The trouble with the film 'Mugabe and the White African'

Oct 31, 2010

'Mugabe and the White African' is a film about the efforts of white Zimbabwean farmer Mike Campbell to resist eviction from his farm by the government of president Robert Mugabe under the country's controversial land reform programme.

More than many of the other white farmers who have been kicked off over the last decade, Campbell's troubles have received widespread coverage, particularly in Western countries where there is widespread sympathy for the white farmers as well as widespread hatred for Mugabe. In Western news stories Campbell has been cast as a tough but sensitive farmer fighting for his livelihood and property against the 'evil' of Mugabe who wants to deprive him of them. There have been stories about him as varied as those about his expressed Christian faith, as well as sentimental ones about his lovable horse Ginger and the mistreatment it also suffered at the hands of 'Mugabe's thugs.'
The thriving offshore internet-based media run by Zimbabwe exiles has somehow not really warmed to the Campbell story. This is perhaps not surprising given the very mixed view of the country's white farmers as a group by their black countrymen. Almost all the internet-based Zimbabwean-run media is hostile to Mugabe and his government for perhaps many (but certainly not all) of the same reasons as the white farmers would dislike Mugabe. Yet for all the attempts to market the film 'Mugabe and the White African' and to solicit sympathy and support for Campbell's cause, the coolness of black Zimbabweans to these efforts is noticeable.

Probably many and perhaps most Zimbabweans today would agree that the treatment of the white farmers-as-a-group (there are notable exceptions though few) has gone beyond land reform for equity to persecution. But that is not to say that there are warm feelings for the white farmers-as-a-group (there are notable exceptions though few!) This has to do with the history, distant and recent, of how blacks and whites have and have not got along in Zimbabwe. In particular the white farmers' overall reputation amongst most black Zimbabweans helps explain the general societal coolness to them in their time of trouble at the hands of Mugabe.

Campbell has been depicted as not just a competent farmer but a social hero as well for his carefully portrayed concern for his black workers. But even in the sympathetic British, American and other Western reports about him he has let slip through some of the attitudes about Africans that help explain why there is little liking for the former white farmers, even if there is some black sympathy for them.

The obliviousness of the white farmers as a group (exceptions noted!) to these feelings of the blacks who surrounded them is one important reason Mugabe was able to so easily exploit the latent resentment against them. Or perhaps they did know they were widely considered by blacks to be arrogant and deeply racist but either couldn't help themselves because those were deeply entrenched generational attitudes, or they felt so economically/socially/psychologically powerful that they could not imagine that the ambivalence of those blacks towards them could ever matter. This was of course before Mugabe's sudden turn against them upset all the century-old rules of how blacks and whites have related in Zimbabwe.        

Which serves as an introduction to the interrogation of the term 'white African' in the title of the film about Campbell. Of course there are white people who do and have every right to identify themselves as Africans. But this is still not widespread and is relatively recent. In fact the embracing of an African identity by generations-deep whites in Africa has arguably been greatly accelerated by the words and actions of Mugabe, who like most Southern Africans of all colors still understands the term 'African' to specifically mean 'black African.' This is a legacy of the kinds of strict racial stratification and discrimination that has prevailed for most of the last century in southern Africa.

Furthermore, 'African' was not just merely neutrally, phenotypically and culturally descriptive of black Africans. It was much more than that; a pejorative term to describe the majority group that was on the lowest rung of southern Africa's racial stratification totem pole. 'African' in that political, social and even legal classification system meant the lowest of the low, versus the highest category, 'European,' with several other groups occupying the middle ranks!

There were officially designated 'African' and 'European' schools, residential areas, jobs and so forth. The thinking and psychology behind these classifications did not suddenly stop with the advent of black/African majority rule in southern Africa. It is really only in the last 10 years of aggressive efforts to 'empower' black Africans in Zimbabwe and South Africa that there have suddenly been cries of, 'wait a minute, I'm not black but I'm also African.'  This was in response to the changing social/political/economic dynamics in which the (black) African who had for a century been officially designated as being the last had in the new system been designated as being the first.

Perhaps understandably, as these status changes have gained steam part of the response of some (far from all, and I'm not even sure one can yet say 'many') non-blacks has been to re-evaluate issues of identity. Some of those who previously would have been insulted to have been been referred to as 'African' now see benefit in claiming that identity.

But hopefully the attempt at explaining the history of the loaded term 'African' would also make it clear why blacks would be suspicious or even resentful of this trend. Blacks have worn the label 'African' because it is not only who they are. They could not have separated themselves from it even if they had wanted to in the days when it was a virtual insult. So this serves as a partial explanation for why some/many black Africans would be cool to hostile to the idea of non-blacks who now find it fashionable to say, 'I'm an African too after all.' This feeling would obviously be particularly so in regards to the white 'Europeans' who benefited the most from the old racial stratification.

Campbell is over 70. From both the time he was born and grew up in the olden southern Africa, to his own more recent language about black Africans, I find it very hard to imagine that he would be one of the fairly new crop of whites who think of themselves more as 'African' than as the old standard of 'European.' Which is not to say he doesn't, but I suspect that my suspicions about this would be shared by the vast majority of black Zimbabwean Africans.

Campbell is a Zimbabwean citizen so his right to farm should not depend on whether he still regards himself as 'European' as has been the norm for people of his ilk for all of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe's history, or whether he has now gone radical and 'gone native' by beginning to think of and refer to himself as 'African,' a word/concept white people of his generation would have been socialised to think of as representing 'primitive, backward,' etc. Excuse me for my skepticism!

The point is that as a (black) Zimbabwean African, and one who has closely followed the many articles about Campbell's travails in publications like the Los Angeles Times, The Times (UK) and The Telegraph (UK), I find the idea of him embracing the identity of 'African' very hard to swallow. Its use in the title of the film about him strikes me as extremely awkward. It is hard for me not to see it as little more than a convenient gambit to make his case and elicit sympathy for his persecution. Perhaps this feeling is widely shared amongst black Zimbabweans and perhaps that could explain the film's lack of traction in the black Zimbabwean media.

Why is that important? Because while Campbell may have no trouble gaining sympathy and support amongst white audiences in the US, UK, Australia, South Africa and so forth, it is the support of the majority, now-ruling black Africans of his country that guarantee the future security of people like him, not the Western audiences of 'Mugabe and the White African.' Mugabe will go sooner or later, but if the majority of black Africans continue to perceive old white farmers like Campbell the way they have done for decades, black Zimbabweans' coolness to white farmers as a block will continue. It is mainly to the 95% black Zimbabweans Campbell should be appealing for sympathy, not primarily people in the Western world!

Campbell, the film and perhaps the whole of Zimbabwe's once powerful white farming 'community' have seemed to miss this simple but essential point. Their psychic separation from black Zimbabweans ('Africans') as-a-group (there are many individual exceptions) is one reason they have not been able to form any meaningful alliances with the many black groups also opposed to Mugabe.

Having big showings and winning film festival awards in exotic Western locales seems hopelessly pointless to fighting the battle for their farms, national identity and citizenship rights at home. The latter should come before the former, not the reverse as at present. There seems something desperately out of touch with a 'white African' arguing for his place in the African sun not primarily to his 'fellow' (black) African citizens but to white Europeans!

Campbell has indeed suffered tremendous loss and persecution. But what may be even more tragic than that is this writer's sense that he and many others have also failed to come to grips with the real essence of the changes that continue to sweep southern Africa. Mugabe has forced and accelerated some of those changes, sometimes brutally, but many of them were coming anyway, and many of them will outlive him. The difficulty of some to comprehend the true scope of these wrenching changes is partially illustrated by the explanation of why for many black Zimbabweans, the until-recently scorned mantle of 'African' cannot now possibly fit comfortably on the head of someone like Mike Campbell. Right from their choice of title the producers and marketers of 'Mugabe and the White African' show that they they do not get why this is so.       


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