Monday, 20 November 2017

Zim Zima: Who Got The Keys To The Land?

Following the 'Panama Papers' scandal, I observed the disproportionate backlash against Lewis Hamilton and noted that generally speaking, the financial affairs of British F1 drivers, only became a topical issue when the driver was not Caucasian.  It was not a piece I wanted to write.  Defending the behaviour of someone who utilises tax havens is not an easy one for me to swallow.  It goes against so much of what I believe in.  Similarly defending Mugabe, in any capacity, has always felt like a moral dilemma to wrestle with.

Robert Mugabe came to power three weeks before I was born and has ruled Zimbabwe ever since. Last week he was placed under house arrest and at the time of writing, his tumultuous reign is drawing to an end.  He engaged in some of the most abhorrent conduct ever administered by a world Statesman in my lifetime.  However, the uncomfortable truth for much of the world’s media outside of Africa is that land redistribution had been a huge issue in the country and desperately needed addressing.  My regrets over Mugabe and the ‘Fast-track land reform programme’ (FTLRP) surround not its implementation, but that he took so long to do it and that when he did, it became a political issue of his creation.  It has and always firmly will be a social justice one.  It is about correcting the crimes of colonialism, as painful as they may be.  The consequential cries of agony serve as a sharp reminder that for all the nostalgic love of Empire, it created a cruel legacy that became so complicated to untangle. 

Between 2000 and 2013 some 4,500 Caucasian-owned farms were seized and redistributed among black citizens, often during violent confrontations. They generated images which horrified the world.  In many ways, the decision taken in 2000 to pursue FTLRP was a defining moment in the career of Mugabe and ensured his permanent caricature as a 21st century African bogeyman.  Visitors to my blog will feel like they have read this piece before, because if you change some of the details, the rise and fall of Mugabe as a “friend of The West”, loosely follows a similar tale to other dubious individuals around the world who later fell out of favour, such as Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden to name but two.

To understand the context of FTLRP, one first needs to go back to some of the origins of how the Zimbabwean State was established in 1980. This followed the Rhodesian War of Independence which had raged for the proceeding decade and a half and resulted in the Lancaster House Agreement. This created a deal to end minority rule in Zimbabwe, albeit with conditions. It is those conditions which were to later form the basis for the appetite of the implementation of FTLRP twenty years later, when Mugabe believed that an agreement with Britain was no longer being honoured.

Without turning this piece into a history lesson drawing in everything from Ian Smith and the use of chemical weapons, the Nyadzonya raid, the Gukurahundi massacres and everything else in between, the key sticking point at the end of the talks surrounded land reform.  The picture in 1979 was stark with 97% of Zimbabwean land owned by a minority Caucasian population.  Joshua Nkomo and Mugabe’s perspective that Zimbabwe should be able to determine its own future was resisted by Britain who maintained that land redistribution would be restricted on a “willing seller, willing buyer” principle for the first ten years following independence.

Up until 1997, Britain continued compensating the Zimbabwean Government for the purchasing of farmland from Caucasian landowners in accordance with the principle set out in 1979.  However when Tony Blair swept to power in May of that year, a new British foreign policy towards Zimbabwe was brewing and a desire to deploy funding elsewhere emerged.  Of course it is at this point that one can easily slip into the mistake of finding an explanation for all of Zimbabwe’s 21st century economic difficulties stemming from a decision made at the British ballot box.  For example, it would be churlish to dismiss the devastating impact that Mugabe’s disastrous ‘Economic Structural Adjustment Programme’ (ESAP) which commenced in 1990 (four years before Blair became Labour leader) or the hyperinflation it triggered.

This is the reason why Mugabe’s motives should be scrutinised and rightly bring into disrepute his status as a Pan-African icon championing social justice.  However, leaving that aside, they do set the scene for a country facing economic hardship while tasked with the duty of juggling a promise to a minority population from an era of colonialism.  Coupled with two severe droughts in four years, Zimbabwe was a nation in crisis and the last thing it needed had been London pulling the rug out from underneath them.
So set in motion a chain of events, Mugabe using the breakdown in talks with Blair as a pretext for a fight to uphold Zimbabwean Sovereignty.  “It’s your money, keep it. It’s our land, we will take it”.  The popular headline almost collectively orchestrated by every media outlet outside Africa has steadfastly maintained that the decision to implement FTLRP in 2000 is an obvious answer to the economic output which plummeted in the following years.  Yet predictably they failed to take into account the crippling sanctions which were applied by Britain, the EU and the USA who were under pressure to retaliate.

