In the Pit of Africa

Robert Mugabe
Robert Mugabe; drawing by David Levine

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.