This was the insane clarion call of an old friend of mine during Scotland's independence referendum in our conversations. The person in question, who writes books set in American states he has never and will never visit (inspired, in turn, by American blockbuster films), insisted - despite having never lived anywhere outside of Glasgow - that he was utterly, utterly British. My old acquaintance, however, seemed to know very little about what 'British' meant - at least insofar as it referenced an old Empire of colonial slavery, exploitation, brutality, concentration camps, hurried independence for the colonies (and ensuing chaos and/ or genocidal mayhem - or trained-up military vets taking power) and propping up dictators throughout the 20th century (I'll get to Mugabe). Describing this was pointless: "Liam Neeson, David Bowie and Tom Jones are part of my country" he would insist - as if name-checking wealthy pensioner-aged white men somehow indicated a national identity.
The thing about white people desperately hanging on to being 'British' is that very few of them, as I discovered, know much about the sheer insanity of what the term relates to. The fella in question, for example, was in favour of the war in Iraq but couldn't tell you a single thing about the post-World War 1 meddling in the country by the good old (go on, guess) British Empire, who paved the way for the clusterfuck that eventually led to the Ba'athist regime. And for those who voted against Scottish independence... well, congratulations - your desire to put your fingers in your ears and cry 'nananananana' instead of weighing up exactly what "British" even means in this post-colonial era now makes your country a laughing stock across the world.
Believe me, I know, I travel, I get it firsthand...
In a country without a single museum dedicated to its Empire, Frankie Boyle has at least pointed out the absurdity of how Comic Relief presents African poverty. We all like a good cause but can someone offer some context to the often harrowing images? Too much to ask? Until someone does, clueless cretins - such as the fella I am referring to - will unashamedly think a democratic will to self-government is 'ugly nationalism' (damn those Kenyans! Fuck that lot in East Timor!) and associate that fictional 'British' identity with nothing more radical than Tom Jones shaking his arse to pensioners.
So it is, then, that the former Rhodesia, and in particular its capital of Harare (Salisbury until 1982), was high on my list of places to visit. Britain's last outpost in Africa. You owe it to yourself to go and visit. It should be a Mecca-like trip for everyone with a UK passport, actually, because oh how quickly we forget our presence in this continent. And the likes of Comic Relief are not exactly eager to remind anyone. Yet the paw-print of Empire is everywhere in the city of Harare. Even today.
The current Zimbabwe was granted its independence from the UK in 1980 after the fabled Lancaster House Agreement and 15 years of government under an unrecognised UDI. The latter allowed a wily Robert Mugabe, who had fought a guerilla war with - in particular - the support of former Portuguese colony Mozambique, to bully his way into power. The 1980 elections were... bothersome to say the least. In fact, few at the time felt they were without violent intimidation. The result, celebrated even by a visiting Bob Marley, left behind a re-named capital city that, seen today, is an interesting mess. There might still be some who will defend Uncle Bob (or 'Comrade Bob' as the great Nelson Mandela referred to him). He was, after all, a freedom fighter, imprisoned and tortured by the illegitimate Ian Smith regime of Rhodesia - and he had also long rallied against the mass land ownership by the so-called white colonialists (an understandable anger which, sadly, resulted in economic collapse for the agriculturally rich country when the haphazard and hurried farm evictions took place in the late 1990s/ 2000s). But Mugabe's apologists are few and far between these days. Most telling about the last link is that the author resides in Britain. In the old colonialist city of London.
Mugabe's Zanu-PF party, which owns national paper The Herald (among others), is long out of ideas... still blaming stuff on the leftover whites (of which there are few), homosexuals, Western sanctions, Tony Blair - who reneged on The Lancaster House Agreement well aware that Mugabe was not redistributing farmland to anyone but his own corrupt army goons - and most recently Pastor Evan Mawarire... Evan was the man who, after causing a social media explosion, fled to America out of fear for this own life - and who can blame him? Add to this a cash shortage (after inflation went wild, Zimbabwe adopted the US dollar in 2009), a 90% unemployment rate, war veterans who are now teaming-up against the regime and numerous fixed elections and you have a huge mess that 92 year old Mugabe cannot possibly hope to crawl out of. To get into the country you now have a 'guilt tax' of $55 - and it is more for a double entry VISA (which almost everyone wants so they can cross to Botswana or Zambia). No guessing whose pockets your cash is going into.
