Black Africa’s White Dilemma
March 25, 1984
Report by Peter Godwin


When Prince Charles visits Zimbabwe this weekend he will find a nation still divided four years after independence. But now the divisions run deepest within the dwindling white community between young permissive trendies and fervent 'born-again' evangelists, between those who prefer to be African rather than European and those who can't wait for a stamp on their emigration applications.

Near Harare, the capital, the war is thoroughly over; and the first youthful signs of catching up with the world appear.

But in the south black “dissidents” and avenging soldiers still shoot it out; and 12-year-olds go armed.

At the Morris Depot Mounted Unit, police in ceremonial uniform have the same impeccable turnout as in the days of white Rhodesian supremacy.

In the more relaxed air of Harare, minor liberations flourish: Quentin Smith, 16, may be Zimbabwe's first genuine punk.

But the triumphs and horrors of the wider liberation are not easily forgotten: at Heroes' Acre a presidential guard on the memorial is less relaxed than it looks.

Four years ago in April, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the man white Rhodesians loved to hate, came to power in Zimbabwe in a last blaze of  colonial pageantry. Watching as the the new nation's multicoloured flag, complete with red star, was slowly hoisted, the whites joked that it looked like a deckchair cover. Incredulously, they watched as the ragtag collection of guerrillas that had brought Mugabe to power poured into the assembly points. "We never actually lost the war," they were quick to assert. "Not on the ground, that is." Annoyingly, the jubilant guerrillas behaved like victors anyway.

At the crow of the cockerel (the winning party's symbol) generations of values, standards and conventions were made obsolete. Slowly at first, and then with gathering haste, white settler society began to adapt to life in the third world. Under the rallying cry of "national transformation," the government went about dismantling their Rhodesian inheritance.

Accepting that the country would no longer be run for the principal benefit of less than 5 per cent of its population came hard to them. The transformation of "their" television and radio from an instrument of crass Rhodesian Front propaganda to one of crass ZANU(PF) propaganda horrified them - but hardly more than having to call prominent blacks "comrade". A vengeful relishing of the mistakes of the new, Africanised civil service brought its own price in inconvenience. Those with unbendable prejudices (the most furiously racist of them being post-UDI immigrants) began to leave for South Africa. There they spread horror stories about Zimbabwe and, in the recent South African referendum on giving Coloureds and Indians the vote, flocked to vote for the right-wing parties behind such banners as "Rhodesia voted yes - vote no!"

Now the new state of Zimbabwe has managed to denude itself of most of its whites. Down from a population of 250,000 in the heyday of Rhodesia to little over 100,000 now, whites are struggling to remain a viable community. Those who have stayed have retreated from public life into the laager of sports club, home entertaining and the video.

But in a remarkable display of white mental acrobatics, Mugabe, so recently the "terrorist leader", has been quickly sanitised and has become "Muggers", "Bob", or even "Uncle Bob", carefully shielded from blame for unpalatable government actions which are, naturally, carried out without his knowledge or, at most, are forced upon him by more radical colleagues whom he will soon overcome.

All this has had its effect on young whites, at last breaking away from the austere mental habits imposed by 14 years of UDI. A sort of "style" has appeared. White youths are discarding their beefy shorts and "troopie" T-shirts. And in a country in which until recently "gay" meant happy, the gay community has started to come out.

Twenty miles from Harare city centre, hundreds of young people gather at an old farmhouse recently converted into a club. The style of "Hard Core", as it calls itself, is King's Road tropical. Frequented by trendies, gays, a sprinkling of transvestites and not a few voyeurs, the club blasts gut-shaking new-wave music out into the night air for as long as anyone cares to dance. A sign at the door proclaims, "NO DRUGS, NO RHODIES, NO RACISTS, NO TROUBLEMAKERS". At least two of the orders appear to be obeyed; but out on the verandah joints do the rounds, speed and cocaine are all, in a very "uncool" way, experimented with. This is dangerous: Zimbabwe law is just as strict on drugs as the old Rhodesian law, and long jail sentences are handed out to offenders.

"Rhodies" are "Rhodesians", so dubbed because they are considered to be trap in the time warp of yesteryear, faithful still to the "old mentality" and highly intolerant of "poofs," "weirdos" and "cheeky hotes" (blacks).

Hard Core has had its troubles, sometimes of its own making. Recently it was raided by the police for selling liquor without a licence. David Reller, one of the club's organisers, who also runs a boutique, recalled: "The first thing we knew we were surrounded by gun-toting cops and soldiers. They said we were running an illegal shebeen and would all have to come down to the station and pay a fine.

