HC Deb 04 April 1985 vol 76 cc1393-9 1.29 pm
Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Five weeks ago, during the first weekend of March, 15 trade unionists were arrested in Harare and Kwekwe in Zimbabwe under the emergency powers taken over from the white minority Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith. All those detained have been active in campaigning for democratic trade unions under workers' control, and in organising Socialist workers' education.

Among those detained were Mr. Rabi Down of the General Engineering and Metal Workers Union, whom I had the honour of showing round the House of Commons at Christmas, and Dr. David Hemson, a teacher and refugee from South Africa, who was a textile workers' union official in Natal in the early 1970s. After being banned by the South African regime, he became a constituent and a personal friend of mine. Of the original 15 detainees, 13 have now been released, but two remain incarcerated. In addition to Doctor Hemson is Mr. Darcy Du Toit, also a teacher, and also a refugee from South Africa. Like Dr. Hemson, he is a member of the British Labour party.

Those arrests are the first concerted attack on Zimbabwean trade unionists by the Government since independence. The sole activity of the 15 people detained has been to assist in the organisation of workers in Zimbabwe and in the promotion of Socialist ideas. In fact, they have been promoting the Socialist transformation of that society, the very promise that brought ZANU to power in 1980, but which that Government have not carried out. In their view and mine, the implementation of real Socialist policies will be the only way to preserve the unity of the country, solve the problems facing working people and put an end to the economic blackmail waged against Zimbabwe by South African and Western capitalism.

The recent ZANU youth congress, as well as some ZANU leaders, called publicly for Socialist study circles among workers to be established on the widest scale, yet trade unionists, including my constituent, who have organised precisely such study circles and education among workers have been detained by the security police. The recent ZANU congress adopted a "leadership code" in an attempt to combat corruption and privilege rife at the top levels of Government and party. But trade unionists who were organising opposition to undemocratic and corrupt leaders, including some who openly collaborated with the former Smith regime, have been cast into prison.

Last year many of those detained were involved in setting up a workers' campaign for a democratic General Engineering and Metal Workers Union. They organised workers' committees in the factories and rank and file members of the union to bring it under democratic control. Last year the security police intervened to defend the general secretary of the union, Mr. Chimusoro, when he was suspended from office for corruption and misconduct by the national council of GEMWU. That long-standing supporter of the former Muzorewa regime has continued to hold office in defiance of the workers, by courtesy of the security police. Therefore, it is not surprising that the recent ZANU youth congress resolved that the CIO—the security police—should be purged.

Those detentions have sparked off an enormous wave of protest in the labour movement across the whole of Europe. On 27 March, the Labour party national executive committee passed a resolution that said: This committee is disturbed at the arrest of a number of trades unionists in Zimbabwe including members of ZANU, former members of the British Labour party, one of those being a British citizen. We express our grave concern that the Socialist policies on which the Government was elected in 1980 should be tarnished by this attack on campaigning trades unionists. We recognise the damage such action will do to the reputation of ZANU. Therefore, we wish to record our protest, and agree to immediately write to the Zimbabwean High Commissioner and send a tele-message to Prime Minister Mugabe. There have been similar protests from the Swedish metal workers union, the Dutch Trades Union Congress, the French Confédération Francaise Démocratique du Travail, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the South African mineworkers union. There have been many more. Amnesty International has intervened. There have been protests and demonstrations in Britain, Belgium, Holland, Ireland, Sweden, Germany. Denmark, Greece and Spain.

