Britain and Africa: confronting the Zimbabwe question

Last week my boss, Lawrence Haddad, asked me to write a guest blog for Development Horizons. He had read Richard Dowden’s piece in Prospect magazine, and wanted to know my views. The blog I wrote, subsequently picked up by African Arguments, All Africa, the Zimbabwe Mirror and various other websites, is below.

Britain and Africa: confronting the Zimbabwe question

Britain’s relationship with Africa has always been a tricky one; and this is particularly so for a former settler colony like Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe’s recent win in the contested election in Zimbabwe has been seen by some as a victory for independent, sovereign Africa over the former colonial power and its imperial ambitions. As Richard Dowden commented in a recent issue of Prospect Magazine, this was “the biggest defeat for the United Kingdom’s policy in Africa in 60 years”.

In his recent speeches, Mugabe has not been able to constrain his glee. The deep animosity that developed between Zimbabwe and Tony Blair in particular is still a recurrent refrain. Britain has misjudged its diplomatic relationships with Zimbabwe many times, but the most extreme incident was Clare Short’s ill-judged letter in 1997 arguing that Britain had no special responsibility for the land issue, and Short’s Irish ancestry showed that she was not on the side of the coloniser. This of course infuriated Mugabe and many others. As nationalist leaders who fought a liberation war against Ian Smith’s Rhodesia regime, the denial of responsibility for colonialism was outrageous.

Yet today Britain is a declining power, with decreasing economic and political clout. Zimbabwe, as other African states, has turned to others for support, where the baggage of colonialism and the strings of aid and investment conditionality do not apply. Zimbabwe’s ‘Look East’ policy focuses on China, but also Malaysia, India and others. Chinese investments in Zimbabwe have accelerated, particularly in the period from 2000 when Western nations boycotted the country, and investment and credit lines were curtailed, due to Western reaction to Zimbabwe’s radical land reform.

The land reform saw a major restructuring of the agricultural sector and the wider economy. A transfer of nearly 10 million hectares benefitted over 170,000 households, around a million people. But at the same time it removed 4000 mostly white farmers from their land, and considerable numbers of farm workers lost their jobs. The consequences have been far-reaching, as we outlined in our book, and debates continue about the pros and cons, means and ends.

The sanctions imposed by the West were aimed at punishing the Mugabe regime, and were particularly focused on the President himself and his immediate coterie. The withdrawal of Western capital and credit had an even bigger impact, and helped precipitate a collapse in the economy. From 2009, and the establishment of a unity government with the opposition, the economy recovered to some extent, especially following the abandonment of the local currency. This put an end to hyperinflation that had increased in some estimates to 230 million percent, and encouraged investment again.

In the agricultural sector, tobacco and cotton production boomed. Chinese and Indian companies in particular have been important players. For example, the Chinese company Tian Ze has contracting arrangements with over 250 farms, mostly in the new resettlement areas. Smallholder farmers who gained land through the reform are now the major producers of such cash crops, and contribute significantly to the national economy. Chinese led outgrower arrangements provide support in terms of finance, inputs and advice. British companies that had been important as buyers of tobacco from the previous white commercial farmers have looked on, and are now trying to get back into the game.

Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, has certainly exploited the land reform to gain political advantage. The land reform, they argue, is evidence of the struggle for liberation having reached a final phase. Shedding commercial links with Western companies shows in turn that sovereign countries like Zimbabwe now have a choice, both in economic and political affairs. No longer will they be pushed around, condescended or demeaned. Of course this rhetoric must be taken with a very large pinch of salt, as the political-security-business elite associated with ZANU-PF have benefitted from these reconfigurations of land and economy, alongside considerable numbers of ordinary people.

Indeed, the electoral calculus of 2013 suggests that land reform beneficiaries, along with other rural people, backed ZANU-PF, reversing the major wobble in 2008, when ZANU-PF lost both parliamentary and presidential polls. It is impossible to know for certain what the real results were, as there was most definitely fiddling going on. This included bussing in voters to swing constituencies, changing constituency lists and obstructing registration for young and urban voters, as well as various forms of intimidation.

However many commentators believe that the results were probably pitched in favour of ZANU-PF and the opposition MDC lost, if not by the margin announced. Certainly the opposition offered very little in the way of a campaign, and failed to articulate a convincing vision for land, agriculture and rural development. Independent assessments prior to the elections indicated a major disillusionment with the MDC, due in large part to their mixed performance in the unity government, with a major swing to ZANU-PF predicted.

