The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- For the West, Africa's image remains that of a disaster zone

I have written before of the altered picture of news from one's own country when viewed from abroad. When the current news reports in the United Kingdom are not filled wholly with the stench from the murky stewpot of the cash for honours scandal, into which previously publicly financed areas like education are now tumbling, we are keen to plunge into the messes of other countries and whip up a doom-ridden picture of their political systems. I was in Italy last week during the last few days of the Italian elections, reported here as the most divisive, dramatic and potentially violent in recent memory. Aside from a particularly well-mannered communist demonstration in the centre of Florence, the whole campaign was invisible, at least in Tuscany, beyond normal and relatively unhysterical press-coverage. Perhaps things were different in Rome. Since polling day the apparent victor, Romano Prodi, has conducted himself with some dignity in the face of bizarre determination by his besmirched rival and Tony Blair's dubious friend, Silvio Berlusconi, to hang on to office regardless of the election figures.

Sitting now in the Western Isles of Scotland, an area ignored or ill-treated by politicians throughout most of time, we have been discussing, with a young Zimbabwean guest, the received wisdom in this country of events and politicians in his own. My eldest daughter was stranded in Harare airport some months ago, convinced that her life was very likely under threat, and her possessions most definitely. Whilst there is little argument that Robert Mugabe is or has become a very bad man, he is still only part of the story of contemporary Zimbabwe. Inevitably, the picture in the UK has been coloured by white farmers who have come here for shelter after losing their homes and their livelihoods in the madness of forced land seizures.

Still, this is not the only story, and those who can look to the future beyond Mugabe see more than a glimmer of light in the distance. It has been horribly easy for onlookers in recent years to look at Africa as less than its component parts and despair of a whole continent, excepting, and due to one great man, South Africa. It must be time that we started to think differently about individual countries in Africa and supported better those people who, as the old tyrants fall, are the ones likely to take Africa into the future. The extraordinary natural wealth of many African countries must be used for all the people and not just for the benefit of a powerful and privileged few and the mult-national companies awaiting lucrative contracts to relieve the continent of hidden treasure.

Our guest's family has long been involved in Zimbabwean politics. In recent years, his family members have risen high in the administration and the judiciary and are standing out fearlessly in their opposition to the worst excesses of the elderly president and his immediate coterie. There is, in fact, a powerful opposition within the ruling party in addition to the official opposition parties. The split in his power base increasingly isolates Mugabe and, given the respect for members of the breakaway group, reduces his ability to use the bully-boy tactics of heretofore. The rule of law begins to prevail and the major obstacle to a reflowering of democratic principles and law in Zimbabwe is one increasingly isolated and very old man. This is a very different picture of the country to that which conjured up visions of robbery and violence in my daughter's mind when she waited at Harare airport.

We are constantly told that anarchy prevails in Zimbabwe. We imagine Congo-esque scenes, jeepsful of thugs racing round urban and rural areas, beating and thieving under the jurisdiction of the president and his close allies. Such images have been part of the picture but only for relatively brief periods in the independent history of the country. It has regrettably remained the story continually reported around the world to fit in with the image created for the developed world of most of Africa as a disaster zone. The general election campaign of 2000 and the presidential campaign of 2002 were characterized by violence and blatant theft; in the Eighties, Mugabe was responsible for horrendous massacres in Matabeleland, killing up to 20,000 people, and students and other vocal opponents to his rule were beaten and repressed. Our guest, led by the vital spirit of youthful hope and aspiration, believes that whilst such dark days should not be forgotten, they should not be dwelt upon as an excuse to do nothing and to allow the rest of the world to decry his country. The judiciary in Zimbabwe is increasingly reasserting its power and its members believe in the country and in standing up for the rule of law. In spite of our contrary understanding in the UK, the president is no longer so secure that he can gainsay the law of the land and he is unable to stand up to those lawmakers who are men of stature and repute.

Young Zimbabweans play a waiting game. Their people they say are good, easygoing, they live and let live. They want the same things we all want: peace, security, education, a decent life and livelihood and a democratic system and government they can trust and respect. Thuggery and violence are the exception, not the rule, and the hysteria of the election years is long gone. They know their country is rich and that outsiders will prey on it if it is weak economically and institutionally. For these reasons they are able, if not to empathize with Mugabe, to understand by hindsight some of the reasons why he was required to face the world with a show of strength, which led inexorably to the corruption of omnipotence. The young would rather bear the lessons of the past in mind and move on than allow it to colour darkly a brighter future. Those who currently live in other countries expect to return home to play their roles in due course. They fight against the received wisdom regarding their country in our press and are aware through modern and instant communication with families in distant places, of a progression of events moving way beyond the standard reports.

Age has always influenced world events. There are new moves here to counteract ageism in the work place. On the one hand, we are being legislated to work for an extra five or ten years to qualify for state pensions. On the other, youth rules and fit fifty-somethings or even forty-somethings find it nigh on impossible to compete in the work market with those in their thirties. Training and technique win over experience and other than at the very top of corporate and industrial life, the workplace becomes increasingly uncomfortable for the middle-aged and wrinkly.

There is a growing market in plastic surgery for both men and women as they resort to the knife to present the essential youthful image at interviews. But it is harder and it must be a mistake to attempt to cut out years of valuable learning. It is easy to understand the attractions of youthful optimism and drive and essential to have those with energy and ambition to move on and change the world. At the same time, it is a tragedy that the experience that built its share of the present should be so little respected and so easily discarded. Many of the great works on which our vision of history is founded, were written by the aging and aged in order to be disputed and built on by the next generation.

I feel dreadfully old myself when I look at my children and their friends, but respect for the different views and skills of both old and young creates a balance and it is bizarre, when we increasingly value education and training, that we are not prepared to use everything already available. It is rather sad that, as with race and gender legislation, we always have new laws creating positive and therefore almost equally unbalanced discrimination before we end up with a situation which common sense and natural order recommend in the first place.

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