Mugabe and Mandela: Flipsides of a British crown

Nelson Mandela pictured with Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe
Nelson Mandela pictured with Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe

From Dele Oguntimoju

  1. “The worst rigged election in African history” is how the British Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, described the elections in Zimbabwe. Judging from BBC Radio 4’s recent report on how the British Government rigged Nigeria’s Independence Elections in 1960 it is probably fair to assume that this is an expert opinion. But this is about Zimbabwe, not Nigeria.
  2. Never has so much newsprint and news-time been devoted to a crisis of democracy in an African country. The Times of London might as well be re-named the Times of Zimbabwe to judge from its cover page and editorial features throughout the course of this year.
  3. Since we never saw this level of saturation coverage and editorial consensus across the broadsheets even at the height of the struggle against the evil of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and against the deafening silence over the ongoing slaughter of Africans in Sudan’s Darfur region, something major must be at stake in Zimbabwe, must it not? Once you start seeing the British broadsheets beating the drums of war and the old Coalition of the Willing (Britain, America and Australia) singing from the same hymn sheet as they did over Iraq, it must be time to look behind the screaming headlines and search for the real story.
  4. The story is this. It was on 27 June 1890, not that long before the 84 year old Mugabe was born, that Cecil Rhodes (of Rhodes Scholarship fame), with 200 settlers, set off from South Africa, with machine guns in tow, to invade the land then known as Mashonaland to massacre the Shona indigenes. With the blessing of the British Crown he proceeded to name the country after himself, Rhodesia.
  5. President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, President Mandela and President Sam Nujoma (Namibia)
    President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, President Mandela and President Sam Nujoma (Namibia)

    Thomas Pakenham in his epic “The Scramble for Africa” posed the question rhetorically: “What were the aims of the 200 pioneers?” He answered as follows:
    “For some it was enough to be part of an adventure organised by South Africa’s leading British Colonial, Cecil Rhodes, the Colossus. Others were, no doubt, attracted by the lure of the 3000-acre-farms to be given away free to each pioneer…(no mention was made of the present occupiers of the land, the Shona…)

  6. Then began the era of white minority rule in Southern Rhodesia and the subjugation of the indigenous Africans under a system of Apartheid. It was into this social-political climate that Robert Mugabe was born.
  7. Rather than bow to the “Winds of Change” that were said to be blowing through Africa and accept black majority rule, the white settlers in Southern Rhodesia tried to make a run for it with their booty. Under the leadership of Ian Smith they made a unilateral declaration of independence from Britain in 1965. This led Robert Mugabe, the former teacher and then leader of ZANU (the Zimbabwe African National Union), and Joshua Nkomo the then leader of ZAPU (the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union), to put their differences aside and to join forces as the Patriotic Front to fight the war of liberation from white minority rule.
  8. After a long, bitter and bloody racial war a truce was called by the Thatcher Government which led to a peace settlement made at Lancaster House in London in December 1979. Mugabe emerged as the new leader of the sovereign and independent nation and he proceeded to prise the country form Cecil Rhode’s colonial grip by renaming it Zimbabwe. The thorny issue was what was to be done about the land.
  9. All parties at the Lancaster House Conference recognised that it was in the interests of a new and more equal relationship between white Zimbabweans and their black countrymen that the status quo where most of the most fertile land in the country was owned by a minority of white farmers had to change. The issue was how and how quickly?
  10. South Africa's Nelson Mandela, center, and Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, greet crowds in Harare, Zimbabwe, at the start of the new Zimbabwe public holiday, Mandela Day, March 5, 1990, Harare, Zimbabwe.
    South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, center, and Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, greet crowds in Harare, Zimbabwe, at the start of the new Zimbabwe public holiday, Mandela Day, March 5, 1990, Harare, Zimbabwe.

    The Lancaster House Agreement recognised that the black Zimbabweans needed restitution of the lands. Since change can be painful and disruptive, a transitional arrangement was negotiated which Mugabe was pressured to accept. It was agreed that for a period of 10 years the Zimbabwean Government would not use its powers of compulsory purchase to acquire the lands but that the change would be effected through a policy of “Willing buyer and Willing seller”. As an aside I should say that I know a little about the pain and social dislocation that compulsory purchase orders by Government can cause because I was a young boy at secondary school when Islington Council issued such an order in respect of the only home I had known in England for no good reason other than that they wanted the house for their tenants. But back to Zimbabwe.

