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Matthew Parris

Sanctions may make us feel good, but they will not topple Mugabe

Sanctions may make us feel good, but they will not topple Mugabe

13 December 2003

12:00 AM

13 December 2003

12:00 AM

Margaret Thatcher was right and Thabo Mbeki is right. British-led sanctions against a renegade regime in Central Africa — be it Ian Smith’s when the country was called Rhodesia, or Robert Mugabe’s when it had been renamed Zimbabwe — are a counterproductive response to an unacceptable government.

My family and I lived in Rhodesia from 1958, when I was eight, to 1968, when I was 18. Ian Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) was made in November 1965 and we experienced three years in which the economic screw was progressively tightened. Along with much of the black population and a fair few of the white population too, we had vehemently opposed Mr Smith’s election and thought UDI a catastrophic mistake (as it proved to be) but our opposition to Smith could not exempt us from the effects of sanctions.

My father had to try to continue a business selling electric cables, so his commercial life, bound up with making the Rhodesian economy work, was placed in direct opposition to his political beliefs, which were that Rhodesia should be forced to accept the will of Her Majesty’s government. My mother, a tireless campaigner against Smith, nevertheless needed petrol for her Morris Minor, and all of us had to connive in the various dodges which soon became common among fuel-hungry Rhodesians. We became freelance sanctions-busters, making day trips over the Zambesi to Zambia to fill the car and several jerry cans with petrol.

Yet at the same time we were telling friends that we wanted sanctions to succeed. This caused my parents great difficulty when trying to explain to friends how we squared the circle. My classmates would berate me for hypocrisy, and it was hard to know how to answer. The effect on the population at large was less complicated. People felt cornered. Among the majority of whites, resolve was hardened. White liberals left, fell silent or joined the majority. Nor did blacks in Rhodesia feel encouraged or empowered by Britain’s attitude. Most felt abandoned. If Harold Wilson and his government wanted to topple Smith, they argued, why did he not take responsibility and send in the British army? Sanctions seemed a less than brave response.

They were anyway ineffective. They did cause huge inconvenience and many shortages, but we soon learnt to cope, and local industry was boosted by the block on imports. With the help of white South Africa and the Portuguese in Mozambique, sanctions-busting grew. What destroyed Smith’s regime in the end was terrorism: an endless, escalating, unwinnable war against black freedom-fighters.


Not many years later, working in the Leader of the Opposition’s office when Margaret Thatcher held that post, we were in no doubt about her views. She thought Harold Wilson’s (and Edward Heath’s) sanctions policy had been a feeble response, and that HMG ought to make up its mind whether to support Smith, attack him, or take no position at all. She was attracted by the idea of supporting him, but talked out of it by colleagues.

Later she dragged her feet on sanctions against South Africa. Some think this was because she (or Denis) felt some sympathy with the white government there; others (myself among them) believe it was better explained by her instinctive hostility to confused and partial measures which were more likely to wound than to destroy.

Not every comparison between then and now suggests a parallel. Sanctions against Rhodesia were meant to bring down the economy, which Commonwealth sanctions today are not. Sanctions against South Africa did play some part in the downfall of apartheid, though I would argue that its fall is better explained by a growing sense among whites there of total international moral isolation. British policy under Tony Blair claims to aim at the same result — not to destroy what is left of the Zimbabwean economy but, by ‘targeted’ sanctions, to shame and embarrass Robert Mugabe’s leadership as well as to undermine his military capabilities and make him understand he is alone in the world. Though the Conservative party is demanding tougher sanctions, Michael Ancram, the shadow foreign secretary, is not proposing that the country be starved into submission.

The problem with these approaches is that they will enrage Mugabe’s regime without overpowering it. They will not shame him. Among the ruling elite they will intensify resistance and may marginalise the more reasonable elements. They also give Zimbabwean ministers a ready-made excuse — white neo-imperialism — for their own economic failure. Among the wider black population it is probably fair to say that bewilderment will be the most common response. Black resistance leaders are unlikely to condemn the Commonwealth’s sanctions policy, but I would be surprised if it was winning them new popular support.

And in one crucial respect they are achieving (and this week at the Commonwealth summit achieved) the opposite effect to pushing Mugabe into an international moral limbo. Nobody has better reason to regret Mugabe’s cruel stupidity than the country’s two neighbours, South Africa and Mozambique, who must deal with the debts, the cancelled trade and the refugees. The leaders of both must heartily wish Mugabe dead. But by allowing the dictator to characterise international pressure as neocolonialism, sanctions have made it harder for Thabo Mbeki and Pascoal Mocumbi to distance themselves from him. We may deplore the hypersensitivity and racial defensiveness which sometimes emerge when black leaders hear white criticism; but it is a fact, well-known, predictable and predicted.

Did our Prime Minister really believe he could nudge and cajole black Africa into falling into line behind a sanctions policy in whose creation black Africa had played no part? He was optimistic. Do Michael Ancram and Michael Howard honestly think sharper sanctions will help topple Mugabe? My guess is that at root they simply wish to add to the force with which Britain expresses its revulsion towards his regime. This is posturing. International relations should be concerned less with posture than with results. We Spectator readers should ask ourselves whether we genuinely believe that to show our hatred for Mugabe through sanctions will hasten his downfall. Unless we do (and I do not) then we are recommending a foreign policy because it will make us feel good, rather than change things for the better.

There will be much clucking and tut-tutting this weekend at the behaviour of some of the African Commonwealth; and many of us here may console ourselves that at least we in Britain are doing — in one of Mr Blair’s favourite phrases — ‘the right thing’. But are we? Sanctions against Zimbabwe should have been led by Mugabe’s neighbours, or not at all. Now they are failing. However warm a feeling it may give us, failing is not the right thing.

Matthew Parris is a political columnist of

the Times. His autobiography, Chance Witness, is now out in Penguin paperback.


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