Will Britain and other Western nations reengage with Zimbabwe? This is not the result that they wanted, nor the one that most expected. They had been convinced that the violence, corruption and neglect of human rights and the rule of law that has characterised the ZANU-PF regime (in fact for most the period since Independence in 1980) would put an end to Mugabe’s rule. The diplomatic social milieu in Harare is of course very different to the rural areas or the townships and squatter settlements on the urban fringe where most voters live. It is not difficult to see why the result was so incorrectly called.

The question arises, should the West support presidents and parties with an electoral mandate but who are involved in clearly highly reprehensible, possibly criminal, practices? Where does an ‘ethical’ foreign policy fit in? And what about the role of the West in upholding international standards and human rights? Opinion is highly divided on this topic, in Africa and elsewhere.

This has been brought to a head by the on-going prosecution of the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta and his vice-president, William Ruto by the International Criminal Court. The African Union, irked by the seeming emphasis of the ICC on African abuses and not others (Blair and Bush are of course mentioned as those who have got away), has proposed that sitting presidents should not be prosecuted. Others have called for withdrawal from the ICC, arguing, like the US, that international meddling in sovereign power is problematic and biased. Mugabe – of course – has joined in the chorus.

The double standards of the West are of course plain to see. Mugabe, Morsi, Museveni, or Meles? Who is/was acceptable, and who deserves to be cast out? And on what basis? There are no clear rules, and the interests and biases of Western foreign policy and associated commercial and political interests quickly become exposed. Is it perhaps easier to go the Chinese route, and proclaim a position of ‘non-interference’, based on ‘solidarity’ and ‘mutual interest’, while at the same time promoting a highly interested commercial relationship through development cooperation?

The UK’s Secretary for State for International Development, Justine Greening, hinted at such a shift in UK policy recently in a speech at the London Stock Exchange. Some observed that she sounded more like a Chinese official, acknowledging the importance of aid relationships for UK business; a contrast to her predecessors who only emphasised human rights, good governance and Western liberal democratic values.

As African states become more assertive in international affairs, buoyed by economic growth and a sense that in the post-colonial world order they do not have to be behoven only to the West and their former colonial masters, there is a greater level of what some have termed ‘state agency’ – the ability to negotiate,  manoeuvre and make choices. Yet, with the West unable to dictate through aid conditionalities, there are even greater obligations on citizens, as part of civil society organisations, social movements, political parties and electorates, to hold states to account.

In places like Zimbabwe this is not easy, given the obstructive and sometimes violent and oppressive politics of the ruling party. As the opposition rebuilds itself it has some serious thinking to do. Avoiding getting perceived as a puppet of the West, and broadening its focus to encompass economic and social rights and freedoms at the centre of a redistributive agenda will be essential. Meanwhile, Britain needs to reengage, supporting investment in the productive sectors, including agriculture and belatedly backing the successes of the land reform, and join Zimbabwe as a partner in economic development, alongside China and others, avoiding at all costs the misplaced, patronising stance of the past.

Ian Scoones is a Professorial Fellow at IDS, he blogs at, and is co-author of Zimbabwe’s Land Reform: Myths and Realities


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8 responses to “Britain and Africa: confronting the Zimbabwe question

  1. MrK

    ” Avoiding getting perceived as a puppet of the West, and broadening its focus to encompass economic and social rights and freedoms at the centre of a redistributive agenda will be essential. ”

    The problem for the MDC isn’t that it is ‘perceived’ as a puppet of the West, it’s problem is that it is nothing other than that.

    And to be more precise, the MDC is the De Beers Party.

    I quote from their stated aims:

    “We will nationalise diamonds and ensure that government goes into partnership with genuine investors.” (1)

    Now what is the largest diamond miner in the world, which used to own the global monopoly in diamond mining in the 20th century? De Beers.

    What company did Morgan Tsvangirai used to work for when he was still a miner? De Beers.

    What company has diamond mining co-monopolies with the state, called Public Private Partnerships or PPP’s? De Beers.

    Botswana: Debswana
    Namibia: Namdeb

    Zimbabwe: Zimdeb? Debzim?

    De Beers was founded by NM Rothschild in 1887 (2), and Cecil Rhodes was made the Founding Chairman in 1888 (3).

    Considering that they are neoliberal sellouts, my bet is on DebZim.

