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In the Pit of Africa

At the beginning of Peter Godwin’s enthralling memoir, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, the author, a foreign correspondent living in New York City, returns home to the bush of Zimbabwe, back to the town where he was born and spent his childhood and teenage years. The year is 1997, and the black liberation struggle that ripped apart the country during his youth is a distant memory; the future seems bright for blacks, and Zimbabwe’s roughly sixty thousand white residents, not only farmers but well-to-do business people and professionals, remain in a separate world of prosperity and security. Godwin and his girlfriend, an Englishwoman new to Africa, drive through the countryside, marveling at the tranquillity of a place so recently scarred by war. At one point they encounter “a ragged crocodile of small black children jogging back from school,” he writes. The sight of this threadbare procession prompts contrary reactions from Godwin and his girlfriend (now his wife):

She sees ill-fitting, hand-me-down clothes and scuffed shoes or the bare feet of kids who walk miles to and from school…. But what I see are functioning schools: pens and paper and near-universal education producing Africa’s most literate population. She compares up, to the First World, where privileges are treated as rights. I compare down, to the apocalyptic Africa that presses in around us, where rights are only for the privileged. After covering wars in Mozambique, Angola, Uganda, Somalia, and Sudan, Zimbabwe feels to me like Switzerland.

As anyone who has spent time in Africa knows, however, such signs of hope can be ephemeral. And so it was in Zimbabwe, where, two years later, President Robert Mugabe, the former guerrilla leader who had already been in power for two decades, set in motion the forces that would bring his country to ruin. It began, as such downward spirals often do, with a naked grab for more power: in 1999, Mugabe rewrote the country’s constitution to extend his rule for another twelve years and called for a national referendum, as required by law, to ratify the new document. He expected an easy victory; instead, he was soundly defeated. Immediately afterward, he singled out the country’s whites for particular vengeance. As Godwin describes it, for those who had been fooled by him, it revealed Mugabe for who he really was: a megalomaniac dictator, seething with resentment toward a vulnerable minority, and willing to take his country to the brink:

President Mugabe gave a speech after the referendum result saying that he was a democrat and would respect the will of the people. But his face was tight with anger as he said it, and his smile was not a real smile; it was a rictus, a barely suppressed snarl…. And you could see that this was a man fueled by thoughts of revenge, that he was boiling with the public humiliation. How could he, who had liberated his people, now be rejected? How could they be so ungrateful? It couldn’t be his own people who had done this (even though 99 percent of the electorate was black); it must have been other people, white people, leading them astray. He would show us…. We had broken the unspoken ethnic contract. We had tried to act like citizens, instead of expatriates, here on sufferance.

Weeks later a group calling itself the War Veterans Association, led by Chenjerai “Hitler” Hunzvi, a Polish-educated physician who had, in fact, never served in Zimbabwe’s war for independence, began invading white-owned farms and driving out, and sometimes murdering, the owners. Godwin, who wrote about the mass evictions for a variety of publications, including National Geographic, describes this government-sanctioned campaign of violence in terrifying detail. Here is his description of the last moments of Martin Olds, one of the first white farmers to be killed as he tried to defend his homestead when it was surrounded at dawn on April 18, 2000, by one hundred “wovits,” as these purported war veterans are nicknamed, armed with machetes and Kalashnikovs:

For three desperate hours, the gun battle rages. Olds was once a soldier; he knows how to defend himself. But he is one against a hundred. He is shot in the leg; he ties it with a makeshift splint and fights on. The attackers lob burning Molotov cocktails through the windows. A neighbor flies over the homestead in a little Cessna and sees the house in flames below, sees the gunmen converging on it, but can do nothing to help. And as the house burns, Olds retreats from room to room, finally to the bathroom, where he fills the tub with water, wets his clothes, and prepares to make his final stand. He returns fire until he runs out of bullets, until he is overcome by the smoke and the heat, and then he climbs out the windows, hands raised.

He is barely outside before the gunmen converge on him, beat him with shovels and rifle butts, stones and machetes…. Police [later] confirm that no arrests have been made.