"We were loaded into armoured trucks and taken away. Everyone was so stoned that we didn't really mind and we joked and laughed. We all signed in as rock stars but the police didn't seem to notice. The week before, they busted a Rhodie party for the same thing and there was a lot of aggro."

The influence of contemporary European and American youth culture is growing, especially among those too young to have been involved in the war. Quinton, a 16-year-old with a Mohican hairstyle, says he likes Hard Core because "no one stares". Why then the Mohican? "Oh, the usual. I just wanted to be different." His teachers couldn't object because there was already a Rasta with dreadlocks in his class--and his hair was well off his collar. Five years ago Quinton would have been preparing himself for two years in the Rhodesian army, fighting to "keep up standards". Now he's thinking of going overseas, "because it's more advanced socially".

This Harare Father Christmas poses (but evidentally not for children) a nice political puzzle: commendable Africanisation or lingering Europeanism ?

But for bride and groom, and bridesmaid, at a wedding party in a Harare park, the matter is simpler: even if the whites brought it, white is right.

If Hard Core represents one reaction to sudden change, the upsurge in "born again" evangelism is another. In a country which has been through so much so quickly, the good Lord keeps thumping out the same comforting message.

The congregation at the "Christian Life Centre" in suburban Harare could be straight from middle America. In polyester print frocks and open-neck checked shirts, they packed into their hall to listen avidly to the promise of a world to come. But even here white demoralisation intruded. "So many believers in Zimbabwe, especially white," thundered the pastor, to his virtually all-white audience, "have been just hanging on and are growing weary. They have been weakened and some have become casualties. But Jesus said: 'He who endures will be saved." ("Amen," cried the congregation.) "This is one of the most difficult years that many of us can remember. Many are looking for pastures greener. But God says: 'When darkness covers the face of the earth, then Heaven will return."'

A few more rousing hymns, the spectacle of "speaking in tongues", a last blast of fervent oratory from the preacher, and the crowd adjourned to the vestry. There, over tea, one of them mentioned that more than 10,000 emigration applications were currently waiting for Reserve Bank approval. "That will bring the white population here down to under 100,000 within the next few months." One of their pastors was among the new emigrants, "given a new ministry by God ... in South Africa".

When they leave Zimbabwe, emigrants can take with them 1,000 Zimbabwe dollars (about £620), furniture and a car both over four years old. Civil servants can export their pensions, thanks to a provision in the Lancaster House agreement. The considerable remainder of emigrants' assets is often used to support their aged relations. Many are left with the promise that they will be collected when their families are established. But some are destined to live out their old age in the new black state, unreclaimed. The Nazareth House in Harare is full of them.


At Nazareth House a charitable home in Harare the old come to rest after lifetimes during which Zimbabwe has changed from African kingdom to colony to rebel state to African republic : many of them are now alone marooned by the departure of their young to South Africa. Col. Loftus (above) is 100.

Professor Stanlake Samkange (above, with his wife, a top civil servant), a leading member of the black business class at his home 'King's Castle’ - called after the Mr King who once lived there.

Younger whites who have so far resisted the urge to pack up and run can still be found in gracious garden suburbs enjoying their swimming pools, tennis courts, and G-and-T brought by obedient servants. But the servant is now a "domestic worker", paid a minimum wage, protected from arbitrary dismissal, probably a member of the ruling party, ZANU (PF), and treated more warily by his baas than previously. And today's white suburbanite may well have black neighbours enjoying the same way of life. The numerous vacancies left in the former white suburbs have been quickly filled.

The black middle class, made up of civil servants (in a dramatically enlarged civil service) and businessmen, now probably outnumbers the white community. It comprises both those who have returned from exile--"returnees"--and those who stayed in the country throughout the war: those who were actively involved in the guerrilla struggle have the most kudos. Iconoclasts they certainly are not, although some of them are plainly not whole-heartedly sympathetic to Robert Mugabes aspirations for Zimbabwe - whether the one-party state or purer socialism. And some are, by any standards, wealthy--mostly as the reward of their own enterprise and energy in a country where scope, and official encouragement, now exist for these economic virtues among blacks. (Whites, indeed, complain that, in an effort to redress the economic imbalance, black businessmen are given the lion's share of scarce foreign currency allocations, which is virtually "a licence to print money". They use what they want and sell the rest on the black market to whites who have had their allocations cut.)

