China: Creating facts on British ground

Nathaniel Manheru THE OTHER SIDE

What is it that makes Robert Mugabe rattle his enemies so unfailingly?
Even when he does nothing at all?

We have been having a big debate on the local media, more accurately, on a portion of it. I notice the same debate is raging in South Africa, this in the wake of a drift towards the consolidation of media laws by the ANC government. A new feature of that consolidation is the creation of a Media Tribunal, some Zimbabwe Media Commission by another name. The larger point mustn’t be lost: there is a general drift towards a regulated media ethos, a drift the local media can choose to ignore at their own peril. The media think governments are their problem; they are still to learn and admit that they are their own problem, with the fate that awaits them being that of being noosed by their own rules and ethics.

Deeper than education
I must confess to enormous amusement and education from a South African new media outfit, News24. It has been around for quite a while, which is why my calling it “new media” has no pun intended, only a classification asserted. It ran a piece on #FeesMustFall students protests which have rocked South Africa lately, forcing President Zuma to intervene, and to cancel the decision by his Government to hike university fees. Given the history of student-led tragedies in South African struggle history, and of course the recent Marikana tragedy, Zuma could only act conciliatory. The same story was reported on by most mainstream media in South Africa, not least by Mail and Guardian, which argued the protests went deeper than the cost of tertiary education; that they were about ever diminishing prospects for the youth in present-day South Africa.

President Jacob Zuma

President Jacob Zuma

Envious of our protests
But News 24 saw matters differently, raising the heroic side of the protests in relation to the rest of Africa, principally Zimbabwe. #FeesMustFall student protests, asserted News 24, have been received “with admiration and something approaching envy” by Zimbabweans who do not enjoy the same freedoms at home! Amazing how a press well tuned to the defence of its nation can defy absurdity, brave even the farcical, all to turn a negative into a comparative bad positive, all to reissue a nation facing challenges in positive light.

Of course News24 has correctly read the real threat arising from this wave of student protests: South Africa’s institutions of higher education, themselves big earners of foreign currency through overseas studentship, might lose out to rival universities in the region, principally those in Zimbabwe where educational standards, especially at undergraduate level, are quite competitive.

This unsettling feature is already apparent, what with numbers of regional students enrolling in local universities yearly growing. And of course the Open University system has stopped the down-South track for many Zimbabweans who sought degrees through unisa. Give it to the South African press; it knows what to defend.

Where history does not help
I was quite intrigued by the turn the ongoing debate on the illusion of a grand opposition coalition has taken. Of course we saw a Tendai Biti telling an ever dwindling catchment in Victoria Falls that Tsvangirai is “a corpse”. I hope those that see Biti think he himself is anything else beyond being a cadaver that has taken too long to be put away. Politically! Of course we heard Welshman Ncube telling the Bulawayo quill club that he does not hate Tsvangirai, chronicling the many times in the past, the many capacities — again in the past — in which he has worked together with, and served, Tsvangirai. Now, Welshman is no average brains. Surely not hating is not necessarily loving? And past affinities say nothing about present estrangement. In fact it is those affinities in the past which raise the issue, is that not so Prof? And the rule is always clear: don’t confront what you can’t convince. I would have let that one pass.

Tendai Biti

Tendai Biti

Tied/tired and toasted Tsvangirai
I am not talking about the above jibes, above rationalisations. I am talking about a layer of sentiment ventilated through the little-known Transform Zimbabwe. Its provincial chairperson, one Clifford Chimbidzikai, confirmed a meeting in Masvingo with People First’s Dzikamai Mavhaire, the second time we hear of reports linking the former Energy minister to this shadowy political rumour. Chimbidzikai disclosed Mavhaire attempted to sell and buttress Joice Mujuru as president of an opposition grand coalition, itself yet another rumour, another allegation. “Mavhaire came to us last week but we feel it is too early to come up with a candidate for the president of the coalition if it is to be successful. Above all there is a problem of policy and ideological differences here.