  11. At the same time the accord recognised that the white farmers had to be compensated financially for the land they were going to have to transfer back to their black countrymen. It was agreed that the compensation package would have two parts. The first part would be for improvements to the land that the white farmers had effected and it was agreed that the Zimbabwean Government would pay for this element. The second part was for the land itself. It was accepted that the Zimbabwean Government would not bear the cost of this element as a matter of principle given that Rhodes and his men had taken the lands from the black Zimbabweans forcibly and without compensation in the first place. Instead the deal was that the British and American Governments would bear the cost of this element of the compensation package. The two Governments established a fund for this purpose which was to operate from 1980 to 1990.
  12. Mugabe honoured the deal and for the 10 years the British Government had no issue with him. So good was he that he was awarded a Knighthood by John Major’s Government in 1994 and became Sir Robert Mugabe. In the meantime, on 11th February 1990, Nelson Mandela, who had been condemned by the same Thatcher Government as a “terrorist” was released from prison in neighbouring South Africa.
  13. Trouble started when, after Mandela had completed his transition from “terrorist” to President to “the world’s best known statesman”, Mugabe decided that the time was right to review the progress of the programme for the restitution of the lands that Rhodes had seized and redistributed in 1890. His argument was that “the Willing buyer and Willing seller” formula was too slow because some of the farmers were dragging out the negotiations by demanding exorbitant sums for their farms. The unspoken hope it seems of both the intransigent white farmers and the British Government was that by the time the 10 years had run its course, Zimbabwe would be under a new leader who would not have the same resolve on the land restitution issue as Robert Mugabe. They were clearly disappointed.
  14. The Mugabe led Government now decided that they would compulsorily purchase farms from the white farmers where they felt that it was in the national interests so to do but with the important proviso that the same compensation package would be paid to the white farmers as under the “Willing buyer Willing Seller” policy. In the hope of frustrating the new policy it was Tony Blair’s Government that decided that it would no longer pay for the land element in the compensation package. The choice for Mugabe was stark: Back down or press ahead.
  15. The decision was to press ahead with the purchase and redistribution of the lands that Rhodes and his men had seized. That was when the angel Mugabe fell from grace and favour and suddenly grew horns on his head and a long tail from his behind.
  16. Those who know the background to the Lancaster House peace settlement know that backing down was never really an option for the Zimbawean Government because the people of Zimbabwe never had independence granted to them by the British Government in the way that other African colonies received their independence: They fought for it and won it. As Joshua Nkomo said in his address to the Lancaster House Conference:
    “Clearly it is not our purpose in coming to London to betray or abandon any of these victories of the people of Zimbabwe who have partly liberated themselves and are continuing the task precisely because Britain failed to carry out her responsibilities….Zimbabwe must be a sovereign republic in which the sovereign nation pursues its own destiny, totally unshackled by any fetters or constraints.. The sovereign Zimbabwean people must… be free to re-organise the social, political and economic institutions and structures and be free to shape their own destiny as a nation without having to pander to any racial, ethnic, tribal, religious, social or other interests or differences”.
  17.  It seems that the world has learnt nothing at all from the propaganda that hoodwinked so many over the illegal war on Iraq: Weapons of Mass Destruction the headlines screamed and everyone echoed and bought the dribble. Some of us saw through that smokescreen and were proud to be amongst the 2 million who marched in Hyde Park against that great scam albeit to no avail in the end. Once again the headline writers have taken their cue from British Government and the headlines are screaming that Mugabe has gone mad and is starving his own people. Yes, the same people that he fought a guerilla war to liberate from the oppression of white minority rule that the British Government turned a blind eye to.
  18. This is not to say that the people of Zimbabwe are not being starved or that the country’s economy has not been ruined. It has and they are because, in what we were told was a globalised world, where countries did not have to strive to be self-sufficient but could rely on imports to meet their people’s needs, no allowance was made for the scope for the powerful countries, who were peddling the gospel, to gang together to impose economic blockades to force policy changes on less powerful countries by putting the squeeze on the stomachs of their citizens. The economies of these less developed countries having been made import dependent in the first place, it should be no surprise that if food is used a tool of international relations that people will starve and inflation will run riot.
  19. And what about the political violence? I do not for one moment doubt that the kind of violence that debases the human soul is going on in Zimbabwe right now. When teenagers are being murdered almost daily on London streets through mindless knife-crime, it would be naïve in the extreme to believe that in the politically charged atmosphere in Zimbabwe that those who are perceived to be opposing their government’s efforts to hold the white farmers and the British Government to the Lancaster House peace settlement are at risk of being killed even more ruthlessly.
  20. David Milliband has got his Foreign Office knickers in a twist over Zimbabwe because once again he needs to hide, from the British people and from the world, the real agenda, which is a determination to hold on to the lands that Rhodes won in Africa. This is why Lord Malloch-Brown, his Minister for Africa says “We don’t want it to be Zimbabwe versus Britain, it’s Zimbabwe versus the world”.
  21. When it came to the defence of the like imperial legacy in the Falkland Islands the British Government had no need to hide behind the apron strings of the world – they simply sent the troops in. They have not been able to do so in Zimbabwe because of the racial dimension: Will the soldiers kill both black and white Zimbabweans or just the black ones? This is why they are hoping against hope that the African Union will do the job for them. This is why Mandela, formerly condemned as a “terrorist” by Britain is now being implored by the same British Government to condemn Mugabe on whom they once conferred a Knighthood. It has always been the fundament of British Foreign policy that there are no permanent enemies and no permanent friends.
  22. It is time for the British Government to either stand in the open behind the legacy of Rhodes as they did over the Falklands or to accept that the white Zimbabweans are now Zimbabweans equally subject to the sovereignty of Zimbabwe and are no longer British settlers standing above the natives. Holding ordinary Zimbabweans to ransom with economic sanctions is not a fair way to conduct this fight.

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