Land and race in Zimbabwe: A new review, itself worthy of review, of the book ‘Mugabe and the White African’

Nov 15, 2011

Mugabe and the White African is a film about a white protagonist’s attempts to resist being moved off his farm by the government of President Robert Mugabe. It played to limited but sympathetic audiences in the West, but made no traction at all in Zimbabwe or anywhere else in the black world, which admittedly was not the target audience anyway. There were very few black reviews of it, and none that were positive. A book of the same name as the film, authored by the film lead’s son in law, has received an interesting scorching review by Percy Zvomuya in the Mail and Guardian.

The film is about the struggles of the late Mike Campbell to prevent the farm he developed over decades from being taken over in the Mugabe government’s controversial ‘fast-track’ land reform programme. Campbell and his son in law Ben Freeth put up a stiff fight but lost, suffering beatings and harassment in the drawn out process. The film is a sympathetic portrayal of his struggles, casting him as a ‘white African’ with every right to the land as the black Africans who claimed to be re-possessing it in the name of post-colonial redress.    

This blog has previously tackled the narrow subject of the term ‘white African,’ under the post ‘The trouble with the film Mugabe and the white African.’

Matters of race are at the heart of the strong feelings about Zimbabwe’s ‘land issue.’ As a result, generally the white perspective, Zimbabwean or foreign, has been that Mugabe instituted an unjust, racist ‘land grab’ against white farmers. How it is held to be unjust: violent, no compensation, no respect for title deeds held, the destitution of farm workers, willfully and needlessly plunging the country into economic crisis.   

The general black response to the land reform exercise has been quite different in one key respect relevant to the subject matter at hand. There was much overall criticism for the trampling of property rights and ‘rule of law’ of the time, the general violence that spread throughout the country, the severe economic disruption, the diplomatic isolation from the West and so on.

 But there was no particularly strong black sympathy for the white farmers as a group. The reasons have to do with the racial group separations that go back to how the country was set up as a nation state more than a century ago, and that became more entrenched and continued into the relatively recent (1980) post-independence era. A misleading calm prevailed, but all the tensions resulting from colonial conquest, land dispossession and their many and deep effects were never far from the surface, and where re-enforced by new factors. The white farmers were arguably at the top of the economic and racial pecking order, and were seen as not being shy about flaunting it. As a group, there was little love for them in the rest of the society.

Percy Zvomuya’s review of Freeth’s Mugabe and the WhiteAfrican is very much reflective of the general black Zimbabwean view of the white farmers, without his even obviously attempting to make it so. Similarly, the majority of sympathetic reviews of the film have also been instinctively reflections of a white/Western view/interpretation of the tortured events in Zimbabwe, particularly but not only over the last ten years. Not all of the factors for which Zimbabwe has become particularly known can be seen through a racial lens, but many of them, especially land, can and are.

Zvomuya writes of Freeth’s book, “It's about the struggles of the British-born farmer (Campbell) fighting off war veterans, thugs and politicians who are after his farm. The most maddening feature of the book is its amnesia about the genesis of the Zimbabwe crisis.”

From the generally white/Western perspectives that predominate in the ‘international media’ about ‘the Zimbabwe crisis,’ it is about a rogue government with a shocking lack of respect for property rights. Mugabe's despotism and general 'badness' is seen as the overriding issue.

For black Zimbabweans and many Africans across the continent on the other hand, it is primarily a rare example of Africans being bold and assertive enough to reclaim what was ‘grabbed’ from them by force in the colonial era. Mugabe's despotism and badness from this perspective are either secondary issues, or not issues of concern at all.

Details like when a and how a particular farm came into a white farmer’s hands (e.g. colonial inheritance vs. post-independence purchase) got lost in the polemics, politics and emotions of the whole heated affair.   

The ‘amnesia’ of the historical origins of the crisis that Zvomuya refers to is very much an element of present Western coverage of the ‘land issue’ in Zimbabwe. That coverage is often ahistorical, heavy with sympathy for recent white indignities at the hands of Mugabe, in whose person all the country’s problems are reposed with particular Western anger and emotion.

Yet, as Zvomuya mentions, a part of the historical narrative of their country’s present problems constantly in the minds of many black Zimbabweans is the 50,000 of their number who died in the same 1973 to 1979 period that Freeth writes that, “320 white farmers were murdered” in the country’s bloody liberation war.

In his review, Zvomuya calls attention to Freeth’s use of words that black Zimbabweans read and hear as code words for a deeply entrenched white racism in the country’s fabric.

Writes Zvomuya, “Freeth tells us about his encounters with "tribesmen" in Ethiopia, "terrorists" killing the whites. The traditional healer is a "witch doctor." What Zvomuya is relating is how black-alienating language that reflected white attitudes about them are very much part of the racial gulf. Above and beyond the narrow questions of land holding , a big part of what Mugabe ushered in with the land reform programme was for the first time to give black Zimbabweans the space and confidence as a group to express their resentment about attitudes that had largely been simply accepted as how things were.

By Mugabe’s broad ‘empowerment’ of blacks in a psychological sense, for the first time ever for whites, there was a real cost to be paid for racial attitudes that had previously been expressed pretty much with impunity, because of an economic/psychological balance of power that had been heavily in favor of whites. For the aristocracy of the old racial order that Mugabe forced to an end, like the shocked, outraged Campbell and Freeth, one effect of this dynamic that they seemed beyond understanding was that even blacks who opposed Mugabe on every other issue admired him for land reform, and generally had little sympathy for the newly dispossessed white farmers.

This is a nuance of the Zimbabwe land issue that naturally is not and cannot be captured by Western sympathizers of Campbell/Freeth who look at the issue from simply the issue of ‘the farmers had title deeds and Mugabe is a terrible dictator, case closed.’

Zvomuya touches on the issue of the colonial dispossession and forced relocation of Africans from fertile land to much poorer ‘tribal trust lands’ to make way for white settlers. It is on land that was originally ‘grabbed’ this way that the system of title deeds was then established. One of the black arguments discounting the title deeds issue is that they had little weight in post-land reform Zimbabwe because they were title deeds for originally stolen property, and that the ‘original owners’ where re-asserting ownership.

Zvomuya pours cold water on Freeth’s contention that “the rocky, infertile land to which black people were driven by Rhodesian administrations” could be as productive as the grabbed African land which white settlers were then allocated, complete with title deeds to give them the ‘security of tenure’ that had been stripped from the Africans.

This kind of colonial plunder that is then legitimized later by the ‘rule of law’ was hardly unique to Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia. What is unusual, and the source of much of Mugabe’s notoriety in the Western world, was for the descendants of the dispossessed, decades later, to assume the power to reverse the previous land grab. For some, this opens up an explosive Pandora’s Box which it would have been better to keep shut.

The point is that what was an ‘illegal land grab’ to people like Campbell and Freeth was to many Africans simply restitution and delayed justice. It is two sides with fundamentally different views of how the world should be ordered and of what is ‘right.’ The film Mugabe and the White African was by white film makers using white heroes to speak to white Western audiences with generally the same world view. For that same reason there is no way it could have succeeded with black African audiences.

Zvomuya provides important parts of the reason for this huge chasm in the two broad views in regards to Zimbabwe’s land issue, by providing commonly held African views on an issue that has been predominantly covered from perspectives other than those of Africans.


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