Page after page, Godwin chronicles the toll from Mugabe’s brutal campaign. Three days before the assault on Olds, David Stevens was abducted from his farm by a gang of armed men who forced him to drink diesel oil, then blasted him in the back and face with a shotgun. Gloria Olds, Martin’s seventy-year-old mother, was riddled with eighteen bullets a few months after her son was killed. Alan Dunn was beaten to death at his front door by men armed with chains, rocks, and tire irons after defeating a ruling-party candidate for a seat on his local council. (The police and army, who were black, seldom, if ever, offered the besieged farmers protection.) By the end of 2000, Mugabe’s “land reform” program had driven more than half of the country’s six thousand white farmers off of their land; two years later 97 percent would be gone.

Farms were dispersed among destitute “wovits” and their families or, more frequently, handed over to Mugabe’s generals, business cronies, and loyalists within the ruling party. In almost all cases, the new owners lacked the agricultural expertise to manage their holdings, and once-profitable farms turned into wastelands. “Irrigation has been destroyed, wells ruined, electricity cut off for nonpayment of bills,” Godwin reported on a visit to the country in 2002. “Some have reverted to medieval agricultural methods on what were, just the year before, highly sophisticated, productive farms.”

The consequences of Mugabe’s scheme are by now well known. Agricultural production, which once earned 40 percent of the country’s foreign exchange and employed 20 percent of the workforce, collapsed. Hard currency reserves shriveled. Social services disintegrated. Crime soared. The average life expectancy—thirty-three—now ranks as one of the lowest in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the country. It was, in short, the swiftest, most precipitous economic decline on record of any country not involved in a war. Throughout it all, Mugabe has remained defiant, blaming Great Britain, America, and the country’s whites for Zimbabwe’s economic crisis, and threatening to kill anyone who dares to challenge him. Most of the white farmers who lost their property have left for other African countries, or gone to Europe or Australia. Few, if any, have expressed interest in returning to their former home.

Godwin is one of several nonfiction writers who have tried to describe the difficulties of growing up white in a changing Africa. They write about a continent in turmoil, when colonial privileges were being swept away by civil war and liberation struggles, and there was deep uncertainty about the place of whites in black-led societies. Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight evoked, with a child’s wonder, the savagery and the intoxicating beauty of her life as the daughter of white farmers deep in the bush of wartime Rhodesia, and the disorienting changes after white rule ended. Godwin’s previous memoir, Mukiwa (“white boy” in Shona, the language of Zimbabwe’s majority tribe), described his own Rhodesian upbringing and his unwilling conscription into the army of Ian Smith’s white-minority racist regime. Aidan Hartley, in The Zanzibar Chest, writes of his Kenyan childhood and his early career as a young wire-service reporter in East Africa, observing post-colonial societies as they disintegrated. He describes soaring over the African landscape and seeing “the silhouette of our little aircraft ripple over pulverized cities, refugee camps, the acetylene white flashes of anti-aircraft fire.”

As these writers come of age, they often experience a confusion of identities, caught between their coddled white upbringings and their acute awareness of the human suffering around them. Often they seek means of atoning for the sins committed by their colonial ancestors: in Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart, a scion of South Africa’s white-racist Afrikaners rejects his birthright and immerses himself in the anti-apartheid struggle. Peter Godwin, as a young human rights lawyer, then an investigative reporter in the newly emergent black nation of Zimbabwe, exposes massacres carried out by Mugabe’s army in the early 1980s against the supporters of Joshua Nkomo, his main political rival. Yet these writers cannot shake their white settler identities, or the outsider status that leaves them feeling both guilty and vulnerable to dictators willing to play the race card when they deem it politically expedient.

The burden of growing up white in Rhodesia is perhaps heavier than in most other African countries. Southern Rhodesia was carved out of the bush north of the Limpopo River by Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company. In 1888, Rhodes’s emissaries struck a deal with the paramount chief of Matabeleland, a region in the west and southwest of present-day Zimbabwe, obtaining mineral rights to the territory in perpetuity in return for a monthly lease of one hundred pounds, plus one thousand Martini-Henry breech-loading rifles, one hundred thousand bullets, and a gunboat on the Zambezi River. Soon, however, the company simply confiscated the land, distributed it to thousands of white farmers, and herded the roughly 600,000 “native” Africans onto so-called Tribal Trust Lands. A new wave of immigrants from Europe after World War II, including Godwin’s parents, squeezed the expanding black population further. By the time civil war broke out in the early 1970s against the white-racist government of Ian Smith (who had unilaterally declared Rhodesia independent from Great Britain in 1965), whites made up one percent of Rhodesia’s population—but controlled more than half of the land.

