Candid Comment: A tale of Two Britains

THERE is a schizophrenic disconnect between Britain’s foreign policy and its cultural ambassadors abroad. Well, sort of if you can grasp the symbolic significance of my recent experiences.

Two weeks ago I was a guest of the British Council in Surrey, just outside London, on the final part of a leadership development programme called “Interaction –– Trust the Difference”.

It was an exhilarating learning experience. We visited a virtually deserted Trafalgar Square, just a short walk from Buckingham Palace, where we took a dozen or so pictures.

At the seminar I was one of 157 people from several countries in Africa, Asia and Britain itself, all booked in at Selsdon Park Hotel in Croydon, west of London.

We were eight from Zimbabwe from the original 18 members. I understand others couldn’t make it because of stringent visa requirements. I got mine on Friday, February 6, a day before departure! Like everybody else, I had lost hope.

The programme itself is simple but its impact profound. Its emphasis is on ubuntu. We learn to cherish and value the richness humanity derives from its diversity.

Cultural and political tolerance and conflict resolution are key result areas.

It challenges our assumptions in our personal lives and in our relationships, showing that our prejudices are largely a result of ignorance and arrogance.

There is so much intolerance in society because we refuse to be the other person.

It stresses the need to learn about and understand better those things or people with whom we disagree than to condemn and pass value judgements –– all this under a broad concept called appreciative inquiry.

There was a lot of interest in Zimbabwe, where prejudice and misconception vied for attention. I soon learnt how hard it is to fight prejudice, especially from the I-know-it-all type about “the problem with Africa”.

To them we are a doomed continent solely because of political leaders who won’t leave power. Democracy is no more than a ritualistic cyclic change of leaders without any fundamental improvements in people’s lives.

To some of them Zimbabwe is a tourist resort for visitors to enjoy while poor blacks watch over from the periphery.

They talk glibly about wonderful infrastructure such as roads and hotels and ask when you will “return” to “your former glory”.

I told them we were not “returning” to anything. “We are not moving backwards.

We are building a better Zimbabwe on the foundation of the resources we now control than foreign charity could ever achieve.”

Many were shocked. Was I a government spy, they inquired? I am used to these accusations.

To them only lunatic Zanu PF supporters can see anything positive in Zimbabwe and discern a principle behind the land reform other than Mugabe’s imperialist rhetoric.

They can’t see the “bigger picture” on the land and our “full spectrum response” to the nagging problem of rural poverty and congestion.

To them it is all about Mugabe “using white farms” to buy black votes.

They imagine all the 140 000 resettled families as Mugabe’s “cronies” who have ruined Africa’s fabled “former breadbasket”.

I was supported mainly by three guys: one Zimbabwean, Thula Dlamini working for SABC in South Africa, a young writer from South Africa who told me of former Zimbabwean farmers who have constructed a “laager of Rhodesians” in Port Elizabeth, and a Briton, Michael Holdgate who said he had lived in Zimbabwe for 14 years until 2002 and married in Murehwa. He liked to call himself Mhofu.

He volunteered to chair a lively panel discussion on Zimbabwe with excited contributions from Zambian and Namibian delegates.

The highlight of the programme was an address by chairman of the British Council, former Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, and a presentation by Monica Sharma, a strong proponent of the “full spectrum” theory and senior UN official.

The British Council’s mission, Kinnock explained, was to help increase understanding between the United Kingdom and other nations. Britain also wanted to improve “interaction” among other nations, hence the grouping of so many nationalities at one venue.

Britain is responding in a practical way to its own localised experience.

There are growing communities of ethnic minorities in the UK from India, Pakistan, Jamaica and Africa.

There are fears of racial prejudices coalescing into xenophobia as happened recently in Britain and France, and in South Africa last year.

British media are playing their part in fighting racial prejudice through a voluntary, non-political version of our Jomic called the Society of Editors.

My belief was reaffirmed that the “chalk and cheese” imagery about the MDC and Zanu PF is hyperbole, for there are neither ethnic, cultural, linguistic nor ideological differences between the two parties. Ideologically, the MDC is still rudderless.

Globally, Kinnock waxed about his country’s cultural victory against rivals, the United States and France. France, he said, had lost the battle given that English was the most widely spoken language in the world, while the US’s Public Affairs section was 50 years behind the British Council.

Back home I was greeted with news that Britain was planning to “evacuate” its elderly and other “vulnerable” citizens from Zimbabwe because of deteriorating social and political conditions.

Some of the elderly had lost their farms and their pensions had become worthless due to inflation.

I wondered if this was a welcoming present for Prime Minister Tsvangirai for joining the coalition government.

Was this plain racism? You impose sanctions on the natives and airlift your own to safety! Have the black elderly who have suffered equal if not worse deprivation under these sanctions lesser human rights than their British counterparts?

And what message was being sent out to the wider world about the situation in Zimbabwe at the very moment of its rebirth, a time of our “finding each other”?

For it is Britain which sets the cue for the other nations which only imposed economic sanctions on Zimbabwe in sympathy with the UK’s private grievance over land reform.

This political act doesn’t in any way reflect the values of mutual understanding and respect which the British Council seeks to spread across the globe. To me this is schizophrenia.

BY JORAM NYATHI