Since the Ukraine crisis, writer and author of ‘The Age of Great Power Rivalry: Russia’s Geopolitical Vision and the Weaknesses of International Diplomacy’, Blessing Simura, has been thinking a lot about Western diplomacy: ‘In many parts of Africa the debates are on whether Africans should be on the side of Ukraine (and with it the West) or on the side of Russia. The truth is that Russia’s invasion has shown those who are willing to see that most of what we are lectured on by the West are just words.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I read a cocktail of books. I enjoyed reading my older siblings’ books. Sometimes, I would have to steal their books because they were not comfortable with me taking the books out of fear that I would ruin them. I liked novels mostly, such as the Shona vernacular novels, Gonawapotera, Maidei, Kusasana Kunoparira, Tambaoga Mwanangu and Kurauone. I also read English ones like Crossing the Boundary Fence.
I also enjoyed opening the pages of the big secondary school books and looking at the pictures—textbooks like the one we called ‘Zimscience’, and the geography one which we called by its author’s name, ‘R. B. Bannet’. My brother had the biblical storybooks about various prophets and saints like Moses, Samuel and Mary which I also used to read. The Bible itself was also an interesting text for me when I was young and the majority of my reading of the Bible was done when I was young.
When I started high school the books I read changed and there was more meaning in reading. I read both academic books and novels—novels like Oliver Twist, God’s Case by Dan Fulani, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Matigari and A Grain of Wheat, by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Charles Mungoshi’s Kunyarara Hakusi Kutaura?, as well as many more other books by authors like Louis Le Amour and other local ones. I developed an interest in history at this stage and in scholars like Stan Mudenge, D. N. Beach, J.R.D. Cobbing and T. O. Ranger. On European history, I enjoyed reading David Thomson, A.J.P. Taylor, Agatha Ramm among others.
In college, my reading interests became even more diverse—I started reading books on history, politics, development studies and international relations. I had less time for fiction and now I don’t even know when I last read a novel.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
This is difficult to say. I would not want to say that I would totally disagree with articles or books which have been researched. However, in some instances, I may view some of the issues raised as maybe emotional or not representing the truth on the ground. For instance, Paul Collier’s Bottom Billion simplifies some issues about African politics and turns a blind eye to the impact of colonialism, the colonial authoritarian state and neo-colonialism and geopolitics on authoritarianism and dictatorship experienced in some parts of Africa today.
In relation to Zimbabwean politics, I disagreed with the manner in which Geoffrey Nyarota’s The Graceless Fall of Robert Mugabe attempted to portray Mugabe as the devil incarnate of Zimbabwean politics from 1980 till his fall.
Colonialism had a very strong impact on our worldview and relations with the outside world as Africans.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
Hans Koechler’s Humanitarian Intervention in the Context of Modern Power Politics. It shaped my thoughts on my PhD thesis. The article covered a balanced assessment of humanitarian intervention, and it challenged my parochial approach to the subject, and drove me to study the subject of military interventions in more depth.
You have written multiple essays for The Republic about Russia and Russia’s relationship with countries in Africa. What is one misconception people have about Russian and African relations?
Colonialism had a very strong impact on our worldview and relations with the outside world as Africans. The one misconception I see often is that people view the West as a peace-loving and democracy-exporting entity. It is this misconception that has resulted in many thinking that Russia under Vladimir Putin is a barbaric aggressor which is just thirsty for blood.
No one likes war and we all hope that there is a speedy de-escalation of the crisis, but for that to happen, I think there is a need for people to consider the security concerns of Russia as well. Many Africans have been influenced by the media’s narrative that Russia has an agenda to colonize Africa. What cannot be debated is that Russia will not deal with Africa as some form of a ‘father christmas’. Politics is not moral charity. There is this idea that Russia is interested in gaining access to African resources as well as a market for its products but it is the West which has perpetrated colonialism and still abhors Eastern competition which would give Africa leverage on negotiation. I think those misconceptions need to be cleared.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I would be lying if I said that I have a single writing style. My writing process and style is influenced by the nature of the topic that I am working on. There are times when I write and then revisit the work and make changes—remove some words, move others and so forth. Other times, I struggle with the subject as I write, and at the end, I have to revisit the work and rework it. I would say it’s a hybrid of both. There is editing during the drafting process and there is post-draft editing as well.
But I would also add that to write the best paper one would need some support from colleagues who can review the draft and make comments. It is very hard for one to perfectly edit their own work.
What was your process for writing ‘A New Imperialism? Russia-Africa Relations in the Twenty-First Century’?
A colleague of mine, Dr George Mudimu, told me about the call for submissions and requested that we work on the paper together with another colleague, Fadzai Chipato. My research strength is in politics and international relations so I was tasked with coming up with the first draft of the paper in order to trigger a discussion, which I did.
It then became an interactive process where George, for instance, would make comments in the WhatsApp group we had created, since my other two colleagues were in China at the time while I was in Zimbabwe. We would deliberate on the comments, and make counter-comments and recommendations until we agreed that the paper was ready for submission. We then agreed that George would have the task of dealing with the editors. We continued to work together on comments from editors until when our assigned editor was satisfied.
