Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe; drawing by David Levine

“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.

Some Rhodesian Fronters were very interested in this clause. With ramrod decorum they approached it exclusively from the unexpressed experience of the Master and the Madam with Boys and Girls. If the servant’s complaint of unfair dismissal was in fact itself dismissed, would the exonerated employer be compensated for his time spent at the hearing, and the working time lost by other servants in his employ who might have wasted days giving evidence?

The black MPs, equally tight-but-tocked, concealed their sympathies for the smarts and indignities of the backyard in an insistence that the minister’s raising of the status-less servant to a worker with rights (and a minimum wage!) like any other worker not be reduced by amendments. Surely there was no one, even of the doctors, academics, and other university-educated people among the black men and women seated in that House, some member of whose family had not cleared away the white man’s scum.” (The phrase is Ezekiel Mphahlele’s—the black South African writer.)

The other mansion in which I spent my time was a real one, a private house from the Rhodesian Gone With The Wind era.

“The Ranche House” stands on a ridge in what is now a Salisbury suburb but must have held the sovereignty of its original owner’s eye over virgin grassland all the way to the hills of rock and the msasa trees that turn as maples do, but in spring not autumn. The garden with its formal perspective of wide shallow steps is still there. The single-story white house spreads even more widely than climbing the steps had prepared me for—when it was built, for those for whom it was built, there was all the space in the world, for the taking. There was money to observe grace and style; on either side of the simple farmhouse gable a whim to place vents in the form of baroque ox-eye windows could be indulged. It is a very lovely façade. A pity architectural beauty often has its political implications….

I don’t know the full story of the house’s internal adaptation through Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 and the seven years of war that resulted; but its last occupation in the style and political philosophy for which it was built was surely that of Mr. Justice Robert Tredgold, chief justice of the Central African Federation of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, and Nyasaland. With the breakaway of Nyasaland as the new country of Malawi, this federation became a cartographical error almost as soon as it was drawn on the map, and by the time Northern Rhodesia became Zambia in 1964 seemed as distant and presumptuous a European piece of African map-making as the Berlin Conference of 1885 which shared Africa out among European powers. I gather that for some years The Ranche House has been used by various educational institutions; there are barrack classrooms, and a hall and canteen have been built where, by now, young black men and women talk French over their traditional African lunch of stew and putu (maize mash, like polenta and just as delicious) because they are doing an intensive course in that language as part of their training to staff Zimbabwe’s new diplomatic missions abroad.

When I was there Ranche House was also giving hospitality to a “media workshop.” I was one of a collection of twenty or so unlikely characters who could only have been brought together by the search for an author like Mugabe. The blacks included conscientiously note-taking young men from the ruling party, public relations officers for ZANU-PF; journalists from the government information service, announcer/ producers from the Zimbabwe (state) Broadcasting Corporation and TV, journalists from the principal newspapers, a research fellow with a film star’s face from the literature department of the University of Zimbabwe. These tame titles in fact designated, among others, the two men sitting behind me who until a few months ago were regional commanders of the guerrilla forces, and a tall young man with the strong Semitic nose that Arab slavers seem to have left behind in their raids on Central Africa, who joined the liberation army straight from a rural school and spent part of the war in Egypt studying media at Cairo University.

Those black members of our workshop who had not been freedom fighters nearly all were veterans of periods of political detention in the white man’s prisons; each curriculum vitae listed the career of being “inside” if not “outside” (infiltrating with the guerrilla forces), and military terms slipped into tea-break chatter—people would talk about waiting to be redeployed rather than about looking for a job. One of the ZANLA commanders wore a short-sleeved safari jacket of a vaguely military green for the first few days, and several copper bracelets looping over a watch of the military hardware kind on his elegant, iron-black arm; but he appeared in a perfectly hung “redeployed” three-piece suit on the final day.

The white participants at the workshop consisted mainly of those Old Africa Hands, often in the para-journalistic occupations, who move from territory to territory, serving governments white and black, oiled with a professionalism that allows them to pass unharmed from hand to hand, from colonial to black capitalist to black socialist states, from democracies to dictatorships and vice versa. Here they were again: among a Press and Liaison Officer for Ministers of Government, an Editorial Training Officer for a newspaper group (still owned by a South African company), and an awesomely titled Senior Information Officer for All Media, was a jolly fellow who once managed a hotel I stayed at twenty-five years ago in Zambia. There was another—a Graham Greene rather than Pirandello character, this one, with a comedian’s long jaw, a sharp regional humor from England, and close-to-the-nose bright eyes—whose previous job was that of head of President Kamuzu Banda’s secret police in neighboring conservative Malawi.

Yet with the exception of two irascible Germans vying in jealous whispers for the privilege of organizing us all (the workshop was sponsored by the West German Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which seems close to the Social Democratic Party), there was no acrimony in this old mansion. Never, in six days of discussion, was a breath of the old hates exhaled in the House of Assembly. People addressed one another as “comrade” and whether initially this was for some ideological carpetbaggers an insurance while for other participants an affirmation of political convictions, the title turned out to be an ordinary expression of comradely feeling that grew among all. Our discussions ranged with a charmed life over minefield subjects, from the point of view both of color and party differences. ZANU-PF men in broadcasting and TV debated respectfully with people like Ronald Mpofu, a middle-aged individualist who complained that zealous ZANU-PF Party men among radio announcers slip into their disc-jockey patter what he called “honeymoon slogans” plugging the Party. Stanley Mhondoro, the man who had gone to war straight from school, counseled: “As a nation we must learn to distinguish Party matters from national issues.” When the subject of offensive terminology was raised by the young literary academic Musaemura Munya, opinions were not identifiable by color; there was agreement that terms like kraal, whose literal meaning is a place where cattle are confined but which has been used throughout colonial English-speaking Africa to denote the homes of rural black people, should be dropped by the media, since men in independent Africa are not regarded as cattle.

