WHEN I left for the United Kingdom about three weeks ago to receive the prestigious Speaker Abbot Award for my professional work I did not know what to expect at my destination – except getti
ng the prize.
It was a non-believer’s journey for me and I approached the whole trip with an open mind.
I left Harare on April 25 aboard a direct British Airways flight to London. After a wonderful flight on the Club World cabin I had a false start at the airport.
An overzealous immigration officer and a security guard who sounded Nigerian by his English accent tried to grill me over my visit but I simply resisted their antics. While travellers who were dead scared of deportation seemed to entertain their unnecessary harassment I had no time for gratuitous botheration.
After about 30 minutes of haggling and defiance I sailed through.
At the arrival lounge I found David Banks who was there to collect me from Heathrow Airport. He was growing somewhat impatient at my delay.
I narrated the silly incident in a casual and restrained tone, circumspect not to blow out of proportion what had happened.
Banks, who had done a lot of logistical work to facilitate my travel, took the issue as one of those fatuous occurrences.
He dropped me off at the Holiday Inn Express and we were to link up the following day for the official start of my trip.
On Monday April 26I commenced my visit with a courtesy call at the New Palace of Westminster – the Houses of Parliament – situated on the banks of Thames River, a site which marks the origins of parliament.
That marked the start of a trip down memory lane of British history – which we study in Zimbabwe.
In the company of Banks, I met Brian Shallcross, parliamentary press gallery chair, for a tour of the massive parliament building that symbolises British history and democracy. For more than 700 years Westminster has been the cradle of democracy in Britain.
We met at the Central Lobby, the hub of the building, where people meet to lobby their MPs.
Shallcross, a good-natured character with a strong sense of humour, took us around the building. Our first stop within the complex was Westminster Hall, described by Winston Churchill as the hub of British politics.
Whilst there we explored British history from the Stuart kings to contemporary events.
Shallcross told us how important Westminster Hall was to Britain. He said only distinguished foreign statesmen were allowed to speak there. The last person to do so was former South African president Nelson Mandela a few years ago.
Some leaders like former US president Ronald Reagan, current President George Bush, and French President Jacques Chirac had visited Britain but not given the honour of speaking in that hall.
We toured the House of Commons where political debate and discourse, as well as power are centred. I had the opportunity to attend the Prime Minister’s Questions session where I saw Tony Blair squaring up with opposition Conservative Party leader Michael Howard over Iraq and immigration issues.
It was a stormy debate in which Blair was cornered regarding events in Iraq and immigration developments following the accession of 10 new countries to the European Union. Blair was nailed over those issues but still managed to wriggle off the hook.
We also got into the House of Lords where debates, legislation and judicial issues are considered. I attended a session there and sat on the diplomatic gallery. It was exciting but sometimes slumberous.
The lesson for me from these events was to see how leaders there are held accountable for their actions. Blair might have defied popular opinion by taking his country to a disastrous war in Iraq but he is held to account.
He has to continuously defend his actions, otherwise people would boot him out of power. He knows he has no divine right to rule.
After a hectic schedule my day finally came on Tuesday April 27 – the same day that South Africa celebrated its 10 years of democracy and President Thabo Mbeki was sworn in for a second and final term.
I liked the coincidence in the same manner as I have always cherished sharing my birthday with Mbeki – June 18.
The reception at the majestic Speaker’s palace where I received the award – a sparkling diamond trophy together with a monetary prize – was colourful and fabulous.
Speaker Michael Martin captured the mood by drawing parallels between autocratic apartheid South Africa and authoritarian Zimbabwe. His speech was brief and poignant, which obliged me to do the same.
During the visit I also met government officials such as the secretary for Wales and Leader of the House Peter Hain, parliamentary under-secretary Chris Mullin and Tony Brennan, who heads the Zimbabwe Section, Africa Department, in the Foreign Commonwealth Office, a number of MPs like former minister Kate Hoey and a group Lords.
I met parliamentary International Development Select Committee chair Tony Baldry and even got a rare opportunity to address his committee.
I engaged veteran journalists such Bill Hagerty, editor of British Journalism Review, Mike Steele who works for Welsh community news service and Greg Hurst of The Time. During the trip I met many hospitable people of substance, including Zimbabweans who ran away from the current repression and economic crisis.
I had the chance not just to highlight the tyranny and political dynamics in Zimbabwe, but also to voice my criticism of London’s policies towards Harare to the relevant authorities.
In the end the visit was an educational pilgrimage and a tourism voyage!