However, for nearly four weeks there was an official silence from the Zimbabwean authorities. I know that officials from the British Foreign Office intervened on behalf of Dr. Hemson and his family, but there was no public statement from the Zimbabwean Government or the high commission in London until 26 March. When that statement came, it was full of what I can only describe as absurdities and contradictions. The detainees were accused of being Left-wing and of organising workers for a generalised insurrection against the Government and the state. Yet at the same time there was no direct contact with the party or the trade unions. That was a vain attempt at a cover-up. We now know that 13 of the 15 have been released precisely because the Zimbabwean Government were unable to bring such charges. Indeed, despite reports of beating and torture under interrogation, the Zimbabwean Government would not be able to produce a shred of credible evidence to support their claims. As for having no contact with the ZANU party or the trade unions, that was said to try to hide the deep debate going on inside ZANU and the trade union movement and the worry that many organised workers in Zimbabwe have that their Government might drift towards a Polish-style society.

One of those arrested was Mr. Nyamhunga, the president of the engineering union. Three others were on the regional executives of that union. Several are office-bearers of officially recognised workers committees. Several of those originally detained are leaders of ZANU in Kwekwe. One of those has been a ZANU(PF) member since he was 16, and was arrested 14 years ago in 1971 under the Smith white minority regime for leading opposition to the Pearce commission. His wife, also detained, is an elected leader of 10,000 ZANU members, yet the Zimbabwean information Minister claims they have no contact with ZANU or the trade unions.

All those detained gave wholehearted support to the liberation struggle against the white Rhodesian regime. For the information Minister to suggest that they support the installation of a neo-colonial coalition of reactionary tendencies in Zimbabwe is nothing short of the grossest slander.

Those detained, including my constituent and the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Roberts), have had no opportunity to speak in their own defence. That is why my hon. Friend and I, together with members of the families of those detained, and with the assistance of the South African Labour Education Project, with whom the 15 were co-workers, launched the Zimbabwean Trade Unionists Defence Campaign. The wide-ranging European and African support that that campaign has received shows the deep concern within the international labour and trade union movement about this attack on fellow trade unionists and the drawing back of the Zimbabwean Government from the Socialist tasks that they set themselves in 1980.

I have four specific questions for the Minister. In the early part of the detention, reports were reaching the families of the very bad conditions of Dr. Hemson, Mr. Du Toit, and the other 13 detainees. We have reports of lice-ridden sleeping bags in overcrowded cells, and inadequate sanitary arrangements. What are the Minister's latest reports about the conditions of detention in the security prison for those two detainees?

Secondly, have the Government demanded the immediate and unconditional release of Dr. Hemson? Will the Government make similar representations, at whatever level is possible, about Mr. Darcy Du Toit? Now that the 30 days detention without trial has passed, if the Zimbabwean Government decide to deport Dr. Hemson, Mr. Darcy Du Toit, their wives Trish and Anneke, and their three children, will the British Government honour the political asylum that they granted Mr. Du Toit several years ago and allow them, if they wish, to resettle in Hackney where they used to live before they went to Zimbabwe to become teachers?

In raising this debate, I am conscious of its international importance. Five weeks ago, when first hearing of the detention, I thought originally that it may have been the work of reactionary officials in the CIO—the security police—many of whom are hangovers from the Smith days. Perhaps it had been carried out without the strict control of the Government. My initial reaction, in early contacts with the Zimbabwean high commission, was to suggest that it should look to supporting the call of the ZANU youth congress for a purge of the CIO. Although that is still necessary, that is now no longer my main feeling.

The attempt by the Zimbabwean information Minister to smear those trade unionists with association with the Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith, the instructions from Harare to London to the high commission and the commissioner to give no statements and accept no delegations, and the fact that from Wednesday 13 March Prime Minister Mugabe took personal charge of those in detention—when all those things are taken together, the real reason for the detention becomes clear. A deep suspicion is growing among the workers and peasants in Zimbabwe against ZANU(PF)'s move towards a one-party state, the maintenance of much of the private sector and the huge tracts of prime farmland that have been left in white hands. In an interview with a magazine in recent weeks, a former guerrilla said: We were the ones politicising the people during the war, but what the peasants see happening now is different from what we told them. We told the people they would have land and many things, but the people still have nothing. In criticising that path, the 15 who were detained, including the two who remain incarcerated, are being used as scapegoats for the failure of ZANU(PF) to move towards genuine Socialism which, for those of us in the Labour party and internationally in the labour and trade union movement, is inseparable from full democracy, free trade union movement, the right to free speech and freedom from arbitrary detention.

