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The shame of Zimbabwe

If whites were murdering black farmers, there would be hell to pay.

April 26, 2000

One wonders how certain people are allowed to get away with things for which others would catch more than holy hell. Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, one of the Marxist angels whose wings are dipped in blood every so often, has recently been following a policy that calls for whites, or Euro-Africans, to either turn over their land to the government or face the inevitability of being ejected, beaten or slaughtered by roving mobs.

Mugabe considers this land reform. He has taken to these methods because he failed to get the necessary votes to make it lawful for his government to seize land and distribute it according to what those at the top deemed right.

The fact that a small number of white people own a good deal of the land in Zimbabwe is inarguably obscene, the result of a colonial history going back to Cecil Rhodes, one of the prime swine of his time. Rhodes was an Englishman who felt that a white man should do whatever he had to do to expand the empire and bring blacks to civilized order. In Rhodes' view, the world existed to produce and work for England, the jewel of the British Isles. Any country that refused to submit to superior people would taste the lash, the truncheon, the rifle butt, the boot kicked deep into the recalcitrant buttocks of those known only for their savage wiles, their drums and their unwritten language.

That land now known as Zimbabwe was once named after this fellow; Rhodesia it was called. The colonial yoke under which the black population lived wasn't particularly different from some others. But what separates the Western world from just about any other place is the fact that moral concerns can rise so high and shed so much light that we are able to see through the thick rhetorical darkness imposed by historical complaints and the heated claims of duty performed behind the implacable wall of national sovereignty.

King Leopold, for instance, became a pariah in Europe for the slaughter of Africans in the Congo so that Belgium could take advantage of the market for raw rubber sparked by the creation of the rubber bicycle tire. Over time the Western world came to the realization that colonialism was wrong, and empires fell internationally.

Now that Mugabe is resorting to traditional totalitarian tactics, we are supposed to assume that anything goes because the white people should not have the land in the first place. If warned by Mugabe that he cannot protect them, the white landowners should either give up what they presently own or accept the consequences.

While it is never said directly, we are supposed to feel that this is some sort of historical payback for a priggish pig like Rhodes or for all those black lives lost during the war for independence that was fought and won against Ian Smith and the colonial forces that once held sway.

There lies another question, however. How long, exactly, does a white person have to live in an African country before he or she becomes a full citizen? The kind of outrage exhibiting itself these days in Zimbabwe is something we should recognize from European and American history. Resentment toward so-called minorities for being successful is something we've seen in this country, where Jews, black people and East Indians have been scorned and even punished by those Christian white people who didn't like how well these interlopers were doing in a world that was not theirs.

While I do not defend how the land came to most of the whites in Zimbabwe who are farming it, I don't understand why our media is not making a bigger deal about the way white farmers are being murdered and brutalized, with no interference from Mugabe. If it were the other way around, with African whites doing in African blacks, we would have to read endless sanctimonious editorials in our papers, and observe the outrage of television anchors almost overcome by shock, anger and pity.

This barbarism amounts to tribalism put into politics, which is understandable because Zimbabwe is an African country, in which the Shonas are the tribe in power. And tribalism that demeans others is the father of racism. It took a while for the worst effects of tribalism to hit the white Africans of Zimbabwe, but it was alive and well when there was no disparity in skin tones.

For a time Mugabe took the kid-gloves route with his white people, and got praise for not allowing post-colonial bitterness to ruin Zimbabwe the way Idi Amin destroyed the economy of Uganda by kicking out the mercantile Asians. What can you say about that decision? Africa for Africans, I presume.

But other black Zimbabweans were not always happy with him. More than a decade ago in Kenya I listened to a black man from Zimbabwe talk with scalding acrimony about how the Nbedeles, the descendents of Zulus, had done the hardest fighting in the war for independence from colonialism. The Nbedele were the ones who stood in the line of fire and steel with such determination, fury and courage that Smith's boys finally had to let the black Africans create their own nation.

But the Shonas were the largest tribe, and they had not dealt fairly with the Nbedeles, this man complained. The Shonas favor each other. And guess what? Mugabe is a Shona.

What may be most disturbing is that Mugabe is intent on having his way even though he could not get his land-reform measure put into law. He is now allowing the brute call of the wild to determine who gets it in the neck and who doesn't. That is the crime we should all be howling against. If there has been some sort of historical injustice, but a legal system has been put into place, deal with it through that legal system.

If you are wont to do things at home the way Stalin was always willing to and as Richard Nixon did on a bloodless but equally contemptible level, those of us who write should never consider giving you a free ride. No matter your color, no matter the inarguable and well-documented oppression that was once the lot of your group. No group should forever be considered innocent. Especially if it assumes that one other group is forever guilty.

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About the writer
Stanley Crouch is a New York essayist, poet and jazz critic.

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The shame of Zimbabwe

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