Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Picking Up the Phone: American Humour vs Zimbabwe’s Foreign Policy/Reputation

By Takura Zhangazha*

The American comedy show, ‘Saturday Night Live’ (SNL) has been having a decent go at President Donald Trump.  In its latest edition it had a section in which it parodied his phone calls to the Australian prime minister, Michael Turnbull, Mexican President Enrique Piena Neto and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.  As expected the abruptness of the three 'calls' and bullish language attributed to Trump are great parody.  Until the next comic call to a character playing Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.  In it, ‘Trump’ calls the Zimbabwean ‘president’ and tells him, ‘This is the new sheriff in town’. 

The response comes as, ‘is this Donald Trump? You think you are a brutal dictator? I will rip out your spine and drink from your skull!  You can’t even walk downstairs you little…Don’t you ever call Zimbabwe again!’  And its not the Trump character that angrily cuts off the phone, to the great humour of the audience, but the character playing Mugabe. 

I would hazard a guess that the response to the clip from an American perspective is to assume that the ‘Trump’ character meets its match in the from of a dictator from a  ‘random little country’ that is of limited consequence to American foreign policy.  Or that these two are birds of the same dictatorial and unpleasant feather.  A perspective that makes it all the funnier (again, probably)  from an American (liberal) perspective. 

From a Zimbabwean lens it could probably be just harmless parody of our long serving ‘one centre of power’ that we are used to.  From Nandos caricatures through to other cartoon parodies, and depending on one’s political affiliation, it is downright good comedy which shouldn’t do more than cause a few hearty African laughs. 

Or it could reconfirm the myth that it is only Robert Mugabe who could have taken that call the way he did with defiance.   A thing which tends to delight his die hard supporters and others who fail to read between the lines of his autocratic tendencies.  Or those who view African politics from an orthodox anti-colonial lens that sees no fault in African leadership, regardless of contemporary global dynamics. 

The fear that I have, given the fact that we are entering a new phase of American foreign policy and the fact that its new president is clearly wont to react to news/social media stories (fake or alternative) even if they are comic in an abrupt fashion.  To liken Trump to Mugabe in parody always has a double meaning.  And the real Trump may not take too kindly to it. 

But then that would be Zimbabwe’s problem more than it is an American one.  Trump may decide to take too seriously the comic presentation that was the SNL skit a he is wont to do with so many other social media posts/issues.  A development which would mean that he would get curious about who exactly Robert Mugabe is and what the American problem with Zimbabwe is. The result of that briefing can either lead to him laughing it off or deciding to prove a specific point about how different he is from the parody that got one over his own caricature on SNL.   

And again the question must be asked, how does Zimbabwe respond to the new American administration? The one thing for sure is that there is no sign that there shall be the repealing of the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA) or sanctions which former President Obama extended a week before he left the Oval Office.

But it will not help the Zimbabwean government to be as brazen as it was with the Obama and previous American administrations.  Not least because Trump is not too keen on Africa beyond its benefit to American capital.  Even after all the parodies are exhausted.  But more importantly because, difficult as it may be to accept, in the view of the new administration we are probably, to use the language of the SNL writers, ‘a random little country’.

Zimbabwe has to accept that its period of anti-colonial/imperialist bravado in an age where the chief executive of the world’s still sole superpower is equally brazen is effectively over.  There is an urgent need to re-assess Zimbabwe’s placement in a world where one time allies such as Russia and China are very worried about engagement with the new American administration for geo-political reasons that trounce either democratic principles or long term loyalties.

Also being wary of the new wave of radical nationalism that is sweeping across Europe and reinforcing racist stereotypes of migrants or people from poorer continents such as ours. Or worse still, where in contemporary Africa, the balkanisation of regions and increasingly vague responses to Pan-Africanism and democracy are now being reinforced by leaders that worship at the altar of global neo-liberalism, capital and its interests.

Basic advice to the Zimbabwean government and its foreign policy toward the United States:  Enjoy the parodies. Don't arrest people for expressing their views.  But beyond that, don't ruffle Trump's feathers.  He has just been reminded there's a country called Zimbabwe.  Even if in cathartic humour. 
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)