Friday, 5 June 2009

David Lamb on Zimbabwe

Another short history of Rhodesia’s becoming Zimbabwe (read Roland Oliver's here). David Lamb wrote his brilliant African travelogue in the early nineteen eighties so we must forgive the naïveté. After all, no-one could have predicted that the Blacks would destroy what the White man had built. [sarc.]

All that follows is from David Lamb, The Africans: Encounters from the Sudan to the Cape (Methuen Books, London 1985) pp 332-336

I first arrived in Rhodesia (as it was then called) on Pioneers Day in 1978, a national holiday that celebrated the hoisting of the Union Jack over Salisbury eighty-eight years earlier. At that time the flag was raised by 180 pioneers who had traveled in ox carts from South Africa, moving through country unknown except to a handful of traders and missionaries. Most were “British” South Africans, not “Dutch” South Africans, and they came, like frontiersmen settling the Old West, in search of land and a better life. Their trek, led by Frederick Selous and organized by Cecil Rhodes, a Briton who had made a fortune in South African gold and diamonds, was made under the auspices of the British South Africa Company.

Now the whites, including six surviving daughters of the founding pioneers, gathered in Cecil Square on that September morning in 1978. The women wore broad-brimmed hats, spring dresses and white gloves. In the parks of Salisbury there was a profusion of purple jacaranda in bloom, and the broad boulevards - designed by Rhodes to be wide enough for an eight-team ox wagon to make a U-turn - ran along rows of low white shops with overhanging steel awnings that shaded the spotlessly clean sidewalks. Whereas Johannesburg is a real city, Salisbury (now called Harare in honor of a Shona Chief) is really a large country town. It feels very British, reminding me of what York would look like if it were stuck in the middle of the Montana plains. The soft spring sun beat down on the whites in Cecil Square and on a small group of blacks, watching impassively from across the street. There was a roll of drums and a bugle call as the great-grandson of a founding pioneer raised the Union Jack - a ceremony that would be repeated in 1979 but never again. White heads bowed. The words were brave, even defiant, but everyone knew the end was near. The whites had overcome great odds and built an amazing country. Now the lessons of Africa had caught up with them, and Rhodesia, racked by a liberation war that would claim 27,000 lives between 1972 and 1979, was in the throes of transition.

“Our hearts are heavy,” said the Reverend C. W. A. Blakeley, “for there is sadness and pain and fear and war in our land, and a terrible desire for destruction has been thrust upon us. God, give us all the courage to be part of the solution to our problems and not part of the problem itself.”

Prime Minister Ian Smith - accused by the liberal whites of attempting to maintain white supremacy and by the conservatives of trying to turn Rhodesia over to “Marxist thugs” - moved among the descendants of the pioneers. “How nice to have you here, to see you looking so well,” he said, and ninety-eight-year-old Maria Mooman smiled back and patted his hand. Then Smith, a farmer-turned-politician, walked to his limousine, one hand clutching his hat, the other on the shoulder of his wife, Janet, and sped away without looking back.

Rhodesia had done well under the early settler farmers; there was at the time only one country in sub-Sahara Africa more prosperous than Rhodesia - South Africa. In 1923, when the charter of the British South Africa Company was abrogated, the whites in Rhodesia were given the choice of being incorporated into the Union of South Africa or becoming a self-governing entity within the British Empire. They chose the latter. The whites never institutionalized racism the way the South Africans did, but the blacks in Rhodesia didn’t fare much better than their counterparts in the country next door. The best farmland was reserved for whites. All the top jobs and every seat in parliament were held by whites. The whites’ per capita income in 1975 was $7,800, the blacks’ was $716. The whites’ literacy rate was 100 percent, the blacks’ 30 percent.

“These Africans in Salisbury don’t have anything to do with the terrorists in the rest of the country,” a white housewife told me. “To my mind, they’re terribly lazy and inefficient - much too inefficient to be terrorists - and sometimes difficult to handle, but they’re good people. They’re part of our family, even when they’re working as servants. We tend to their aches and pains and we treat them like we do our own children.”

After World War II, thousands of immigrants from England moved to Rhodesia, attracted by one of the world’s most pleasant life styles, and in 1963 Rhodesia began negotiating with London for its independence. In 1964 the United Kingdom granted independence to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi) but demanded that the whites in Southern Rhodesia first demonstrate their intention to move toward eventual majority rule. They refused, and on November 11, 1965, Ian Smith and his Rhodesian Front Party unilaterally declared independence. In March 1970 Smith proclaimed a State of Rhodesia.

The world responded by isolating Rhodesia with political and trade boycotts. But Rhodesia, with the help of South Africa and some Western oil companies willing to ignore sanctions, continued to prosper. Its 6,000 white farmers - who produced 80 percent of the country's food - were as industrious and ingenious as any in America’s Corn Belt. They fed the California-sized country and had plenty of food left over to export. Agriculture became a $500 million industry as the farmers moved away from their one-crop economy (tobacco) and diversified. By the late 1970s Rhodesia ranked first in the world in per-hectare yield of groundnuts, second in maize and soybeans, and fourth in wheat. Denied legal trade with the developed world, Rhodesia started making its own wine (not bad) and whiskey (terrible, but the Rhodesians drank it with pride) and producing everything from air conditioners to radios. Despite the international sanctions, a young married couple setting up a home could meet 85 percent of its needs with Rhodesian-made products. (There was even a locally produced version of Monopoly, but since that name was patented, the Rhodesians called their game Around The Boardwalk.) The Rhodesian economy was further buoyed by important supplies of chrome, coal, copper and nickel.

