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Remnants of empire

Pity the poor Zimbabwean farmer, deprived of his swimming pool, servants and gin and tonic

Decca Aitkenhead
Thursday August 23, 2001
The Guardian

A white farmer in Zimbabwe admitted last week that he had finally changed his mind. "I was so naive," he told a Mail on Sunday correspondent, "to think that 50,000 whites could really make a difference, and hold out against the tidal wave of chaos that is engulfing the rest of the continent." What depressed him most, he said, was the apparent indifference of black Zimbabweans to the fate of the whites.

A brisk scan of the week's British press might have raised his spirits. Zimbabwe may have let him down, but Blighty has come good, in word at least, if not in deed. Anything but indifferent, it has been incontinent with outrage - and the scenes gripping the nation have been truly shocking. Reporters who cover Africa will be more familiar with the spectacle of atrocity, of course, but less accustomed to the swell of foreign horror. Not known for our sympathy for African misfortune, all of a sudden we are appalled.

Bad things should obviously not happen to white people. How else to explain the indignation? The knowledge of unspeakable horrors inflicted on black Africans is seldom allowed to interfere with our peace of mind, as if they were in the natural order of things. Over there it is hot, zebras live in the wild, and bad things happen to blacks. But when white families are dispossessed, it is another matter altogether.

The plight of the 21 arrested farmers, and the many more forced from their homes, however terrible, is far from the worst thing taking place in Zimbabwe. A human rights agency in Harare recorded 288 incidences of torture last month. In the same 30 days, unlawful detentions numbered 104, disappearances 61 and political murders 11. The number of white farmers killed since April last year is nine.

But if we have a distorted impression of the picture, it is as nothing to many white Zimbabweans' idea of an acceptable distribution of injustice. Last week the Mail on Sunday ran a report by one in Harare who lamented the scandal of whites being "reduced to a kind of genteel poverty", having to "trade in their beautiful old houses". Worse yet, he had sighted a white prostitute "in a minute skirt, despite the cold winter wind". These are people who want nothing more, he pleaded, than "to live out what remains of their lives in what is left of British colonial style."

As if this were not just a reasonable request but a right. And somewhere in our fury at its denial is the implication that many of us still think "British colonial style" is a debt our former colonies owe to their whites. The report, thundered the Mail on Sunday, "should shame our government". There are many things in Africa that should shame our government, but the existence of a white prostitute - like some abomination against nature - would be low on the list.

White Zimbabweans caught up in Robert Mugabe's madness deserve the sympathy and support of basic humanity. But in their new role as victims of his racism, it is rather too easy to forget their less sympathetic history. A white liberal who left the country in 1986 wrote this month that "a crucial factor [in the current troubles] is the inherent racism still present among many white Zimbabweans". After 20 years of democracy, he observed, they call themselves "realists" rather than racists - a phrase you often hear among white South African farmers near the border with Zimbabwe. Resistance in the region to the idea that blacks should ever have been given the vote is still alive and well, and South Africa's courts still hear cases of farmers beating their workers to death.

"Please don't write all the usual old cliches about swimming pools, servants and gin and tonics," Zimbabwean whites told the journalist Ian Jack in 1977. That is what he found, though, and that is what many of the whites moved there for. Few families arrived 100 years ago, as it is claimed; most were postwar arrivals looking for sunshine and a higher standard of living than they could possibly hope for at home. They say they have been "good" for Zimbabwe, and indeed they have. If you own rich land and pay your workers a pittance, how could you not be productive?

The idea that they did this for the good of Africa is less easy to swallow. "Now," Ian Jack wrote in 1977, "they seem to be rationalising their instincts for self-preser vation into a kind of moral crusade."

The claim now is as it was then - that they are as African as their black compatriots; not "white settlers" but rightful claimants of their African heritage. "We are not going to capitulate," another farmer swore to the Guardian last week. "They can wreck our property, but we won't be driven out." This is difficult to square with the fact that so many have kept their British passports, and are now calling on the country they left - fed up with its despicable socialism, tax-grabbing Labour government and dreadful rain - to rescue them. Britain certainly owes Zimbabwe something - but what it owes individual white farmers is less clear, and perhaps less important.


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