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Commons Diary: Andrew Mitchell

4 min read

From a bibliophile to the tactile, Andrew Mitchell encounters optimism and opportunities, whilst marvelling at a geriatric shell shocker, on a trip to southern Africa

Clarke’s bookshop on Long Street in Cape Town is a South African legend. Owned and run by the redoubtable Henrietta Dax it is the most significant antiquarian bookshop remaining in Southern Africa. A few weeks ago, Mrs Dax had a phone call: “Henrietta; its Cyril, why didn’t you tell me about your book sale? I’m coming round now from parliament.”

Minutes later the new President arrived and spent the next 40 minutes indulging his love of old books, making some purchases, and having a selfie taken with a young boy who happened to be in the shop with his mum. By the time he left a crowd of well-wishers had blocked the road outside. After the ghastly Zuma years, the fact that Cyril Ramaphosa, is a bibliophile instils a sense of optimism for the future of this wonderful country.

Cape Town is gripped by an acute water shortage with daily consumption cut voluntarily from 1.2 million litres a day to 400,000. The drought has continued for two long years. The campaign by the local authorities to constrain consumption is imaginative and the public response excellent. I managed to shower and shave using less than 90 seconds worth of water flow. On our first night, there is cloud over Lionshead on Table Mountain, and it rains heavily!

I first visited Harare in 1982 as the junior team member at Lazard, financing the Wankie 2 power station in Zimbabwe (the name was changed to ‘Hwange’ by a prurient Mugabe). Now I am back as a Tutu Foundation fellow to see whether Mugabe’s removal heralds real change. Most of the international community is gagging to reengage with Zimbabwe and hoping that President Mnangagwa is the real deal. Certainly, the African Union will insist that the elections in Zimbabwe later this year are free of violence. But this is not Zimbabwe’s first military coup.

In 2008 the international community came within 36 hours of persuading Mugabe to quit. Alas, the plan was thwarted by the army commander, a Mr Mnangagwa – best known for masterminding the brutal suppression of the Matabele in the 1980s – and Mugabe was persuaded to stay. In the second coup, the army have decided that Mnangagwa is their candidate for President. It remains to be seen whether the election will be genuinely free and fair and whether the army would allow a run off between Mnangagwa and Nelson Chamisa, the young and charismatic new leader of the MDC. Chamisa’s rally last weekend in Bulawayo was the largest political meeting seen in Zimbabwe since the early days of the MDC’s formation and the 2008 election which President Mnangagwa did so much to subvert.

I land on time at St Helena’s new airport which was successfully completed last year. The popular belief in the UK is that St Helena’s airport is a monstrous white elephant – unusable by airplanes and a monumental waste of taxpayers’ money. This perception is simply wrong and proves the old adage that a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has put her boots on.

In the last six months, 60 private jets have landed on the island without problem and 15 medical flights enabled with lifesaving consequences. Just two commercial flights have been delayed. Private sector interests are determined that a third flight from Europe must begin soon for the island’s full potential to be realised.

St Helena is just about the remotest place on earth. A community of more than 4,000 British citizens live there amidst ancient colonial architecture and breathtakingly beautiful scenery. Thanks to the new airport’s success, St Helena faces an exciting future, and as capacity increases, the island will become the go-to destination for intrepid travellers around the world. The French, fascinated by Napoleon’s life and death there, will flock to see the extraordinary heritage.

The potential marine offer enhanced further by the chance to swim among whale sharks, the gentlest giants of the ocean. The oldest living creature on earth – Jonathan the tortoise – resides at the governor’s residence. At a certified 186 years old, he was born shortly after Napoleon’s death. Encouragingly for one of his great age, he is still enjoying regular sex – something he accomplishes with considerable noise, skill and at a commendably slow pace. When he dies, he will receive a state funeral (the plans for ‘operation go slow’ are locked in the governor’s safe) marked by a public holiday. He will then be stuffed and his shell reside in the National History Museum in the UK. 


Andrew Mitchell is Conservative MP Sutton Coldfield and a former secretary of state for International Development

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