Zimbabwe is kenge

J.D.F. Jones

  • Under the Skin by David Caute
    Allen Lane, 447 pp, £14.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 7139 1357 6
  • The K-Factor by David Caute
    Joseph, 216 pp, £8.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 7181 2260 7

‘What will you tell your children?’ asks the Zipra guerrilla as he says goodbye to Caute and vanishes back into the bush. (The Zimbabwean handshake: hands, thumbs, then hands again.) What did you do in the war, Daddy? Tell us, what was it like?

It seems so long ago. Zimbabwe has just celebrated the third anniversary of its independence. Comrade Robert Mugabe rules. Ministers have been fired, reinstated, shuffled sideways. The British have made an integrated national army out of the two guerrilla forces and the North Koreans have invited themselves to train a separate praetorian guard. The IMF has been reluctantly admitted. The Development Plan, long delayed, has been published, seen to be a nonsense, and stands gospel on the shelf. Landless peasants have occupied farms, been tolerated as squatters for a time, and have now mostly been thrown off. The whites have ‘gapped it’ to the south in large numbers (an abbreviation of ‘taken the gap’, a homegrown metaphor borrowed from the rugby field). The South Africans have meddled, because Mugabe to them is the Antichrist and a successful black government cannot be endured, least of all on the north bank of the Limpopo. But it wasn’t Pretoria’s mischief that caused Zimbabwe to split open along the fundamental tribal divide of Shona and Ndebele, as everyone forecast though many deceived themselves that it would not happen. Dissidents; drought; recession. The place must sound a mess.

It has indeed changed. Today the school-children wearing ‘bashers’ (panama hats) in the streets of Harare are black as well as white. State television urges us ‘Towards a New Social Order’ where previously stern-faced white women would lecture us about security. (South Africa is invariably on Zimbabwean television described as ‘racist’, which is accurate but repetitious in a news bulletin: it is not true, though often reported, that the weather forecast speaks of a high-pressure area moving northwards from ‘racist South Africa’.) The Prime Minister’s entourage speeds through town with sirens screaming, which was never Ian Smith’s style. There are soldiers everywhere, which was always the case. The Bulgarians have a long-running and unattended exhibition at the same National Gallery where the wonderful art of Shona sculpture was rediscovered twenty years ago. The shelves in the shops are often empty, as they have been since UDI in 1965. Ministers sometimes do or say foolish things, which is nothing new, but the new bureaucrats have not yet learned their predecessors’ competence. There is too much evidence of torture in the security world, and now as then, the Government does not appear to care unduly. Except in dangerous Matabeleland the commercial farmers (white) are surprisingly cheery despite the worst drought of the century; the communal-land farmers (black) are less able to cope. No one goes to Beira any more for a ‘continental’ holiday, but Troutbeck and the Inyanga Mountains are once again favoured, though you share the view with the Koreans. It is agreed by all that the Zimbabwe Ruins were built by blacks, not – as Mr Smith’s supporters insisted – by Medieval white transients. The sun shines all the time. It is a remarkably beautiful country.

The white liberals are as few as ever, and as ever in despair. At white social gatherings, everyone drinks like a fish and there are even more racist jokes than before. Example of a Rhodesian joke: ‘Why is the black power sign a clenched fist?’ (Demonstration of a clenched fist.) Answer: ‘Because if it was a normal salute’ (demonstration of an open palm), ‘they’d fall out of the trees!’ White jokes in Rhodesia-Zimbabwe have always been much more racist than in ‘racist South Africa’. Nevertheless, multi-racial life is growing, precariously and slowly, but growing. And some Rhodesian standards live on: the towns and highways are still manicured to a degree rarely found elsewhere in Africa. ‘Watch the state of the rest-rooms in the service stations,’ an old Rhodie counselled me. I can assure him that Zimbabwe may or may not be on its way to a new social order but standards are still holding up.

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