I hope that in commenting on the specific case of my constituent Dr. David Hemson, his wife Trish and their one-year-old child the Minister will give reassurances about the conditions in which Dr. Hemson is being held and the likelihood of his early release. Are the Government demanding that he should be allowed to continue his normal life in Zimbabwe, where he was a teacher in a secondary school before he was detained by the security police? If the Zimbabwean Government were to deport Dr. Hemson and Mr. Du Toit, can the Minister assure me that the political asylum granted by the British Government several years ago to Mr. Du Toit will be honoured by the present Government and that, if the family so wish, they will be allowed to settle in Hackney?

1.41 pm
Mr. Ernie Roberts (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I wish to add a few words to those of my hon. Friend the Member or Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist). I have already written to Mr. Mugabe on the matter because of my association with Mr. Mugabe before he became the leader of his country. I and others connected with the anti-apartheid movement and other movements were concerned about the need for Zimbabwe to have its independence. We hoped that it would achieve that independence, with our support. Having spoken with Mr. Mugabe at meetings in various parts of Britain, I felt that he would respond to a friendly approach from someone seeking to insure that justice was done and that those who had been detained would be released.

I have been advised that some of the detainees, including ex-constituents of mine, have been released and would be allowed to return to this country. As my hon. Friend has said, they will probably return to Hackney. Arrangements are already in hand to assist them with housing as far as we can, so that they can take up their lives again in this country.

Although I did not know them personally, I am advised by the members of my constituency party that the children were born in the United Kingdom and will therefore have the right to British citizenship. They should, therefore, have the special protection of the Government, and the Government's concern for their safe return to this country.

My constituency party has decided to apply all the pressure that it can to ensure that the detainees are released, and, in particular that Dr. Hemson should be released and allowed to return to the United Kingdom if he wishes. Those who will need help should receive help from us and, we trust, from the Government, on a humanitarian basis. On humanitarian grounds, whatever the legal situation may be, they should be allowed to return to this country if they wish. Hackney will be only too pleased to receive them.

We ask the Minister to use his good offices on behalf of the Government to ensure that Dr. Hemson and the others who wish to return to Britain are allowed to do so and receive the humanitarian respect to which they are entitled.

1.45 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

I wish to acknowledge the obvious concern of the hon. Members for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Roberts) about the position of their constituents presently in Zimbabwe.

It may be helpful if I set out the facts of this case as far as I am able. Mr. Hemson, a British subject, has been working in Zimbabwe since 1982 as an English teacher at a school in Harare. He was detained on 1 March under the emergency powers regulations. A number of other people, Zimbabwean and non-Zimbabwean, were detained at about the same time. Under the emergency powers regulations specific charges were not required or made, but we understand that Mr. Hemson's detention is in connection with an investigation by the Zimbabwean authorities into what they consider to be unacceptable political activities concerned with trade unions. A deportation order was served on Mr. Hemson on 13 March, but implementation of the order was subsequently suspended and Mr. Hemson is now held on an immigration warrant. The Zimbabwean authorities appear to be acting strictly in accordance with their law. We understand that their investigations into this case are not yet complete.

We have had full co-operation from the Zimbabwean authorities in discharging our consular responsibilities. Mr. Hemson is receiving regular visits, including visits from his wife and lawyer, and he was seen by our consul in Harare on 7, 14 and 21 March and on 2 April. He is in good health and made no complaints about his treatment in detention. He has received medical attention for a minor complaint. Our high commission is in frequent contact with the Zimbabwean authorities over the case. We know that they are aware of the public and parliamentary interest in it here, and of our hope that matters will be speedily resolved. In addition, we are keeping Mr. Hemson's relatives in Britain and South Africa informed on a regular basis.