To us Patriotic Front is somehow a product of Mugabe’s whims. How come they now want to portray themselves as saints yet they presided over gross violation of human rights”, stressed Chimbidzikai. Zivanai Muzorodzi took the suspicion and scepticism huge miles farther. Stressing the need to weigh the authenticity of Mujuru’s project, Muzorodzi warned: “Mugabe is not finished and we have to be wary of intelligence elements in the whole issue. I strongly believe this attempt to push for Mujuru’s candidature for a coalition will surprise all and sundry as she is likely to pull out of the race when the entire nation has pinned hopes on her . . . I am not against a coalition though but I feel Morgan Tsvangirai is a tried and tested opposition leader who will not betray our hopes. The whole set-up is tricky”. Of course Muzorodzi punts for Tsvangirai, even exaggerating his power over the voter, and making a malapropic mistake: he says Tsvangirai is “tried and tested”. Of course he means Tsvangirai is “tied/tired and toasted”!

Dzikamai Mavhaire

Dzikamai Mavhaire

Sexy bum in a show
That aside, there is a profound presentiment of fatal suspicion likely to thwart efforts at a grand coalition. Looking at the matter, it is not hard to see that the Mujuru side is trying hard — too hard — to project a sexy bum in the opposition show. The latest one is Didymus Mutasa who claims he always knew and respected Tsvangirai’s principled stance against the “rotten” ZANU-PF to which, ironically, he was the third strongest man! Far from raising Tsvangirai’s profile, or projecting Mutasa as contrite, the belaboured effort betrays the difficulties the People people are facing in seeking to tap into opposition ranks, and of course to ingratiate themselves with opposition leadership.

If you add Jim Kunaka’s pathetic show, the point rings poignant. Which does present a forbidding scenario: a People First which has been spat out by ZANU-PF, and which is unwanted in opposition ranks. The document recently released by Margaret Dongo in the name of the People First, puts to the fore its infantile, farcical side, something possibly explaining why even the unconditional supporters of People First, the opposition press, are too ashamed to even acknowledge it. And the word doing rounds in newsrooms that the rumoured leader of People First says standing against Mugabe is like “moving without a petticoat”, does not help matters, let alone allay fears she cannot be trusted to play outside ZANU-PF.

Didymus Mutasa

Didymus Mutasa

Piquing egos, wrecking prospects
But even with godly goodwill, headlines like “Mujuru center of gravity for the opposition forces” do not help matters at all. They pique egos, wreck prospects. Much worse, dynamics in MDC-T continue to bear down on the proposed “sleep together”, until is turns into a snoring and gasping competition. It is official: Tsvangirai’s leadership stands challenged. The group challenging him has no intention of breaking away this time around. They have drawn lessons from past exfoliations.

They want to wrestle the reins of the party. They will ensure Tsvangirai — a man they describe as “a sitting duck” — is sufficiently discredited and disqualified for continued leadership. The Mahlangu matter was the tip of an iceberg. His going back to console the bereaved family highlights his ever diminishing options, underlines his own bereavement on the leadership question. The image etched in my mind is of Chamisa as a pall-bearer. Never the wide-mouthed Gutu’s press release announcing Tsvangirai’s doubtful trip to Bulawayo. The “cobra” does not drown in the Save River; it adapts. Equally, the cobra does not save Save waters from the October heatwave. When the waters flow, the cobra flows and hunts in them: when the heat hits in waves, it is the waters which vanish. The ides of March may be come; it is not gone.

