• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Letter from the 153rd State

We have to succeed in our bid to establish a non-racial society, in our bid to establish civil liberties…. Once the reconciliation between the races is complete, once we have the opposing forces in harmony, then whatever the differences in the political sphere we will, at least, have that oneness which upholds a democratic society. I think it will also act as a consolidating factor for Mozambique, Zambia, Botswana, Angola, and even for the former High Commission territories, Lesotho and Swaziland. The progressive forces in South Africa will have a basis on which to demand that transformation take place as quickly as possible in their society.

…Let me say that our principles remain…as a party we stand by the socialist ideology deriving, to an extent, from Marxism and Leninism. We don’t hide that. At the same time we are not governed by those principles alone. We also have our own tradition, and the principles that we have developed here under the influence of Christianity, while we were occupied by the West. In other words, while we adhere to definite socialist principles there is a streak of morality that runs through them, and this morality is a synthesis of our tradition and our Christian practice here…. We have always lived as a collective society. Land belongs to all. True, each person has his own cattle and goats but there was always a distinction between what was communal and what the individual acquired as his own property. The rivers and the fruit trees have always been common to us all.”

—Robert Mugabe Prime Minister, Zimbabwe

Just eighteen weeks after the creation of a new African state that not only its prime minister predicts will have a definitive influence on the future of all southern Africa, I had the chance to visit that state for myself. To go to Zimbabwe (or any other African country no longer ruled by a white minority) as a South African is different from going as a European or American; and to travel as a private person accustomed to observing from the underground point of view of the novelist is different from arriving with the journalist’s conscious, skilled determination to find news. I was less informed than a good journalist would be; as someone both African and white, I think I understood what I saw for myself—as distinct from what I might be told or told about—rather more accurately than a visiting European or American could.

And yet it is difficult, in the snuffing-the-air alertness, the awkward solemnity of first setting foot on the tarmac of change, not to read in headline fashion what meets the eye. I always warn myself that there are two places from which I must not generalize any impressions: airports and bars. the white immigration officer at Salisbury airport turned the pages of my passport with a metal beak instead of a hand. At once I saw that brave adaptation as the machine gun beaten into the tool of peace. For me, the man had sacrificed his arm fighting a senseless war for lan Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence, and his artificial hand, efficiently manipulated in the service of a black majority government, was acceptance that that war, like the flesh-and-blood hand, was lost and done with.

But what proof did I have that he hadn’t had his arm severed in an ordinary road accident?

The bar at my second-rate hotel was full, of course, like the bars of grander hotels nearby, and during my stay it was never anything else. The faces were black, mostly young, the drink was beer, and the atmosphere no more thickly felted with voices and smoke than in comparable bars anywhere.

That scene was something I know how to read more certainly than the immigration officer’s artificial hand. Where the color bar has been grudgingly relaxed in white-ruled Africa, the practice has been to let blacks into public bars before opening to them libraries, sports and hobby clubs, and other facilities for amusement and activity created by whites for their own city leisure. This packing of the bars by young blacks doesn’t signify to me that Zimbabweans, more than other city youngsters, are interested in no other pastime but drinking, but that bars were probably the first of the white man’s pleasures opened to them when the Rhodesians were stalling power-sharing by giving placebos, and that the old colonial habits and leisure arrangements have not yet been replaced by new ones.

We all know how close the conviviality of the bottle is to the aggression of the bottle. One of the most stupid things whites ever did in Africa was to make the bar the first public place where they would mix with blacks socially, and drinking the first pleasure to be openly shared by black and white. Almost without exception, the scattered incidents of violence that are occurring in the new state, whether racial insults followed by blows between black and white, or political fights between blacks, happen in the vicinity of bars. the immediate answer for Zimbabwe lies, alas, only in hindsight: during their prosperous rule of ninety years in Rhodesia (I date this from the establishment of Cecil John Rhodes’s Pioneer Column camp at Salisbury, September 1890) whites should have created more opportunities for white and black to get to know one another while sober. And whites should have opened to blacks places other than bars where the energies of men back from the war could be spent more constructively than dangerously.

The long-term answer will be taken up within the movement of the whole society itself, political and economic. At the moment the city of Salisbury—the most beautiful colonial city in Africa—is a wide, sunlit stage set. The play for which British government, international mining, and white settlers’ agricultural and commercial headquarters were built—with their pillars, verandahs, and palms they are more mansions than public premises, an imperialist architectural aesthetic expressing perfectly the concept of the colonies as a kind of greater country estate of the British Empire family—that play has closed.

