April 25, 2000
Every country’s press is parochial. You read the newspapers, by and large, to see how you will be affected by what is happening in the rest of the world. That is unless someone else wants to convince you that something should be in your interest. Now, this is not as sinister as it seems, the whole tradition of campaigning journalism is based on getting topics that would not normally be thought about on to the breakfast tables of the public. Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle is a prime example of this, a recent piece by Justin Raimondo on the new ownership of Network Solutions the domain name policeman is also in this tradition. Sometimes the motives are more sinister; governments tend to encourage reporting of various areas when they want to go to war there. This is why the present situation in Zimbabwe is so worrying. In Britain the Zimbabwe farm invasions, incited by the President Robert Mugabe, are getting blanket coverage, the BBC has had stories on Zimbabwe in one of the top three slots almost every day for the last month. Now Zimbabwe is not a near neighbour of Britain; it is in fact at the opposite end of the hemisphere. There have been ten deaths there, that is less than the daily toll in neighbouring South Africa. Why is Zimbabwe getting this treatment in Britain? For what are they preparing us?
There is a natural interest in Southern Africa among a large element of the British population. This is because whereas the rich and the upper middle class would seek their fortune and look for adventure in India, the petit-bourgeoisie would go to Southern Africa. Some farmed tobacco in Zimbabwe, some mined Copper in Zambia and others worked in the booming cities of South Africa or mined for Gold on the Veldt. This continued up until the 1980s in the case of South Africa. Many of these people only stayed for a few years and returned with a lower mortgage and an enhanced CV. Others stayed and their grandchildren now flood the temp market in London, even after the draft ended. But the links with Southern Africa are strong, with many people having friends who are either over there now or who have returned from there. This has been reflected in the papers of the right, notably the Telegraph and the Mail, and also the Conservative Party who accurately describe the pressure as ethnic cleansing. This sympathy however is out of kilter with the voracious appetite for leading news stories day in, day out. Do the BBC really think that we are that interested?
The body in the vanguard of this effort is the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation. Most of the links in this story come from their extensive coverage, that’s how much there is. It must be remembered that the BBC despite its carefully nurtured reputation for impartiality is a mere mouthpiece for the British government. The director general, Greg Dyke, was given the job mainly because of his links with the Labour Party (he gave £50,000) and Tony Blair (his former next door neighbour and a beneficiary of a £5,000 donation). His actual experience of TV revolved around inane rodent puppets on Breakfast TV, lucrative but not intelligent. The corporation takes no advertising but is instead dependent on a flat rate tax euphemistically known as a "license fee" (non-payment of which is the largest cause of female imprisonment in the UK). The BBC in domestic affairs has deliberately tried to skew the debate on Europe and has made a conscious effort to exclude the opposition Conservative spokesmen whenever possible. At least as far as Mugabe’s use of the state media as government propaganda the BBC can not complain. It must beg the question, just why is the BBC paying Zimbabwe so much attention?
The relationship that the whites have to the land is complex. That the whites had thrown the native Mashona off the land in the 1890s is beyond doubt. That the Mashona had done the same to the previous non-Bantu inhabitants is also undeniable. In addition, that the Matabele (an offshoot of the Zulu) had done the same to the Mashona in the West of the country is fact. Whether the crimes of four generations ago should be a stain on the white farmers (who mostly bought rather than inherited their land) is one issue. There is also the claim, made by the former Prime Minister Ian Smith amongst others, that the land that was taken was largely uncultivated because the earth was too thick to be ploughed with primitive equipment. Before I get any irate e-mail I would like to stress that I do not know whether this is justification or excuse, I am not an agronomist. However, the one bright spot on Zimbabwe’s economic horizon are the tobacco farms. Efficient and well run they provide employment to a substantial chunk of the population and sustenance for large extended families. The farms that have been expropriated and genuinely parceled out for subsistence farming provide a living for a fraction of the people that the Tobacco farms do. Land reform is very dangerous. The problem with this efficiency is that it comes at a cost. 70% of the most fertile land is owned by the whites who constitute 0.6% of the population (and falling).