Mr. Du Toit was also working as a teacher in Zimbabwe. Mr. Du Toit is a refugee from South Africa who has a British travel document issued under the 1951 United Nations convention on refugees. He is not a British subject and his travel document does not entitle him to formal British consular protection. Nevertheless our post has instructions to do what it properly can to help Mr. Du Toit as well as Mr. Hemson. Consular access to Mr. Du Toit has been granted informally on one occasion, on 14 March. He appeared to be fit and well.

Mr. Nellist

On behalf of Parliament, will the Minister now attempt to ensure that the consular officials may make a further visit? The last visit took place about three weeks ago. Some of the worst conditions reported referred to the cell in which Mr. Du Toit was being held. Will the Minister attempt to secure another informal visit so that we can reassure Mr. Du Toit's family about his well-being?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate the difficulties. Mr. Du Toit does not have British status and we therefore have no right to claim consular access to him. However, we will do what we can to ensure that so long as he is in detention we have up-to-date information about his circumstances and the conditions in which he is living.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether, if Mr. Du Toit were released and able to leave Zimbabwe, he would be able to come to the United Kingdom. I understand that his permission to stay in the United Kingdom is currently valid until next October. Thereafter, he would have to apply to renew the permission, and that would be a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. However, he is at present entitled to come to the United Kingdom and could do so if he were released.

The question of the position of trade unions in Zimbabwe is one for the Zimbabweans themselves to resolve. We have no right to interfere. We can and do make our views known whenever appropriate and we try to help whenever we are asked. For example, within the framework of our aid programme for Zimbabwe, we hope to develop, in consultation with the Zimbabwean authorities, a limited programme of training courses in Britain as a way of providing some assistance to Zimbabwean trade unions. In addition, part of the funds allocated by the Overseas Development Administration to the TUC will be available for trade union training for Zimbabwe, again in consultation with the Zimbabwe Government. We are also involved in Commonwealth efforts to provide assistance within the framework of the Commonwealth Trade Union Council. Our assistance in this field, as in all others, is, of course, as it must be, given in consultation with, and with the agreement of, the Zimbabwean authorities.

One frequently hears, and no doubt the Zimbabweans themselves frequently hear, criticism of the Government in Harare for being too Socialist or not Socialist enough. I can only observe that that is a matter for the Zimbabwean Government and people. Zimbabwe is an independent country, free to determine its political and economic system for itself. It would not be right for Her Majesty's Government to express any opinion on what kind of Government Zimbabwe should have.

May I set out the Government's general policy on Zimbabwe. Our concern stems from our close historical ties with Zimbabwe, our shared membership of the Commonwealth, and the leading role played by the United Kingdom in bringing an end to the civil war in what was then Rhodesia and paving the way for an independent Zimbabwe. Important British interests are affected, in Zimbabwe itself and more widely as a result of Zimbabwe's influence in the region. Our aim now, is to do what we can to encourage the development of stability and prosperity in a multiracial Zimbabwe. The purpose of our aid programme is to promote this objective, which we see as being in the interests of all Zimbabwean citizens and also important for the stability and prosperity of the wider area of southern Africa.

But it is important to recognise that this is a medium or even a long-term aim and that there are bound to be difficulties on the way. It is only five years since Zimbabwe emerged from a long and bitter civil war in which all sectors of society suffered greatly. Inevitably, progress since then has not been entirely smooth, but we think it important that the inevitable obstacles should not deter us from persevering with our longer-term efforts.

May I conclude by telling the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington that the Government recognise their full responsibility to provide what consular protection they can to any British citizen who is incarcerated in a foreign country. Where a British citizen is detained, we always make representations to the Government of that country that they should either bring charges and allow the person to be tried in open court, or he should be released if no charges are brought. We are applying exactly the same criteria to Mr. Hemson and, naturally, we hope that this matter will be satisfactorily resolved in the very near future.