But give Mugabe credit for avoiding the chop for this long. He is a smart man. Even at age 92 he is feted by other African states - largely for waging a war against Smith that many did not think he could win. He was, at his prime, a gifted orator. Well-read about history, he could have been - at the very least - a Kenneth Kuanda figure: right place, wrong approach, right exit. Zambia today has little (at least at governmental level) of the language of racism that Mugabe has attempted to provoke against the ex-Rhodesians and their kin. Just ask Guy Scott.
Peter Godwin, who has written three books on Rhodesia/ Zimabwe (including the notorious 2008 elections, in which South African President Thabo Mbeki shamefully propped up corrupt ballot results to avoid a furthering refugee crisis in Pretoria) argues that Mugabe won't step down because he faces The Hague. But what is often not mentioned is that the now-notorious - but then-ignored - Matabeleland Massacre of 1983 - was carried out, in part, to protect the interests of the same white farmers Mugabe would eventually allow his Bush War vets to violently evict from their land (and in some cases kill). Discovering that lone, random dwellers - associated with Joshua Nkomo's rival ZAPU party - were trespassing, and instigating violence, on white farms was enough for Mugabe to use the 'armed resistance' excuse and go into Matabeleland with all guns blazing. At that point, with white ownership still totaling 48% of Zimbabwe proper, and the country boasting the second biggest economy in Africa, everyone - all across the world - wanted to believe in the man in charge. He got away with genocide - sending his North Korean-trained military to wipe out the Shona majority's historic enemies in Matabeleland. In 1984 he spoke at the Whitehouse with Ronald Reagan looking on. Britain continued to honour him too. He was Knighted in 1994 - just over a decade after 20,000 people were slaughtered and post-1987 elections had been rigged in his favour. Edinburgh University gave him an honourary degree that year as well. He even socialised with Prince Charles and Margaret Thatcher. Fuck, they even filmed Cry Freedom in Zimbabwe. A film opposed to oppression. Our own Dicky Attenborough. Was he also smitten by one of the worst living dictators?
All of this was in my head as our plane - an Air Zimbabwe flight (which despite popular reputation was on time, clean and offered a lovely in-air snack) - touched down into Harare. I had come from Victoria Falls where people were evidently desperate. A short taxi journey cost $10 - even with haggling - and people on the street would tail you for blocks, begging to sell you tat or asking for shampoo, spare notes or coins, clothes... anything that you could give. An entertainer at the hotel I was staying begged me to buy him lunch the next day (and I had already tipped him $20). I spoke to an old Rhodesian - a white lady who was out with her grandchild. "Don't you plan to leave?" I asked. "Where would I go? It's beautiful here" she replied. And she is correct. Victoria Falls - wrapped in a perpetual clingfilm as if being preserved from moving on from 1920 - and cleaner than you would ever have any right to expect - is gorgeous. Zimbabwe is gorgeous. In his books Godwin explains the colours and terrain that exist in his home nation and you have to see them for yourself to understand that words do not do this jaw-dropping country justice. The sky at night, the foliage, the wild animals, the smell and the sights, Victoria fucking Falls itself... outside of Vietnam I do not think I have ever seen such natural beauty.
And for all of Mugabe's anti-colonial gusto, the man who David Coltart claims still loves Cliff Richard records has kept Victoria Falls, and to some extent Harare, as colonial as it comes... from the old buildings to the pictures of Royal visits that adorn the top hotels. There is even an oversized painting of the Queen Mother in The Victoria Falls Hotel. It is all there... the scars of Rhodesia's past, highlighted but stripped of context.I overhear a lady ask if the pictures of old Rhodesia have 'something to do with the Boers'. Tourists coming and going - bungee jumping from the exact sight of the 1976 negotiations, unaware of the importance of where they are standing... that's the new Zimbabwe. Tourist cash is needed but museums are in short supply. For your cultural fix a trip to neighbouring Zambia (Northern Rhodesia) offers better education about the bad old days of white rule. Ian Smith, today, is someone the white water rafters who come to Victoria Falls in their tens of thousands will never hear about and never know existed.