This rumoured Confucian prize
Robert Mugabe, what is it that rattles his opponents? Even when he does nothing absolutely? The wires are awash with reports that some Chinese outfit — Confucious something — decided to award him a peace prize. He is not involved; he is not there to receive the rumoured prize. In fact he is firmly on Zimbabwean soil, carrying out chores of governance. Not even his system takes note of the so-called award. What is more, the Chinese government makes it clear the so-called prize is not “affiliated with the Chinese government”. Yet here, the private press is agog, together with the opposition it is beholden to, tripping one another to pass the severest judgment, hurl the bitterest epithet on the prize which has nothing to do with Mugabe except by ascription. The supposed recipient is mum, here even, not a whit Confucian. Just what is the story? Even some little institution so far away from us, and seeking to raise its own profile by forcing an association with Robert Mugabe, creates a threatening factor for the opposition! Chii nhai? Poverty of agenda!

Opium war then, financial assistance now
President Xi Jinping has concluded his State visit to the United Kingdom. Read through the long lenses of history, the visit itself suggests a powerful Chinese polity creating facts, stamping a footprint on the once hairy chest of Albion. Of course by way of heritage, history, invention and even economic performance, Britain, in spite of her vaunted self-estimate, has always been second to China. If not about a tilted trade balance sheet, what else was the opium war about? British trade with an increasingly assertive China — assertive numerically and economically — rested on pushing opium onto, and into, the Chinese people.

Seeing what havoc that potent plant was wreaking on his people, the Chinese monarch decided to ban this deadly mainstay of British cargo ships docking on the shores of China through Hong Kong. The British would none of it. They went to war, a war meant to force the Chinese populace to smoke opium, willy-nilly. Tragically, the Chinese lost that war, with it, Hong Kong which only came back after more than a century of British occupation. So China has always been a beater of Britons, provided of course the war-led narcotic factor is not an issue. Check who is warring against the Talibans for trading in opium! But that is not my real point.

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping

Red in the face
My real point is that Britain has looked East willy-nilly. Or, as a columnist in the Guardian put it, Britain left itself red in the face in trying to make a success of this much-awaited State Visit. And the figures compelled it. Just in 2014, Britain received $5,1bn in Chinese investments, well ahead of Italy, Portugal, Germany and the Netherlands. Between 2000 and 2014, Chinese investments in UK totalled $16bn, again ahead of any other Nation in Europe. Today UK wants to be China’s preferred partner in Europe, China’s second largest trading partner in the world, after the US. The target year is 2025.

Those are the hard facts, including that China will give UK £6bn for the construction of a nuclear plant at Hinkley Point, in Somerset. Little wonder that every Briton who mattered wore red, in a colour symbolism that underlined the need to please and kowtow to the Chinese delegation. The carpets were red, officials from Minister Theresa May to the Duchess of Cambridge Kate, bedecked themselves in red, as was Guildhall, venue of the official banquet after Buckingham Palace. “If you act like a panting puppy”, said the waspish James McGregor, a commentator, “the object of your attention is going to think they have got you on a leash.” Ruled Britannia Ruled!

Summoning the British bulldog
But the Chinese taught the world one important thing. That, as Achebe put, if a child washes himself clean, he can eat with the Kings. No, he can summon royalty, summon it like some British bulldog! The economy was the dish, the water, the hand, that washed. A big lesson that an underdog in history, can become the master in the present. And throughout the visit, the Chinese stuck to their dark suits popularised by the late Chairman Mao. They would not concede ground, even sartorially.

Their British hosts hobbled in, dragging their tailed coats, to an indifferent, unimpressed Chinese delegation. Or they adopted red, Chinese red! Royal blue was nowhere in sight. Banished! I recall a big row some years back when our President paid a similar State visit. Our mission tried its “damnedest” to insert President Mugabe into British sartorial banqueting tradition: white tie, black, tailed coat that recalled Dickens’ comical Guppy. He snubbed the recommendation, much to the chagrin of our grovelling diplomats who turned out for dinner all British, in dress and deed, in the process cutting perfect parodying effigies representing grotesquery of the culturally beaten and smitten. We can’t be masters for as long as we exhibit such psychological vassalage. Those that fight masterdom, revolt all the way, to become a new people. We have to learn to create new facts on the ground, if ever we are to rebuild.


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