    Munyaradzi Gwisai said it best – within 6 months of it’s creation, the MDC was taken over by big money (mining) and farming interests. (4)

    Apparently Munyaradzi Gwisai joined the MDC to protest ESAP – now how ironic is that?

    (1) Source: (NEHANDARADIO) MDC-T plan for the mining sector
    in Business, Elections, Mining, News / on July 15, 2013 at 4:41 pm /

    (2) “With the provision of funding for the creation of De Beers in 1887, Rothschild also turned to investment in the mining of precious stones, in Africa and India.”
    Google: de beers history rothschild

    (3) “1888 De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited is established on 12 March. Rhodes is named founding chairman.

    (4) (KUBATANA) Behind the headlines talks to Munyaradzi Gwisai
    Lance Guma, SW Radio Africa
    May 24, 2005

    ” The MDC was formed after the hosting of what was called a ‘Working People’s Convention’ on the 28th and the 29th of February 1999.

    ” The rich, the white farmers, the business community, only came in after February 2000 if you take like the economic Eddie Cross and a whole lot of other people who moved in.

    ” They only came in in February 2000, that is six months after the party had been formed, because they saw that the MDC was offering a real chance of unseating the government and bringing in a working peoples’ government. And they came in to ensure that they would try and hijack this programme. So we remained in the party until 2002 when we were expelled precisely because we wanted to fight from within. But it is clear to us that after 2002 the party leadership had then been hijacked. “

  2. Batanai

    Great comment Mr. K. Sometimes Ian gets carried away trying to be “balanced” on things that don’t need any equivocation at all!

    I understand Ian’s need to be acceptable amoung the rabidly antiZANU brigade, thus he goes to great lengths repeating a western propaganda line that says ZANU is a violent party when he knows the violence in Zimbabwe is more cultural than political. That compared to its neighbors’ especially SA, Zimbabwe is a zone of peace!

    • Negasta

      Violence is cultural not political? Homesteads razed to the ground, people petrol bombed by state operatives, daughters of opposition members and other female opposition supporters raped at re-education camps! What a culture?

  3. am

    Nationalising diamonds is hardly neo-liberalism. They sadly sound more like a relic of pre-Thatcher Britain. Which is probably what one should expect from a party run by a former trade unionist. I can’t imagine her nationalising North Sea Oil and going into 50-50 share with Shell or Texaco or Chinoil or whoever? Instead the government made its share through licensing and the tax system.

  4. William Doctor

    Mugabe, Mbeki and others have framed their conflict with the West as an extension of ‘the liberation struggle’ but life is not that simple. White Africans are just that, they are not responsible for what happened 120+ years ago. They are not ‘orphans of empire’ who are to be denied their most basic human rights – and preferably ‘shipped back’. If there was to be a transfer of wealth, it could have been done by growing the economy – not ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’. That’s a zero-sum game.

    And why are the Matabele – who ‘invaded’ Zimbabwe just 50 years prior to the British not considered ‘foreigners’? If you explore that question, you’ll see that it’s because they more closely resemble Mugabe – and that is discrimination based on race [a violation of one fundamental human right].

    Mugabe and his fellow travellers are racist, and the left has helped rationalise this through an arbitrary philosophy of what is ‘indigenous’ and what is not. I for example can use the best science available to show that my ancestors come from Africa. Any delineation on ‘who got here first’ is arbitrary. It doesn’t stand up to serious scrutiny.

    Anyhow, the ‘look East’ policy has not been successful as you state. As I write, Patrick Chinamasa is grovelling in front of the IMF. Yes, grovelling – because the economy is ‘unsustainable’. The Chinese see Zimbabwe as ‘remote and high risk’ [see The narrative has not changed – if anything it’s turning against Mugabe post the 2013-election.

    Also, you fail to mention that the Zimbabwean diaspora [estimated at over 1.6 million adults] were denied the vote [and we both know why]. Another fundamental human right denied in the ‘fight against imperialism’.

  5. William Doctor

    And here’s a more balanced view on Mugabe, by a leftist not afraid to challenge the left [the late, great Christoper Hitchens]:

    • MrK

      “Peter Godwin’s most recent book, The Fear, updates the continuing story of popular resistance. In my opinion it’s not quite as powerful as his earlier book, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, but it does convey the awful immediate reality of a state where official lawlessness and cruelty are the norm.”

      This is what you call ‘a more balanced view on Mugabe, by a leftist’?

      To whose left is Christopher Hitchens?

  6. Pingback: The big thaw: Zimbabwe comes in from the cold | zimbabweland

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