On Zimbabwe

By skepticlawyer

A terrible catastrophe is playing out in Zimbabwe, one that – in light of South Africa’s ongoing complicity – calls into question the possibility of achieving the rule of law in Southern Africa. Only Botswana seems able to do it, and even there, the hold is fragile – imperilled by atrocious HIV rates. A very good insider’s account is available over at LP, along with an earlier thread where one commenter engages in exactly the sort of cultural relativism that encourages me to make nasty quips on the meaninglessness of group rights (in short, there aren’t any – ‘individuals have rights’ as Nozick argued, but not groups).

To my mind, where culture conflicts with the rule of law, then culture must cede ground. Cultures that don’t cede this ground may – quite legitimately, in my view – be described as ‘barbaric’ and ‘uncivilised’.

When pondering the situation of the Zimbabwean voter who must now turn out to vote in a meaningless poll, this quotation from Lon Fuller – the doyen of rule of law scholars – comes to mind:

As such a sitation develops, the problem faced by the citizen is not so simple as that of a voter who knows with certainty that his ballot will not be counted. It is more like that of the voter who knows that the odds are against his ballot being counted at all, and that if it is counted, there is a good chance that it will be counted for the side against which he actually voted.

A citizen in this predicament has to decide for himself whether to stay with the system and cast his ballot as a kind of symbolic act expressing the hope of a better day. So it was with the German citizen under Hitler faced with deciding whether he had an obligation to obey such portions of the laws as the Nazi terror had left intact.

From The Morality of Law, pp 40-41 (Yale University Press, 1969).

UPDATE: Tim Blair, on where this stuff starts.


  1. Posted June 28, 2008 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    There was an article some time back regarding the failure of Democracy in Africa (and in countries divided by tribe and sect) in Taki Magazine that may be of some interest.

  2. John Hasenkam
    Posted June 28, 2008 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps Botswana is doing well because an old acquaintance of mine, Ken Fleming, now a QC in Queensland, went to some South African countries to help establish legal frameworks. Don’t know but might be interesting to check out.

    As for Sub Saharan Africa in general, down, down , deeper than down. Very sad.

  3. Posted June 28, 2008 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    I have to say it blew me away a bit, too. I really admired the way David Rubie stuck to his guns without blowing his stack. Like Andrew Reynolds, I disagree with David on a helluva lot but he was stellar on that thread.

  4. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted June 29, 2008 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    South Africa’s ongoing complicity

    It is not at all clear to me that the South African taxpayer should pick up the Zimbabwe tab.

    Installing Mugabe as the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe (not President as the LP correspondent said – a huge factual error there – Mugabe only became President much later after a change to the Zimbabwe Constitution) was the objective of the entire international community, and was bi-partisan policy here in Australia. Mugabe has implemented the policies he always wanted to implement and the Zimbabwean poeple themselves fought a civil war and then voted for him over and over. It is not the SA government that has been complicit. There is a lot of blame to go around.

  5. Posted June 29, 2008 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    My understanding is that Zimbabwe is entirely dependent on SA power generation. I think if the Saffies turned the lights off, there wouldn’t be much time left for Mugabe.

  6. conrad
    Posted June 29, 2008 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    SD: Whilst I couldn’t blame SA for not getting involved at all, I assume that the problem now is that they are going to get involved whether they like it or not (that’s what happens when huge numbers of refugees park themselves in your country). Thus, rather than just a moral issue, perhaps it should be looked at as a minimization issue from SA’s perspective — doing nothing now may be more costly than not doing nothing now, especially if these problems start destabilizing neighboring countries. Given that, if there are comparatively cheap solutions, surely it’s in SAs interest to use them. If these solutions happen to drag in a few countries that have some historically responsibility and they have to cough a few billion of the solution (or perhaps even some that don’t), then that’s good so SA doesn’t have to foot the entire bill.

  7. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted June 29, 2008 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    SA not only provides electricity but also rolling stock and a whole lot of other things too. SA has always provided these sorts of things even during the Apartheid era. Switching off the lights is not going to displace Mugabe.

    On the refugee issue – yes it is a “problem”. When I was in South Africa last year the Limpopo provence farmers were rounding up Zimbabwean refugees and handing them over to the SA authorities to send home. I was very annoyed about that – but then I’m annoyed about the Australian policy towards refugees too.

    The point here is this; Africans nations do not criticise each other in public. African nations resist European criticism – Europeans are colonialists. Outside of Africa it is very easy to forget, or under-estimate the anger (justified or not) that colonialism generates. It is big issue. When Mugabe says that he doesn’t want Blair (or Brown etc.) telling him what to do, and he (Mugabe) won’t tell Blair (or Brown) how the run the UK, a lot of Africans heed that message. The Africans want to be left alone.

  8. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted June 29, 2008 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    SL. Has the post at LP been edited?

  9. Posted June 29, 2008 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Don’t know, Sinc – I’ll have to go and check. I’ve got another exam on Tuesday, so have only been checking the intertubes sporadically.

