The difficult relations between the two countries overlapped with political and economic upheaval in Zimbabwe, as President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF party seized white-owned commercial farmland and cracked down on rising domestic opposition in the shape of Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC party, which it saw as sponsored by the British government.
Mugabe was one of those people the British Empire created who specialised in knowing how to twist the British government’s tail
The British government, led by the then Prime Minister Tony Blair, publicly criticised Mugabe and ZANU PF’s crack down on the MDC and takeover of white-owned commercial farms.
The British government often demonised Mugabe in its rhetorical condemnations.
Linn Normand writes that ‘demonisation occurs when one actor portrays his enemy as devil or demon, or in league with them’.
When Mugabe was invited to the 2008 World Food Summit, the British government criticised his invitation by stating that ‘this is like Pol Pot going to a human rights conference’, while headlines such as ‘evil Mugabe stole our farm’ or ‘Hitler Mugabe launches revenge terror attacks’ became a staple diet in British newspapers from 2000 onwards.
These examples of demonisation helped forge a perception in Britain that Mugabe was somehow ‘evil’ and that it was the ‘good’ British government’s duty to take a strong moral stand on Mugabe’s leadership.
Mugabe favoured London’s St James’s Hotel as his residence, during his periodic visits to Britain in the 1990s.
From their many meetings in St James’s, former British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (1989-1995) Lord Douglas Hurd recalled, in an interview with me, that ‘Mugabe was one of those people the British Empire created who specialised in knowing how to twist the British government’s tail. He was well trained in the art of annoying the British if he needed to. He knew our ways’.
True to Lord Hurd’s observation, Mugabe, who had always seen his demonisation at the hands of Britain as designed to bring his leadership to its knees, retaliated rhetorically by demonising Blair and Britain.
When Mugabe was stripped of his knighthood by the British government in 2008 he quipped: ‘we continue to respect the Queen. It is the demons in 10 Downing Street that need to be exorcised’.
Britain and America were a ‘coalition of the evil’ for invading Iraq in 2003, according to Mugabe.
This mutual demonisation, between the governments of Britain and Zimbabwe, made politicians on either side appear ‘right’ and steadfast in the face of an ‘evil’ other.
Framing the Britain-Zimbabwe diplomatic conflict in terms of good and evil made it easier for British media to make the complex events in Zimbabwe intelligible to the British public. It also made for dramatic headlines that sell newspapers.
But noisily labeling each other as ‘evil’ from moralistic rooftops has profound consequences because it can influence the perceptions and attitudes of leaders.
Demonising your enemies makes it more difficult to stage meaningful peace talks with them because ‘diabolical’ leaders are perceived as dishonest negotiators.
For some, holding discussions with ‘the devil incarnate’ is simply unthinkable.
It is no surprise that the Britain-Zimbabwe diplomatic conflict has dragged on since 2000, much to the detriment of economic relations, development assistance and a progressive military to military relationship that once existed between both countries.
Demonising a foreign actor can also serve domestic political agendas.
It was useful for Mugabe to demonise Britain, especially since his ZANU PF government constructed the MDC as created and controlled by the British government.
In Mugabe’s words, the MDC was ‘evil’ by association with Britain: ‘we cannot discuss with allies of the West.
The devil is the devil and we have no idea of supping with the devil’. Since the MDC could not be engaged constructively, only destructive measures would suffice, so the logic goes.
To be fair, Britain did unequivocally take a side in Zimbabwe’s domestic politics.
For years Britain backed ‘good’ Tsvangirai and the MDC, even as serious commenters on Zimbabwe highlighted Tsvangirai’s deficiencies as an effective leader, as well as his undemocratic tendencies.
British politicians and media ascribed minute importance to these problems in the MDC because their perception was that the opposition party represented ‘good’ in a noble political fight with ‘evil’ Mugabe.
It is only in the aftermath of the MDC’s heavy defeat to ZANU PF in Zimbabwe’s 2013 national elections that this misleading perception has begun to dissipate.
Indeed Britain’s relations with Zimbabwe have reached a crossroads. ‘Evil’ Mugabe and ZANU PF appear immovable. ‘Good’ Tsvangirai and the MDC are no longer a viable alternative.
Mugabe, on the other hand, is saddled with an economy needing significant international investment, including from his ‘evil’ British enemy.
The task now – so it seems – is for Britain and Zimbabwe to de-demonise each other in a slow path towards re-engagement.
• This commentary is an abridged version of an article, ‘The Origins and Functions of Demonisation Discourses in Britain-Zimbabwe Relations (2000- )’, published in the Journal of Southern African Studies.
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