As a leader of the guerrilla forces that defeated Smith, Robert Mugabe acquired a broad popular following, and in 1980, his party won the elections and he became prime minister; a new government was installed in the capital, Salisbury, which was renamed Harare. Whites, fearing that Zimbabwe would follow the pattern of other newly independent black nations—land seizures, nationalization of white property—began fleeing the country. (Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight contains a memorable scene at her elite whites-only boarding school in Harare: the morning after the blacks come to power, she shows up to find the classrooms empty, and white parents hastily packing their children’s belongings in the dormitory to spirit them across the border to apartheid South Africa.) But Mugabe, prodded by President Samora Machel of Mozambique—whose own country had been stripped and left destitute by its fleeing Portuguese population—traveled across Zimbabwe, appealing to the white population to stay and help rebuild the country. Most agreed, and over the next fifteen years, Zimbabwe developed the fastest-growing economy in Africa.

The country’s six thousand white-owned commercial farms were the engines of the new nation’s prosperity. White farmers employed nearly 40 percent of the black population, and, although a de facto system of apartheid remained intact on their farms, more enlightened whites paid their workers good wages and built schools and health centers on their properties. Hard currency poured into Zimbabwe through agricultural exports—mostly tobacco—tourism, and minerals. This newfound wealth allowed the black-majority government (whites still served in the country’s parliament and in the judiciary) to invest in schools, roads, and other infrastructure, bring in Western goods, and otherwise modernize the country.

Godwin doesn’t dispute that a major land-redistribution plan was necessary to correct a century of injustice. But he blames the country’s failure to do so earlier on Mugabe as much as on the country’s white-racist past. A British-funded voluntary redistribution program did turn over 40 percent of white-owned land to blacks before it disbanded in the 1990s—done in, Godwin says, by Mugabe’s lack of interest in the program and by the British government’s disgust over Mugabe’s channeling much of the property to well-heeled loyalists. By that point, land redistribution had become a low priority for most Zimbabweans, thanks to urbanization, widespread literacy, and growing prosperity. A survey by the South Africa–based Helen Suzman Foundation revealed that only 9 percent of Zimbabweans considered such reform a key issue. Moreover, the disparities of wealth could no longer be laid entirely at the doorstep of the previous, white-racist regime: 78 percent of land-holding whites, Godwin writes, had purchased their land after Zimbabwe’s independence.

Mugabe’s real aim, of course, has not been to right colonial injustices, but to keep himself in power, whatever the cost. And white farmers are hardly his only victims. In 2000 Mugabe faced a growing challenge from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a broad-based opposition party led by a charismatic former nickel miner and trade unionist, Morgan Tsvangirai. (It received some of its funding from the country’s white commercial farmers, which also helps to explain Mugabe’s anger toward them.) In the runup to the parliamentary elections that year, young brigands from Mugabe’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) attacked anyone affiliated with the MDC—gouging out eyes, maiming and murdering the party’s supporters. After it came close to winning a parliamentary majority that year, the harassment of the opposition intensified. Tsvangirai himself was charged with treason, a crime punishable by death. He was acquitted in 2004, but the MDC has never been able to regroup.

The most poignant sections of Godwin’s book are devoted to his parents, elderly and ailing British émigrés who, when the book opens, are living in post-colonial comfort in a leafy Harare suburb. Their 1950s house, with a Dutch-style mansard roof, is surrounded by a “fecund acre of garden” dominated by a Moorish-style swimming pool. Both are representatives of the white liberals who believe in giving something back to Africa. George Godwin is a retired engineering consultant for the Zimbabwean government; his wife commutes to work each day at a government hospital in Harare, where she ministers to victims of a spreading AIDS epidemic—caused, in large part, by Zimbabwean soldiers returning home infected from the war Mugabe was fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, another of his misguided adventures.