    Just on the ‘blame whitey’ rhetoric these countries run with, I think it’s time we all started turning our deaf ear and calling them for the serial incompetents they are.

  10. Posted July 1, 2008 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    where one commenter engages in exactly the sort of cultural relativism that encourages me to make nasty quips on the meaninglessness of group rights

    I wonder who you mean? If it’s who I think you mean I seem to be alone in thinking he had at least one good point. People of the Left and Right tend to pay attention to the iniquities of the Other Side. In Mugabe’s case it’s a Left Wing Disaster. In the third world there have been quite a few right-wing disasters as well.
    Still the guy did highlight two difficulties such nations have in developing the apparatus of a modern state. The first is that there culture usually doesn’t support it. The political spectrum is one of tradition divided along tribal lines. This was exacerbated by colonial powers who used the ‘divide and rule’ concept well. This still has its effects. The other is that because these states are weak there is little to protect the rights pof the people from various predators. These predators can be local and imported. They can be military, racial and/or commercial.
    The Congo illustrates this well. I think it’s necessary to take into account the full range of problems that keep poor places down; to try to be objective and goal-orientated. And most especially cold-minded.
    I’m not sure where that guy was coming from. He didn’t seem to go so far as to say Mugabe’s a good guy. but he seemed to think he was necessary. Or preferable. I thought he was a Stalinist Marxist. But then he started raving on about fractional reserve.

  11. Posted July 1, 2008 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    You sure it wasn’t Bird in deep disguise?

  12. Posted July 1, 2008 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    If so it was a very good disguise. He was unfailingly polite, knew the subject (even if drawingthe wrong conclusions from it) and actually argued well.

  13. Posted July 2, 2008 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    What Andrew said. I stopped reading and commenting last week so didn’t know whether he’d gone feral.

    I enjoyed it while I lasted. I didn’t agree with him of course, but his position actually managed to provoke a good debate. Until he came along everyone was agreeing with each other. Surprise surprise.

  14. Posted July 2, 2008 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    And Graeme thinks Zimbabwe is still Rhodesia.

  15. Posted July 2, 2008 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    I shouldn’t just ping Bird for fractional reserve, either – his biggie was ‘CO2 BEDWETTERS!’

    For some reason I do find it hard to argue with someone who is perfectly coherent, reasonable and pleasant, yet is justifying – I dunno – Stalin’s policy on the Kulaks, or Mugabe’s treatment of the Ndebele. It’s very freaky.

    A couple of times in my life I’ve got into arguments with proper anti-semites who weren’t actually frothing at the mouth, but were clearly switched on and articulate. It’s the intellectual equivalent of having someone drop an icecube down your back. Very creepy, and very unpleasant.

  16. Posted July 3, 2008 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    A couple of times in my life I’ve got into arguments with proper anti-semites who weren’t actually frothing at the mouth, but were clearly switched on and articulate. It’s the intellectual equivalent of having someone drop an icecube down your back. Very creepy, and very unpleasant.

    Yes that’s very true. But it doesn’t usually get to me that much. This is probably because I’ve been exposed to many cultures with very alien values: the north-west frontier of Pakistan, the Afghanis, the bedouin, outlaw bikers, people from Texas who drill oil and the ALP’s AWU faction*.

    Each of these sets of people consider barbarism normal. It is a sobering truth about the human animal that does not have to be crazy or stupid or even particularly cruel to be this way.

    But to refuse to cross swords with them intellectually is to be unprepared to counter when you’re forced into confrontation. So it’s useful.

    *I should add that as odious as the Taliban and the Gypsy Jokers can get there is a line they won’t cross. The same can’t be said of the AWU 🙂

  17. John Hasenkam
    Posted July 3, 2008 at 6:01 pm | Permalink


    Look up the research of Stanley Milgram, recent experiments have highlighted his findings and how easy it is, given the right environment, for people to engage in barbarism.

  18. Posted July 3, 2008 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    I’ve had a bit to do with the Rebels over the years. And yes, they do have an honour code that’s at least reasonably consistently applied. So predictable in that sense.

    As a general rule, though, they don’t come across like David Irving (who was one of the people I had in mind when I wrote my above comment). Irving is intelligent, urbane, ‘best-of-British’ yadda yadda. Just happens to be a raving anti-semite.

  19. John Hasenkam
    Posted July 3, 2008 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Some bikie gangs have higher standards than political parties.

  20. Posted July 3, 2008 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    Look up the research of Stanley Milgram..

    John Milgram is one of the prime influences on my view of the human species.

    As a general rule, though, they don’t come across like David Irving

    Nah they’re different. Irving’s one of those CRM-114 wearers. Ye cannae change ’em lassie.

    Bikers are more like dudes who think the only good thing to’ve happened since 900 ACE are the invention of the internal combustion engine, the gun and amplified music. 🙂

  21. Posted July 3, 2008 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    That’s John, Milgram is one of the…

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