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Zimbabwe ambassador calls U.S. diplomat a ‘house slave’

When Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson took to the podium at Tuesday night’s gala event, he probably didn’t expect any hecklers. Carson, shown at right, was speaking at the Africa Day celebration at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a meeting of embassy officials representing countries all over the African continent. A soft-spoken diplomat ...

WOLE EMMANUEL/AFP/Getty Images
WOLE EMMANUEL/AFP/Getty Images

When Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson took to the podium at Tuesday night's gala event, he probably didn't expect any hecklers.

Carson, shown at right, was speaking at the Africa Day celebration at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a meeting of embassy officials representing countries all over the African continent. A soft-spoken diplomat with a professorial air, Carson spoke on the progress of Africa from a colonial dominion to a group of independent, if struggling states. His remarks were going along as expected -- until he started to talk critically about the downslide of human rights and good governance in Zimbabwe.

"You are talking like a good house slave!" came a shout from an audience member to Carson's right. Your humble Cable guy nearly choked on his filet mignon as it became clear that the heckler, Zimbabwean Ambassador H.E. Machivenyika Mapuranga, was determined to keep interrupting the speech by shouting at Carson.

When Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson took to the podium at Tuesday night’s gala event, he probably didn’t expect any hecklers.

Carson, shown at right, was speaking at the Africa Day celebration at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a meeting of embassy officials representing countries all over the African continent. A soft-spoken diplomat with a professorial air, Carson spoke on the progress of Africa from a colonial dominion to a group of independent, if struggling states. His remarks were going along as expected — until he started to talk critically about the downslide of human rights and good governance in Zimbabwe.

“You are talking like a good house slave!” came a shout from an audience member to Carson’s right. Your humble Cable guy nearly choked on his filet mignon as it became clear that the heckler, Zimbabwean Ambassador H.E. Machivenyika Mapuranga, was determined to keep interrupting the speech by shouting at Carson.

As the crowd hissed “Boo!” and other disapproving condemnations, Mapuranga wouldn’t let it go, going on with shouts such as, “We will never be an American colony, you know that!”

But Carson silenced both the ambassador and the crowd when he started speaking again. Changing his tone, he scolded Zimbabwe by pointing out that such outbursts would have evoked vicious punishment in the southern African country, which has been ruled by revolutionary leader Robert Mugabe with an iron fist since the 1980s.

“You can sit in the audience in darkness, but the light will find you and the truth will find you,” Carson told Mapuranga, as event staff tried to quietly encourage the ambassador to get up from his table and leave the event.

Turning to the crowd, Carson said, “It seems that Robert Mugabe has some friends in the room tonight. Unlike in Zimbabwe, they are allowed to speak without oppression because this is a democracy.”

The event staff was able to convince Mapuranga to leave, who shouted all the way. His staff filed out behind him.

“In Zimbabwe that kind of talk would have been met by a policeman’s stick. We don’t do that here,” Carson surmised, before returning to his prepared speech.

The diplomats at the event couldn’t stop talking about the incident. One said he was encouraged that the all-African crowd booed Mapuranga and cheered Carson, signaling that African diplomats don’t like what’s going on in Zimbabwe and generally support the Obama administration’s policies in Africa.

“It wasn’t the right platform for him to do that,” another diplomat said of Mapuranga, adding that Carson had won the respect of the crowd by coming to the dinner with “facts, not just kind words.”

That diplomat remarked that in Africa, ambassadors are such bigwigs that they would never be booted out of a public event for shouting something. But in the United States, even ambassadors can be escorted out of the room by regular event staff.

“In Africa, an ambassador is treated like a king. Here he can be humiliated just like anyone else.”

Bonus video: FP interviewed Mapuranga a few years ago after publishing the 2007 Failed States Index, where Zimbabwe appeared fourth. Watch him tout Zimbabwe’s “sustainable development” policies and blame Britain for the country’s troubles:

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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