Nevertheless, Rhodesia reverted to the status of a British colony in 1979 and became the independent, black-ruled nation of Zimbabwe in April 1980. What forced the whites to reluctantly surrender power was not sanctions but a guerrilla war that ended up costing the country thirty lives and $1.5 million - or 40 percent of the national budget - each day. The black nationalist forces of the Patriotic Front just wore the country down, economically and spiritually. One faction of the front was headquartered in Zambia, armed by the Soviet Union and led by Joshua Nkomo, a 300-pound former railway worker whose high living raised some eyebrows; the other was in Mozambique, equipped to a large extent by China and led by Robert Mugabe, a Marxist who once said, “Genuine independence can only come out of the barrel of a gun.”

Mugabe, a disciplined scholar and non-practicing Catholic, spent ten years in detention or under restriction until 1974 in Rhodesia, and the whites’ greatest fear was that he would persecute his former tormentors, turn Zimbabwe into a Communist state aligned with Moscow and preside over the disintegration of another African economy. None of those things have happened, and Mugabe has shown far more respect for the due process of law than Ian Smith ever did. As the elected prime minister, Mugabe deftly juggled black hopes and white fears, and in the process proved himself to be perhaps the most capable leader in black Africa. His brand of Marxism thus far has been no more radical than social democracy in Europe and appears no more revolutionary than the demand that the exploitation of blacks must end. He has taken a page from Jomo Kenyatta’s scenario in Kenya and attempted to accommodate the whites, knowing that their presence is essential if Zimbabwe is to prosper. He has remained aloof from the Soviet Union, not even allowing Moscow to set up an embassy in Salisbury until more than a year after independence. In short, this former teacher whom the West called a Marxist terrorist is no more than a socialist and nationalist trying to serve the entire country on a basis of equality.

One of his early moves, after relegating Nkomo to a minor cabinet post, was to convene a conference of thirty-six nations in Zimbabwe to raise money. The scene was similar to a TV telethon in the United States in which viewers make pledges to combat various diseases or to finance political parties. But this one was a bonanza and Mugabe netted $1.4 billion for Zimbabwe. The United States, recognizing that a successful multiracial Zimbabwe could influence the future of South Africa and diminish Soviet pressure in all of southern Africa, pledged $225 million over three years. Even the impoverished West African nation of Sierra Leone kicked in $90,000. No Communist countries were invited, although a Soviet delegation flew into Salisbury and cooled its heels for two days at a local hotel, waiting for an invitation that never came.

The creation of Zimbabwe was in itself a rare achievement and the government’s accomplishments have not been insignificant. It has paid fair-market prices to whites who sold their farms and left the country, unable to tolerate a place where black cabinet ministers called each other “comrade.” Majority rule has seen the school enrollment more than double, from 800,000 to 1,760,000, and the reopening of 2,000 schools closed by the war. The minimum wage has risen 50 percent, and health care is now free for anyone earning less than $235 a month, which covers the majority of the 6.8 million blacks. The government has subsidized food prices by $385 million to make staples cheaper for the poor. Black employment has increased by 100,000.

Under the constitution, whites are guaranteed twenty of the hundred seats in parliament until 1987. No other African colony has entered independence with similar assurances for the minority race. About half of the original 270,000 whites chose to stay in Zimbabwe, but by the summer of 1983 events had taken a decided turn for the worse in Africa’s youngest country, and Mugabe’s dream for a prosperous, multi-racial society had been derailed by tribalism and was in jeopardy.

Joshua Nkomo, the father of independence who had been cheered by thousands when he made a triumphal return to Rhodesia in January, 1980, had been thrown out of the cabinet and had slipped across the border to Botswana one night, making his way back to London - and another home in exile. What he left behind was an army from the Ndebele-speaking minority, which represents 17 percent of Zimbabwe’s people.

Nkomo had fallen from favor after arms caches were discovered in his tribal district of Matabeleland, where there had been much banditry and terrorism, including the killing of white farmers. Mugabe dispatched the government’s North-Korean-trained elite unit, known as the Fifth Brigade, there with vague instructions to restore order and apprehend deserters who had fought in Nkomo’s liberation army. The Fifth Brigade undertook its assignment with enthusiasm, killing several hundred unarmed civilians in a matter of weeks.

The fragile fiber of society seemed to be unraveling around Mugabe, a member of the Shona-speaking majority that comprises about 80 percent of all Zimbabweans. The economy had been scorched by drought and the world recession, and the departure of whites had reduced productivity. South Africa appeared intent on doing what it could to ensure that there would be no black success stories in next-door Zimbabwe. Mugabe, however, did not overreact as most African presidents do in time of crisis and personal challenge. He continued to preach that blacks and whites, if they worked together, could still create the Zimbabwe that was promised during the war of liberation.

Zimbabwe’s future is far from settled, but a nation of great economic potential has emerged from the ashes of war and racial inequality - a feat that seemed impossible just a few years ago. I would like to think that South Africans will learn from the lessons of what Mugabe has tried to do in Zimbabwe - and what other leaders have done in Kenya, the Ivory Coast and a handful of former colonies. The Afrikaner has only to look across his borders to see the advance of history’s tide.

No comments: