Why Zimbabwe's embattled white farmers had little black support

Jun 5, 2011

During the 10 year period that the government of President Mugabe was systematically dispossessing them, Zimbabwe's white farmers used many arguments to try to defend themselves, in various fora local, regional and international. One argument they employed that never quite gained traction amongst black Zimbabweans, even those opposed to Mugabe's brutal treatment of them, was that his actions were 'racist.'

Yet in the sense of being particularly picked on because of their whiteness, the charge of racism against them on the part of Mugabe was/is quite correct. Yet the white farmers were never able to convincingly defend themselves (to black Zimbabweans) on the grounds of  'we are the victims of black racism spearheaded by Mugabe.'

One reason for this is that although they were a subset of a numerically tiny minority group, even long after majority rule they were a very privileged minority group. Their economic power and the psychological and other advantages they enjoyed over the majority blacks meant that by and large, they interacted with blacks from a point of advantage. Any 'racist' feelings towards whites by blacks was for the most part kept in check and effectively neutralized by the power balance, which remained with whites. It was difficult to talk of black racism against whites in a scenario in which the blacks did not have the power to exercise it, or at least had not exercised it in the way Mugabe could be said to have eventually done when he moved to take over white farms.

Furthermore, it is the whites, and especially the farmers, who in Zimbabwe and southern Africa in general,  carried the historical baggage of being considered the racists, and of having the continuing power (mainly economic) to 'hurtfully' exercise it against the blacks. In terms of ill-feeling towards another racial group, and the power to act on that ill-feeling, it is the whites who have held this 'advantage' in southern Africa.

The always present undercurrent of resentment over what was considered the particularly harsh anti-black racism of the white farmers meant that when they came under general attack from Mugabe, there was little real sympathy for them.

The words of a former diplomat (2006 to 2009) to Zimbabwe of former colonial power Britain, Phillip Barclay, in this regard are interesting. An article on a recent book he wrote on his Zimbabwe experience quotes him as writing:

“Most Zimbabwean farmers l have met have attitudes that would simply not be tolerable in modern Western society….As they got used to my presence, they started to joke about farm dogs chasing black labourers. In no time they were happily talking about niggers and kaffirs. With a change in accent, they would have fitted right into 1950s Mississippi…”

It is interesting that there is now a lot more examination by white observers of a reality that was long taken for granted by black Zimbabweans. It is as if now that it has been accepted that the white farmers as a 'community' are effectively no more, are beyond saving, it is alright to admit to and mention a racism that was long minimized and downplayed. There were very very few white farmers who were widely seen by blacks in the heroic mould of the protagonist of the film Mugabe and the White African. It was lauded in the West but either panned or ignored by black Zimbabweans.   
For many post-independence years under Mugabe the white farmers were held to be untouchable on account of their key role in the economy, and their presumed 'protection' by Britain and the West. As long as this was the reality of the power balance between them and their black fellow citizens, the kind of attitudes quoted by Barclay, and widely resented by blacks, did not have any practical negative consequences for the white farmers. They were widely held to be deeply and crudely racist, but enjoyed an unspoken, effective impunity.

This all very rapidly began to change with the wholesale farm takeovers which began about 2000. A number of overlapping factors conspired to remove the 'special protected status' the white farmers had enjoyed. In their time of persecution by Mugabe they had few to no organized black defenders or sympathizers amongst their countrymen. The many decades of muted to silent resentment in which they were held by the blacks was given political permission to burst free. The white farmers found that when they most needed black support beyond farm laborers and customers for their produce, they pretty much had none. Mugabe had little difficulty in whipping up popular feeling against them, for his own purposes.

The rest is history.

The Zimbabwe Review

A previous post touched on the effective end of the once powerful white farmers of Zimbabwe as a group. 


Anonymous said...

Lots of Information! :)

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