Could change in Britain have impact on Zimbabwe?
Dr Alex T. Magaisa
For most, it will be the first time in their entire lives that they would have actually witnessed change in the national leadership when, as is widely expected, Prime Minister Tony Blair departs office by the end of the year, giving way to a successor, and everything appears to point to that being Gordon Brown, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Blair has had his critics, not least because of the on-going Iraq war, but for most Zimbabweans, coming as they do, from a country where the rule appears to be that leaders remain in power for as long as possible and employ every available tool to do so, one can hardly blame them should they choose to applaud the coming of this rare phenomenon. They are reassured that it is possible for politicians to actually relinquish power; that there is life beyond politics. Blair has had his time and he is now passing the baton to another and life goes on. So the ordinary Zimbabwean in Britain waits in anticipation, like a child waiting for new clothes that come only at Christmas, looking forward to experience this rare phenomenon, for the first time in his life.
But is this change in British politics likely to have any implications for Zimbabwe, at least, in so far as the relations between the countries are concerned? It is very difficult, if not impossible, to foretell the future. But it is possible to shape the future by improving the present.
As Paolo Coelho says, in The Alchemist, “The secret is here in the present. If you pay attention to the present, you can improve upon it. And, if you improve on the present, what comes later will also be better.”
All too often, when we discuss Zimbabwe, we tend to critique matters in retrospect. It is easy because we have the benefit of hindsight but it has limited practical effect when we do so without actually offering solutions about improving the future. This is why I thought it would be useful to attempt to tackle what I identify as one of the problems and consider possibilities of preparing the current situation, with a view to achieving an improved future for Zimbabwe. The solution is here in the present; we just have to look around and see events elsewhere in the world and identify opportunities that can be exploited.
It is clear that, in the last ten years, while diplomatic relations have been maintained and Britain has continued to provide some aid to suffering Zimbabweans, political relations between the two countries have largely been strained. Yet far from it being a general conflict between the peoples of the two countries, much of it appears to be a magnified personality clash between the leaders of the respective countries. There is no indication that the two men will ever get together on the same wavelength. I believe that the relationship between Britain and Zimbabwe is crucial, not just because of the inescapable historical connections but also because its cordiality or otherwise, has far reaching implications, particularly for Zimbabwe.
There are at least two ways of looking at the relationship between Zimbabwe and Britain: There is first, the idealistic approach, whereby people choose to dismiss the crisis in the relationship as an imaginary creation of the Zimbabwean leadership. This is understandable, because for years, people have become fed up with the incessant and embarrassing torrent abuse by the Zimbabwean leadership, which they direct at the British government. It is not that all the criticism is wrong in principle – the leadership probably has a point, but the manner in which it is communicated has clearly left a lot to be desired. Unsurprisingly, some Zimbabweans have come to see the alleged “problem” between Britain and Zimbabwe as nothing more than a smokescreen created by their own government in order to obscure or excuse its own limitations.
There is, however, a second way of looking at the relationship, which is informed by realism. Those schooled in marketing know very well that often, perception is in fact, reality. The same applies in politics – one cannot afford to ignore things simply because in his view they are mere perceptions. You have to confront what you define as perceptions, in the same way that you would approach what you classify as realities. So even if the Britain-Zimbabwe tension is a mere perception created by the Zimbabwean government, it would be foolhardy to ignore it.
There are some people, and indeed other countries, especially in Africa, that have taken to this perception so that their stance is informed not by what Zanu F opponents consider to be the real issues, but by what Zanu F has defined as a bilateral dispute between Zimbabwe and Britain. Sometimes matters are put on the table, which you consider to be non-issues but mere creations of the opponent. You can choose to be idealistic and ignore them as non-issues and instead focus on what you consider to be the real issues. Or you can choose to take a pragmatic approach and accept that perceptions in relation to you consider non-issues may actually be issues that ultimately cannot be ignored.
This conflict in approaches is probably best exemplified by the way in which Zanu F managed to harness the land issue into the political equation in the 2000 and 2002 election when it faced its stiffest challenge from the MDC. Undeniably, land was a long-standing issue, but it was hardly the immediate and most pressing matter at the heart of people’s grievances against the government in 2000.
