The UK will support Zimbabwe rejoining the Commonwealth, it has been reported. The invitation will almost certainly be accepted, as President Mnangagwa has been on a global charm offensive, bedecked with his trademark scarf no matter what the weather.
Zimbabwe is desperate for international acceptance after being cast out in the Mugabe era. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002, following the land invasions, although Mugabe withdrew in 2003 before formal expulsion, with some Commonwealth leaders torn in their solidarities. Being invited to Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London last week as an observer was a strong signal of reengagement.
So will rejoining make any difference? The answer is probably not much, but symbolism is all in international relations. Any moves are unlikely to happen until after the elections, but the meeting between UK Foreign Secretary and Foreign minister Subisiso Moyo, on the sidelines of last week’s meeting was all smiles.
Imperial anachronism or powerful trading network?
The contemporary relevance of the Commonwealth is much debated. Some regard it as an anachronistic hang-over from Empire, with all the subservient trappings of allegiance to a foreign, once-ruling colonial monarch. The excellent Afua Hirsch argues that attempts at revival are simply imperial dreams dressed up as Empire 2.0, pushing neoliberal policies on the poor, developing world.
Somewhat fancifully, others see the Commonwealth as the basis for a new post-Brexit global trading network, with the UK at its centre, and Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and selected others connected in a powerful grouping to take on the world. This is of course rather absurd, but there will be moves in this direction as Theresa May’s government attempts to make the best out of the inevitably disastrous Brexit deal, with their silly slogan ‘Global Britain’.
While of course the Commonwealth of Nations is a relic of empire (its earlier incarnations were of course the British Commonwealth and the Imperial conferences), the idea that Britain could have any imperial ambitions today is of course only in the fevered imaginations of the likes of Boris Johnson. Today’s imperial powers are firmly elsewhere. The Queen likes to talk of the Commonwealth as a ‘family’; also rather ridiculous, until you remember dysfunctional families, familial power relations and imposing matriarchy.
So beyond the PR value, does Zimbabwe rejoining make any sense? Is this a sop to imperial power, which the liberation war fought? Will Zimbabwe benefit preferentially from new trade deals? Will it make any difference at all?
Following Zimbabwe’s Independence, Commonwealth connections were important. Yes, trade, but also diplomacy, including around the then seemingly intractable ending of apartheid in South Africa. With many Commonwealth countries being front-line states, they were at the forefront of the struggle. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings were important affairs. Remember the CHOGM in 1991 in Zimbabwe? It was a big deal, with a landmark declaration proclaimed. It is rare such an array of dignitaries end up in Harare.
Just maybe such unlikely connections, and the fanfare that goes with it all – can help today. With the polarisation of global power – a regressive US and an all-powerful China – the concerns of many parts of the world don’t get a look in. But in the Commonwealth, with a different constellation of the not powerful and once powerful, other agendas can be raised.
The more radical proposal to reinvent the Commonwealth group for the modern era through appointing a non-white small island state leader is off the cards for now, as Prince Charles has been accepted as the Queen’s successor. But maybe in time a reconfiguration away from the old colonial power can occur.
Vital global debates
The London CHOGM has generated some important debates on global issues. The terrible treatment of the disenfranchised so-called Windrush generation – the children of those who came by sea from the Caribbean as British citizens to help re-build the UK economy after the Second World War – has put in the spotlight the positive benefits of global migration. The madness and inhumanity of restrictive UK immigration policy has been put to the fore, prompting apologies from the PM and Home Secretary.
After the vicious, regressive Brexit debate, this is a breath of fresh air. Perhaps this will be extended to others. What about the many Zimbabweans in the UK who struggle with the immigration service, but offer important work, including – as memorably put by Jo McGregor – ‘joining the BBC’ (the British Bottom Cleaners) in social services?
The London meeting has also raised the important issue of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. Although not Zimbabwe of course, many Commonwealth countries have long coastlines or are islands (yes I know, easier to invade and colonise), and so suffer disproportionately. Whatever you think of now UK Environment minister Michael Gove, he’s certainly good at seizing the moment politically. A marginal debate at one of the branches of the UN is now projected into the limelight with dozens of prime ministers and presidents offering support. It may be that billions of cotton buds and plastic stirrers are literally a drop in the ocean, and a UK ban will have little effect, but again the symbolism and politics count.
New solidarities for a polarised world
So, while accepting that the ideas of a new global trade pact are fanciful and that of course the Commonwealth has a dodgy imperial past, Zimbabwe re-joining could have some benefits. Together with other small countries that never get a look in at the UN or other global bodies, collectively they can raise important questions of global consequence (think climate change and small island states), and generate solidarities that are otherwise not possible in our polarised world.
As an operation with a very small budget but a big international presence, if imaginative and progressive, the Commonwealth can take some important initiatives, and Zimbabwe should be there to start and steer them.