Zimbabwe - from Friday's Financial Times

Tony Gosling tony at gaia.org
Sun Apr 16 10:53:53 BST 2000

A shaky grip on Zimbabwe's moral high ground
By Michael Holman
Published: April 13 2000 

A single powerful image dominates international coverage of Zimbabwe's
mounting tragedy. 
Against a backdrop of green lawns and flowerbeds, weather-beaten white
farmers, wives and children by their side, confront an axe-wielding gang at
the gate, led by a man whose nom de guerre is Hitler and egged on by a
president who threatens to go to war with Britain. 
Not in the frame, however, is the first casualty of the confrontation
between Zimbabwe's white farmers and so-called veterans of the country's
guerrilla war. He is an anonymous black policeman, killed by the squatters,
whose death warranted no more than a sentence or two. 
Back on the scene is an unrepentant Ian Smith, whose unilateral declaration
of independence in 1965 set Rhodesia on the path to guerrilla war. Neither
side emerged with clean hands. But it should not be forgotten that his
government tortured black civilians, and bombed refugee camps. It fought to
keep 7,000 white farmers on 35m acres and 500,000 black farmers confined to
40m acres. And Mr Smith protected white land claims with as much brutality
and as little compassion as Robert Mugabe now challenges them. 
Just before dawn on September 18, 1969 the homes and crops of Chief Rekayi
Tangwenya and his followers were flattened by a bulldozer accompanied by
nine police Land Rovers. Almost 500 cattle were subsequently impounded. 
Although it was their ancestral home, in the eyes of the regime they were
illegal squatters on land the law decreed was white. Five years later, the
chief and his people were evicted. 
No compensation was paid. Nor did Chief Tangwenya have the option of
sanctuary in Britain or Australia. Instead he took to the hills, a proud
old man defying attempts to arrest him, but not a subject for the
international media. Like the chief, Zimbabwe's white farmers are a
remarkable breed. Tough and resilient, and hospitable to journalists, their
plight is dreadful, the tactics used to intimidate them outrageous. Many
have made great efforts to improve the lot of their workers, and to be good
neighbours to black farmers, and some were still at school when Mr Smith
was in power. But they are part of a community with a chequered past. 
It was the white farmers who helped bring Mr Smith to office in 1964. Their
farmsteads became military outposts, and they fought for a party as
ruthless in its determination to cling to power as Mr Mugabe's ruling
At independence elections in 1980, they stayed loyal to Mr Smith, and along
with most other whites voted for the Rhodesian Front under a constitution
that set aside 20 seats for whites. Mr Mugabe nevertheless made a
magnanimous victory speech, and to set white fears at rest, he appointed
white ministers of agriculture and finance, and retained Mr Smith's white
head of intelligence. 
It was not enough for many of the farmers. In 1985, in the first elections
after independence, 15 of the 20 seats reserved for whites were won by Mr
Smith's party, with the backing of most white farmers. Today they support
the Movement for Democratic Change opposition party, in what some observers
suggest may mark the dawn of a new non-racial democracy in Zimbabwe, but Mr
Mugabe has not forgotten the past. 
It seems that Britain, however, recalls it dimly, if at all. But the past
is pertinent. During the 1970s when there were several attempts to end the
guerrilla war, western governments attempted to reassure whites by
proposing a trust fund, which among other things would guarantee
compensation abroad if property rights were abused. At one stage this fund
was to be as much as $2bn, and Britain invited 25 countries to contribute. 
As expected, land was a key issue at the 1979 Lancaster House
constitutional conference on Zimbabwe. It came close to breakdown over the
limitations the draft constitution placed on redistribution of land. 
Mr Mugabe and fellow nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo asked for reassurances
that land redistribution would not be made impossible by the combination of
entrenched clauses and lack of funds. 
After a meeting with UK and US officials, they issued a statement saying
they accepted assurances that London and Washington and other governments
would "assist in land, agricultural and economic development programmes...
which go a long way in allaying the great concern we have over the whole
land question". 
That assurance is now downplayed by British officials. No figure, they say,
was ever mentioned. They point out that Britain has provided some £44m
($70m) for land resettlement since independence, and promises to provide
more if conditions are right. But total international assistance has fallen
well short of the $2bn once envisaged, and donors refuse to put a figure to
the amount that could be available. 
Mr Mugabe has let them off the hook by mismanaging the economy and
allocating farms to henchman and cronies, but the spirit, if not the
letter, of Lancaster House has been broken. 
Britain nevertheless seems convinced that it occupies the moral high
ground. "You were once my hero - what went wrong?" Peter Hain, the former
anti-apartheid campaigner, now foreign office minister for Africa, asked Mr
Mugabe when they first met. Yet for most people who had admired the man,
disillusionment goes back much earlier than the disputes and abuses of the
past couple of years. It dates back to 1983 and 1984, when Zimbabwe's fifth
brigade terrorised Matabeleland and slaughtered more than 1,000 civilians.
But they were black, and Britain did nothing. 
Mr Mugabe is destroying Zimbabwe by playing the land card in his search for
a victory for his corrupt and discredited party in the promised elections.
But whether the attention Zimbabwe is receiving is doing the country a
service is open to doubt. News values are distorted, memories are short,
many acts forgotten, and perspectives lacking. 
Mr Mugabe has changed from reconciliator to autocrat, but there is more to
his anger than is generally acknowledged, and more questions about
Britain's role to be asked. A new generation, black and white, is
challenging the old order, but the past is not another country. 

Tony Gosling <tony at gaia.org>

5 Warden Road

Telephone +44(0)117 953 1256

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