Hain wounds Zimbabwe farmers' case by shooting from lip

As government-sponsored violence in Zimbabwe increases by the day, Britain's clumsy handling of the crisis has come under criticism from the opposition within its former colony.

"From here it feels like Britain does not care about Zimbabwe any more," said David Hasluck, director of the Commercial Farmers' Union. "Tony Blair is interested in Europe and does not seek to have any role with Britain's colonial partners."

As Zimbabwe's 4,500 white commercial farmers - scapegoats for the country's crisis - continue to lock horns with black militants who have invaded some of their land, the Foreign Office minister for Africa, Peter Hain, who calls himself "a son of Africa", is seen by many to be making matters worse.

"Britain is being very emotional," said a diplomat from another western embassy in the capital, Harare. "At the same time, it is deploying a relatively junior minister to insult an old African leader like Robert Mugabe, who hungers for respect and approval. It is just the wrong tactic."

Last week President Mugabe accused the Blair government of being "the spokesmen of the international community against Zimbabwe" and of having a "gay philosophy".

Mr Hain countered that Zimbabwe was putting "a pistol to Britain's head" through the continued occupation of some 400 farms. Mr Mugabe wants to push an amendment through parliament this week to legitimise the land-grabs and win votes in the general election, which is due in May, though likely to be postponed.

Mr Hasluck, a supporter of Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change, said: "Mugabe is an old Marxist yet his relationship with Thatcher was much better than it is with Blair."

Mr Mugabe, at 76, is old enough to be Mr Blair's father and liberated his country from the white rule of Ian Smith. He has little time for multi-party democracy and believes homosexuality was brought by the colonisers. Yet, until Nelson Mandela usurped his position at the end of apartheid, Mr Mugabe was a heavyweight in southern Africa.

In his view - using the logic of a one-party ruler - the British Government comes in many guises. In Mr Mugabe's view, Mr Blair was responsible when the president was tapped on the shoulder by Peter Tatchell, a gay activist and therefore "lower than dogs and pigs", outside his London hotel last November. Mr Tatchell tried to make a citizen's arrest, accusing Mr Mugabe of torturing two journalists who had been unpatriotic enough to criticise his government. A bizarre concept for the president, and, overall, a humiliating experience.

At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Durban a couple of weeks later, Britain appeared in the guise of the Foreign Policy Centre - a think-tank in British vocabulary but a Government mouthpiece in Mr Mugabe's view. Its "toilet paper" report accused Zimbabwe of breaching basic standards of human rights and good governance.

Mr Mugabe said he expected nothing different from Mr Blair's government of "gay gangsters". Mr Blair dismissed Mr Mugabe as "the eccentric end of the market".

The problem was passed to Mr Hain - apparently well qualified because he was born in Kenya, brought up in South Africa and was once a great admirer of Mr Mugabe. But for the president, nothing could be more inflammatory than a white African.

As the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) has watched its popularity decline - especially in February's referendum on constitutional reform - Mr Hain has pushed up Mr Mugabe's blood pressure. He has said "Zimbabwe is poised on the brink of an abyss" and of "political oblivion". He has called the referendum "deeply flawed".

After Zimbabwe opened a British diplomatic bag last month, Mr Hain called the country "uncivilised" - a word from the colonial lexicon which, on the lips of a white African, sounds racist. The Zimbabwe state mouthpiece, The Herald, countered by accusing him of owning a farm in Zimbabwe.

But there is also evidence of understanding between the governments. Britain has allowed Zimbabwe to buy spares for Hawk fighter planes used to support the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo against its rebels. And after the heavy rains which flooded Mozambique and other southern African countries, Britain gave the Red Cross £250,000 to spend in Zimbabwe.

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