by Chido Makunike
The Times newspaper of the UK is notable for the often absurd extents to which it goes to try to paint The Zimbabwe Crisis as the world’s worst disaster, and Robert Mugabe as the devil incarnate. Going to ‘absurd’ extents in this regard is quite an achievement because Zimbabwe is in an awful mess and Mugabe is not the world’s most cuddly leader. That The Times sees a country in the throes of wrenching long-term change and tries to make the difficult situation a thousand times worse is an indication of the deep racial hot buttons Zimbabwe and Mugabe press for the British political and media establishments.
These feelings run so deep and strong that they have paralysed British thinking about Zimbabwe to demonising Mugabe at the expense of calmly, rationally analysing the complicated reasons for why Zimbabwe is where it is today.
This would be easy to ignore or dismiss if it was not for the fact that Britain has chosen to make Zimbabwe its special business. The ex-colonial master has shamelessly sought to interfere in a way that would cause any Briton to justifiably howl with rage if a foreign country tried to influence things in the UK to the same extent.
The British politicians have been encouraged in their old bad colonial habits of not having any idea how to deal with Africans as equals by Africans themselves. There are those who still pine for a paternalistic relationship with Britain. In turn these are the Africans the British are most comfortable with. The “please Mr. Brown can we have some more aid if we behave” kind of Africans.
So they are at a complete loss when they encounter a new breed of Africans who say, ‘We appreciate the relationship with you we have been forced into by colonial history, but we no longer feel like relating to you like your serfs.’
All hell breaks loose when they encounter such rude natives. Mugabe lover! Supporter of the dispossession of sweet, innocent, hard-working (British stock) white farmers! Defender of evil! Excusing genocide! Denier of economic collapse! Excuser of atrocities including babies thrown onto the floor in the name of the Mugabe regime! (a now rather infamous, recently disproved example of how The Times eagerly lends itself to going over the top in its Zimbabwe coverage) ! Racist apologist for the denial of property rights and the rule of law! African who can’t be trusted to uphold the civilised christian values you were lucky we came to colonise and leave you with!
And all the other things that pour out of the British media daily to try to bolster the simplistic, only partially true British narrative of what The Zimbabwe Crisis is about. Oppression, violence and a cynical thwarting of democracy are all part of the sad reality of Zimbabwe. That the British media says this is all that informs their unprecedented, emotional involvement with the Zimbabwe story does not change the fact that even with all these issues, there are deeper ones which are overlooked or looked at in very narrow ways.
One result of all this lack of depth, nuance and rationality about Zimbabwe by Britain is that despite all the emotion and words expended, the ex-colonial power has even less influence on events there than it ever did. There are Zimbabweans like myself who are desperate for a new way of running their country’s affairs and await the end of the Mugabe era but are deeply suspicious of and alienated by Britain insisting on treating Zimbabwe like its continuing fiefdom.
Part of this means recognising that Mugabe’s charge that Tsvangirai and his MDC are directly controlled from London is self-serving nonsense. But it also means being disgusted by the opposition party’s sloppiness in managing its image in this regard. The MDC often seems inexcusably oblivious of the cost to itself of the uniquely Zimbabwe-specific context of developing good relations with Britain as with any other nation, but of also not so carelessly seeming to be led by the nose by an ex-colonial master whose claims of good intentions should not be automatically trusted, based on solid historical evidence.
Britain seems to have been so blinded by an irrational fascination with hating Mugabe, similar to Mugabe’s own irrational fascination with taunting Britain, that it cannot see that none of its words and actions in Zimbabwe in recent years have had the intended effects. There is the issue of meddling in the affairs of another country in unacceptable ways, but over and above that, doing so in all the wrong ways from virtually any angle! The result: Mugabe is still firmly in place, Britain has been goaded into appearing to have a ‘personal’ spat with Mugabe, the disproportionate concern with white interests in Zimbabwe knocks Britain’s credibility, Tsvangirai and the MDC have been successfully painted as British stooges, British economic interests in Zimbabwe are more endangered and the UK has no diplomatic leverage on Zimbabwe at all.
Even when Gordon Brown or David Miliband makes the occasional statement on Zimbabwe I find myself agreeing with, it is often delivered in such condescending “Zimbabwe is in our British orbit” tones that my reaction is then more revulsion than relief or joy that some foreign official is taking up the cause of democratic change in my country.
There seems a complete, astonishing failure to comprehend that revulsion by and opposition to Mugabe is not necessarily the same thing as saying anybody else who shares those feelings must be my friend and has license to talk and act as if they “own” the situation. I am flabbergasted that official Britain seems so oblivious of the strong vein of Zimbabwean sensibility that cannot be neatly reduced to “Mugabe is bad and wrong, therefore his opponents (including Britain) are good and right.”
