Paddington Bear is on a mission to heal British-Zimbabwe relations

Soft power comes in many guises. This week it is wearing a blue duffle coat and a red hat, and is covered in fur.

Paddington Bear will lead a charm offensive aiming to heal the rift in British-Zimbabwean relations by demonstrating a cultural affinity between the two nations. Harare has been chosen for Thursday’s African premiere of the big-screen version of the furry bear’s adventures, starring Hugh Bonneville, Nicole Kidman and Ben Whishaw.

“I am delighted to host the African premiere of the film Paddington in Harare this festive season,” British ambassador Catriona Laing said.

“Zimbabwe and the United Kingdom have a long shared history, with strong ties, characterised by a common language and culture that includes adored childhood characters like Paddington Bear.”

Countries’ relationship
Laing, who presented her credentials to President Robert Mugabe in October, has one of the toughest jobs in British diplomacy. Mugabe (90), who loved to shop at Harrods and Savile Row until slapped with a travel ban, now rarely misses a chance to berate the British.

“So [ex-prime minister Tony] Blair, keep your England and let me keep my Zimbabwe,” he once declared.

The countries’ relationship is freighted with history. Cecil John Rhodes was granted a British mandate in 1889 to colonise what would become Southern Rhodesia. An Ndebele uprising was crushed four years later. After more than half a century of white minority rule, in 1965 the prime minister, Ian Smith, unilaterally declared independence from Britain but faced a war he could not win. British-brokered talks in 1979 led to a peace agreement and new Constitution, paving the way for an election won by Mugabe.

A generation later, the British legacy is still felt in everything from cricket and football to O-levels and A-levels. Mugabe is gently mocked for his admiration of Queen Elizabeth and manners resembling those of a Victorian gentleman. He rides to the opening of Parliament in a Rolls Royce. But last year he said defiantly: “I am not British, I am not a colonial product, because I am a complete Zimbabwean.”

What view Mugabe would take of the little bear from Peru, who turned up alone at London’s Paddington station more than half a century ago, is a matter for conjecture. But there is no doubt that Michael Bond’s books have international appeal, with the 26 titles translated into 40 languages and selling more than 35-million copies worldwide.

Bond was initially worried when it was awarded a PG certificate for “mild bad language” and “mild innuendo”, but declared it “a delight from start to finish”. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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