Why Zim-British relations need to mature beyond Labour/Tories, or Mugabe/Tsvangirai

Sep 15, 2011

Zimbabwe and Britain are making tentative, awkward moves to mend their long moribund official relations. This is good. History has thrust close relations of one kind or another on the two countries for the foreseeable future. So they might as well be good rather than close but bad, as in the last few years. But to simply try to revive the old-style 'good' relations would be a mistake. They were a product of their time. These new times need a different type of close relation that requires fundamentally new thinking from both sides. Are they up to it?

Last week in Harare there was the spectacle of president Robert Mugabe 'pleading' for better relations with Britain to that country's new ambassador to Zimbabwe. On receiving Deborah Bronnert for the first time, Mugabe repeated his disdain for former British prime minister Tony Blair (Labour party). He expressed the hope that because current prime minister David Cameron is a member of the Conservative party, the prospects for better relations between the two countries were, or should be better.

On this space it was argued, amongst other things, that good relations between the two countries should not depend on which party is in power in either country.

Tony Blair is ancient history. Mugabe said of the former prime minister, "Enemies with Blair, yes. And we damn him here. Sing against him here."

Someone please tell Mr. Mugabe that this is wasted energy on his part. It's time to sing new songs.

Mugabe has endlessly talked about Zimbabwe's 'sovereignty' and how Britain in particular should butt out of its internal affairs. He then contradicted himself by butting into the internal affairs of Britain by publicly voicing a preference for the Conservatives over the Labourites. Mugabe and Zimbabwe officially should keep their preferences in this regard to themselves, just as they ask Britain not to get involved in the contest between Mugabe's ZANU-PF and the MDC.

The government newspaper mouthpiece The Herald has come out in defense of Mugabe's awkward gaffe of displaying a mushy, embarrassing and neocolonial-sounding sentimentality towards Britain's Conservatives. It does so in 'Zim elections: West cannot have its cake and eat it.'

Sounding like David Cameron's propaganda paper rather than Mugabe's, The Herald says, ''It was with the Tories that Zimbabwe achieved independence in 1980, and it was with the Tories that obligations to fund land reforms were entered into, but it was with Labour that the international law of succession was broken. The Tories represent the progressive side of British politics and must be seen to be doing things differently from the Labour gangsters.''

It is stunning to see an African paper, knowing the entire history of Britain-Africa relations, as well as the Conservatives' position in the British political spectrum, who would consider the Tory party as ''the progressive side of British politics!'' Furthermore, there are many among that party who might consider the term 'progressive' assigned to them as a grave insult rather than the groveling, flattering but a-historical compliment the Herald means it to be.

Finally, 'progressive' can mean anything you want it to mean. It is a term of relative, ever-changing meaning depending on the definer and the context. Therefore no one, individual or political party, can be said to be permanently, fixedly 'progressive.' One might be 'progressive' on one issue today, and not so 'progressive' on another issue tomorrow, or even progressive/non-progressive on the same issue on different days depending on changed circumstances. Even if we could all agree what 'progressive' means, it is ridiculous to hold on to this perception of the party of today's David Cameron on the basis of the events of 30 years ago.

Be that as it may, there is no need for Zimbabwe's relationhip with Britain to be stuck in the doldrums of depending on apparently fond 30-year memories of the Tories by Mr. Mugabe and someone at the Herald. It unwittingly reveals how stuck in the past Zimbabwe's ancient ruling clique and their propagandists have become over all those decades of uninterrupted power, while other countries have renewed their politics many times over in the same period.

Unlike in Zimbabwe, in Britain ruling parties and heads of government come and go. The time when that will also apply in Zimbabwe is soon coming. Relations between the two countries need to move to where they primarily depend on mutual best interests. Those country interests transcend the minor, temporary issues of which party or ruler is in power at a given time in either country.

While Mugabe and the Herald fondly hold on to their memories of the Tories of 30 years ago, the British electorate have moved on from such silly partisan sentimentality. So they sometimes vote the Tories in, sometimes voting them out. Likewise, Zimbabwe should be able to deal equally well with either/any British party in power.

Bronnert expressed the willingness of her government to work with any government Zimbabweans elected. That was important to say after Britain's too-close association with the MDC. Mugabe has been quite shrill about the MDC being 'puppets' of the British. Bronnert's statement of neutrality was important to make, if it is backed up by a real change of a pro-MDC policy and tactics that have not worked, for Zimbabwe or for Britain. Zimbabwe should reciprocate by adopting that same neutrality towards whichever party is in power in Britain, whether that party is regarded as 'progressive' or not.

Regarding, and worse, publicly speaking of one British party as being intrinsically better for Zimbabwe-Britain relations is not only bad diplomacy. It is also smacks of the same sort of foreign interference Mugabe so often rails against.

The British make no secret of their 'interest' in Zimbabwe, but they do not display any of the sort of weak sentimentality that Mugabe does towards Britain, and towards the Conservatives in particular. It is time for Zimbabwe's best interests to come to the fore in influencing improved relations with Britain. Those best interests have nothing to do with who was British prime minister 30 years ago at the time of Zimbabwe's independence, or which party Mugabe and the Herald consider to be more 'progressive' in British politics.

It is quite possible to argue for improved relations between Zimbabwe and Britain on the basis of many present-day, practical and unsentimental considerations. Continuing to sing about 'enemy' Tony Blair or fondly remembering tea with supposedly 'progressive' Margaret Thatcher is an utter waste of time. Let's move on.

The Zimbabwe Review

Related: What did the new British ambassador to Zimbabwe tell Mugabe to make him giggle like an infatuated schoolboy?

Zimbabwe should put ‘special relationship’ phase with Britain behind it


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