Mozambique as the Extraordinary Summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) opened in Blantyre, Malawi on 14 January 2002. During the summit, the Tanzanian president, Benjamin Mkapa, said Baroness Amos, who was then parliamentary under-secretary for foreign affairs, had urged him in a phone call not to support Zimbabwe; when that failed, he said, Straw phoned and attempted to bully him. In 2007, the SADC called for an end to sanctions and for international support for a post-land reform recovery programme. In 2008, Western countries managed to bring their influence to bear on key SADC members – Botswana and Zambia – to split the SADC.

I am not suggesting that there is a single explanation of Zimbabwe’s rapidly accelerating economic crisis: the causes of the crisis are complex and multiple. My critics seem to think that the economic crisis is explained either by the regime’s repression and incompetence or by the draconian sanctions set in place by the West. The fact is that neither one nor the other on its own, but both – and other factors, including recurring drought – underlie the crisis.

My disagreement with Johnson, Scarnecchia et al is both political and methodological. They seem to imagine only two options: either to romanticise Mugabe as a liberation hero or to demonise him as a post-liberation despot. I have suggested that these caricatures overlap for one reason: the liberation struggle against settler colonialism did not end with the guerrilla war and political independence in 1980, but continued through the fast-track reforms. In any case, the regime that championed land reform is the same regime that unleashes repression against anyone who dares to organise independently of it. Scarnecchia et al cannot fail to see this, but apparently they refuse to accept it; whence their insistence on an either/or conclusion, and their tendency to scour all scholarship for a hidden agenda: is the author for or against Mugabe? Actually, that is beside the point.

Focused on Mugabe and eager to defend the opposition, they seek to portray my article as a piece of pro-regime writing, whereas it aims to free the debate about Zimbabwe from the narrow confines of a regime-opposition polemic by understanding Mugabe’s survival as part of a far bigger picture: that of land reform and the historic struggles which underpin it – struggles that Mugabe and Zanu-PF championed in the liberation era, opposed during the period of structural adjustment and ‘reconciliation’, and turned to their advantage when faced with an effective opposition.


Their India

Sanjay Subrahmanyam mischaracterises the work of Jhumpa Lahiri in his attempt to explain why the voice of Balram Halwai, the narrator of Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, strikes him as unconvincing (LRB, 6 November 2008). Subrahmanyam states that there are two broad categories of Indian novel written in English: one in which the characters speak English by virtue of their Western education, and another in which they are really speaking a local dialect rendered as English for the convenience of a Western audience. This dichotomy might be defensible, but it can’t accommodate Lahiri, an Indian-American writer, as Subrahmanyam correctly describes her, most of whose characters speak English by virtue of having grown up in the US. Her work is not Indian fiction written in English: it is American fiction and deals with the classical American theme of immigrants and their children negotiating the transition between the Old World and the New.

Equally mistaken is Subrahmanyam’s assertion that Lahiri’s work ‘would never embrace the subjectivity of a crass chauffeur from Bihar who smashes his employer’s head in with a whisky bottle’. It’s true that violence does not interest her as a writer, but she is not exclusively preoccupied with middle-class angst or ‘the tragic fate of the anglicised members of India’s elite colleges’ either. Her short-story collection The Interpreter of Maladies features servants and marginal figures as primary characters. I asked her about that choice in an interview, and she said that she came to inhabit the perspective of these non-elite, non-anglicised characters during childhood visits from America to India. ‘What drew me to writing about them was partly a projection of my own feelings of being marginal when there,’ she said. ‘I felt not only sort of alienated, but trapped.’ Lahiri’s laconic prose can be described as ‘genteel’, but it does also embrace the subjectivity of people who come from the same class as Balram Halwai.