Then Zimbabwe’s economy implodes, George Godwin’s pension becomes worthless, the family’s savings shrivel, and the Godwins’ lives unravel. It begins with luxuries: the pool, neglected because chemicals are either unavailable or too expensive, “lies green and still and opaque, its pump quiet, with a slimy watermark around its rim,” Godwin writes. Beef dinners give way to a few slivers of bread with cabbage and minced pork, and meals are reduced from three to two a day. The physical deterioration of the aging couple—Godwin’s mother suffers from sciatica and a disintegrating hip, his father from emphysema and heart disease—sends Godwin on a frantic search for medicine, and then for a decent nursing home, in a country where even basic commodities like gasoline and sugar are becoming harder to come by. (Godwin finds himself collecting the nylon stretch socks from his fellow passengers on a flight to Harare, to hold the dressings of his father’s diseased feet in place, because it’s impossible to find anything suitable in Zimbabwe.) The Godwins’ trusted housekeeper, Mavis, shows up at their house accompanied by two government-backed goons who accuse the Godwins of having cheated her out of her proper salary for years. Realizing that her accomplices are shaking him down, George Godwin furiously hands over “a dozen bricks” of near-worthless Zimbabwean banknotes, and watches as the thugs divide the loot between themselves and the housekeeper. Godwin’s reporter’s eye is particularly effective as he hones in on the details of his parents’ degradation:

I offer to make them lunch, but I find that the refrigerator is nearly empty…. It contains half a lemon, hard and dry with age, and little portions of leftovers and scraps: two hard-boiled eggs on a saucer, a few shavings of stiff ham—Dad buys only six thin slices at a time now—and bread crusts and cheese rind saved for the dogs. My mother has also stored a small bag of cornmeal in there, which I toss out as it is mildewed and inedible.

And here he is describing the desperate lengths to which his father goes to hang on to his last valuable possession, an aging car, in the face of daily thefts and depredations:

He parks the car right beneath his bedroom window, as close as possible to the wall. He manages this by hanging a tennis ball from the eaves: when the ball touches the windshield, the bumper is an inch from the wall. After Dad switches off the engine, he turns the radio to full volume, so that even if someone breaks open the gate; neutralizes the car alarm; pries off the gear lock, the accelerator lock, and the crook lock on the steering wheel; bypasses the engine kill and hot-wires the ignition—the radio will immediately burst into life at full blast and, he hopes, wake him up.

Perhaps the least successful part of Godwin’s book is a subplot that he introduces early: the mystery surrounding his father’s identity. When the book opens, Godwin knows little about George Godwin’s early life: he is, Godwin assumes, a born-and-bred Englishman, “this Anglo-African in a safari suit and desert boots.” But during the course of his repeated visits to the family home the younger Godwin learns the truth: George Godwin was born Kazimierz Jerzy Goldfarb, a Polish Jew, who escaped ahead of the Nazi onslaught (most of the Goldfarb family perished at Auschwitz), joined the Polish exile forces, and fought the Nazis in France before emigrating to England. The revelation that this white Zimbabwean is in fact a deracinated Central European Jew adds a layer of irony to the Godwin family saga—decades after escaping the Nazis, George Godwin again finds himself a member of a persecuted minority—and it’s fascinating to watch Godwin try to access his newly discovered heritage. Still, Godwin’s reconstruction of his father’s life before his emigration to Africa lacks the immediacy of his on-the-ground reporting from Zimbabwe.

But this is a quibble. Godwin seems to capture every nuance of life in this beleaguered land: the bundles of near-worthless banknotes carted around in rucksacks and shopping bags, the “threadbare white shirt” and “sad, patient face” of an immigration official at Harare’s increasingly derelict airport, the feces-splattered tombstone that marks the final resting place of his sister, Jain, who was shot dead in 1978, at age twenty-eight, by jittery Rhodesian soldiers—another accidental casualty of war. In one of his most moving passages, Godwin describes the profound discomfort felt by those who can leave from such places at will—something anyone who has ever covered a war has experienced. In Godwin’s case, the distress is intensified because he is running away from his own country, and his own family:

…As we soar away into a crisp, cloudless sky, I feel the profound guilt of those who can escape. I am soaring away from my fragile, breathless father with his tentative hold on life. I’m soaring away from my mother, who still lies in her hospital bed surrounded by wounded demonstrators…. The marchers for democracy are being shot at and teargassed, and I am flying away from it all. A nation is bleeding while I sit here cosseted with my baked trout and crispy bacon, my flute of Laurent-Perrier brut champagne, my choice of movies and my hot face towel….

I am abandoning my post. Like my father before me, I am rejecting my own identity. I am committing cultural treason.

