Southern Africa: Zimbabwe, Britain's Perfect Opportunity

The opening of the Commonwealth Youth Forum in Hambantota, Sri Lanka in 2013.
24 January 2018
opinion

To state, as we hereby do, that Zimbabwe and Britain -- the former colony and the once mighty empire -- need each other perhaps now more than ever, sounds uneasy, if not rather awkward.

A lot has happened in the past two decades between the two countries beginning at least in 1997 when the administration of then Prime Minister Tony Blair reneged on Britain's colonial obligations to fund land reform in Zimbabwe with Claire Short dramatising the crisis by writing a defining letter to the then of Lands and Agriculture Minister Kumbirai Kangai.

In the following three years, the issue of land reform - underpinned by anger and hunger of indigenous Zimbabweans, who remained condemned to arid areas while a handful of whites held on to more than three quarters of agricultural land -- began to take centre stage.

Even the nascent opposition at the time began talking about land reform and it took the initiative of villagers in Mashonaland East to precipitate land redistribution.

Those were the people of Svosve communal lands in Mashonaland East. A reluctant Government of Zimbabwe could not stop the "invasions" of white-held farms by black people comprising of war veterans and land hungry villagers and it soon regularised the process and embarked on what then began to be known as the Fast Track Land Reform Programme.

The hunger for land was driven by a number of factors: the land question was historical and the two Chimurenga Wars had been fought in the late 1890s and up to Independence in 1980 to correct a historical injustice, whereby white colonialists had stolen and confiscated land from black communities.

Land was viewed both as an economic and social good. The deprivation of blacks had pauperised them while they were alienated from their space, including places where their ancestors were buried.

It matters that much to black people. The matter of land was also a natural justice and jurisprudential issue. And when President Mugabe decided to swim with the tide of his poor people, the matter took an international aspect that has defined Zimbabwe on the international stage: some kind of pariah led by, until November 21, 2017, an eloquent, combative and defiant black leader of a small economically squeezed African country.

But Zimbabwe's 'pariah' status was authored on the whole by the angry British who lost not only the economic hold on land, but also the historical and emotional imperatives of the land.

How ironic! Whites in Zimbabwe plundered and stole black people's land, killing thousands of natives. They began to regard the land as theirs and when it was repossessed they felt more than the economic loss: they, too, had grown attached to the land. They had even given some of their farms names like "Little England". They regarded the land as theirs.

Contrast that with the people of Svosve who rejoined that white people's farms were on black people's land. That's a profound difference. The issue of land became a philosophical issue.

It was a racial issue.

It was a political issue: of who gets what, when and how? It was the big "what" and the centre of contestation between Britain and its former colony, and a question that could redefine relations between Britain and its former colonies, which were saddled with the same issues as Zimbabwe.

And just as well, the Zimbabwe question was threatening to divide the Commonwealth, the last vestige of the British empire. Zimbabwe left the Commonwealth in 2003 -- defiantly -- rejecting to be bullied and humiliated by Britain and her proxies.

This largely symbolic act complicated already knotted relations. Britain, for its part, enlisted and received support from the powerful white world with the United States of America and the European Union imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe to isolate and punish the "wayward" country.

Yet Zimbabwe did not capitulate. Two decades later, it is clear that the standoff has not helped anyone: it is a conflict in which both sides have lost, and lost heavily, and the parties are willing to for the next escape route.

And the escape has to be honourable. It is a perfect moment to call off the awkward fight. There several reasons for this: The fall of Mugabe Former President Robert Mugabe led Zimbabwe to Independence from Britain, along with other nationalists and liberation war heroes in 1980.

He made several concessions at Independence that secured the tenure of white landed interests, including a moratorium of 10 years and thereafter was patient and magnanimous enough to allow whites on the land, even when reform stalled. He was jerked into action by a combination of black pressure and the intransigence of Blair and his Labour Party.

From there Mugabe put aside niceties and took on Britain and its key allies such as the US in a megaphone diplomatic war. He called the West imperialists and neocolonialists. The West accused Mugabe of human rights abuses, an excuse they used to justify sanctions on the poor country.

The two sides would not talk:

The West adopted a high, albeit false (largely) moral ground staked on human rights. They isolated Mugabe on that score and would not eat with him on the same table. Mugabe dug in and became a fighter, a defiant champion for an African cause. He won a lot of support locally and abroad, which was a rather unforeseen effect of Western pressure on the African leader.

A stalemate thus developed. Sanctions, for all the suffering that they wrought on Zimbabwe, could not separate Mugabe from the people: a euphemism that they were not enough to foment a rebellion and cause Mugabe to abdicate.

Mugabe was to be separated from the people through an internal Zanu-PF process. This singular event gave Britain an extraordinary opportunity: the former coloniser and her friends now do not have to appear to warm up to "pariah" Mugabe; Mugabe the "monster", which would obviously offend some hypocritical sense of morality out there.

It is a ladder from a high horse.

It's an extraordinary opportunity and Britain is grabbing it by three arms and is at some visible pains to kiss and make up with two key envoys trekking to Zimbabwe in as many months.

Soon enough, diplomacy is going to shuttle more between Harare and London. What is more is that Mugabe's successor, President Mnangagwa is in principle agreeing to re-engage.

Conservatives, pragmatism and Brexit

A remarkable development on the relationship between Zimbabwe and UK has been the Conservative Party, the British governing party's, lack of aggressiveness towards Zimbabwe in the last few years, including during the rule of former President Mugabe. The party and government have been quiet, with a stance that is positively neutral.

This has allowed a lot of warming up of relations. Zimbabwe's ruling party representatives in the UK have been well received and opened channels to talk with officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth office.

In Zimbabwe, the UK ambassador, Catriona Laing has not done badly in seeking mended ties. All this has conformed to a view that Conservatives, the party of Margaret Thatcher who was Prime Minister at Zimbabwe's independence in 1980, are reasonable and pragmatic people. They are also understood to be business-savvy.

With Britain reducing trade and immigration ties with the European Union, which is known as Brexit, Britain needs all of that pragmatism and open new avenues to enhance trade.

In these hard economic times where former colonial powers such as Portugal and Spain have been known to receive support and even loans from ex-colonies, it is not unconscionable that poor Britain has decided to look South.

Countering China

Britain's internationalisation of its bilateral dispute with Zimbabwe gifted China, the world's second largest economy, with a huge opportunity to make a foothold on Zimbabwe -- as part of its continent-wide expansion that has seen the rising giant invest billions in Africa. Zimbabwe anchored its Look East Policy on relationship with China, but also opened to countries such as Russia, India, South Africa and others.

Chinese investment in Zimbabwe may not have been as huge as it ought to be, partly due to the constraints of the previous era, but Zimbabwe is considered an important Chinese destination.

If there are to be changes in the environment, as indeed are taking place, China could reap big. A Britain with its 400 or so companies and traditional ties that had been dwarfed by Chinese presence, could as well come to the party.

Regional initiative

President Mnangagwa is doing well to apprise his counterparts of the developments in Zimbabwe. African countries must not leave the opportunities for outsiders.

A sentimental Royal

We have heard that the Monarch of England, Queen Elizabeth II, is so emotionally attached to Zimbabwe and has been keen on mending relations with the country, and may have been willing to work out the disagreement over land were it not for the political goons at Number 10 Downing Street.

The Queen is motivated by a desire to keep the Commonwealth -- the closest that she now has to the Empire -- and leave that legacy. She is 92 years old.

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