They also fail to reflect a reality of success stories as a result of FTLRP. You would be hard-pushed to find many who would justify the violence or methods of intimidation that were enlisted, but the contrasts do make for interesting reading.  Even with the principle set out in 1979, by 2000 some 4,400 Caucasian landowners still controlled 32% of agricultural land, compared to 1 million black families who occupied 38%.

Fast forward to 2013 when the FTLRP programme was completed, and no Caucasian owned farms remained.  In the same year a book entitled ‘Zimbabwe Takes Back Its Land’, showed that agricultural production had reached the same level of the 1990s, with more land now under cultivation than had been worked previously by Caucasian farmers.  6,000 Caucasian farmers had been replaced by 245,000 black farmers as a result of the programme.

It followed a trend, confirming encouraging signs seen from a study in 2010 which showed that over half of new agricultural landowning households were accumulating and investing.  The study had been able to debunk five myths including the widely held viewpoint that FTLRP had been a total failure or that the rural economy had collapsed.

Mugabe can be criticised for so many poor judgements made on his watch as the President of Zimbabwe and the purpose of this piece is not to excuse any of them.  Where land was appropriated by party associates or friends, this is indefensible and cannot be explained away so I make no attempt to do so.  Where human rights were violated, where democratic principles ignored, none of these can ever be justified.

FTLRP should serve as a warning to other countries in the region, indeed I did predict as much to a Zimbabwean friend back in 2000 when the policy had been pursued.  Neighbours like South Africa are still very much distracted by the novelty of being able to vote and have yet to question the enormous social inequalities which still exist in their country, nor indeed the disproportionate land redistribution which eventually must be addressed.  That will not last forever.  Zimbabwe has provided a glimpse of what may yet unravel next door, unless progress is made to remedy the hangover of minority rule.  This must go far beyond the “willing buyer, willing seller” principles which remain in practice there. It is a solution so poorly devised under that Lancaster House Agreement and only offers sluggish progression.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Last Of The Summer Whine

August 25th 2014. It’s something I look back upon as a magical day, the culmination of another fantastic long weekend. Owing to the wettest carnival I had ever experienced, my cigarettes were destroyed, reduced to a soggy state, completely unusable. But it just became a comical scene in a weekend none of us will ever forget. Keith and I knew this couldn’t go on forever, but we were both enjoying ourselves far too much to call time on the “Clency and Keith Show” just yet. He’s five years older than me and I would often tease him that when he retired from the carnival life, I’d afford myself five additional years before following him from the stage.

photograph taken the day before of us at the Mastermind Stage had three generations of carnival goers in the same picture. We had reached the ultimate peak of our carnival experience. Our little troupe that had accumulated over the years continued to grow. 2008 had been just the two of us, but every subsequent year, somebody new would join our squad. They’d initially be sceptical; having previously endured an unpleasant carnival experience without us. However, we always insisted that nobody had done a carnival properly, unless it was with us.

So it came to pass as one by one, we added more and more to our ever-growing family of carnival regulars. And like clockwork, we’d use the Mastermind Stage as the meeting point before we would head off to other sound systems such as 4Play and the rest.  As I left my Notting Hill sidekick that evening, it had been on the same terms that we had done during the six years prior to that Monday: same time, same place next year?

Just over six months later, my dad passed away and overnight everything changed. I reflected deeply on the notion that “you never truly grow-up until you lose a parent”. Added to this was the looming reminder that I would soon be turning 35 years of age- something I had long regarded as being the symbolic start of “middle age”.  Analysing all of this together, I took a decision that I would no longer be participating in any future carnivals or festivals.  As I kept insisting, ‘Peter Pan’ was finally going to grow up.

