An Emissary to Tyranny
Serving as a U.S. diplomat in Zimbabwe is tough. Life for African-American diplomats there is even harder.
HARARE, Zimbabwe — When the U.S. Embassy here put out a statement in February denouncing the “continuing deterioration of the human rights situation in Zimbabwe,” then-President Robert Mugabe’s spokesman responded by suggesting that American critics of the Zimbabwean government, including U.S. Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr., should “go and hang on a banana tree.”
It was a mild rebuke by the standards of Mugabe’s government, which treated American diplomats with a level of contempt more befitting U.S. exchanges with Iran or North Korea than of a nation that maintained full diplomatic relations with the United States and was highly dependent on U.S. aid. Like a long line of U.S. ambassadors before him, Thomas was attacked by Mugabe’s government and by its mouthpieces in the press. The pro-government Sunday Mail called him an “Uncle Tom” and a “house nigger dressed in a fine suit” — and that was just in his first week on the job.
“We are blamed for almost everything,” Thomas said in October, about a month before the military seized power and brought Mugabe’s 37-year rule to an end. Balding and bespectacled, with an unmistakable New York accent, Thomas has spent more than 30 years in the foreign service, serving in U.S. missions from Nigeria to India to the Philippines — but nowhere was he treated quite like this. “My staff and I are called names that the Ku Klux Klan doesn’t even use anymore,” he said.
Ever since the United States implemented targeted sanctions on Mugabe’s government in 2003 over its disastrous indigenization plan (which involved the seizure of thousands of white-owned farms and led to the country’s financial ruin), American diplomats have grown accustomed to being scapegoated for Zimbabwe’s myriad failings. Boilerplate calls by U.S. emissaries to respect human rights and rein in corruption have been met with forceful denunciations and accusations of neocolonial meddling. After Christopher Dell, who served as U.S. ambassador from 2004 to 2007, blamed the country’s economic woes on graft and mismanagement, the pro-government Herald famously ran the banner headline “Mugabe to Dell: Go to Hell.”
But for African-American diplomats, the abuse has been intensely racialized. Dell’s successor, the towering Air Force veteran James McGee, was also branded an Uncle Tom, as were Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. When Johnnie Carson, who served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 2009 to 2013, mentioned Zimbabwe’s poor record on human rights during a speech in Washington in 2010, a heckler yelled that he was “talking like a good house slave!” That heckler turned out to be Machivenyika Mapuranga, Zimbabwe’s then-ambassador to the United States.
Relations between Washington and Harare weren’t always so poisonous. When Carson served as U.S. ambassador in Harare in the 1990s, he enjoyed what he called a “pretty good relationship with Robert Mugabe.” The two had met decades earlier in northern Mozambique, not long after Mugabe had been released from a decade in prison and joined the guerrilla war against the apartheid government of Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then called). As president, Mugabe invited Carson to tea on a number of occasions. Their conversations were always cordial, but they left little doubt about the depth of Mugabe’s animus toward white Zimbabweans, Western multinational corporations, and international financial institutions such as the World Bank.
That animus intensified after the George W. Bush administration imposed sanctions and dubbed Zimbabwe an “outpost of tyranny.” Mugabe and his cronies are “men with long memories who lived through a lot of racial injustice,” said Todd Moss, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 2007 to 2008. “They take any criticism, particularly from a foreign government, as racially motivated. And therefore an African-American working for the U.S. government that is critical of [their] misrule is immediately seen as a patsy for American racial interests.”
Of course, the language of racial grievance has also proved a convenient way to deflect attention away from the regime’s own shortcomings. In 2009, the country was forced to abandon its currency after annual inflation hit 500 billion percent in 2008, and the economy has halved in size since 2000. Together with the United Kingdom, the United States now feeds roughly a quarter of Zimbabweans with emergency food aid, according to Thomas. “It’s a distraction,” Moss said of the racial attacks against U.S. diplomats, “an excuse not to deal with the real issues at hand.”
Foreigners aren’t the only targets; opposition politicians have faced similar racial smears, in part because many white Zimbabweans have rallied to their cause. “They too are called agents and puppets of the West,” said Alex Magaisa, a former advisor to Morgan Tsvangirai, the veteran opposition leader. “They are described as Uncle Toms. Tsvangirai’s name has even been changed to Tsvangison [a way of Anglicizing his name] to paint him as a puppet of the white man.”
Following Mugabe’s ouster on Nov. 21, 2017, many Zimbabweans hoped that his replacement, former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, would extend an olive branch to the opposition and form a transitional government that included dissidents like Tsvangirai. Instead, he packed his first cabinet with generals and former Mugabe loyalists. That said, Mnangagwa is trying to mend fences with the international community — motivated, no doubt, by the fact that his government needs a huge cash bailout and debt relief if it is going to pull the country out of its economic tailspin. “[L]et bygones be bygones,” he said in his Nov. 24 inaugural address, in which he urged foreign investors to return and pledged to compensate white farmers whose land was seized under the previous administration.
Whether that means Ambassador Thomas can expect an apology — or even just an end to the racial abuse — remains unclear. “We are still at a very early stage in this phase of our party’s evolution, so I cannot predict who our friends will be,” said Simon K. Moyo, a spokesman for the ruling Zanu-PF party. “What I am sure of is that we are open to everyone, and if we can improve our relations with the Americans, it will be for the benefit of both countries.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of FP magazine.