This certainly makes for the kind of simplistic distinctions the British political and media establishments can use to hide the real reasons for their outrage with regards to Mugabe and the whole Zimbabwe Crisis. But however much this simplicity conveniently and comfortably fits into the picture of what the British would like to pretend the complex Zimbabwe issue is about, it is also wrong, or at the very least an incomplete and shallow analysis of many intersecting crises going far back into the past.
Given how Britain, whether its media or the political establishment, have seemingly lost all sense of proportion and reason in looking at Zimbabwe, it was startling to read the headline Zimbabwe: Will the West ever learn from its mistakes?
What was even more startling was that the article appeared in The Times, one of the most irrationally blinded by Mugabe hatred that it has long ceased to be a reliable source of news or perspectives about Zimbabwe, despite the hectares of space and feeling it devotes to the subject, a case of lots of heat but very little light shed on an issue they have decided is important to them.
To compound my amazement, the sensible article in question was written by Jonathan Clayton, who has in recent months spent a spell in a Harare jail. He is far from a Mugabe apologist (he couldn’t be and work at the Times anyway, probably not even in the Olden Days when Mugabe was considered a jolly good Englishman who just happened to also be African! The Times has always had the attitude that at best the Africans are retarded children and are best treated as such.)
The point is I would have expected Clayton to take a more rabidly “lets throw everything we can at Mugabe” attitude than even crack British media “Zimbabwe operatives” like Madames Christina Lamb and Peta Thornycroft.
Moments after formally agreeing to enter talks on a power-sharing deal, President Mugabe cautioned against outside interference. “As we embark on the programme of negotiating the way forward … we shall be doing this as Zimbabweans … with South Africa,” he declared.
Less than 24 hours after Monday’s signing ceremony, the European Union – showing an exquisite sense of timing – agreed to broaden sanctions against Zimbabwe. EU foreign ministers said that it was important to keep up the pressure. Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, said: “Sanctions have played a role. We have to keep up that role.”
He could not be more wrong. What the West, particularly Britain and the US, fails to understand is that it is precisely that pressure which has allowed Mr Mugabe to defy predictions and remain at the helm of the country way beyond his sell-by date.
Gasp! Clayton “gets it!”
I thought it was a fluke that this simple wisdom got past The Times’ Zimbabwe censor, but there is yet more startling commonsense about The Zimbabwe Crisis that Clayton inexplicably got away with getting published:
Sanctions – including travel bans on regime officials and the freezing of their overseas assets – have been an unmitigated failure. Most of the elite have been able to ignore them; Mr Mugabe is still in power and the country is in ruins.
For years it has been a perennial refrain from the ruling Zanu (PF) party that Morgan Tsvangirai is little more than a puppet of former imperialists. Many people believe, with commodity prices at record highs, that Britain wants to get its hands back on Zimbabwe’s mineral riches before China takes them. Mr Mugabe has exploited that unease adeptly for years. The West has always proved a willing helper: talking tough, threatening action and making clear its obvious distaste for any deal other than the former “freedom fighter’s” departure. By so doing it has strengthened Mr Mugabe and undermined those regional voices wanting him to step down.
All this has been blatantly obvious for years to everybody but the British politicians and media who just want to be seen to be doing “something” about the hated-Mugabe, no matter how counter-productive that something is to the stated goal! But it is weird to read this in The Times.
The West’s failure to heed the lesson from past errors and adopt a different strategy lies at the heart of repeated failures of its diplomacy since the current Zimbabwean crisis began three months ago. It led directly to humiliation in the Security Council ten days ago when Russia and China vetoed a resolution imposing tough sanctions on Harare.
That vote also reflected the reality of shifting power alliances on the continent. Britain, in particular, has been slow to appreciate how little it can influence events in its former colony unless it has the backing of neighbouring states.
Lord have mercy! Surely Clayton has gone way overboard now! Is he actually suggesting that Britain accept that it is not Africa’s colonial master anymore? If so, breaking it to Messrs. Brown and Miliband in this public, humiliating way through the prestigious medium of the conservative Times is surely the cruelest way to break the news to them. The two gentleman carry on talking like British colonial governors of the 1950s. They will surely not take kindly to Clayton suggesting that they need to learn new tricks in how they deal with the natives. What? Britain needing the backing of lowly African states in order to get its way in Zimbabwe? God forbid!
The Zimbabwe mess is certainly partly about straight forward repression. But it is so much more, including the utter failure by many Westerners, like Brown, Miliband & Co., to fully grasp the many other subtextual issues. Among those is a significant on-going change in how Africans react to once unchallengable ex-masters like Britain.
That Mugabe has understood this and used it in a way that successive British establishments have totally failed to understand is only too obvious in the reductionist, surface daily reports of papers like The Times about Zimbabwe. In focusing in such a jaundiced way only on the seemingly obvious issues and without giving any credence to the reality that there are deeply held opposing views , a lot of significant underlying issues about the bigger earthquake of change that “Zimbabwe” represents are completely overlooked.
That is what makes Clayton’s clarity of analysis, and in one of Britain’s most shallow and un-nuanced papers in regards to Zimbabwean issues, so startling.