Alec Russel and the Financial Times: turning tables on Rowan Williams’ tea with Robert Mugabe

Oct 21, 2011

President Robert Mugabe’s ability to stir instinctive, deep-seated anger in British hearts and minds is legendary and astonishing. He must be one of the relatively few ‘brutal despots’ who stirs far more deep-seated negative emotion in a foreign country than even in his own. An article about British Church of England archbishop Rowan Williams’ recent visit with Mugabe, featured in the (UK) Financial Times, is an interesting read on this theme, which is frequently examined on this space.
‘How to take tea and turn the tables on Mugabe’ is written by Alec Russell. He is described as ‘’the FT’s comment and analysis editor and a two-times former southern Africa correspondent.’’

Sentence one of the article about Archbishop’s Williams’ meeting with President Mugabe:

‘’ The invitation was for afternoon tea at the presidential State House.’’

Except that the meeting was not held on the basis of Mugabe’s invitation of Williams. For weeks, and until almost hours before the meeting, there had been speculation, especially in the British papers, about whether Williams’ request to meet Mugabe would be granted. There is simply no way a journalist of Russell’s described pedigree could not have know this.

So before you can even really tuck into what insights Russell wants to share, you are immediately thrown off. You already begin to doubt the author’s journalistic credibility, based on his prominently, startlingly beginning on such a glaringly false note.

Even if it is going to be the fairly standard anti-Mugabe British rant, one at least looks forward to a well-argued one, perhaps with some nice new twists thrown in for the reader to see the millionth aspect of Mugabe’s particular, unusual badness in British eyes. But the glaring opening faux pas startles, confuses and disappoints from the word go.

Before one can proceed further into the meat of the article, one is pre-occupied with distracting side questions. What quality of a journalist is Mr. Alec Russel if this careless falsehood is the opening line of an article in a prominent paper like the FT? Was it a young copy editor who messed up his opening? Was this an effort to say, ‘’the head of the Church of England would never dare to stoop to request to meet the British-loathed Mugabe, it was the African despot who did the inviting and the archbishop grudgingly consented to lend him some of his precious time.’’

Could Russel have made his ‘invitation’ statement in the sense that after Williams requested a meeting, Mugabe then positively responded by formally inviting the archbishop for their afternoon get together? Is he perhaps just referring to the strict mechanics, the actual protocol followed to facilitate the meeting. If so, it is still an extremely awkward way (polite) for an experienced journalist to write in a way that most readers without the background would interpret as suggesting that it was Mugabe who was anxious to meet Williams.

But actually no, this is not what Russell meant at all, as shown by the last line of his first paragraph:

‘’How was a cleric with a conscience to respond?’’ (To an invitation by ‘’One of the cleverer and courteous presidents of the 21st century — except that he is also one of the more calamitous.’’)

Confirmed then; Russel is saying Mugabe initiated the idea of the meeting and made the request. Clearly, if it was Williams who had done so, there would have been no issue of him agonizing about whether to go or not, as Russel implies. Williams would have simply said, ''thank you for accepting my request, I'll be there.'' Russel seem to be very careful and deliberate about wanting the reader to know that this is definitely not how the Church of England archbishop came to share tea and scone with the most British-feared and notorious African despots. God forbid, no.   

Every single other news source in the world said Williams asked to see Mugabe to seek for his intervention in the Zim Anglican Church’s messy factional fight. It threatens to do permanent damage to the church. The mainstream faction Williams supports alleges state institutions including the police are persecuting its members on behalf of the rebel faction. Williams went to present a dossier of evidence of the said persecution, and to ask Mugabe to help end it.

So what, what’s the big deal about Russel's opening line? Why get so shocked and hung up on the mix of rage and outright propaganda that have been particular staples of British coverage of anything to do with Mugabe for years, as if he needed any additional help in being controversial. The man just has that effect on the British, especially since the circa 2000 farm takeovers, when Mugabe in certain eyes tipped over from being a halfway acceptable African despot (''Sure, he's roughed up some of his people, but they all do that, don't they? That's just Africa, but he likes cricket, he's really alright.'') to being Lucifer himself (''Uh oh, now he has laid hands on some of our people. That shall not stand!'').

The inauspicious start to Russel’s piece is all the more startling because the article is actually quite calm and measured. The anti-Mugabe clichés necessary for a western audience are in there, but his article is far from the hysterical screeds one often reads in other British papers about Ultimate Bad African Mad Bob Mugabe.

Somewhat unusually for a British writer, Russel holds the view that western sanctions on Mugabe have not moved him one iota, and have instead given him a propaganda prize he is happy to milk dry. It is genuinely interesting to read a British writer who holds this view and is willing to put his name to it, and still try to visit his local pub the next day. Russel at least appears to be a brave man, or foolish, or both, or currently not residing in Britain where he could come to harm’s way for his politically incorrect views.

He then makes a downright radical proposal: That Williams should have called for the lifting of western sanctions, to steal Mugabe's propaganda thunder, since the sanctions are not achieving their aims anyway, removing Mugabe or at least making him western-obedient and western-harmless like most African despots.

This would have obviously delighted Mugabe & Co, and Russel argues that it would be a victory for Mugabe that the West would lose nothing by conceding to him. But Russel does not answer the question of where the archbishop would then seek exile after making such a reckless statement. He surely would not be able to go back to London. And almost anywhere else he went, the right wing British media would pursue him and lynch him anyway, for tarring British honor by giving a propaganda coup to the devil.

Russel didn't really think that one through.  

‘’Britain, the old colonial power where Zimbabwe is seen in particularly stark if sometimes simplistic colours’’ was as good for a laugh as his first sentence, because of his erroneous use of ‘sometimes’ where the word should have been ‘always.’

It was actually a good read, once one got over the shock of the bizarre false start. That awkward, really inexcusable beginning merely re-emphasizes the unusual depth of British antipathy to Mugabe, who probably has many other rulers who can match or exceed his sins, but who somehow don’t quite press the same hot buttons among some that Mugabe can now do without evening trying.

If Mugabe makes one of his now famous barbed anti-British speeches, it will be, ‘’Oh look, there he goes again, that horrible man, we’re the good guys, why doesn’t he just leave us alone.’’ If he grants a British churchman’s request for a meeting and is perfectly civil, he’s even worse: ‘’Oh please be careful archbishop, if you smile even just a little and shake his hand too firmly, all the lurking anti-British demons will burst right out of him and swallow you whole.’’

Russel is fairly calm but even in his article are signs of how many people have simply gone so bonkers over Mugabe that they can’t see straight. The attempt to depict Mugabe as the cunning instigator of the meeting (propaganda value from meeting an official of the Anglican Church, with its Rhodesian history, is probably fairly low for Mugabe) and Williams as the tortured soul finally, reluctantly acceding, was an awkward, quite unnecessary prelude to Russel making his points. But most importantly, it was just plain old false!

So there continue irrational British policies towards Mugabe's government which have no prospect of achieving their aim, as Russel points out, but that increasingly hurt mutual country interests, and make almost all concerned look silly and childish in how they stick to their misfiring guns.

The thing is too; the issues Mugabe is most reviled for in Britain will not suddenly disappear or be magically resolved in a way the Daily Mail, Sun, Telegraph readers and Sky News viewers would necessarily be satisfied with. An influential, controversial and yes, often despotic one, but Mugabe is also merely a passing cog in a very big African wheel of changing self-awareness and re-assertion. His many sins aside, perhaps that he seems so radically, puzzlingly, un-apologetically different from the African ‘’we thought we knew’’ is one reason that he is for some so deeply unsettling.

The Zimbabwe Review


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