So basically it was a collaborative work which went well. It was my first time writing as a co-author in a team of three and it was a good learning process.
What’s one significant thing that has changed in Russia-Africa relations since writing this essay and your recent one ‘The Age of Great Power Rivalry: Russia’s Geopolitical Vision and the Weaknesses of International Diplomacy’?
I would say that there is a greater consensus between Africa and Russia that the global order as dominated by the West is not healthy for both sides. Africa has increased its socio-economic and political ties with a Russia that is now willing to engage and counter Western hegemony. One case in point was the active role that Russia together with China played in providing COVID-19 vaccines to Africa at a time when the West was practising what has been termed vaccine nationalism or vaccine apartheid against African countries. The success of Russia’s vaccine diplomacy is subject to debate but the act showed that Africa was now a region no longer under exclusive Western domination.
Having said that, I think we are still some years away from a multipolar hegemonial world. The manner in which African countries voted at the United Nations General Assembly, though symbolical, showed that the West still has some dominating power over Africa. Some reports point to some serious shuttle diplomacy including blackmailing that took place, but the result, I think, boosted the Western ego that it controlled global public opinion, which the West needed given that it could not have any movement in the Security Council where Russia has a veto.
What do you think is missing or under-discussed in conversations about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
It’s not really missing; its under-discussed: it’s learning that the West lies about having a free media and press and that, in a way, the West has been hypocritical about its fascism and White supremacy. What is funny is that in many parts of Africa the debates are on whether Africans should be on the side of Ukraine (and with it the West) or on the side of Russia. The truth is that Russia’s invasion has shown those who are willing to see that most of what we are lectured on by the West are just words. When social media companies like Meta revise their violence laws to allow for hate speech against Russians, when Russian news channels are blocked from Western platforms on the argument that they are promoting propaganda while Western channels are allowed to do the same. All these are issues which Africa should raise with the West.
Second, the need for reform of the United Nations. The UN as an institution still resembles the world in 1945 before the independence of the majority of countries in the global south. So you see emergency sessions in the Security Council for Ukraine, something we have not seen on Palestine, why? Because the UN still lives in 1945. There has been voting at the UN General Assembly against the invasion of Ukraine but there was never one on Iraq.
I think that race and regions still determine who and what matters and that’s what we should be discussing. We should talk about the refugees from North Africa and the Middle East who were seen as a crisis in Europe, and compare their treatment with that of the Ukrainian refugees today in Europe who are receiving ‘royal’ hospitality. We should also talk about the issue of Africans in Ukraine being prevented from boarding trains and buses while White people had spaces even for their pets. These are the things we should be discussing today and how this state of affairs can be improved and we can create a different world from the 1945 world.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
It’s difficult to say because I’ve received countless advice, all of which were valuable. But I would single out the importance of wide reading. Reading widely gives one the background of whatever one intends to research on. It may even change your views on a particular topic. I think it’s important that we continue to read widely.
I think that race and regions still determine who and what matters and that’s what we should be discussing.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why)?
Quite a number, I would say. They also come from different fields. I would mention my colleague, George Mudimu, whose research on land especially in Zimbabwe is always interesting to read. I would also mention Blessing Miles Tendi—I’ve read a number of his articles and books. There is Lucky Asuelime, whose work is in politics and international relations.
I also enjoy reading Baffour Ankomah who is now the editor-at-large at New African Magazine. His ‘Baffour Beefs’ are interesting and bring up many pan-African questions to contemporary Africa. Other scholars I enjoy following are John J. Mearsheimer—I view his analysis of international relations, especially the USA foreign policy as objective—and Francis Fukuyama.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
International relations and politics are my favourites, as well as topics on various land questions. Currently, I am following various writings and debates on the Russo-Ukrainian crisis and its broader impact on international relations. I am also interested in the subject of colour revolutions in international relations, and debates on the role of social media in colour revolutions are interesting. One fascinating piece I have read on the subject is by Malcolm Gladwell titled ‘Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted,’ published by The New Yorker. It made me have a different view on the relationship between social media, grievances and revolutions or uprisings. The subject is now of renewed interest to scholars of media and political studies as well as international relations and national security.
I have also been interested in Lindiwe Sisulu’s ‘Hi Mzansi, Have We Seen Justice?’ This was an interesting article and it really generated heated debates on post-colonial justice in South Africa. The then acting Chief Justice, Raymond Zondo, the Minister of Justice, a number of journalists and even the President responded to Sisulu’s article. The article was a short piece with significant meaning and impact. It showed me that it is not only books that have or that can be considered to have deep meaning. A one-page letter can be more impactful than a hundred pages.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a post-elections paper on my country. If you were following Zimbabwean politics, we had by-elections for the parliament and some local council seats on 26 March 2022. The elections generated a lot of interest so I’m working on a paper analyzing the outcome of the elections and their possible impacts on next year’s harmonized elections.
Question from Wardah Abbas: If you could read and write in a foreign language, which language would you choose and why?
I guess Arabic. It’s a language with a global reach. A large part of Africa uses Arabic as an official language. My research interests currently include the Middle East and the ways the region impacts global relations.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
What advice do you give to budding writers?⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected]