Robert Mugabe and Ratko Mladić: white commentary takes up too much space

President Robert Mugabe addresses the audience at Somhlolo Stadium in Lupane in northwestern Zimbabwe

Following the fall of Robert Mugabe and Ratko Mladić, Kelly-Jo Bluen questions why outsiders feel so assured in their detached analysis on celebration or grief of those who were directly affected by these two bad men of history.

Two significant things happened last week in the world of reckoning for former leaders. In Zimbabwe, after 37 years, President Robert Mugabe resigned from office. In the Hague, at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladić was convicted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Two once seemingly invulnerable leaders, both of whom skirted accountability for decades were, in different ways, held responsible for their power.

I am not seeking to draw parallels between the two leaders, or between the very different processes that ensued. What I am interested in is the immediacy and self-assuredness with which these two events have been narrated by outside white commentators. While the commentary differed within and between, what was fairly unifying was the certainty with which simple judgements were made about complex realities, and the ways in which these judgements were plugged into convenient narratives.

Much white commentary globally clamoured to focus on Mugabe’s land reform programme as if redistributing ill-gotten land was source of the country’s problems. White South Africans, in a perpetual quest to be the best at white supremacy, peppered this with zealous Zuma analogies, recentering ourselves as if this, a critical moment for Zimbabwe, exists only in the allegorical – a teachable moment for how to remove a president. Some international media houses patronisingly warned Zimbabweans of misplaced elation in light of Emmerson Mnangagwa’s role in Zanu-PF, as if Zimbabweans are not aware, as if discontinuities and continuities don’t coexist in all politics everywhere.

On the Mladić judgment, for some, the conviction was described as a victory for international justice, or as justice for the victims in whose name so many so freely purport to speak. Some suggested, echoing the teachable moment narratives of the Zuma Must Fall contingent on Mugabe, that this was significant in its signaling that leaders will be prosecuted even after considerable time lapses, holding promise for the International Criminal Court. In this regard, the judgment was framed as having instrumental value for a global project, with little engagement with what the Tribunal’s acquittal of Mladić for charges of genocide in the Bosnian municipalities outside of Srebrenica might mean, nor how or whether this moment provides for justice in its context and the complexity of its symbolism.

I am not suggesting that there is no validity to many (though certainly not all) of these arguments. Nor am I suggesting that critical moments don’t hold resonance beyond their contexts. My concern is with how and in whose name those of us outside feel entitled to comment so immediately and with such self-assuredness, on issues which do not directly affect us, bringing to bear our pretence at detached analysis on celebration or grief or the range of possible realities that exist between and beyond.

I have spent the week thinking about three interrelated features of this commentary. The first is the indefatigable assumption of whiteness that white voices always matter, and that there is never a time to stay silent. We foist our commentary onto everything – and I include here those of us commenting on those of us commenting. The possibilities of doubt, of silence, of listening exist outside of our conviction to speak, to be heard, to be noise.

Second, in our drive to be first, and to be ‘right’, we betray a lack of empathy. We set ourselves up as those who define the parameters of discourse, speaking over the complexity of experience. We profess to tell people how to react, to layer our self-congratulatory assumed rationality over lived experience, to try and narrow spaces for complex reaction. We reduce to binaries that which exists in intersecting spectrums.

Finally, absent from much of the analysis is any appraisal of the complicity of the commentator and the investment in our own narratives. When we tether people’s struggles or joys to our own frameworks or sculpt them to suit our objectives we engender epistemic violence. We fail to contend with the ways in which we are exploiting experience for commentary, a deeply extractive impetus. We situate ourselves as cool, all-knowing outside arbiters, we present events as simple stories, erasing our own complicities and pinning our politics to this.

I do not know how or whether it is possible to be an ethical white outside commenter. I’m thinking through it and I do not have the answers. What I do know is that we fail to ask ourselves enough questions, that the immediate is not the time for grandstanding analysis, and that we’re taking up too much space. Perhaps, from the outside, we might replace a need to be first, most right, and most emphatic, with listening, with respect for the trajectories of human experience, and, most importantly, with humility in the face of things we don’t understand, and can never experience.

Kelly-Jo Bluen is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and a research fellow at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. She writes in her personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of The Daily Vox.

Featured image by Tendai Marima