Black urban couples with their children wander across the polo-field-sized streets window-shopping, old women in from the country carry long rolled mats balanced on their heads in a queer inversion of tightrope walking, young men hawk, discreetly as if offering dirty postcards, chess sets carved from local stone: all were here before, but now their presence has a different meaning. The props of the capital city are theirs, a city conceived by others; they seem not to have occupied it psychologically, yet. There are some constructions—not necessarily of white walls, handsome teak doors, and brass fittings—they may never want to occupy, and others that their government, newly committing itself to socialism with a mixed economy, and land distribution and development to keep the rural population in agriculture, is determined to see they do not.

I spent most of my time in two of these colonial mansions. In both, the walls stood, but the internal human construction had been started anew. One was the House of Assembly. The official flunkey was a C. Aubrey Smith figure from the set of that play that has folded, wandered in to bear the golden turnip-topped mace before the Speaker of the House at those points in parliamentary procedure decreed by tradition. Here, the change of power from the minority of 230,000 whites to the majority of some 6.8 million blacks is set out clearly by change of color as Lewis Carroll roses painted to order in the Duchess’s garden. There is no official opposition to Prime Minister Robert Mugabe’s government. It is dominated by his own ZANU-PF Party, which nevertheless includes Joshua Nkomo, leader of the rival Patriotic Front Party (he would have been prime minister if Rhodesia had become Zimbabwe as a result of early negotiation instead of ultimate civil war), and two white ministers. David Smith of the Rhodesian Front is minister of commerce. Whites have minority rights to a guaranteed number of seats in Parliament for twenty years. The all-white Rhodesian Front’s members sit together on one side of the House as if in a group photograph taken at some Old Boys’ gathering. The good looks of the (segregated) clubman—pink faces, silver-touched hair—prevail. Acrimonious remarks from this side of the House—bitter saliva flies from both sides—come in British rather than colonial accents.

The black MPs are not only sharp-tongued, highly articulate men like Dr. Herbert Ushewokunze. He is the minister of health whose irregular postponement, the day I was present, of a debate on ministerial estimates for which the Rhodesian Front had prepared its arguments led to sarcastic exchanges and a walkout by five RF members (“to the canteen,” Dr. Ushewokunze did not fail to suggest). Filling the back benches (“back” in the parliamentary sense only) were men and women painstakingly self-educated beyond the miserable facilities provided by successive white governments in their pursuit of Cecil Rhodes’s “hinterland” paradise for whites. When a member from a rural constituency stood up to speak about Minister of Education Dzingai Mutumbuka’s bill introducing free primary education for all children, the man on his feet in a lumpy Sunday suit was a schoolteacher whose own education, he explained, and that of his children, had meant hardship for his parents and, in turn, for himself. One by one, other men and women stood up eagerly, even passionately, putting forward in the supreme forum of parliamentary democracy the claims of the people in their districts for new schools and more teachers.

The language of parliament is English. Some did not always have the right words for the expression of their ideas; but the ideas corresponded with desperate sincerity to real entities in the lives of the people they represent. When these MPs thanked the minister for something all the decades of white rule in a rich country never provided, this was no Party back-slapping but the response to a realization long withheld. During that week, when the British and American press was giving front-page scandal space to the alleged murder of a white farmer by a black cabinet minister, Edgar Tekere, and the “defection” of General Walls from his curious position as commander of the ex-guerrilla forces he had once fought, I don’t suppose there was more than a line for the truly enormous even of free education for Zimbabwean children.

The white MPs did not display much interest in the bill, for that matter. Well, there had always been government money for white children’s schools. This hangover of racial divisions showed itself most depressingly in a debate on the employment bill of the minister of labor, Mr. Kumbirai Kangai. A clause the House grew coldly tense over was that dealing with new legislation providing for complaints by domestic servants against unfair dismissal. Voices of the past seemed to be sounding hollowly through the mouth of the present. As whites are (almost exclusively) the employers and blacks are the servants, the debate, without anyone on either side ever admitting it, was according to the familiar scenario. I could have prompted the ensuing dialogue from my seat behind glass (bullet-proof? a precaution from the war?) in the visitors’ gallery.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print