History shows that the Zimbabwean president might not have been in his present position without the help of the British government, writes David Moore

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe claims to have been locked in conflict with all things British for a long time. Celebrating the European Union’s decision to welcome him to the Lisbon summit with African heads of state late last year, he gloated at the “disintegration” of Britain‘s “sinister campaign… to isolate us”. At the United Nations general assembly meeting in September, he declared Zimbabwe “won its independence… after a protracted war against British colonial imperialism which denied us human rights and democracy”. Mugabe said that British colonialism was – and is – “the most visible form of (Western) control” over Southern Africa, the negation of “our sovereignties”. He decried the “sense of human rights” of George Bush, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown which “precludes our people’s right to their God-given resources”.

Yet, an investigation of Mugabe’s history with the British “colonialists” shows he was eager to co-operate with them. He embraced their notions of human rights and justice. Archival evidence shows he was close to these “sinister” forces in 1970, writing personal letters and telegrams from Salisbury‘s jail to Prime Minister Harold Wilson to support his wife’s stay in England. The British also helped him eliminate a group of radical young guerrilla soldiers threatening his precarious hold on the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) later in that decade. In 1967, Mugabe’s wife Sarah, often called Sally, received a scholarship to study secretarial science in London while her husband was imprisoned. The Ariel Foundation was her sponsor. Ariel, founded by Kenneth Kaunda’s one-time adviser Dennis Grennan and funded largely by the tobacco-enriched Ditchley Foundation, was devoted to introducing African nationalists to western politicians and capitalists.

Sally needed special authorisation from the British foreign and commonwealth office (FCO) for her studies. The FCO telegram to Accra (where she, a Ghanaian, was residing while her husband was in jail) authorising her entry permit says Ariel “is well known to us”. In scribbles, it asks: “Would you wish to have this on your files? If not, it can be destroyed.” Sally studied for the next two years, while also working as the director’s personal assistant and a dress-making teacher at the Africa Centre in Covent Garden. However, by the end of 1969 Mervyn Rees, the home secretary, wanted her out. Her marriage to Mugabe did not allow her citizenship in the illegally independent state; thus, the British owed her none of the protection due to the pariah’s residents. The home secretary told her to return to Ghana. Grennan, in whose home Sally lived – “she was like a sister to my children”, he said in an August 2007 interview – mounted a petition campaign for her to stay.

Colin Legum’s articles in The Observer helped too: referring to examples of white Rhodesians living in England with dubious legality, Legum suggested things might have been different if Sally had shared then Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith’s race. The petition garnered nearly 400 parliamentarians’ signatures. Victory ensued. Legalities notwithstanding, Sally could stay. Perhaps Mugabe’s telegram and letter to Wilson helped too. His and Sally’s entreaties to various “imperialists” indicated their willingness to utilise the empire’s services. Hoping humanitarian persuasion would dissolve legalities, they employed the moral imperative of human rights discourse. On February 23 1970, Sally wrote to Maurice Foley, the Royal African Society director who had been importuned by Ariel Foundation’s executive secretary Anthony Hughes to take up her case. She wanted Foley’s advice on how to “touch the hearts of the decision makers”.

Hughes had said to Foley that Sally’s case was “exceptional” due to “human and political factors”: her trials and tribulations had brought her to a “breakdown”. In any case the British state should take on responsibility for the residents of a rogue state. “Surely,” he wrote, “Britain has a moral duty to alleviate, not worsen, her unhappiness.” In a letter to MP Bernard Braine, Hughes refers to “Robert” as if they were mutual friends. He reminds Braine that “for… personal reasons” the Ariel Foundation thought it “appropriate to bring Mrs Mugabe to Britain in order to help her obtain further skills”. Robert Mugabe’s June 8 1970 telegram, addressed directly to Wilson at 10 Downing Street appeals that “you recognise her status and grant residence permit till my release from political detention”. A three-page letter follows a day later, documenting the case’s history. Mugabe pleads on legal grounds, but ends with “more than that” – that is, the British state’s “moral responsibilities towards… persons in my circumstances (and) their wives …”

He closes with a request: “Sir, that you personally exercise your mind on the case… so that justice is done to my wife and myself”. The postscript follows: “I regret that the consequences of my writing this letter will inevitably be a surcharge on you, Sir…” Mugabe’s and his interlocutors’ language is laden with the human rights discourse so derided in his speeches of today and used with such slipperiness by the West. Mugabe’s words are Victorian and moralistic, pleading yet almost secure in assuming idealistic yet rational and middle-class action. His appeal to justice goes beyond the letter of the law and the strictures of sovereignty. It’s no wonder that his London friends lauded his cool intellect and asceticism (in contrast to Joshua Nkomo spending all their money on women and drink, Grennan said). Six years later, in the aftermath of the assassination of Herbert Chitepo, ZANU’s national chairman, and the leadership vacuum it left, Mugabe’s climb to the top of the party’s hierarchy seemed threatened by a group of young, radical guerrilla soldiers.

The Zimbabwean People’s Army (ZIPA) had taken the liberation struggle back from the hands of those who had engineered a “détente” process intended to create a pliant state to replace Smith’s, and had come close to uniting Zimbabwe’s rival nationalist parties to boot. Archival evidence suggests the British helped Mugabe win this battle against the ZIPA soldiers. ZIPA was resisting going to the Geneva conference organised by Henry Kissinger, the United States secretary of state, behind one leader. They supported a united front. As arrangements were being made for the conference, on September 29 1976, Ted Rowlands, the minister of state for the FCO, telegrammed home from his Gaborone meeting with Nkomo, the leader of Zimbabwe’s “other” liberation movement, that “Mugabe was… controlled by the young men… in Mozambique”.

The British were worried that they were too radical for a conference designed to usher in a Zimbabwe compatible with their hopes for their last colony. It would be essential to convince the “young men” controlling Mugabe – who could, as the British ambassador in Maputo put it, “turn out to be African Palestinians” – to lay down their arms and go to the conference. One way to do this would be to offer their host – President Samora Machel of Mozambique – some assistance if he co-operated. Sure enough, an interest-free loan of £15 million (in two parts) was arranged and Machel told ZIPA’s leaders to go to Geneva. On their return, he agreed with Mugabe’s request to jail them. Mugabe was no longer under their control, and went on to consolidate his leadership of ZANU PF. The rest, as they say, is history – a history for which Mugabe has much to thank the British, who managed to create their own form of “blowback”.

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