What made the wound all the more painful related to the fact that my father’s birthday would always coincide with the period around Notting Hill Carnival. As I remember commenting in August 2015, it had always been such a happy time of year for me: sun shining, my dad’s birthday, football season starting and of course my carnival weekend. Now August felt like it would always be full of sorrow.

By August 2016 I had started to learn how to live with the loss. I even managed to summon up the spirit to spend the long weekend listening to soca thanks to my favourite DJ sending me over his mix from two years earlier. Unfortunately, this triggered a series of questions- will I come back to carnival? I didn’t say goodbye, do I need to return and do things properly?

Finally in March 2017, I reached a decision: I would participate in one more “wild summer” that would incorporate multiple carnivals and a festival weekend too. And then that would be that, I would carry through on my promise to turn my back on this stage of my life. I would do what I probably should have done when I had originally suggested it ahead of my 30th birthday in 2010: call time on my partying antics and grow-up (thank you Keith!)

Unfortunately as soon as I booked my ticket for the Detonate music festival in March, the questions were stacking up from friends. Why only one more summer? Shouldn’t I see how it goes and then take a final decision in September? The answer to that is probably something I have only stumbled upon relatively recently and I still don’t know how to adequately convey it, in terms of whether it is a negative or a positive attribute in my character. Nonetheless, it does go to the heart of who I am as a person.

I think the best way to describe the quirk is that I have always been someone who embraces something completely. So during the social drink-up’s and gatherings, it would never be a case of a glass of rum. It would have to be a bottle. When I became a Chagos activist, I wasn’t a part-time supporter who would dip in and out of the cause when time allowed. I fully immersed myself within the campaign, usually taking on far too much in the process. Indeed for several years people assumed I must be Chagossian because they couldn’t comprehend that anyone could be as dedicated without having a blood connection.

When I finally got into a habit of going gym, I couldn’t just be like others and go three or four times a week, I had to go consecutively for 117 days. And after starting the Labour door-knocking, it wasn’t enough to  do a bit of local canvassing in my neighbourhood. I had to go overboard and knock on doors as far as away as Bermondsey in south London, which coupled with my activities in Nottingham North, Nottingham South, Sherwood and Newark, meant I had clocked up an awful lot of miles by the time the election was over with.

Consequently I would never be someone who would be comfortable with “passing through” Notting Hill for a couple of hours on a Monday afternoon. If I am going Notting Hill, it would be the entire fanfare (most people think of it as a two-day event, but of course experienced heads like myself know that it starts on the Saturday night with Panorama) and would absolutely involve adding other carnivals to form the now infamous “bacchanal tour”.

Therefore calling time on my wild antics is a case of saving me from myself; in addition to growing up too. My personal history of carnivals is completely entwined with my dad, right back to August 1995 when he banned my 15 year old self from leaving the house as he knew I had conspired with friends the day before to be at Notting Hill on the Monday. Every year I would always text or call my dad after I had finished my fun. This served two functions, firstly to share my enthusiasm for what had always been a golden weekend packed full of momentous memories for me. But there was a second reason too, and we both knew it because he never stopped worrying about my welfare. It became an opportunity to reassure him, that I’m safe and sound and eagerly looking ahead to the next episode.

The hardest part of facing another carnival season is that element which will no longer be present; that end of the weekend conversation. It had become an outlet to share my euphoria with someone who could relate to my enjoyment, mainly because he’d done so many carnivals himself. Indeed, while we didn’t go together, he was at that final Notting Hill Carnival, accompanying his cousin who was visiting from Switzerland for the weekend.

It is somewhat daunting to appreciate that this will be a very different season. I won’t be using Tottenham as “my base” for example. Although fresh from my final festival two weeks ago, I approach Preston Carnival this weekend with optimism that even though it will be an emotional summer, it will be a great one. That some incredible memories are waiting to be created which will inspire stories for decades to come.  When I hang up my whistle and horn for good at the end of August, I’ll do so knowing I ended this chapter of my life the right way.

It didn’t feel right to end it as I did in August 2014 because I didn’t approach that day like it had been the end. This time, I know what lies ahead and can prepare myself accordingly. So that in September, I can look back without regrets. Hence, the only thing left to say is: let's do this!

