Interview with former diplomat Philip Barclay
British diplomacy in Zimbabwe has been an unenviable task in recent years. The fall-out from the disputed presidential elections in 2008 meant a full-blown humanitarian crisis, with widespread violence, economic meltdown, a media blackout and a collapse of the healthcare system. Robert Mugabe placed the blame for the country’s problems squarely on the shoulders of its former colonial master – Britain.
Philip Barclay, who served in the British Embassy in Harare between 2006-2009, lifted the lid on the horror and violence of the time through a widely acclaimed blog, and has just published a first-hand account of his time there, ‘Zimbabwe: Years of Hope and Despair’.
Despite all the difficulties Zimbabwe has faced, the diplomat remains optimistic about its future – and left with a genuine love for the country and its people. He talks to The Global Herald about his experiences, and gives an insight into the current political situation in the country.
This week, Zimbabwe’s first independent newspaper in six years – News Day – went to print. Is this a sign that things are moving on?
“It’s a really positive development because it hopefully will improve the flow of independent, uncensored news in Zimbabwe.
It also sends a signal that perhaps reform is taking place. Since the formation of the unity government, the fundamental reforms needed in Zimbabwe haven’t been happening.
Unfortunately the regime did arrest some of the staff, which shows the schizophrenia in the regime, by allowing things to go forward a bit and then clawing back and repressing again.”
How bad did the violence get during the election?
“The worst time was May and June 2008 when the regime was launching a campaign of violence against MDC voters.
I saw a place which had just been firebombed, and interviewed a man who had been burned alive. Then a couple of weeks after that I interviewed 3 women who’d been really badly raped and beaten, again for being MDC members.
When the violence is bad, it’s when the regime is driving it with an objective in mind, to terrorise everyone so they’ll vote for them. And there’s no need to do that at the moment.
Though I’m afraid it would happen again if there were more elections.”
Has any progress been made since 2008?
“There are deep seated problems in Zimbabwe that the government is simply not addressing.
It’s achieved some limited things, such as allowing the Zimbabwean currency to die, so there’s no more hyperinflation. That’s been good for business, and the shops are well stocked so if you’ve got money, you can buy what you need.
The other good thing is that the killings have stopped. That’s great for ordinary people, as they can plan their lives without violence.
But the fundamental things haven’t really changed. There’s no greater respect for human rights, I don’t think the judiciary is impartial or independent, and there’s no respect for the rule of law.
And there are continuing threats to the economy. Mugabe is pushing ahead with what he calls ‘indigenization’, seizing 50% of businesses, and that will drive investment out of Zimbabwe.”
Is Morgan Tsvangirai doing enough in his role as Prime Minister?
“He’s limited as he basically has office without power. It’s hard to point to any concrete powers that he actually has.
The Finance Minister (and Secretary-General of the MDC), Tendai Biti, has more direct power. At least he gets to control the budget. And given the difficulties he’s faced getting public servants back to work, he’s achieved a tremendous amount.
Morgan Tsvangirai should stay as Prime Minister, and do everything he can to dismantle the apparatus of terror, to help to promote human rights.
He should also persuade the organs of government not to blindly do what Zanu-PF wants them to do but to act as independent civil servants.
Also, he should be plain about criticising Zanu-PF and Robert Mugabe.”
So is he being too nice to Mugabe?
“Yes. Too often Morgan Tsvangirai stands up and defends what the government is doing and represents it as being ideal. And he always defends Mugabe.
He does that because he’s a nice guy and a collegiate man and he thinks ‘I’m in this government, and I’m going to defend this government’.
And that’s a very loyal position to take. But Mugabe shows him no loyalty whatsoever.
In fact Mugabe can’t believe that Tsvangirai is being so uncritical. It would be much better if Tsvangirai took every opportunity to criticise Mugabe.
That might introduce some strains in government, but that’s no great calamity if it does fall apart as it should be doing better.”
Mugabe is 86 now – how long is he likely to stay holding on to power?
“The presidential term is supposed to be 5-7 years – although it’s not really clear. He could string it out until 2015 without a problem.
The idea is that they’re supposed to be drafting a new constitution which would dictate the length of terms. But that constitutional process is stuck in the mud so the future’s not really clear.
Really he wants to stay there until he dies. If that happened, the other Zanu-PF hardliners would really hard try to cling on, and they would do that brutally and violently.
The country would be more unpredictable, unstable and violent than it is now. They could even suspend the unity government, impose martial law, and just go down the Cambodia route.
But they might fight among themselves. There are two factions within Zanu-PF, and Mugabe is brilliant at playing them off against each other, keeping them at each others’ throats so they’re not discussing him.”
What impact will there be by the World Cup being held just south of the border in South Africa?
“All the neighbouring African states want Zimbabwe to stay stable and out of the news – especially South Africa – so that there’s nothing to detract from the World Cup, which is such a significant African milestone.
The problem is once the World Cup has gone, that imperative to keep Zimbabwe stable goes away. So maybe there may be a further outbreak of violence.”
The Commercial Farmers’ Union in Zimbabwe says white farmers are regularly being evicted without due process. Do the people of Zimbabwe support this process?
“It was a very popular policy to begin with because it potentially meant ordinary Zimbabweans becoming the propertied classes, but none of that has happened.
I think people now realise that what the policy has really been about is the transfer of land from an arrogant white elite that was at least productive, to an arrogant black elite that is totally unproductive.
So it’s really hard to see that this is empowering the ordinary Zimbabweans in any way. The people who own the land now are a very small number of Mugabe’s cronies.”
Could Zimbabwe ever return to its status as the “bread basket” of Africa?
“It could regain that status – if a sensible set of agricultural policies was brought by the government to protect property rights.
White farmers don’t mind if all the land is used by black Zimbabweans, so long as it can be farmed in a productive way. They want to invest in a farm for 20 years and recoup that investment.
So if they stabilised policy and ended the insane violence, agriculture in Zimbabwe could recover within a decade and get back to how it was.”
Did you want to get a certain message out by writing this book?
“I did feel that the experiences I was having were very important and that the world needed to understand better what was going on in Zimbabwe.
But actually writing it has also been therapeutic in terms of dealing with the feelings of anger and sadness you get when leaving it. It’s such a beautiful place, and you have such amazing experiences, and you get such a sense of liberty and excitement all the time there.” The Global Herald
Philip Barclay’s new book “Zimbabwe: Years of Hope and Despair” is available now from:
■Amazon US ($11.47)
■Amazon UK (£11.09)
■Biblio US ($63)