I WAS sorry to say goodbye to Australian ambassador Jonathan Brown last week. He has been an exemplary diplomat taking a strong interest in civil society, raising the profile of his
country and earning the high regard of all who met him. His farewell reception was well-attended by a representative cross section of Zimbabwean society and his remarks, among the most forthright I have heard at a diplomatic function, were characteristic.
He spoke of Australia’s aid programme that took him to villages in Mt Darwin, Beitbridge, Nyanga, Wedza and the Dande Valley.
He was struck by the importance people attached to education for their children.
Parents, teachers and pupils alike, he said, were deeply committed to learning and to seeking improved facilities to make a better future possible.
He spoke of the destruction of commercial agriculture he had witnessed in A2-designated areas on commercial farms.
“In some of these cases the use made of the land has caused immense damage to agricultural assets,” he said. “The prosperity of the nation has clearly been adversely affected. The figures issued by industry groups and credible official sources have pointed to a steady decline in the agricultural sector.”
Brown said while he supported the aspirations of genuine new farmers, he could not believe people could be expected to farm productively given the manner in which they have been resettled.
“There may be success stories,” he said, “but I have not seen them. Zimbabwe may have suffered from a drought that is now diminishing, but drought is not responsible for the broken fences, the game snares, ruined greenhouses, and derelict and burnt-out farm buildings that I have seen.”
He said the most striking memories were the disturbing ones.
“I have met mothers who have said their babies are crying because they are hungry and they have no food for them. I have witnessed village councils thank NGOs for bringing food when their communities have been on the brink of starvation. I have worked with people who have died of HIV/Aids, and who have spent too much time at funerals. I have met a member of parliament who was tortured while in custody. I have met a civic leader who was savagely beaten by police. I have met lawyers who have been assaulted while assisting their clients. I have read court orders and heard from litigants that the orders have not been respected or implemented by the authorities.”
Brown said he had met judges who expressed fear for the independence and effectiveness of their judicial responsibilities.
“I have met businessmen who have complained that government economic policies have forced them into illegal practices to remain viable. I have met businessmen who have been assaulted by others grasping for their enterprises. I have seen people afraid to talk about politics in public places. I have met members of the ruling party bitter and angry at their situation. I have met members of the opposition who, with patience and courage, pursue a deep commitment to peaceful democratic change.”
Brown said it was usual on occasions such as his farewell reception to talk about the happy memories one would carry away on leaving the country.
“In view of what people have shared with me,” he said, “it would be a mockery to say I leave this country with happy memories. I leave Zimbabwe with an earnest and abiding hope for justice.”
Brown attended the Abuja Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in December. The final communiqué recorded: “They reiterated their commitment to non-racism, international peace and security, democracy, good governance, human rights, rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression, and a political culture that promotes transparency, accountability and economic development.”
When the situation in Zimbabwe was considered against these values, he noted, “all Heads of Government or their representatives present, including friends of the Government of Zimbabwe and the leaders of the 15 African Commonwealth countries, came to the inevitable conclusion that Zimbabwe must remain suspended from the Commonwealth. The integrity of the Commonwealth was preserved and affirmed by our leaders.”
Australia hoped that conditions would eventually improve in Zimbabwe to enable its full return to the Commonwealth, Brown said. “Until then, Australia will continue to support human rights and democratic processes in Zimbabwe and those who promote them, including the NGO community.”
Some of Ambassador Brown’s most revealing remarks were about his prime minister, John Howard who is often the target of abuse by Zimbabwe’s leaders. He said he was surprised in the unlikeliest of places when people who heard he represented Australia said: “Oh, that’s John Howard. We like Howard. He speaks it like it is.”
Howard is certainly no coward. He says what he thinks about our delinquent rulers and enunciates the principles for which his country and other members of the Commonwealth stand. Which, as he proved at Abuja, is increasingly the international consensus. That may explain why he is so demonised by the government’s propaganda machine!
Brown’s remarks confirmed something I have myself been beginning to conclude. That those most abused by the real cowards in our midst are quickly seen by everybody else as their friends. The size and varied complexion of Brown’s audience last Friday paid testimony to that.
Jonathan Brown was certainly a friend of Zimbabwe. And he will be remembered as such by all who met him. I wish him and Camilla all the very best and look forward to seeing them again in a free Zimbabwe.