Nearly four years after Godwin ends his narrative (with the death and cremation of his father in early 2004), the degradation and the suffering continue in Zimbabwe. Eighty-five percent of the population is jobless. Most schools and hospitals have collapsed. The rate of inflation reached 7,500 percent last June; the same month, the government declared a price freeze and arrested thousands of merchants who defied it. Production came to a standstill. The United Nations now estimates that some four million Zimbabweans—about one third of the population—will face food shortages or famine by the first quarter of 2008.

In September, I telephoned my old friend David Coltart, a white human rights lawyer and an opposition member of parliament, at his home in the southern city of Bulawayo. Coltart had been driving around in his car all morning, searching for something to eat, he told me, but the four supermarkets and two food wholesalers he’d visited had been stripped bare. “There is not a single loaf of bread, not a donut, no rice, nothing [in the city],” he said. Coltart still had his car, hard currency, access to black-market gasoline, and connections that could keep his family supplied with necessities. But most Zimbabweans were subsisting on vegetables they grew themselves on tiny plots, or on handouts sent by relatives who had fled to Botswana and South Africa. “People are hungry, frightened and depressed,” an opposition activist had written to Coltart after a week-long tour of rural areas. “Traders on the roads are selling fruits only, no cooking oil, soap, or maize meal. Bus stops are full of people waiting for the few buses that still ply these roads.”

Yet Mugabe’s hold on power remains secure—at least for the near future. The Movement for Democratic Change is weak and divided along tribal lines, and Mugabe’s control over the security forces remains unchallenged. Top officers are handsomely rewarded with precious hard currency, fat bonuses, and other perks: rank-and-file troops are kept in line through strict discipline and rewards such as gasoline, cooking oil, and food—basic necessities that remain largely unavailable to the general population. As I discovered during my travels through Zimbabwe last year, people are far too frightened to take to the streets in the mass civil action campaign that Morgan Tsvangirai and other opposition leaders have called for. Mugabe has threatened publicly to have Tsvangirai killed if his supporters hold public demonstrations against the regime. Early this year Tsvangirai was badly beaten and had his skull fractured by government goons—a message meant as much for ordinary Zimbabweans as for him. “We know we’ll be killed,” was a refrain I heard everywhere from schoolteachers, trade unionists, political activists, and housewives.

The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Mugabe and his cronies that have frozen their overseas bank accounts and keep them from traveling abroad; but the measures have been largely ineffective. Many African leaders continue to rally around Mugabe, championing him as a living symbol of black liberation. Thabo Mbeki, the president of Zimbabwe’s powerful neighbor, South Africa, has refrained from publicly criticizing him, and has saved Zimbabwe from total paralysis by providing the government with fuel, power, and occasional dollops of cash.

The most courageous voice of opposition to Mugabe’s rule, the Roman Catholic archbishop Pius Ncube, called recently for a British invasion of Zimbabwe to unseat the dictator. That the regime’s principal opponent sees outside intervention as the only hope of deliverance is a measure of how cowed and beaten down its people have become. Ncube himself was the victim earlier this year of an apparent sting operation carried out by Mugabe’s pervasive Central Intelligence Organization. Photos were circulated showing Ncube having sexual relations with the wife of a Zimbabwean military officer, undermining his moral authority and forcing him to resign.

Mugabe recently announced his intention to run again in the 2008 presidential election, putting to rest rumors that he would retire to the $15 million villa that Serbian architects built for him in Harare’s northern suburbs. Last year, Jonathan Moyo, Mugabe’s former minister of information and a confidant for many years, told me that Mugabe “believes the people are still with him, that the only ones who do not support him are those in urban areas who come into contact with Western propaganda—the BBC, CNN. He lives in his own world.”

According to recent reports, international investors have been buying property in Zimbabwe, calculating that the economy has become so poor that it will start to grow again. They may have a long wait.* The government controls all food distribution in rural areas, and has a long tradition of ballot-box stuffing, fraud, and intimidation. When I talked to him recently, Coltart, the white human rights attorney, did not rule out that at some point, the army and the police might rise against Mugabe, or that rivals within the ruling party would oust him in a coup d’état. But with the opposition fragmented, the security forces apparently ready to use their guns, average citizens thoroughly cowed, and Mugabe still able to count on the support of his neighbors, Coltart believed that Zimbabwe was nowhere near that point yet. “If an election were held tomorrow,” Coltart told me, “Mugabe would certainly win.”

—November 20, 2007

  1. *

    Investors Go to Treacherous Places Seeking Returns,” The Wall Street Journal, November 17, 2007.

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