Harare itself is, well, a dump.
The pomp of Salisbury past still lingers - you can see it in the old buildings and the decaying old railway station, which barely even functions anymore. "How many trains come here?" I ask someone at the station. "Maybe one or two... every few hours. In four hours maybe you will see a train." Nothing is happening in Harare now except the protests - but the Zimbabwe court, under Zanu-PF pressure, has declared them illegal. I go out for a walk on the Friday morning that a protest was scheduled to take place - starting in the African Unity Square - and riot police charge up to the area. It is about 10am sharp. People begin to flee. Just another indication of the power of the regime. Zimbabwe might well be becoming a police state. There is no action today. Just a (literal) car crash in the city centre. It attracts a lot of onlookers until the cops arrive and wave everyone on.
The train station in particular is a depressing sight. It looks like a rundown outlet that you might see in a small town in the UK. A Rhodesian Railways carriage sits stranded a few lines up. Rhodesia is a name you don't see anywhere but on the trains. Another, more modern locomotive doesn't move either. I am told it is broken and won't be repaired. It was only built in 1999. On the streets people look defeated. We are the only two white faces I see but no one even makes eye contact. Harare has a reputation for being one of the safest Southern African cities. I am told by the famous Meikles Hotel, itself a shadow of its former self (the nobs in the bathtub screw off at the slightest of touch), not to leave at sundown. "It is probably not safe for you out there". Certainly, there does not seem to be much street lighting. I know that if I was in the situation everyone outside is in I sure as fuck would want to mug me too.
I take a taxi to the top of the city - looking out over the view that I have become familiar with from book after book on Rhodesia/ Zimbabwe. Harare has not changed so much, I think, at least from a distance, since its Salisbury days. You can tell there is a beautiful old town in there somewhere. The dirty, cracked, broken pavements and roads need fixed. The litter needs lifted. Some buildings look ready to collapse. Civil servants need paid and employed - the refuge is in piles in some street corners. Maybe when Mugabe goes, when sanctions are gone, inward investment returns... maybe then Harare can return to fruition. I see two young female students at the top of the hill, reading their course books, talking about theory. "What are you studying?" I ask. "We are majoring in communications". Mugabe educated his people well. Zimbabwe has the highest literacy rate in all of Africa. He could have been one of the greats but yet here we are... a city that houses derelict buildings, pawn shops, rubble and garbage and people trying to flog old Zimbabwe dollars for US currency. "Look, you can be worth a trillion dollars" laugh the peddlers. I already have some. They will look good on my office wall.
Coke looks out everywhere in Harare. They are all over the billboards. Emirates as well. The dream of escape. I think about how cruel it is to tease a nation of jobless youngsters with a shitty life expectancy rate with the dream of foreign getaways. Zimbabweans are fleeing into South Africa. Many are taking up space in the already decrepit townships that are leftover from apartheid. You ask a waiter in Cape Town where they are from and there is a good chance they will say Zimbabwe. And everyone is so fucking nice. Maybe the years of the Bush War, or the memories that came with it and were passed down, have stopped a civil war. Maybe no one wants another Angola: a seemingly never-ending body count built around political leaders fighting for control and shooting a tonne of shit up in the process. Angola still hasn't recovered. Who knows if it will. The world doesn't remember. I would wager my 'British' pal couldn't find that county on the map.
Who will come to Zimbabwe's aid if armed fighting kicks off?
There is a saying in Zimbabwe that everyone has to have a back-up plan. Hardly anyone alive has known a leader other than Mugabe or Ian Smith. And the irony is that The Herald, on the day I arrive, is still banging on about Smith. Fuck man, he died in 2007. He stepped away from politics in 1987. Let the old racist rest. Who still blames Scotland's problems on Ted Heath? Blaming everything on Smith is surely Zanu-PF's continuous back-up plan. 'Don't look at us - the old dead guy is still at fault'.
