By David Moore
ONE might think that Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe has been locked in conflict with all things British for a long time. Celebrating the EUR
17;s decision to welcome him to the Lisbon meeting recently, he gloated at the “disintegration” of “the sinister campaign by Britain to isolate us”.
At the September UN general assembly meeting, he declared Zimbabwe “won its independence … after a protracted war against British colonial imperialism which denied us human rights and democracy” and that British colonialism was — and is — “the most visible form of (Western) control” over southern Africa’s despoiled lands. Further, it was the negation of “our sovereignties”. He decried Messrs Bush, Blair and Brown’s “sense of human rights (which) precludes our people’s right to their God-given resources, which … must be controlled by their kith and kin”.
Yet investigation of Mugabe’s history with the British “colonialists” shows he was most eager to co-operate with them.
He embraced their notions of human rights and justice. Archival evidence shows he was close to these “sinister” forces. He even wrote personal letters and telegrams to Prime Minister Harold Wilson from Salisbury’s jail.
In 1970, Britain’s home secretary threatened to end Mugabe’s wife Sally’s stay in the UK.
Her visit, arranged by the Ariel Foundation, an organisation linked to the tobacco-funded Ditchley Foundation and devoted to introducing African nationalists to the powers-that-be in the “west”, to study secretarial science, started in 1967.
Sally Mugabe had been allowed to work at the Africa Centre as PA to the director and teaching African dress-making and her visa had been extended once but would expire in December 1969.
Home Secretary Mervyn Rees wanted her out. The Ariel Foundation, started by Dennis Grennan (a long-time friend of African nationalists, in whose home Sally resided) mounted a petition campaign for Sally to stay. Colin Legum’s Observer articles helped too. To his examples of white Rhodesians in England with dubious legality, he asked if the situation would have been the same if Sally had been Ian Smith’s offspring. The petition garnered nearly 400 parliamentarians’ signatures. Victory ensued. Legalities notwithstanding Sally could stay.
In the meantime, Sally and Robert Mugabe’s letters to various imperialists indicated their willingness to utilise the empire’s services. They used the moral imperative of human rights discourse, hoping that the technicalities of the law would not stand in the way. Sally’s marriage to a Rhodesian did not allow her citizenship and the British protection due to residents of an illegally independent state: thus the home Secretary told her to return home to Ghana.
On February 23 1970 Sally wrote to Maurice Foley, the Royal African Society’s director (who Ariel Foundation’s executive secretary Anthony Hughes had importuned to take up her case), urging more action on her behalf: she wanted his advice on how to “touch the hearts of the decision makers”.
Hughes had opined to Foley that Sally Mugabe’s case was “exceptional” due to “human and political factors”: her trials and tribulations had brought her to a “breakdown”.
In any case the British state should take on responsibility for the residents of a rogue state. “Surely”, he wrote, “Britain has a moral duty to alleviate, not worsen, her unhappiness”. In a letter to MP Bernard Braine, Hughes refers to “Robert” as if he were a mutual friend. He reminds Braine that “for a number of personal reasons” the Ariel Foundation thought it would be “appropriate to bring Sally to Britain in order to help her obtain further skills …”
The letter and telegram from Robert Mugabe directly to Prime Minister Harold Wilson are most interesting. On June 8 1970, the telegram “appeal[s] you recognise her status and grant residence permit till my release from political detention”. A three page letter follows a day later, documenting a first attempt with foreign secretary James Callaghan and the case’s history. Mugabe appeals on legal grounds, but ends with “more than that”: that being the British state’s “moral responsibilities towards … persons in my circumstances (and) their wives …”. Mugabe closes with a request: “Sir, that you personally exercise your mind on the case … so that justice is done to my wife and myself”. The postscript follows: “I regret that the consequences of my writing this letter will inevitably be a surcharge on you, Sir …”
Mugabe’s and his interlocutors’ language is laden with the human rights discourse so derided in his speeches of today, and used with such slipperiness by the “west”.
Mugabe’s words are Victorian and moralistic, pleading yet almost secure in assuming idealistic yet rational and middle class action. His appeal to justice goes beyond the letter of the law and the strictures of sovereignty.
It’s no wonder that Mugabes’ London friends lauded his cool intellect and asceticism (in contrast to Joshua Nkomo spending all their money on women and drink, one said).
Yet besides unearthing historical ironies, the correspondence forces a question: today, why has the same discourse no purchase? Missing a meeting in Lisbon does not go far in the pursuit of “justice” in contemporary Zimbabwe.
Progressive internationalists in and on the fringes of states are not “exercising their minds” strenuously to meet the “moral duty to alleviate, not worsen (Zimbabweans’) unhappiness”.
* Moore is visiting Professor, Institute of Political Economy, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.