by Hannes Wessels


London mayor Boris Johnson recently wrote a thought provoking piece on the reason for the Zimbabwe land seizures and laid the blame firmly at the feet of Tony Blair. Surely the brightest, bravest, most credible and charismatic player to assume prominence on the British political stage in decades, Boris Johnson, seems to keep getting it right and Britain, in the humble opinion of this writer, will be blessed with him as a prime minister. Tony Blair can not expect too much kindness from history. At best, a slippery, manipulative character, he lied to his countrymen in the process of involving them in a disastrous war that has wrecked Iraq and dragged the region into an endless cycle of civil, religious and sectarian strife.  Having said that Boris Johnson is testing the truth in blaming Blair for the ethnic cleansing of white farmers in Zimbabwe and the resulting economic collapse that has visited misery on millions.

Admittedly, Johnson does mention the problem has its provenance going back to the Thatcher years but he conveniently glosses over this. Mrs Thatcher and Foreign Secretary Carrington were deceitful and dishonest in the cunningly planned process of side-lining political moderates in the process of bringing Mugabe to power and they must be held responsible for this. Just what was agreed at Lancaster House regarding the vexed ‘land issue’ remains a matter of mystery and it is probably safe to assume that Carrington made false verbal promises  to hasten the settlement process that left the issue hanging. When, in the early 80’s, reports appeared of murderous mayhem in Matabeleland Mrs. Thatcher looked hard the other way and refused to take a stance on actions that caused enormous human suffering. After her political demise John Major adopted a very uncritical, accommodating approach towards the Zimbabwe government.

Under Blair’s Labour they continued in much the same vein hoping to maintain good relations and quite sensibly committed to continue to lend financial support to an ‘orderly’ resolution of the ‘land problem’ but with the proviso that it was done prudently and transparently. Then, according to Johnson the wheels came off:

“And then in 1997, along came Tony Blair and New Labour, and in a fit of avowed anti-colonialist fervour they unilaterally scrapped the  arrangement. The overseas development minister, Clare Short, made it clear that neither she nor Blair gave a stuff about the former colonial farmers. As she put it at the time: ‘I should make it clear that we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new government from diverse backgrounds, without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish and, as you know, we were colonised not colonisers.”

Johnson might be right that Overseas Development Minister Clare Short did ‘not give a stuff about white farmers’ but this was not why Mugabe decided to take the land and she was quite right to rebut the allegation that colonialism was the root of all the evils and that Britain alone should accept full responsibility for a problem that was largely of Mugabe’s own making. She was also right to react swiftly when it became clear that British taxpayer money was being misused to finance land acquisitions by politically connected flunkies. This was when the funding was stopped. And so it should have been.

Two more important reasons for the ‘farm invasions’ surfaced, that Johnson misses. One was the fact that the economy was in free-fall thanks to horrible misrule and with the national coffers bare Mugabe needed a sop for his supporters and some of the most developed farms in Africa were there for the taking. These would be perfect fodder for his somewhat dissolute followers so the threat of confiscation loomed large.

However the trigger was the 1999 constitutional referendum designed to entrench Mugabe with absolute power. This, he and his lieutenants, felt they were sure to win. When they lost it, shock and extreme anger followed almost immediately. Mugabe, correctly, identified the white farmers as part of his burgeoning political problem. Many of them, in the naïve belief they had a right to engage politically, had been energetic and effective in organising the opposition Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai and this had became the organ for motivating and managing political dissent in the country. The sirens screamed, Mugabe gave the order and the ‘land invasions’ began.

The rest is history and Zimbabwe hovers on the brink of being a failed state with little light at the end of the tunnel. Yet another post-colonial African tragedy has unfolded that might have been avoided had Mugabe ever felt he might be accountable for his actions but that has seldom been the case and certainly was not ever a concern of his through the Thatcher/Major years. Contrary to what Johnson writes, the one government that did insist on a modicum of probity was that of Tony Blair’s. This is why Mugabe often talks fondly and nostalgically of the happier years when Mrs Thatcher was in power and becomes apoplectic when speaking of Tony Blair! Always happy to see Blair getting a slap but in this case, as they say in Zimbabwe; ‘He is not the one!’