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Here Comes The Door-Knocker

“You've got the gift of the gab, Clency!”

There I am, stood in what could only be described as an Arctic rain shower! I wasn’t queuing up for the turnstiles at the Emirates, nor waiting to get into a bar to watch us take on Leicester in a critical Premier League match. Oh no. I had found myself in Sherwood, east Nottingham, on my sixth door-knocking session in seven days. It’s all part of a campaign for a local candidate in a Council by-election next week. When I actually write all that down, it comes across as some kind of punishment from God. Only it has not been anything of the sort. Remarkably it’s the complete opposite and most bizarrely of all; I cannot fully comprehend how much fun it’s been!

So how did we get here? Well before my father so rudely interrupted my writing hobby a little over two years ago, I’d found myself completely gushing from an experience watching a fledgling political party break new ground 7000 miles away in Mauritius. I dreamed of an alternative vision for the UK and had become exasperated by a political consensus in Britain.  I yearned for a day where an electorate would have a clear and defining choice.

For so long as I live, I will never forget the moment I heard that Jeremy Corbyn was putting together a bid to become the leader of the Labour Party.  What followed would be something that I now look back upon as the “summer of love”, where an unstoppable force emerged from nowhere to complete the most wonderful and unimaginable political fairy-tale of my life.

I’d be here for days recounting the whirlwind of the past two years and extraordinary people I’ve met and places I’ve visited, many of which I’d never been to in my life before. One of my oldest friends even went so far as to refer to me as a ‘Corbyn groupie’, such had been my tenacity to attend various rallies around the country.

There’s no doubt in my mind that nobody else in politics today could have inspired me like this. There is only probably one other public figure who I have as much time for, and he is so suspicious of politics as a whole that my wishy-washy fantasy of him becoming the MP for the part of London where I was raised, has less chance of being realised than his own football team winning a trophy any time soon!

Of course, the history between me and Corbyn is well documented. MP for where I did all of my schooling, our paths would cross several years later as I found myself immersed in the Chagossians quest for justice. Observing his work at close quarters further inspired my own efforts while working on the cause. Succinctly, there is no other Parliamentarian today who has more integrity, compassion or strength of convictions to lead this country. No other politician can inspire as much hope behind a desire for change.

And how this country needs to change!

To where I now find myself, knocking on doors for a potential Councillor who has identical political views to me. It has been an opportunity to ‘test the lyrics’, so to speak, and ensures that when I am on the doorstep campaigning for the General Election next month, I am able to convey my arguments confidently. Why wouldn’t I? I am canvassing (albeit indirectly under the political system we have here) for a Labour leader who if he becomes Prime Minister, would be a dream come true for me.

I honestly have no idea what the next few weeks will bring. The polls tell us this election is a foregone conclusion but they have been wrong about so many things in recent years that one can never truly take anything for granted anymore. What I do know is that I am going to throw everything I can (short of putting my day job on the line!) into this canvassing and see where it goes. Maybe this is the only time in my life I am ever involved like this and if that’s the case, I may as well put my all into it. Thus, I could look back in future knowing I tried everything. This doesn’t feel like a waste of time or a futile fight against a tide. It feels like my only chance to make something unbelievable, somehow become possible. I will dare to dream because I am honest enough to know that I don’t think anything like this will ever happen in my lifetime again. To coin a phrase my boss at work has a fondness to deploy, “I got one shot at this”. And judging by the feedback from some I have been out on the rounds with so far, I might actually be quite good at it too!

NB: It was always going to take something I felt super-passionate about to end my self-imposed writing exile.  I had spent the past two years after my dad’s untimely passing utilising my talents in other ways, helping my big sister edit her Midwifery thesis and assisting my Godchildren’s mother with her university assignments.  There were several occasions I thought I had come to the point where I would pick it up again, as early as the FA Cup final of 2015 in fact.  The adventures of Corbyn, became the fairy-tale that would’ve written itself, but still I couldn’t make that leap. Then there was brexit and the theft of Mauritian democracy, both of which equally riled me more than most will ever know. And yet it took being stood in an icy-rain shower on the streets of Nottingham to finally trigger the spark to write again….