Daily Archives: September 29, 2009

Conrad and the “Flagging Fortunes” of the British Council in Zimbabwe

“He declared he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and then cleared out of the country, because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased.”

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Part 3

The library and the information centre, usually packed with students, were barricaded with heavy security gates and deserted yesterday. The Union flag had been removed from its pole.

David Blair reports for The Daily Telegraph 11 May 2001 on the temporary closure of the British Council offices in Harare, Zimbawbe.

It seems that reporting on Africa has never really left the paradigm of Conrad.  Those that have read the book will recall that Kurtz the leader of a vicious murderous group of “natives” is not black but a Westerner, a Westerner who has lost his mind. The suggestion being  that “The Dark Continent” is savage and that it robs the brightest people of their reason. How else could you explain this irrational assault on a community learning reource? How else could you explain the rapid degeneration of Zimbawbe?

We at Marxist TEFL, would argue, however, that only by dispensing with Conrad’s racist notions of Africa, can we understand the attack on the British Council and the economic and political decline of Zimbawbe. An economic and political decline largely created by people outside the country rather than within it.

When the British Council set up its offices in Harare 1981, the long hard bloody  struggle against a white supremacist government had just been won. Robert Mugabe, who had spent 11 years in prison for his opposition to the government and who had led forces in the “bush war” against Rhodesia, won the 1980 elections promising reconciliation between warring factions (namely the white landowners and busineses, his party (Zanu) and a rival group (Zapu), who had fought alongside Zanu in the war of independence). Mugabe slowly dismantled the white state and after a terrible civil war in Matabeleland where thousands died, Zanu and Zapu finally merged to form Zapu PF and effectively create a one party state.

Despite the conflict bewtween Zanu and Zapu, Zimbawbe was able to achieve some remarkable progress: According to Wiki:

From 1980 to 1990 infant mortality decreased from 86 to 49 per 1000 live births, under five mortality was reduced from 128 to 58 per 1000 live births, and immunisation increased from 25% to 80% of the population. Also, “child malnutrition fell from 22% to 12% and life expectancy increased from 56 to 64. By 1990, Zimbabwe had a lower infant mortality rate, higher adult literacy and higher school enrollment rate than average for developing countries.

Mugabe was held up as a model African leader, showing the way for others to follow. The Queen granted Mugabe the title of Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1994 for his services to the commonwealth . At this time they had to be fully  aware of the allegations against him concerning human rights abuses in the civil war in Matabeleland. They were also aware of his extreme catholic views on sexuality (very little difference between him and the current pope on these matters). Things which only seem to have been discovered after the “grabbing” of white-owned farms without compensation.

The most serious problems for Mugabe then started in 1990 when, in his attempts to speed up development he borrowed money from the Economic and Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) sponsored by the World Bank and IMF. In return for much needed currency, he had to radically restructure the national economy in the interests of external investment. Of course, wherever the IMF goes it takes misery with it, as was the case in Argentina, and despite growth rates of 4.5% (down on the 5% of the previous decade) this meant job losses in key industrial sectors and cuts in education. The 1990s saw a a number of strikes and between 1996 and 1998 there was a popular revolt of workers and students and there was also a movement of the rural poor, veterans of the war for independence, who started to invade white-owned farms.

This is significant for two reasons. Firstly, the growth of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) a direct socialist challenge to the leadership of Mugabe and organised within the trade unions and secondly, an angry group of the dispossessed ready to take the law into their own hands. It is over the issue of land reform, however, that Mugabe outflanked the MDC.

Up until 1997 there had existed a UK scheme to fund black Zimbabweans purchasing land from white owners. The scheme was created by Margret Thacther and was part of the Lancaster Houe agreements. The scheme was in part a compensation for the land grab by the white colonialists and a way of helping white “Rhodesians” , post-independence, repatriate with some healthy return for their pillaging. The in-coming Labour government reneged on this arrangement, however, arguing that the money had been ill-spent. Now clearly the money had been used to buy farms for the poltical and military allies of Mugabe, but the removal of the funds meant Mugabe had to take action to repossess the farms without compensation. He had to do this in order to ensure his loyalty gifts for his powerful friends. The war veterans movement provided the perfect cover for this strategy and Mugabe was able to present himself (the puppet of the IMF) as an anti-imperialist.

Unfortunately, the MDC slowly moved to the right, incorporating NGOs and white farm owners in its ranks. Instead of deporting MDC supporters to face tortue and imprisonment, the UK government started supporting the MDC. The leader of the MDC, one-time trade unionist, Morgan Tsvangirai, started talks with the US and IMF about Zimbawbe’s future. The battle between Mugabe and his enemies was quickly turned into a battle against British imperialism. The support for the MDC and Human Rights was presented as an intrusion into Zimbawbean politics. Mugabe became an avowed homophobe, playing to the prejudices of a deeply and conservatively religious population.

Sanctions by the US and EU (originally over farm dispossessions) completely wrecked the country, not rigged elections or mismanagement of the farms (this latter part clearly did not help though). In his attempts to maintain power, Mugabe has stoked up anger amongst the dispossessed, transported them around the country in their “fight against imperialism”. Of course the farms only ever land up in the hands of his friends. Sanctions have only worsened poverty and generated more violence. The attack on the British Council offices in Harare was just one more futile but heartfelt strike against the enemies of Zimbawbe.

But is the British Council blamless? It is a representative of the British government. A government that is actively blocking investment into the country, investment the country so desperately needs.  In addition to promoting, UK interests, the British Council also promotes and sells IELTS. IMF cuts and British and US sanctions have ravaged Zimbabwean higher education while the British Council promote IELTS as a gateway to studying abroad. And of course, with all other languages outside Zimbabwe having disappeared.

If you are planning to study, live or work abroad, you will need to take an IELTS (International English Language Testing System) Exam.

they will have to prove their competency in this colonial language in order to escape the poverty of their country.

Since 2008, there has been power sharing between Mugabe and the MDC, tensions still exist within this ruling coalition but some “order” has been re-established. Farms are not being occupied and negotiations are in place to lift sanctions. Of course, “mismanagement” is one of the key issues which will have to be dealt with before lifting sanctions but the Union flag is starting to flap happily in the wind again.

As Zimbabwean activist and academic, Brian Raftopoulos, says:

On the one hand there is a global superpower, espousing liberal democratic values, but policing a global economic agenda producing widespread global improverishment; on the other hand this system of global inequalities is breeding an authoritarian nationalism in countries like Zimbabwe.

There is no strange dark power driving people mad in Africa. Hiroshima and Aucshwitz were products of  so-called developed countries. The madness which aflicts Africa is the madness of global inequality. The modernisation thesis is a cheap cover for exploitation. Those who believe that the British Council is aiding development by “providing study opportunities abroad” (ie making a lot of money) need only remember that a certain Robert Mugabe attended Oxford University in 1952. Fat good that did anyone.



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