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Only their glimmering glass eyes hint at lives that could be more than mute violence. Related Gully Coverage

Zimbabwe: Outlasting Opposition
Geoff Nyaroata, editor under siege in Zimbabwe.

Namibia: The Bermuda Triangle of African Homophobia
And how Mugabe's driving the regional anti-gay bandwagon

Jane Alexander's 1985 "Butcher Boys." Plaster, paint, bone, horns. Mark Lewis

Butcher Boys and Zimbabwe

by Kelly Cogswell

MARCH 20, 2002. The standout work in "The Short Century: Modernity, Modernism, and African Art" at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York City, was Jane Alexander's 1985 sculpture, "Butcher Boys," three life-size naked figures sitting on a wooden bench, taut with muscles, and as unselfconscious as Michelangelo's David.

They are less white than drained of color. They have neither mouths nor genitals. Horns grow from their heads. Curved like those of rams or shooting straight out, they are splintered at the tips, or broken off. Go around behind the figures, frayed spines are exposed in their backs. Only their glimmering glass eyes hint at lives that could be more than mute violence.

Alexander, a South African artist, was commenting on apartheid and the effect of violence used to sustain it. She could have been reflecting on the generation of young men, and increasingly women, shaped by the violence in the Middle East, Colombia, or Northern Ireland, anywhere that bombs, guns, or fists have become the de facto means of political expression.

What I thought of was Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe who "won" reelection over a week ago largely by unleashing his own Butcher Boys, The National Youth Service Brigade. These young thugs were taught to beat, torture, and kill his opponents. They burned down the huts around villagers who didn't turn up at compulsory pro-Mugabe rallies. They carved political slogans into the living flesh of suspected opponents.

Nevertheless, African criticism of preelection violence and what the Zimbabwean opposition denounced as rigged voting results, was generally limited to Commonwealth election observers, led by a Nigerian, and the Southern Africa Development Community. The biggest regional players, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) along with the Organization of African Unity (OAU), declared that "in general the elections were transparent, credible and fair." Zimbabwe's largest neighbors, South Africa and Nigeria, also opened their arms to Mugabe, at least until a Western backlash threatened their own interests.

Their affirmation of Mugabe in the face of the evidence may have been a cynical attempt to keep electoral standards low across the board, or ward off Western sanctions and aid freezes that would further damage Zimbabwe's already disastrous economy. Perhaps African leaders were reluctant to stand on the same side as Western critics and former colonial masters. For whatever reasons, COMESA and the OAU's blind approval of the election results may well do long-term damage to Zimbabwe, not to mention their own credibility.

Once seen as the hero of a liberation war, the autocratic Mugabe has increasingly become a petty tyrant, a hate-monger crushing dissent and encouraging violence against the opposition, as well as whites and queers for which he handily blames all Zimbabwe's ills. Supporting Mugabe, even his inclusion in a power-sharing boondoggle as proposed yesterday by South African and Nigerian leaders, ensures that the likely face of Zimbabwe's future is that of the Butcher Boys, violent, broken, sterile and mute, unfit to rule or serve — unless, sick of being terrorized and beaten, Zimbabwe's ordinary citizens pull their country back from the abyss.

It won't be the region's leaders. Blame colonialism, blame the temptations of Western aid and a habit of violence and authoritarianism learned in the struggle for independence, the leaders of Southern Africa have lost their way. But, like lemmings, they are determined to follow it.

Related links:

For The Harare Daily News editorial Not a Single Life Should Have Been Lost in Election.

For Johannesburg Business Day's No Deal Struck After Harare Talks.

For the BBC's Mugabe's Descent into Dictatorship.

For Complete Coverage Africa

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

In Depth

Africa Emerging
News, opinion, politics from Algeria to Zimbabwe.

Gay Mundo
gay pride The Gully's ultragay coverage. Includes musings on activism, info on queers around the world.

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