The Scientific Activist

Now that the Chinese ship An Yue Jiang–which was delivering arms from China to Zimbabwe–has been turned away for good, there are two significant aspects of this story upon which we should reflect. The first is that the true heroes of this tale are the unionized dockworkers, who catalyzed this turn of events by their initial refusal to unload the cargo. The second is that there are deep political ties between Zimbabwe and China, which make this picture much less black and white than it would appear to be on the surface.

It was reported on April 16 that a Chinese ship slated to dock in Durban, South Africa, was carrying 77 metric tons of arms bound for landlocked Zimbabwe. This was particularly striking since not only has Zimbabwe been engulfed in a political crisis for several years, but the situation has intensified considerably since the March 29 presidential election results have been actively suppressed by president Robert Mugabe, who is widely believed to have lost the election. In the midst of such a volatile situation, and given the history of Mugabe’s government, it would not be a major stretch to worry that these arms could be used against his political opposition. Recent reports indicate just how severe and violent the crackdown on opposition supporters and journalists has become.

The South African government, though, which under the leadership of president Thabo Mbeki has been particularly accommodating to Mugabe, initially refused to intervene. Here’s one account from the Mail & Guardian:

South Africa will not interfere with a shipment of weapons aboard a Chinese ship that is destined for Zimbabwe, government communications head Themba Maseko said on Thursday.

“We are not in a position to act unilaterally and interfere in a trade deal between two countries,” he told a media briefing.

All that South African authorities can do is to make sure that “all proper administrative processes” are followed.

He said the country cannot stop the shipment from getting to its destination as it has to be seen to be “treading very carefully” in its relations with Zimbabwe, given the complexity of facilitating talks between the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and Zanu-PF following the March 29 elections in that country.

“South Africa is not at all involved in the arrangement,” he said. “It’s a matter between the two countries. It would be possible, but very difficult, for South Africa to start intervening and saying that we will not allow the shipment through.”

Here’s more from the Independent Online:

Defence Secretary January Masilela said on Wednesday night that there was nothing wrong with the “conveyance” of a Chinese consignment of arms to Zimbabwe.

Masilela, who chairs the Scrutiny Committee of the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), said the consignment was a “simple” transaction between China and Zimbabwe.

He said South Africa had no jurisdiction over sovereign states which bought arms from each other.

However, almost as soon as these initial reports started to emerge, the dockworkers’ union announced that it would not be unloading this ship:

SA Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) general secretary Randall Howard said: “Satawu does not agree with the position of the South African government not to intervene with this shipment of weapons.

“Our members employed at Durban Container Terminal will not unload this cargo neither will any of our members in the truck driving sector move this cargo by road.” He said the ship, the An Yue Jiang, should not dock in Durban and should return to China.

South Africa cannot be seen to be facilitating the flow of weapons into Zimbabwe at a time where there is a political dispute and a volatile situation between the Zanu-PF and the MDC.”

“The view of our members is that nobody should ask us to unload these weapons,” he said.

This initial refusal to unload these weapons–despite the insistence of the South African government–sparked a movement that was taken up by civil society in South Africa and spread internationally. After a few days, a South African judge ruled that the ship’s cargo could not be unloaded in South Africa, and the ship left harbor even before the official order could be delivered. This was a major victory for human rights activists and civil society in general, and enough international pressure had been generated during this time to ensure that no other ports within reach of Zimbabwe would accept the cargo either. As of yesterday, the ship was heading to Angola–where it would not be allowed to unload its military cargo–before heading home.

As easily as it is to demonize China in all of this, the situation isn’t as black and white as it might seem on the surface. Now, don’t get me wrong: China certainly should be vilified for its behavior, and its delivery of arms to Zimbabwe fits right in with its support of tyranny at home and a genocidal regime in Sudan. However, as with any complex political crisis, hopefully having a deeper understanding of the background should help lead to solutions down the line. In this case, there’s significant history between Mugabe’s contemporaries and China.

China trained many of the freedom fighters who fought for independence in southern Africa, from the 1960s onward. This includes many of those who fought in Zimbabwe, which gained its independence in 1980, at which time Robert Mugabe became prime minister and later president. Despite the fact that this support was offered more as a facet of Cold War strategy than for the greater good, China clearly was on the side of the good in this case.

Fortunately, these freedom struggles are long over, but unfortunately, Robert Mugabe–who was once a highly revered struggle leader–has transitioned into a ruthless dictator, one who has managed to guide his country into economic ruin. Times have changed, and China needs to get with the program and stop arming this regime. International pressure is slowly making it more difficult for his allies to accommodate his behavior, but it still hasn’t been enough, and in this case it was the South African unions who really saved the day.