Full text of my letter hand-delivered to President Robert Mugabe’s office on Friday 17 April 2009

 

- the day before Independence Day celebrations where it was pleasing that he gave a very conciliatory speech.  Nonetheless, abductions of MDC activists and white farmers have been continuing over the last month and the political situation remains  fragile as do the economic green shoots.

 

 

"Dear President,

A personal open letter from a friend of Zimbabwe:

I wrote to you a couple of months ago saying I intended to visit your country and bring a gift for you.  I am no win Harare and the gift is enclosed.

You will see it is a simple postcard which I bought on my previous visit in 1987.  It represents why I and my socialist friends supported you in the late seventies and eighties, as it shows happy Zimbabweans going about their business with a shop and bus rerpresenting enterprise and public transport as well as the baobab representing respect for African nature.  I had a marvellous time in 1987 enjoying the pride all Zimbabweans had in their independent country.  Things were thriving, as you know, with a great music and arts scene in Harare and tourism to Great Zimbabwe, the Matopos and Vic Falls.  The Zim dollar was strong; agriculture was flourishing and educational levels the best in Africa.  Gradual land distribution to black farmers was happening.

I framed the postcard on my return and put it on my wall, proud of my tiny part in supporting Southern African liberation, including the then continuing struggle against apartheid in S Africa.

Since then I have moved house and got on with my life in England and the postcard remained in a bottom drawer until I re-discovered it last December.  I had already decided to revisit your country as I could not believe things here were as bad as the BBC made out and I wanted to see for myself.  Half my friends thought I would be killed for being white or robbed soon after arrival and I wanted to prove that ordinary Zimbabweans are, in fact, extremely hospitable, welcoming and open-minded.

I have now spent a fortnight cycling from Bulawayo to Harare via Masvingo.  It has been a marvellous way of seeing your country and meeting a cross section of people.  I have been welcomed and heard many stories from businessmen, farmers (both white and war vet), teachers, government staff and barhall regulars.

There is unanimity that the last decade has been difficult and that last year, in particular, saw widespread suffering, hardship and premature deaths.  People have pulled through with an incredible resilience based on resourcefulness and an enduring hope in a change for the better.

Encouragingly, that hope is finally being justified.  The abandonment of the Zim dollar has restored faith in a means of exchange based on forex and is allowing trade to resume.  The unity government has put an end to the isolated but extreme incidents of politically-motivated vilence and is restoring people's confidence in free expression.

My local newspaper in Oxford has been covering my cycling progress and I am trying to use that and other media in the UK as a means of showing people in England the new reality of Zimbabwe to correct the distorted view most have.  On my return I will write to my supportive local MP's and the Africa Minister, Lord Malloch Brown.

So why am I taking the trouble to write an open letter with all this to you, Mr President?

Well, I am sure that you originally entered politics and endured many hardships with your wife Sally in order to improve the lot of your fellow Africans.  I can only imagine some of the suffering you personally endured at the hands of the Smith regime (such as their unnecessary refusal to let you attend your 3-year-old firstborn son's funeral when in prison for your political activities) - not to mention barbaric practices of the regime's soldiers and some white civilians during the second chimurenga / liberation struggle.  I have visited the dam outside Zhishavane where a local farmer reputedly fed uppity blacks such as ZANU members to the crocodiles he was breeding.

And while I have read little about missions in Rhodesia, I do know that Jesuits in other parts of African used abusive methods on black boys to foster "education" in Western and so-called Christian ways.

The question then is what went wrong in the last decade?

The story is that members of your own party, ZANU PF, resumed the practice of the white crocodile breeder and threw MDC opposition members into the same dam waiting for the reptiles to strike.  (Admittedly, other black Zimbabweans I have spoken to say both sets of stories are fabricated for propaganda purposes by the alleged victims' parties.)

I can understand your desire to reclaim land for black Zimbabweans when at various points in the past it had often been wrongly taken by previous generations of white invaders.  Clearly, such a policy strikes a deep chord with many of your compatriots.

I am sure you did not expect the policy of farm invasions to result in the food shortages and collapse in the economy and foreign exchange earnings that has happened.  I know some genuine war vets see their allocated plot of land as a fair pension or reward for their part in the struggle.  I was privileged to meet one who, after eight years, is doing well on his modest farm learning agricultural skills, diversifying crops and providing for his family.  Others have not had his initiative or have chosen to reap short-term rewards on the black market from the limited state-subsidised inputs available for small-scale farmers - instead of investing in their land.

Others still, the bigger beneficiaries, have often gone abroad leaving their land poorly attended.  I cycled through miles of near-empty savannah, where I am told one would previously have seen thousands of cattle.

So, I, and also numerous black Zimbabweans end up supporting the rights of the remaining white commercial farmers.  The one I was lucky to bump into is currently in court as the state attempts to remove him from the one-fifth of his farm that is left to him after a "redistribution" in 2003.

He is about my age, growing into adulthood under the racist Smith regime and, yes, he still displays some offensive "Rhodie" attitudes after a few drinks - BUT he is passionate about farming and about being Zimbabwean.  He is bitter because two-thirds of the land he gave up is in the hands of black absentee landlords in the US and UK and is unproductive.

Finally, back to my gift of the postcard.  There are signs that Zimbabweans are starting to smile again and recover, slowly, the self-confidence and happiness most had in 1987.

I applaud that this is happening under your Presidency and plead with you to encourage the continued success of the unity government and the respect for the law and civil rights including property rights - not just for white farmers but also to enable small-scale black farmers to borrow to invest in their land.

I trust that, on this path, you will live into a peaceful old age. 

Yours most sincerely,  Richard Pantlin"