Gaiutra Bahadur
London NW5


Never mind the bad smells

Mark Bostridge says that I perpetuate a ‘hoary old myth’ by insisting that Florence Nightingale was a miasmatist (Letters, 18 December 2008). But she was. Her utterly miasmatic Notes on Nursing remained in print unchanged until 1901. The only revision she considered, in 1875, was a substantial (and thoroughly miasmatic) addition on sewer gas. Neither can her support for antisepsis in 1882 in Quain’s Medical Dictionary be taken as indicating conversion to a belief in germ theory. She was reflecting current practice – by the late 1870s antisepsis had been enthusiastically adopted at St Thomas’s Hospital, the home of the Nightingale Nursing School. That Lister’s innovation had anything to do with Koch’s version of germ theory is itself a hoary old myth. As Lister’s main disciple, W.W. Cheyne, said in 1882 in his massive book on antiseptic surgery, ‘I have not mentioned the germ theory of infective disease at all. That has no essential bearing on the principles of antiseptic surgery.’

Hugh Pennington
Aberdeen


Unfortunately Irish

While it is true, as Peter Campbell notes, that in 1836 Sir Henry Rawlinson (with the help of an agile and anonymous native boy) transcribed the great rock-face inscription at Bisutun, it is not the case that decipherment of the wedge-shaped marks depended on that transcription or indeed on Henry Rawlinson whose achievements have been lauded for more than a century (LRB, 18 December 2008). Edward Hincks independently unlocked cuneiform while holding no academic seat: he spent his life as rector of the tiny village of Killyleagh in Ulster, travelling rarely and no further than London, and basing his discoveries on materials sent to him by mail from the British Museum. I hope the current BM exhibition will undo at least some of the disadvantages which this remarkable man wryly ascribed to his having ‘had the misfortune to be born in Ireland’.

Damian Smyth
Downpatrick, County Down


A Mile outside Stratford

Michael Neill handles Gary Taylor and his theories very gently, but surely the extravagance and eccentricity of the Great Thomas Middleton Project needs cooling down (LRB, 4 December 2008). We do not know for certain that Middleton wrote The Revenger’s Tragedy. That theory, which Neill says is ‘widely accepted’, is more crowd psychology than hard evidence. Certainly Middleton was versatile, but the driving, incantatory style of The Revenger’s Tragedy is remote from the silken understatement of The Changeling. And for all its force and intensity, it is nothing like as sophisticated – or as good a play.

This is the problem with Taylor. In his push to give Middleton lebensraum, he diminishes an excellent playwright. The Changeling and the best of the City Comedies place Middleton behind only Marlowe and Jonson among Shakespeare’s contemporaries, on the same level as Massinger and Fletcher. That is a serious reputation. Attempts to set him down a mile outside Stratford belong in an academic daydream.

Edward Pearce
York


Domes, Domes, Domes

Caleb Crain misrepresents the work and achievements of Buckminster Fuller (LRB, 18 December 2008). He states, for example, that Fuller was ‘put in charge of selling wood-fibre bricks designed by his father-in-law’, and ‘failed at selling them’. In fact Fuller developed the material and invented the machinery for manufacturing the bricks (the story is told in the biography by Lloyd Steven Sieden that Crain refers to).

Fuller was a persistent critic of finance capitalism in his writings, but not anti-business. It was a long-standing principle of his not to pursue money for its own sake. Crain sneers that Fuller wasn’t ‘much good at making money’, yet writes a few paragraphs later that in the 1950s, the geodesic dome patent ‘was soon earning more than a million dollars a year’.

To say, as Crain does, that the dome was ‘made out of triangles’ is about as revealing as saying that factories are made out of rectangles. And Fuller didn’t say that ‘he saw no greater value in hand-made domes than in mass-produced ones.’ On the contrary, he emphasised that the design required precision manufacture of the sort that only industrial machine tools could provide.

Paul Taylor
London SE16


At whose court?

Elisabeth Ladenson may well be right that the former Marie-Anne Mancini spent eight years in London as the duchesse de Bouillon, but they certainly weren’t all spent at the court of James II (LRB, 18 December 2008). While there are still some Jacobites who claim that James reigned for 16 years, even they would admit he ruled in England for just under three.

Noah McCormack
London W1


Gt a lfe

For the sake of so many young hacks of the last century suffering at the hands of Isaac Pitman and his diacritical marks, I hope Leah Price’s forthcoming history of shorthand isn’t going to omit Dutton’s Speedwords, as her article does (LRB, 4 December 2008). Remember the ads on public transport: ‘Gt a gd jb w mo pa’?

Brian Lee
Hexham, Northumberland