Despite the official rhetoric of multiracialism, whites generally stick to their own kind outside working hours. Liberal and expatriate whites who do actively socialise across the colour bar are often denigrated as "third world groupies". Mixed marriages are still unusual and unheard of between those who have not been abroad. Multiracial sex still seems to nauseate local whites: several walked out of Fasabinder's film, Marriage of Maria Braun, at the black on white sex scene.

Most young professional whites see their futures elsewhere. Michael Duckworth, for example, returned to Zimbabwe in 1982 after completing a South African university degree. He had done his time in the Rhodesian army but had no stomach for the war and was optimistic about the future on his return. That initial enthusiasm has now dissipated, and he's making arrangements to leave with his new wife, who's expecting their first child. He feels a victim of what he calls "reverse racism". "They can't do without us yet, and they resent us for that."

Michael, like many whites, feels that high standards in health and education are being downgraded to accommodate the masses. Having been privately educated himself, he particularly resents the recent government action on private schools that are still "too white". "Do you know, at the start of this term they sent school inspectors to all the private schools to count heads, and check that enough of them were black. Those who hadn't the required quota had to find more blacks before they could open. That's racism, isn't it? I thought it didn't matter what colour you were now ...”

What seems to unsettle Michael and his wife most is to see so many other whites leaving: it makes them uneasy. At work there is an abnormally high staff turnover, and their social life is constantly upset.

Although he finds South Africa "culturally offensive" and disagrees with apartheid, Michael has applied for jobs there. "As a stepping stone," he explained, "to earn enough in foreign currency so we can emigrate to England." (That is a journey his parents made in reverse at his age.) But South Africa is littered with white Zimbabweans who only intended to use it as a transit point and have never made enough to move on.

Michael is quick to admit that he would be pressed to find an equal standard of living elsewhere: "Most whites are still comfy here, very comfy, but as a community we've only a few years left. It's slowly dying and I don't want to sit here and watch it happen."

He thinks that most "local" whites feel the same way, if they're honest with themselves: "The only ones who are still trying to be positive are, those who are economic prisoners and have no alternative."

Michael claims that he has no dislike for blacks, and indeed he did return to Zimbabwe quite freely. He gets on well with them at work, but "doesn't really mix with them socially". "I just haven't found any that I would really like to invite home. If I went out of my way to do so, it would only be artificial and patronising."

As do most white Zimbabweans, he still grimaces at the thought of romance across the colour bar. "OK, some black women are attractive, especially the westernised ones with finer features. But even with them I've never thought to myself: 'I wouldn't mind getting into a bit of that.' I suppose it's my upbringing, but I wouldn't be happy if a member of my family got involved with a black in that way. But I know many blacks who feel the same way. We've a black friend who admitted it would break her heart if her son married a white girl."

But it's not an aversion to blacks that's driving the Duckworths away. It's the fact that they feel they no longer belong here, and that their community is no longer genuinely welcome. Michael said: "One gets the feeling that we are only allowed to stay on sufferance and if we step out of line we'll be out on our ear. In any case they'll probably get rid of us the minute they think they can manage without us. That's no way to live and no environment in which to bring up kids. Whatever the supposed evils of colonialism, I think it also brought considerable benefits; I'm not prepared to apologise for being white and constantly be made to feel ashamed of the white legacy. I'd rather leave than do that."

Mugabe's concept of reconciliation, with its hint of the big stick as encouragement, worries many whites who simply want to be left alone. Their confidence is also shaken by socialist invective against the private sector, arrests of whites suspected of sabotage or insulting black VIPs, lurid details of the torture of the Air Force officers accused of blowing up Thornhill air base. And inflation is up to 16 percent and rising.

Farmers in Matabeleland are still under constant threat from rebellious ex- combatants - and their pursuers: families like the Barrys take no chances.

Next to her specially-armoured truck (built to survive a land-mine blast) stands Mary Wood, mother of the boy Craig whose photograph is on page 27.

Would Zimbabwe exist in its present form if it were not for Ian Smith? He survives, and prospers with his cattle, among his recent enemies.

But some whites, like Piers Nicolle, are determined to stay anyway. His farm lies about 50 miles west of Harare in the district of Lomagundi, the country's grain basket. His uncle had been Ian Smith's Minister of Internal Affairs, but Nicolle is heavily critical of the Smith regime. "We were conned into fighting the war by Smith. Most soldiers in the war were under 21. They were told that they were defending their country, and what young man doesn't like playing cowboys and Indians? On the African side, young lads playing soccer with a ball made of newspaper tied with string were suddenly presented with an AK47 rifle and told: 'Here, this can kill and get you free grub.' Both sides were conned: we by racism and they by liberation."

