History lessons for British Ambassador Catriona Laing


I WOULD like to take advantage of this article to welcome the newly accredited British Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Mrs Catriona Laing. She comes across as an enthusiastic character, full of energy and optimism, and, like Deborah Bronnert, likeably cheerful.
Judging from the comments that she made soon after her meeting with President Mugabe, there is no doubt she is trying to start her work in Zimbabwe on a positive note and many of us commend her for that.
While the general public appreciates her determination to improve relations between Zimbabwe and Britain, she said some things which, on the surface, appear innocent and well meaning, but which, on further reflection, reveal far more about why our two countries have failed all these years to relate to each other like mature partners.
After expressing her willingness to open a new chapter in the Zimbabwe-British relationship she went on to say, and I quote verbatim, “But the basis of such a relationship has to be such principles that we are strongly committed to adhere to around governance, democracy and human rights. We are not shying away from that and there are still some hurdles along the way.”
With all due respect, the good ambassador needs a gentle but firm reminder that good governance, democracy and human rights are the very principles-cum-values which were missing when Britain was running our country.
Britain invaded Zimbabwe in 1890, committed genocide in 1893 and again in 1896/7 which left more than 50 000 Africans dead.
From then on victorious British settlers conducted a systematic programme of displacing Africans from their rich ancestral lands located on the highveld and relocating them in poor rainfall areas, often infertile and tsetsefly infested. Looting of African land by the same British settlers took place on a grand scale, with some of it being reserved for unborn British babies.
Some of us who grew up in Rhodesia under British rule recall vividly the high levels of wide-spread misery and poverty which characterised our lives because we had no land on which to eke out a decent living.
We became squatters on our own land in our own country while British settlers behaved like gods who owned everything, including us.
Africans were not regarded then as citizens but fourth class subjects of her Majesty the Queen of England and as such had no rights to speak of.
If the good ambassador is to make progress in reconciling us to her country she needs to read Zimbabwean history and do it fast, in addition to what she claims she has already studied about our president.
A diligent understanding of our British colonial past is bound to disabuse her of the notion that she is obliged to dispense lessons to us on human rights.
We fought a military struggle against the British for over 15 years and defeated them in 1980.
Only after that expensive victory did we get to enjoy the human rights that the good ambassador is talking about, apparently, without even sensing the many levels of biting irony which characterise her situation.
For your own information lady ambassador, the first time some of us practised our right to vote was in 1980. Before then the British did not allow us to vote freely because they regarded blacks as beasts of burden very much close to the animal kingdom.
In other words we had to liberate ourselves first from British tyranny and oppression before we could enjoy the human rights and democracy that the good ambassador is talking about.
In such a context the question is: Who taught the other about human rights and democracy? Is it Zimbabwe or Britain?
Some of us are acutely aware of the fact that British ambassadors to Zimbabwe started preaching about democracy, good governance, human rights etc when we decided in 2000 to repossess our land which had been stolen by British settlers.
This British inspired discourse about democracy etc was not there during the colonial era ,was never an issue soon after 1980 as long as we did not challenge the land tenure system based on racism, a system which, like the current South African one, favoured whites while overwhelmingly excluding black ownership of the same land.
In other words the good ambassador is using a coded language centred on human rights to refer to property and or land rights for British settlers and we know it.
She should feel free to come out in the open and talk about the rights of her kith and kin in Zimbabwe and some of us are more than ready for that debate.
Most of us have been waiting for such a debate for long because there is a reparations issue here which the British are still to own up to and pay for.
With an unseemly colonial record characterised by unspeakable atrocities in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya etc which amount to crimes against humanity, Britain still has a big moral debt in Africa which it has so far failed to address and, as such, it is astonishing that it has already appointed itself a senior lecturer on human rights and democracy in Africa?
To many people who lost relatives, thanks to British colonial enterprises in Africa, those whose lives got mangled and disfigured by the British colonial machinery and to all those whose dreams in life became nightmares, because of British interests in Africa, it has always come as a shock that Britain has the audacity to go up and down our continent preaching the human rights gospel when in fact its dark deeds in Africa signify the opposite.
And this shock is all the more acute to some of those blacks who have stayed in Britain for any length of time and have been exposed to the racism which pervades almost all British institutions and organisations up to this day.
Surely the good lady would not find it unseemly for some of us to suggest that the discourse on human rights that she is directing at us should indeed be directed at the British establishment itself, riddled with racism and class based attitudes as it is? It is just a suggestion.


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