However, Zanu F made it an issue or at least created the perception that land was the immediate issue, because it saw land as a convenient rallying point to gain sympathy locally and internationally. Yet because it was an inconvenient matter, one that it considered a non-issue, the MDC adopted a non-committal and rather ambivalent attitude to it. It spoke about the rule of law and a new constitution while Zanu F purported to speak the language of poverty, as if it were the guardian of the dispossessed in the developing world. This failure to deal with the perception created by Zanu F, which had become the reality, goes some way to explain why the MDC has continuously failed to gain the full support of fellow African leaders. This matter also had implications for the breach in relations between Britain and Zimbabwe.
Keen to divert attention from its incompetence, the government constructed the problem not as a crisis of governance but a bilateral dispute between the former colony, Zimbabwe and its former imperial power, Britain. Zanu F has managed to create the perception that everything bad in Zimbabwe is due to the negative influence of Britain. Now, I do not think it is fair to suggest, as it does, that Britain bears great blame for Zimbabwe’s current woes especially if that view is proffered in order to deny responsibility for direct results of its failures. Unfortunately, the perception created by Zanu F makes sense to others, especially in the developing world and therefore draws sympathy and support towards the ruling party. Admittedly, with the benefit of hindsight, it is fair to say that the Britain might have handled its relations with Zimbabwe over the land issue in a little bit differently, given the historical circumstances pertaining to that issue.
It is therefore an exercise in futility to dismiss the apparent conflict between Zimbabwe and Britain as a perception of Zanu F and its misguided followers. Because it has believers it is real and therefore must be tackled. Even if it is the government of Zimbabwe that has been keen to hype the bilateral tension, it cannot be ignored out of hand. Realism requires that no matter how much opponents would not like it to be on the table, it must nonetheless be dealt with, if it can open avenues to improve the condition of the Zimbabwean people.
Admittedly, the other main challenges are domestic and those the Zimbabwe government can blame no-one – they have to resolve them. Yet I consider that in addition to these domestic efforts, the resolution of the apparent conflict has the potential to unlock others avenues that are currently blocked because of the situation. I like to think that reluctant countries and institutions allied to Britain are more likely to open up and view Zimbabwe differently, should there be a thaw in relations between the two.
The severely strained personal relations between Mr Mugabe and Mr Blair and the limited time remaining for Mr Blair suggest that it is unlikely that anything tangible can be achieved between them. The question then, is whether Mr Brown might adopt a different approach to the Zimbabwe matter. It seems to me unlikely for as long as Mr Mugabe remains in power. I do not think Mr Brown would risk the wrath of those in his country for whom rightly or wrongly, Mr Mugabe is the personification of the Zimbabwean problem. That is why for the sake Zimbabwe, it makes sense to have some form of change in the Zimbabwean leadership. The prospect of two new leaders in both countries, a relatively new dispensation, possibly a fresh look at issues and perhaps the redefinition of new avenues for improving the relations is hard to resist.
There is reason to be hopeful. Throughout the political and personal stalemate between the leadership, the people of both countries continue to enjoy relatively cordial relations –In addition, diplomatic relations between the two countries continue to thrive, albeit in difficult circumstances. It would be harder if such relations had totally broken down which in diplomatic practice is often registered by a country withdrawing its diplomats. It is notable that Mr Brown has shown a willingness to help tackle problems in Africa. There are also real prospects for change in countries that have been closely involved in relation to the Zimbabwe crisis.
The US will have a new President at the end of President Bush’s term in 2008, South Africa will also have a new President when President Mbeki’s term expires in 2009. This year Nigeria will also have elections after which a new President will hopefully, emerge. Zimbabwe can maximise on these changes to start things on a fresh slate. It is unfortunate therefore that Zimbabwe appears to be intent on retaining the existing order until at least 2010. A leadership transformation could have far reaching implications not only in ushering a new phase of relations with Britain but also other countries that have kept on the sidelines as a result of this political and personal impasse between the leadership. By improving the present, there is room to have a better future.
Dr Magaisa can be contacted at email@example.com
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