A fluent Shona speaker whose family has lived in the country for three generations, Nicolle knows the Mashona very well. "The blacks have two hereditary deficiencies," he explained. "Firstly, they cannot see in 3D: they have no foresight or planning; it's a missing link. Secondly, they don't know what the word compassion means. It doesn't even come into their vocabulary. ZANLA tactics in the war horrified me."

Reminded that Rhodesian wartime tactics weren't always above board either, Nicolle admitted: "Well, some of our chaps also got a little out of hand, especially when they were trying to get information. But the thing that we had which they lacked was accountability. We accounted for our atrocities."

Why was Nicolle, with his caustic view of the black psyche, staying? He has a theory--which is shared by many other whites--that the ruling party, ZANU (PF), has a shortlist "of 60,000 whites, handpicked, and the rest can bugger off. We produce 25,000 acres of arable crops, our farms total 40,000 acres and we employ 12,000 workers. My grandfather and father didn't sit on their arses. We are part of the 60,000 because we're workers."

And to impress the government with his productivity, said Nicolle, he invested $2m in new irrigation the day Mugabe came to power. When he met the Prime Minister Nicolle was personally assured that whites like him were needed in the new Zimbabwe. Nicolle removed his glasses and said to Mugabe: "When I take off my glasses and talk to you, I talk to you as an African and you can see my eyes, and these will be the same eyes that look at you if you break your word..."

Behind his bar, dispensing cold beer, Nicolle got on to another of his bugbears: aid. Mugabe was a puppet because he was begging for it, he was no longer master of his own destiny. But then Nicolle didn't have much faith in Zimbabwe's "socialism". All had been made plain to him when Mugabe got into power, he said.

"The very next day I saw he was escorted around the country in a Mercedes Benz, and I said to myself: 'There's no socialism here because the povo (masses) are still on their flat feet."' No, he didn't take the new "isms" very seriously: "I mean, what the hell does a word like 'egalitarianism' mean to people around here?"

Rather surprising then that Nicolle is a paid-up member of the ruling party ZANU (PF). He told us how this unlikely event came to pass. "My own workers proposed me as a member," he smiled proudly. "So the local comrade came round to see me on his motor-bike. I told him straight: 'I'm a Christian so the state is not my god. I've got a big mouth which I don't know when to keep closed, and I'm in Zimbabwe not because you need me, but because it's my country the same as it's yours." A month later he was approved.

I asked Nicolle what, if anything, would drive him to leave. "When my culture's endangered," came the immediate reply.  "For instance, through education: if I can't choose schools for my kids. I want to be identified in the Zimbabwe stew: cultures must have an identity in the amalgam, as a carrot, a potato or a piece of meat." After a moment's hesitation, he continued: "I'd also consider going if I found I could no longer make a profit. I need a reasonable return for my gamble."

Whatever his eccentricities, Nicolle seemed to belong in Africa. "I'm not a European. When the census official came around we crossed out the word 'European' and wrote 'African'. The official said: 'Hey, you can't do that, you're white.' But we soon told him where to go."

Hundreds of miles away at the other end of the country lies Matabeleland, a province which presents another problem for farmers, one that hasn't bothered Nicolle since the war ended: armed guerrillas, or "dissidents" as the government prefers to call them.

Tim Gibbs and his wife Sue are leaving, part of a growing flood of white farmers abandoning their ranches in Southern Zimbabwe. In the last year alone their numbers have decreased from 628 to 495, and many of those who remain run their farms from the relative safety of the city rather than run the risk of living on their own land.

A new career in England at the age of 45 is not going to be easy for Tim, but he and his family have found they can cope with the security problem no longer. All around their farm in the Nyamandlovu area white farmers have been murdered.

"In the end," said Tim, "you just can't live with that sort of atmosphere. And there is no hope of it ending, only getting worse."

"The affect it had on our children, which we didn't fully appreciate at the time, was horrific," said Sue. "Our nine-year-old son was so nervous he wouldn't go to the toilet at night without someone standing guard at the door with a gun. On our radio we used to hear people under fire, and our neighbours on one side were killed."

In southern Zimbabwe, particularly, the fight has gone out of the whites. And those who stay no longer sneer at those who have "gapped it": perhaps most of them would like to do the same. "What used during the war to be called the 'chicken run'," said Tim wryly, "is now called the 'wise owl run"'.

While white farmers still grow the bulk of Zimbabwe's commercial crops, Africans are moving more and more into big agriculture: this is the Simukai ('stand up and be counted') co-operative.