By Max Hastings (THE GUARDIAN, 27/02/07):
If Tony Blair had wanted to sponsor a military adventure that would have played brilliantly with the British middle class, instead of sending the army to Afghanistan and Iraq he would have dispatched it to Zimbabwe. In Hartlepool and Hemel Hempstead, there was never much spleen against the Taliban or Saddam Hussein. A great many people, however, hate Robert Mugabe.This is, of course, the fruit of his persecution of the shrinking band of white farmers in his country – our own kith and kin, to use a phrase that became familiar during the 14 years of Ian Smith’s illegal white regime in Rhodesia. Confiscations of land, casual violence and murders perpetrated by Mugabe’s thugs continue to provoke British outrage even when they are commonplace.
Peter Godwin’s new memoir, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, documents in the most vivid fashion the experience of a nation in thrall to a monster as wicked and depraved as was Papa Doc in Haiti or Idi Amin in Uganda. Godwin was raised in the old Rhodesia, lost a sister to white «friendly fire» in its civil war, and as a journalist has since reported on Zimbabwe’s descent into hell.
He portrays the shrunken white community, now clinging to the country by its fingernails. His own elderly parents spent their last years in poverty, fear, and squalor, harassed by Mugabe’s dreaded «war vets», watching the disintegration of the society they had known for half a century.
Amid their misery, Godwin learned for the first time that his father was not a British immigrant, but instead a Polish Jew, most of whose relations perished in the gas chambers before he reinvented himself in Rhodesia. Having escaped from one outcast purgatory in his youth, the old man endured a second such experience as he died. Godwin’s tale is profoundly moving, partly because it is written without sentimentality. Though he focuses upon Mugabe’s white victims, he knows that millions of black Zimbabweans are worse off.
Yet the world does nothing. President Mbeki of South Africa continues to treat Mugabe as an ally, not least because many of his own voters applaud Zimbabwe’s land confiscations and, indeed, the ruthless treatment of its white rump. As a hero of the «freedom struggle», Mugabe is inviolate.
The tragedy of Zimbabwe makes some of us search our own consciences, back to the years of white supremacy. I was among visiting correspondents who reported the guerrilla war, until I was deported by the Smith government in 1976. Some British acquaintances with long memories say to me today: «Don’t you feel pretty stupid, when you see what Mugabe has done? You were one of the silly ***** who thought his thugs were freedom fighters.»
Yes, we did. Like most of my colleagues, I reported from Rhodesia 30 years ago in an almost permanent state of rage. We saw a smug, ruthless white minority, beer guts contained with difficulty inside blazers with RAF crests, proclaiming themselves the guardians of civilisation in the heart of Africa. They killed carelessly, tortured freely, and exploited censorship to conceal their worst excesses. The city dwellers, patrons of Meikles Hotel bar, were the worst, because they were the most hypocritical. Fervent supporters of «good old Smithy», many took care not to expose their necks, preferring to «kill Kruger with [their] mouths», as Kipling had put it 70 years earlier.
The farmers commanded much greater respect. They were brave people, enduring much peril behind barbed wire on their remote acres, taking to the bush in uniform without complaint as police or army reservists. I spent many nights at their firesides, arguing the toss about their cause. They were uncomprehending of how I, an ex-public schoolboy whose great-uncle was president of the Rhodesian Tobacco Growers’ Association, could lack sympathy for them – was, frankly, a traitor to my caste.
I told them they should recognise that they were utterly alone. They were disbelieving. The American and British governments would never abandon them to a black communist rabble, they said. They flourished letters from cousin Charlie in Tunbridge Wells, urging them to keep up the good work, saying that his local Rotary club was right behind them. Maybe, I said, but not a manjack of them in Tunbridge Wells will get off his bottom and help you.
They could not believe that «the munts», «the indigenous», as they called the black population, could militarily defeat them: «They even lay their bloody landmines upside down.» Determined to fight to the last ditch, they did so. Only when the Portuguese quit Mozambique, the South African apartheid regime withdrew its support, and the country was on its knees militarily and economically, did the Smith regime quit.
By then, there had been far too much death and bitterness for reconciliation. I thought those white farmers who stayed on after Mugabe assumed power in 1980 crazy – though not as crazy as newcomers, who bought land as recently as a decade ago. Their answer was, of course: «Where else do we go? We belong here. We are Africans, too.» It remains a source of deep grievance to many white people born in the continent that their black neighbours and rulers will not accept them on their own terms.
Because I was one of those who passionately opposed the white regime and supported black majority rule, I often ask myself whether I bear a minuscule share of responsibility for Mugabe. Reading Godwin’s tale of tragedy, of misgovernment on an epic scale, it is difficult to deny that whatever black Rhodesians endured under Smith is less than they have suffered under Mugabe.
Godwin quotes an observation familiar in modern Africa, that the two great tragedies to befall the continent were: the coming of white people; and their departure before creating new institutions capable of sustaining themselves, to replace those that they had destroyed.
Many of us always acknowledged that majority rule would be fraught with problems. Yet nothing can make those who saw white minority rule in its naked ugliness lament its passing. I cannot bring myself to feel profound pity for Peter Godwin’s white Zimbabweans, decent people though some of them are. Their exclusion was ordained a generation ago, by their own leaders’ folly and savagery. Compassion is overwhelmingly due to black Zimbabwe, which neither white guns nor white butter can save from the monsters who are the legacy of the Europeans’ brief sojourn in Africa.