Then it is onto National Heroes Acre. As far as dictators go, Mugabe has been remarkably uninterested in building marquees or statues to himself. His face is on a total of one billboard in Harare. And aside from a solitary road sign, you would be forgiven for not even noticing him. True, one of the highest buildings in the city is the Zanu-PF headquarters, but with that aside, the old man does not linger at every twist and turn. Unlike Mao there are no grand paintings of him meeting foreign dignitaries or smiling as his people take to the farms, apparently in awe of his ability (re: stash of guns) that 'encourage' such diligence. Instead there is just his framed picture, peering out from hotels and tourist hubs ("it has to be there" someone tells me, with a frustrated groan), and also this ridiculous monument, constructed by Zimbabweans with the assistance of North Koreans, which looks straight out of Pyongyang. One of the 'oppressing' white people on the monument even has an Asian appearance. It is a mess. A ridiculous sign which indicates that, even upon taking office, Mugabe was fast losing his marbles. Standing in its gloriously daft shadow, all you can do is laugh. What can be said, after all, about someone who bemoans colonial influence but holds tight to that not-at-all-European Marxist ideology? Or who builds an expensive nod to the many Africans who perished to gain independence from Ian Smith but turns it into a symbol of Jouche ideology which, in itself, would never ever ever let a single black person reproduce with a local? Shit, North Korea is even more racially homogeneous than its neighbour to the South, which is no mean feat.
Inside the small museum, there is some Zanu-PF propaganda about Smith. This time it is his government's use of chemical agents. No one doubts that the Rhodesian Bush War was horrible. An ugly, ugly, ugly conflict fought by a white supremacist government hell-bent at resisting black majority rule. Still, there is no chance Mugabe, who appears chiselled into the wall at Heroes Acre, is going to fess-up to any of the atrocities his Zanu-PF party was, and continues to be, responsible for - including the targeted deaths of civilians. The fact that Smith was so bad is what made Mugabe, at least initially, seem so good. The sad irony now is spelled out when I grab a taxi and my driver wants to know where I am from...
"Scotland" I say - albeit quickly clearing up I no longer live there. "Ah, Scotland... Livingstone... first white man in these parts..." It is not uncommon. In (former protectorate) Botawana and Zambia the drivers are quick to tell you that Britain was once here. One gentleman rattles off all the British Prime Ministers to me. He wants to know my opinions. "Horrible" I reply to everyone that comes after Harold Wilson. Everyone is shocked if you know about British colonialism. I am told that few of the tourists are even aware.
Atop Heroes Acre is the flagpole where the Union Jack was taken down in 1980
I ask the driver about Ian Smith. Why is he still such a live topic here? In the newspapers? Among the Zanu-PF rulers? "Ah... Ian Smith. Well here is the thing... Ian Smith was not so bad," he says. "Really?" I ask. "Well, he was a racist and everything, but... you know... things are worse now. At least the British built our roads and our infrastructure."
That's the state of affairs right now. And as you leave the beauty of Zimbabwe it is all you can think about. Could history have been different and can the future recover from the past 36 years? A white racist dictator in Ian Smith leading to a promising, but ultimately just as bad - and now worse - dictator in Mugabe.
One thing is for sure, the chap - my old friend - who believed British was all about ageing celebrities, would probably still be in shock to find out that the UK once had this place, all within living memory. It really is not long ago. And as long as that ignorance is true of most Brits, Mugabe and his successors can continue to draw upon the fact that their one-time oppressors - who just voted for Brexit no less to 'take our country back' - are just as ignorant about themselves, and their identity ("you keep your Great Britain and I will keep my Zimbabwe" he once intoned) as he is about running an economy or respecting basic human rights.
In the meantime, Zimbabwe continues to be a place that will inspire and enlighten. Beautiful people, a beautiful country, but a tragic situation.