The workshop’s main business was with ways and means to open the minds of a long-neglected population not only to information but more importantly to education of a kind that provides the means to assess information intelligently. On this question, a few Old Africa Hands of a very different kind were raptly listened to. Alexander Katz, an American chartered accountant who many years ago quit the United States as a result of the McCarthy hearings and came to live in what was then Rhodesia, spoke about “the colonialism of the professions.” In a colonial regime, “the settlers know everything; the people nothing.” In the colonialism of the professions, which too easily survives the overthrow of colonialism, “the professionals know everything; the ordinary public nothing.”

He proceeded to go through the annual report of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting and TV Corporation, pointing out how little this revealed of how public money had been spent during the Smith regime, and bluntly asking whether Zimbabweans were going to be intimidated by accountants’ jargon into accepting a comparable state of ignorance about what were now their own public affairs. Ruth Weiss, an English journalist (once a child refugee, in South Africa, from Nazi Germany) having the status of foul weather friend of Robert Mugabe himself, could speak some plain truths about interdependence and dependency among the states of southern Africa.

But the issue that contained all others was always there, and discussion faced with considerable if not complete honesty those sheer and slippery walls as it came up against them: will the ethics of the media be decided in the interests of the nation, or the truth?

Even as I write, I don’t know whether to put the “interests of the nation” in quotes, for that, too, is perhaps significant of a personal ethical bias…. For a people just emerged from colonial rule as victors of a seven-year war in which they had to destroy their own homes as well as those of the people they were fighting, Lenin’s dreadful 1920 dictum may seem the voice of reason and right: “Why should freedom of speech be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized?”

Time and again, the quasi-divine dispensation of “doing what it believes to be right” was a syntactical presence in our discussion, if not an open statement; it will be hard for Zimbabwe not simply to compensate fiercely for what it knows to be wrong: the Smith government’s absolute control of the media in exclusive promotion of views and information favorable to justification for white minority rule. But always among us was some black hand beckoning for the chairman’s permission to raise the question—how inalienable is a government’s right to believe itself to be right? What ethic silences criticism? The minister of information. Dr. Nathan Shamuyarira, a former newspaper editor, abolished all the white Rhodesian government’s restrictions on reporting and on the entry of foreign newsmen as soon as the Mugabe government took power. Some of the latter, he feels, have abused their welcome by sensational reporting, particularly of minor remarks as policy statements. When we all parted, it looked as if a Press Council may be set up as a result of the Ranche House workshop. The problem it will have to deal with is not, as the outside world might be quick to conclude, simply to preserve freedom of the press, but rather to create it within a continent where it scarcely exists, in a new country struggling with a past that, though both Western and white-dominated, alienated most people from any such tradition.

During the week I was in Zimbabwe the country became the 153rd member of the United Nations. Zimbabwe television still runs genteel British middle-class series (“The Pallisers” has followed “The Forsyte Saga”) and cute American children’s programs suited to the taste of the majority of people who can afford sets—whites to whom England is not home and the US is foreign, but who have no indigenous culture. On the night of the event we saw Robert Mugabe, a black man, the prime minister of the country we were viewing from, being smiled on beneath the flags of the international community of nations. His American hosts beamed with particular emotion in Washington. But he came home with nothing substantial. He said that President Jimmy Carter was “well-disposed to giving Zimbabwe more aid, perhaps not in the near future, but in the long term.”

Indeed, not in this term; not until after the American presidential election; and then will money be forthcoming only if Ronald Reagan does not become president in Carter’s place?

Seen from Salisbury, there was something shameful about those banquets, ringing speeches, fraternal handclasps far away. What does pomp signify, if not practical help to enable the new human entity to survive?

Mugabe came home with very little to a country which, though burgeoning with potential for world investors in minerals such as chrome and iron, agricultural products such as tobacco and sugar, even ethanol (fuel from maize), has now emerged from an economically devastating war and is enduring a drought that for two years has compounded the agricultural aspect of that devastation. Above all, Zimbabwe is facing the expectations of 30,000 freedom fighters who won the country’s independence and are now waiting idle in camps, waiting to live the normal life they fought for. At the Lancaster House talks, the Patriotic Front Alliance agreed to compensate “dispossessed” white farmers on the condition that Britain and the West would provide the money to buy whatever land is needed to meet the requirements of black Zimbabweans. The amount discussed was between 560 and 800 million Rhodesian (then) dollars, and Lord Carrington indicated that an African Development Bank would be established with Britain supplying the initial capital and encouraging wider Western support. The metamorphosis of freedom fighters into citizens at peace is directly related to the question of land; it was envisaged that most would cultivate the land under a project called Operation Seed. But these promises from the West seem in danger of becoming procrastination. Of the total of $250 million in international aid available this year, so far the United States has given only $22 million, and President Carter’s statement in August to Robert Mugabe seems to bring into doubt the $25-$30 million the US promised for the fiscal year starting in October 1980, as well as the $20-$25 million for housing guarantees now under discussion with the US. Of the £750 million promised by Britain over three years, only £7 million has been given.

Zimbabwe’s people cannot wait for their country’s potential to be realized; Robert Mugabe cannot uphold through an indeterminate transition period those civilized standards that the West now has high hopes of from him in its turnabout from regarding him as a terrorist. The West must put adequate aid into the country immediately, not merely because it was promised by Kissinger, or pledged by the Lancaster House agreement, but because to ditch Mugabe now by talk of helping him some tomorrow is to make it impossible for him to attempt what those UN celebratory smiles and handshakes were surely acknowledging—his “bid to establish a non-racial society,…civil liberties,…and a consolidating factor in all southern Africa.”

This Issue

November 6, 1980