The present operations of the government of Zimbabwe are like an episode of Atlas Shrugged, but with politically incorrect stereotypes. The mainly white commercial farmers (whites make up 0.6% of the population in Zimbabwe) are responsible for Zimbabwe’s main economic success, tobacco. This is resented by a large part of the black population who think that the land is theirs by right as it was stolen from (some of their) ancestors in 1890. They also maintain that wealth is a matter of owning resources, not how those resources are used. The Zimbabwe government tried to satisfy this land hunger by buying up vacant farms and resettling veterans from the insurrection on these plots. This has not satisfied the land hunger because the farms tend to go to high government officials and the farms gradually go to ruin. This would have just been a side issue, with the appropriation quietly forgotten, indeed that is what happened from 1992 to 1998 when only about fifty farms a year were brought, just over 1% of farms per annum. Mugabe has been in trouble recently. The opposition have largely got their act together and are making a coherent case, blaming the economic woes (50% inflation, 50% unemployment and fuel shortages) on the man who has been in charge for twenty years. With elections coming up the reaction has been to encourage illegal occupations of the farms in the hope of tapping a deep vein of racism among some of the blacks in Zimbabwe. Naturally not only is this killing the one performing part of the economy, but it is also a blood red warning to any foreign investor that their property will not be secure.
To the credit of Zimbabwe’s inhabitants Mugabe’s tactics are not working. Mugabe is still loathed and it looks that he will lose the next election, if he holds it and if it is fair. The opposition movement is strong in the towns and in the Matabeleland, where Mugabe organised ethnic terror in the 1980s (more people were killed there than under Pinochet in Chile or Kosovo under Yugoslavia). However, there are worries. The main opposition movement is new and it does not seem willing to reach an alliance with older opposition groups. For a movement that professes utter determination to just rid Zimbabwe of Mugabe this is strange. Total victory is not really the language of pluralism. Similarly, the plea to the West to intervene is disturbing, from such an ostensibly democratic politician. This was not the case when Britain attempted to get the other African leaders to ostracise Mugabe; the refusal to do so was obviously barely reported by the BBC. Christine Stone has written on the similarities of the Movement for Change and other "opposition" parties that tended to be an instrument of Western policy. From the British angle, I can see this in the uncritical coverage that the opposition receives and the fact that the views are put out as fact by many of the commentators.
One of the characters who deserve attention is Peter Hain, the junior foreign office minister who is taking the lead in the Mugabe bashing. Hain has had, to say the least, an interesting past. A Kenyan who grew up in South Africa before escaping the draft, he was a leading figure in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s and 1980s. He then became a Labour MP and started rising up the parliamentary party to his present post in the Foreign Office. There are some odd rumours circulating about him. Many people believe that he was an agent of the South African security service, B.O.S.S., and that he was used as a tool of the regime, to neutralise the growing movement for sanctions. This is an odd point of view, and one to which I do not subscribe; it is purely circumstantial and arises from the far left; a notoriously fractious group. Nevertheless, the one set of sanctions that were imposed, and of which Hain was a prominent advocate, were sporting and cultural links. Although resented by the South African regime they were hardly as damaging as, say, an oil embargo would be. This, say some grumblers, was Hain’s contribution to the antiapartheid movement, side tracking it when it had built up some momentum. If this is true, and I do not believe that it is, then is his outspoken course of action on Zimbabwe really for Britain’s interests, or for that of his home country?
There is one strategic question, and that is Zaire. Mugabe has committed his country to a ruinous war to prop up Laurent Kabilla in the Congo. Zimbabwe’s army has secured the richest parts of the Congo and treat it like a private estate for the benefit of highly placed generals and government officials. Naturally this war is strongly opposed, especially in the cities. However, this war may bring a clue as to the interest of the West. The civil war in Zaire is also linked to the one in Angola, with troops from the formerly American backed UNITA based in Zaire and the American backed regimes in Uganda and Rwanda also backing the insurgents. Laurent Kabilla has been a disappointment to the West in not opening up the mineral resources of Zaire to Western companies. Mugabe’s intervention on Kabilla’s side (which including arming and training the odious Rwandan Interhamwe militias) may not be the reason for the sudden Western displeasure, but they will not be a reason for approval.
So what should Britain, and the West do? My short answer is that we should do nothing. Obviously, we should let any refugees in the country, not because they are persecuted but simply because they are proven to be resourceful. Apart from that Britain has no obligations to intervene. Zimbabwe chose its fate when Mugabe was voted in government in 1980. The distribution of land is a purely Zimbabwean affair, of no interest to Britain. A British passport does not guarantee your ability to hold land in a country that declared independence thirty-five years ago. The war in the Congo is not our war and the fight for political rights is a fight that the people of Zimbabwe had best be fighting. There are elections in Zimbabwe, some of which Mugabe has actually lost, and if these elections are rigged it is up to the people of Zimbabwe to throw this rotten lot out. One other thing, why is the BBC paying so much attention to a foreign country where we are not fighting, yet?
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