I was asked to take part in a panel discussion the other day on a local radio station with the subject being the role and behaviour of the local white community. They had asked several people to come and represent the community and got no takers but I have a policy of not avoiding such opportunities.
I am hardly representative of the white community in Zimbabwe as my personal political views have been at variance with the views of the majority of whites in Zimbabwe for many years. But I am white, I am an African and I and my family live in Zimbabwe.
What had inspired the programme was a recent move by some 3000 white Zimbabweans to get together to demand the lifting of sanctions on the leadership of ZANU- PF in Zimbabwe as well as certain restrictions by the USA on financial transactions.
The producer/presenter wanted to know what had inspired this move. I was joined by the mother of two boys (black) on the programme whose children went to a local, exclusive, private school and had experienced racism and bullying at the school.
Nearly all Zimbabweans are migrants – the Shona people moving here after about 1200 AD, the Ndebele arriving in strength after about 1830, the whites from about 1700 (Portuguese and others) and the Anglophile migrations starting after about 1850 in the form of missionaries, hunters and adventurers. We all come from somewhere else.
In my own case my great grandfather arrived in the Eastern Cape in 1867 as a Baptist missionary – a great character who made an impact on South Africa during his life. Then my own grandfather who in turn became a prominent citizen, playing an important role in the South African government first as Chief Magistrate of the Union of South Africa, then as the Chairman of many important State agencies.
In the great depression my father was forced to relocate from Cape Town to Bulawayo in Rhodesia in order to find work. I was born in Bulawayo several years later, my mother having emigrated from Canada.
White Africans in Africa come from many parts of the world. In South Africa the majority has Dutch and French origins, later migrations brought English settlers and these were followed by German settlers.
In Zimbabwe 40 per cent of the settlers came from Scotland, another significant minority were Afrikaners from South Africa. In Mozambique and Angola, Portuguese were the dominant settler community.
In Kenya, British settlers dominated although most of them regarded England as “home” unlike the settlers in Southern Africa who rapidly came to regard themselves as nationalist and loyal to their adopted States.
When Independence came, the different countries with a significant settler population adopted different policies.
In Kenya they were dealt with, compensated and by and large withdrew. In the Portuguese colonies the decision was taken to drive them out and this resulted in a massive exodus from Angola and Mozambique despite “assimilation”.
In Zimbabwe the settlers were dislodged by a military campaign supported by international pressure and following Independence in 1980, the white population declined rapidly from a peak of about 280 000 in 1977 to barely 50 000 today.
In South Africa the exodus has not been so rapid but the trend is the same, as white South Africans have left to seek greener pastures in other parts of the world.
What remains after these shifts in demographics is about 6 million white people of many different origins, but all the product of the colonial history of the continent and the historical process that resulted in their families putting down roots in the soil of Africa.
The depth of such roots varies from the 5 centuries of whites in South Africa, roughly four centuries of Portuguese settlement and the 150 years of white settler activity in Zimbabwe.
Because they were dominant during the colonial period, these whites often became an elite owning land and other assets and dominating the economies of their different adopted countries.
In South Africa the most powerful record of the link between political power and economic influence can be seen in the way the Afrikaner community in South Africa used the assumption of power in 1949, to back Afrikaner economic interests in the competition for space and opportunity. The effect can be seen today in that many Afrikaner controlled corporations are now global players in banking, media, consumer goods and services.
When the process of political change stripped the whites of political power, they adopted different attitudes towards the new dispensation. The Afrikaners decided to opt out of direct participation in the political process but to strengthen their position to influence those in power and protect their community interests.
The strategy has been highly successful and as a result they are not seen as a threat to the new black political elites. Liberal English speaking South Africans have maintained their political participation through opposition parties and are seen as a threat.
In Zimbabwe the whites withdrew from the political arena, choosing to pursue their economic interests and maintaining their social structures. This resulted in the emergence of white dominated schools and clubs and perpetuated the insular character of the white community.
Behind these walls racist attitudes were perpetuated although this has not been a problem as the new black elite has used their control of the levers of power to swiftly establish dominance. Where it has been a problem is that it has left what remains of white interests vulnerable to politically motivated activity to marginalize or even seize assets and market share.
In 2000 when the white farming community, who had survived the first twenty years of Independence rather well, decided to vote against the ruling party in the referendum and then in the election that followed, they invited retribution which was not long in coming. In the ensuing decade virtually all white farmers have been forcibly dispossessed of their assets, many are now destitute or living outside the country in dire straits.
For many whites of the next generation, these historical problems of the communities they come from are a hindrance and a burden that they hardly understand. The generation that follows them, even more so, they have black friends, speak local languages and have never known a segregated society.
They are impatient to get on with their lives and want to make their way in the new world that they find themselves in. The white community in Zimbabwe may be growing slowly again and many young whites who have been abroad are coming home to try and make a life for themselves.
Many are lost in their new environment. The world that they grew up in has disappeared and they are unable to adjust to the new values and cultures that now dominate their societies. But somehow that famous bug that bites everyone who comes to Africa, remains in all of us and holds us to our different countries like a magnet.
When I visited London several years ago with Morgan Tsvangirai, I was asked to arrange for him to speak to a group of young whites from southern Africa. We arrived at the hall to find about 700 young people waiting for us. When Morgan told them that they were wanted at home and would get their citizenship back on arrival, there were tears all over the hall. He said to me afterwards, “I had no idea these young whites loved their country like that”.
If we choose to make Africa our home, we must learn that we need to earn the right to be called Africans and to be fully accepted as citizens with all that that entails. That is not an easy process, but it’s one that we all have to go through if we are to find our place in the sun.
This was not easy for my generation, it was easier for my children and I hope their children will find that, at last, they are really at “home” and are accepted in every sense of the word.
1st March 2014