A recurring theme on this blog is the clueless reaction of Britain to “the Zimbabwe crisis.” Much of what I have written about that has been from the angle of smug, subjective, “we know the natives very well” reporting from various British correspondents and “Africa experts” about Zimbabwe’s situation.
British reaction to Zimbabwe is understandably significantly influenced by a visceral antipathy to Robert Mugabe. Mugabe has become a sad caricature of a brutal dictator whom anybody in the world would find difficult to support as leader of their own country. But Mugabe has freely given the British many additional reasons to dislike him. He has made raw attacks on Britain a major focal point of his whole political plank. And he has tried hard to pin the label of British stooges on Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC, a gambit which the sometimes awkward and bumbling opposition party has made easy to do.
In their diplomatic ineptitude in dealing with Zimbabwe, the British have stood helplessly by and with no influence at all in a country where close, if not always positive historical links would have been expected to give them a leading role. Instead Britain has had to simply watch events from a safe distance, reduced to ineffectual stunts like Prime Minister Gordon Brown skipping last December’s Africa-EU summit in Portugal because of Mugabe’s presence.
The British can therefore be excused for wanting to see the back of Mugabe for many more complicated reasons than concern for the welfare of Zimbabweans. But in their eagerness to see Mugabe go, they show how poorly they have understood the sensibilities of “their” natives in the post-colonial era. This is only worsened by the continuing British habit of studying the natives in a paternalistic, vaguely anthropological way through the distortions of the many British “Africa hands” who crawl out of UK websites, papers, NGOs and universities. The British are far more fascinated by what a fellow Briton thinks of Africa than they are interested to really listen to and understand what the Africans have to say about how they see history and the present.
The danger to them of this approach, which danger I am not sure has sunk in even in the wake of “the Zimbabwe crisis,” is to be puzzled by the seeming contradictions of someone like Mugabe. On the one hand he is an African anglophile in a way the British once found safe and reassuring. He was a good native who admired all things British, such as cricket and tea with biscuits at four, and he dressed and spoke in a stiff, vaguely colonial way. He might not have belonged to the Church of England, but the kind of Catholic churchianity that he spouted would have been comforting to the British. Here was a splendid specimen of a good African, deeply steeped in quaint Britishisms and a good example of the British “civilising” mission in deep, dark, godless Africa!
Well, the love story does not end happily ever after. The mutual admiration and flattery between Britain and Mugabe evaporated long ago. But in terms of the souring of that relationship, the source of the trouble cannot quite simply be reduced to “what happened to that once nice fellow Mugabe?”
I will expound on this theme in future. For now, the barely disguised British excitement at the very real prospect of Mugabe’s electoral defeat is obvious in the over-the-top reporting in UK publications. One-time foreign minister David Owen relates how at independence in 1980 he was part of secret efforts to engineer Joshua Nkomo’s installation as first post-independence prime minister. It is easy now to guess the country would not have plunged to its present depths, but not having seen/known at that time that the momentum was ZANU-PF’s then is a sign of the British cluelessness about “their” natives then, and which continues now that the natives are no longer “theirs.”
In the article Mugabe: From secret Jesuit to grieving father to embittered tyrant, Owen reveals that he only recently understood the hatred Mugabe must have felt for an Ian Smith who refused the jailed Mugabe permission to attend his first and only son’s burial. Owen’s epiphany? A play he saw performed in 2006. Although the play was by a British playwright, for Owen, “It gave a special African insight into what may be the root of Mugabe’s troubles.” Twenty six years after independence negotiations of which he was a part, Owen needed a British playwright to explain to him that Mugabe just might have felt a deep, burning hatred for the ill-treatment he suffered during the many years he was in jail.
“How un-African! Aren’t good Africans like Mandela, becoming more noble and forgiving the longer and more they are mistreated?”
Owen displays a recurring theme in British attitudes towards Africa: a real puzzlement that Africans could be resentful at the stripping of their humanity during their whole experience of colonial oppression. It is to wonder, “but why aren’t they grateful for all the good things we did for them?” The answer to this question I pose here rhetorically is beyond the scope of this blog post, but it might be worth trying to answer some other time. Another theme in Owen’s article is that of the mysterious character of the Africans being deciphered by a fellow Briton/Westerner, in this case the author of the play about Mugabe that suddenly helped Owen to feel he could begin to “understand” Mugabe.
This anthropological approach to the African very much continues in the reports of the various British correspondents. Their interpretation of Africa is given far more authority than the perspectives of the Africans about their own world view. It is only official when it is processed through the thoughts and words of a Western “Africa expert,” whether that “expert” is a journalist, intelligence agent, diplomat, NGO worker or academic.
Another aspect of British paternalism is very evident in regards to the expressed visions of a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe.
In the Daily Telegraph, the paper’s diplomatic editor and resident “Africa expert,” David Blair, boldly lays out How to save Zimbabwe after Mugabe.
It is surely touching to think that Mr. Blair has been devoting his valuable time to thoughts on how to “save” Zimbabwe. His plan? “The first step that must be taken is to stabilise the economy and curb hyperinflation. The Africa department of the International Monetary Fund, led by Abdoulaye Bio-Tchané, will take charge of this effort.”
This will surely be an option on the cards, but IMF intervention is no longer universally considered the positive it once was. It assumes an economic policy orientation that I would hope was not automatically, mindlessly adopted by a post-Mugabe government, but would be considered carefully amongst other ideas about how to stabilise and kick-start Zimbabwe’s economy. The credibility of IMF economic “adjustments” has suffered a serious knock in the last decade or so. This is not to say the IMF is evil or that it will not play an important role in Zimbabwe’s recovery. It is just to suggest that even a country in such dire straits as Zimbabwe needs to be cautious about the standard kind of policy advice that comes attached to IMF rescue packages.
Continues Blair, “With inflation under control and a new currency introduced, Zimbabwe’s new government can look to longer term recovery. Commercial agriculture will be the key. Some white farmers must be allowed to return and Mr Mugabe’s disastrous land ownership laws, which make all agricultural land the property of the state, must be repealed.”
“Some white farmers must be allowed to return” rubs me the wrong way. What I object to is what I intepret as the suggestion that it is the whiteness of the farmers who are allowed to return that will be the answer to reviving commercial agriculture. That to me is quite different from saying conditions that make it possible and attractive to invest in commercial agriculture again must be put in place. The individuals who make the investment could be white or they could be black.
But a “white farming community” such as previously existed will no longer work in Zimbabwe for many reasons. In rebuilding commercial agriculture, it is now more important than ever, and in the whites’ own long term interests, for there to be a strong racially integrated commercial farming sector in which blacks play an important role. The challenges of doing this will be one of the most daunting for any post-Mugabe government, but it is one of the most important.
If Tsvangirai is about to become president of Zimbabwe, the traditional, cloying kind of paternalism towards Africa is one of the most effective ways that Britain could undermine his presidency. Already saddled with the tag of lackey of the British by a Mugabe whose strongly nationalistic sentiment is shared by many of the Zimbabweans who eagerly voted against him on other grounds, Tsvangirai will need to walk the fine line of re-engaging with Britain without giving the appearance of being the ex-colonialist’s poodle.
It is already clear that he will get little help in this important respect from an over-excited British establishment that would be grateful at his deposing of its nemesis Mugabe, and wanting to lay early “claim” to Tsvangirai. This shallow understanding of African sensibilities serves Britain very poorly.