On the 21st November 2017 the streets of Zimbabwe were flooded with jubilant people, celebrating their independence from President Robert Mugabe. Theresa May and her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson both took the opportunity to welcome the end of Mugabe’s brutal rule. May’s statement made a worrying attempt to whitewash the historical relationship between Britain and Zimbabwe. When taken with Johnson’s characteristically decodable waffle, the foreign office response is a chilling indication of British intentions for its previous colony.
Friend and Coloniser
May would have it that Britain is ‘Zimbabwe’s oldest friend.’ Assuming she is not entirely ignorant of the country’s history she is then referring to Britain’s relations with the former British colony of South Rhodesia, and the unrecognised Rhodesian republic. Friend is a euphemistic and entirely false term, for a coloniser. From the 1880s onward Britain placed the black population under the control of The British South Africa company. This was a typical colonial enterprise headed by Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes, after receiving a concession from King Lobengula, began mining the vast natural resources of the area. The precious resources were mined out by the impoverished population, and the wealth they created was exported to London.
The Shona people and the Ndebele peoples that inhabited the region both revolted against this colonial exploitation in 1896/97 in a series of insurrections called the Chimurenga. They were crushed by the ruthless British backed Rhodes operation, and then forced from huge swathes of their own land to be replaced by white settlers. This was in line with Rhodes belief that ‘we [whites] are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.’ Strange friends. Perhaps May is talking of more recent history?
You Scratch My Back, You Scratch Yours
The territory became a self-governing colony of the British empire from 1923 until 1965. The indigenous people, now Rhodesians, fought for the UK during the Second World War. They were mostly active in the East Africa campaign that repelled the Axis troops from Italy and protected the allies supply lines. The British surely then owe a debt of gratitude to the Zimbabwean people for the victory against Hitler’s armies. Zimbabwe’s ‘oldest friend’ continued to subjugate and arbitrate their affairs and steal the wealth of their earth. They Rhodesia and Nyasaland, that would later become Malawi, and placed it under the control of a white minority government.
Ian Smith, the leader of the white government unilaterally declared independence from Britain in 1965. And so Southern Rhodesia became the unofficial Rhodesian republic. It was against this oppressive white minority rule that Mugabe and Nkomo, the founders of The Zimbabwean African People’s Union (ZAFU) and The Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU), would fight a successful revolutionary war in the 1970s. Their attempts to reclaim the sovereignty stolen some one hundred years ago by the British. They were aided by the recently independent states of Zambia and Mozambique. Both these countries could claim old friendship with Zimbabwe, beyond a racially underpinned conception of patronage and exploitation.
A Friend In Need, An Exploitation Oppurtunity
Perhaps Theresa May’s statement was referring solely to Zimbabwe under its modern title? Britain kept close ties with the newly independent state. Margaret Thatcher was instrumental in brokering The Lancaster House agreement, between the ZAPU and the ZANU that fell quickly to civil war following their revolutionary victory. Mugabe remembered her fondly, telling his cabinet; “Who organised our independence? Let me tell you – if it hadn’t been for Mrs Thatcher none of you would be here today. I’m sorry she’s gone.”
Thatcher held Mugabe in similar esteem and placed in him great confidence pledging to ‘provide as much moral and material support as our circumstances allow.’ The moral support once pledged to a revolutionary hero was unchanged by five years of Mugabe’s ‘Law and Order Maintenance Act,’ used to detain political opponents. It continued four years after the Gukurhandi, in which repressive measures led to the slaughter of 20,000 Ndebele. Thatcher ignored internal and international calls to annul Mugabe’s 1988 election which was conducted under widespread intimidation by military forces. An election that followed sweeping constitutional changes that laid the foundations for Mugabe’s 37 year dictatorship.
Britain’s provided all the moral support it could muster, once again showing an interest in its own economic ties, not the welfare of their Zimbabwean ‘friends.’ Theresa May’s glee at the chance to ‘rebuild Zimbabwe’s economy’ echoes Thatcher’s excitement at Mugabe’s rule which would provide Britain, ‘the biggest single foreign investor in Zimbabwe […] further opportunities for […] industry to work together to mutual advantage.’
Britain’s relationship changed under Blair’s premiership. Mugabe dealt roughly with the widespread anti-government demonstrations in the 90s. He also began the forcible redistribution of land out of white hands. At first this was carried out by militias, but later executed by the state forces that had allowed them to act with impunity. The tactics employed against white farmers were grave, but the policy was welcomed by the majority black population. Before the redistribution the colonial descendants, which made up 1% of the overall population, held 70% of arable land.
The economic and industrial reforms were not carried out in the populations interests however. Just as it had been under colonial rule the profits were siphoned off, but now they funneled into Mugabe’s pockets not colonial investors. Blair responded by imposing, and encouraging Britain’s real friends to impose, harsher and harsher sanctions against Zimbabwe. If one is generous they may credit Blair with making a principled stand against Mugabe’s ever growing human rights abuse. Regardless of the intentions the outcome of aggressive sanctions for the people of Zimbabwe was a spiralling cycle of poverty, turmoil, economic deflation and violent repression.
When Cameron took power Mugabe rejoiced; ‘For one, we can all see that David Cameron is not as loquacious as Brown or, worse, Tony Blair. Definitely not. He’s kept his views on Zimbabwe to himself. He’s not even as loquacious as Hague, who sometimes gets carried away, because of what he imagines is the success he’s having in Libya, to say ridiculous things.’
Boris and His Wonderful Friends
The ‘success’ in Libya refers to the removal of autocrat Muammar Gaddafi. This is another dictator who only became labelled such when he became unhelpful to British interests. Boris Johnson’s recently joked about the ‘wonderful guys’ hoping to make ‘Sirte the next Dubai […] after ‘the bodies are cleared away.‘ An exciting idea if the United Arab Emirates wasn’t still a repressive autocratic regime with daily human rights abuses. The blatant disregard for the Libyan people, Boris personally voted to bomb, is indicative of the continuing colonial attitude that Britain takes to its oldest friends abroad.
Boris echoed his party leader in welcoming Mugabe’s deposition but was careful to leave the door open to jumping in bed with the next would-be dictator. He stressed the ‘hope’ of the situation and insisted ‘its very important at the moment we don’t focus too much on the personalities.’ He seemingly meant we should not make judgement about Mr Mnangagwa who is expected to take over. Boris was supposedly ‘encouraged by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s words so far.’ Although apparently not worried by his past actions. Mnangagwa was the secretary of security when the Ndbele were massacred. Johnson stressed Mnangagwa ‘promised to reform the economy and give investors the security of title they need.’ Once again his focus on rhetoric and economy, not democracy and behavior is telling of the conservative parties colonial conception of ‘friendship.’