Matthew Parris

The troubling truth about Zimbabwe

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I’m not the first columnist and will not be the last to shrink from finding out too much. For this there are subtler reasons than laziness: a half-acknowledged fear that one’s argument will lose shape; that complexity may overwhelm understanding; that counterfactuals and shades of grey spoil a simple picture, and resolution sink beneath a mass of on-the-other-hands.

If that’s always true, then I should never have revisited Zimbabwe. I last crossed the border in 1968, heading north for Cambridge at the age of 18. Salisbury (now Harare) had been my home from the age of eight. My family left too, believing Ian Smith’s rebel regime had taken a fateful turning by trying to stop the gradual end to racial discrimination that his moderate (white-elected) predecessors had begun. Civil war was to come. Robert Mugabe won power by the sword and then the ballot box and, after a deceptively prosperous and peaceful interlude, has ruled by an uneasy combination of both.

And I have watched from the outside, yielding easily to the assumption that the whole place is a bloody mess, effective government collapsed, the economy wrecked, the people destitute and terrified, and that there’s no way the world outside can help short of invasion, which would not be a good idea. All we could do (I’ve thought) was condemn, and the louder we shouted at them the better.

After 44 years I returned last week. That picture is a distortion. The government has wrecked lives and much worse, there is a sense of vacuum and fear for the future, and everyone seems to be treading water. But neither the country nor its people are on their knees and the institutions of public administration are still, more or less, in place. The crisis brought on by rampant inflation is over. I saw no evidence of starvation. Rural Africans appear to be living in more or less the same way, and in the same conditions, as they did under white rule.

As the economic pillar it once was, farming has been smashed, and though the cattle are fat a drought is coming; but there are straggly crops in the fields, the shops are full of food, and I encountered fewer beggars than in London. There are schools everywhere — education was always good by Africa’s standards, under white rule too — and little girls and boys in bright uniforms crowd the roadside each morning: the pinch comes with secondary education, just as under white rule.

The network of roads is vastly improved though everywhere the roads need mending. The police are smart, mostly friendly, and only occasionally seeking bribes. The railways still run, just. Harare is not much changed. Shabbier in its public spaces, its richest suburbs are if anything richer (now mixed black and white) but with security fences. Bulawayo remains delightfully frozen in about 1958, as does Mutare (Umtali). Poor white suburbs have been taken over by a struggling black middle class.

This is the one big new feature I noticed: a substantial, reasonably educated, fairly westernised African middle class speaking surprisingly good English. This is a tremendously positive thing.

Now let me mention how it was in the old days.

Absolutely no fan of Zanu-PF brutality (and I do not question the awful reports), I must here offer — as one who lived through those earlier times — a reality check on the old, white-ruled Rhodesia. It is true and important that there was little of the vicious white-on-black cruelty commonplace in South Africa. Rhodesia was a fairer country. When you crossed the border into Rhodesia at Beitbridge you felt a lifting of the ideology of hatred inculcated in white South Africa.

But apologists for that relative latecomer, the irresponsible Ian Smith, seem to remember a friendly bringing-on of black Rhodesians that simply did not exist. In one critical respect the old Rhodesian diaspora and its many friends and relations in the United Kingdom and in our media — including, I suspect, some Spectator readers — have been helped by later chaos to rewrite earlier history in a way that should be challenged. Ian Smith, his Rhodesian Front Party and the country’s unilateral declaration of independence in 1965 were not about moderating the pace of racial integration and black emancipation. They were about stopping it. For ever. That was Mr Smith’s appeal, and don’t tell me otherwise, my old Rhodey friends: I was there. I remember those election and referendum campaigns, and returning last week — the very smell of the earth, the sound of the birdsong, the glint of the sunlight on the Msasa trees’ leaves — has brought it all back.

I remember the playground abuse that awaited any boy taught at home (as I was) to call black people Africans: the acceptable terms were ‘natives’, if you wanted to be polite, or ‘kaffirs’ or ‘munts’ if you wanted to talk like a man. Blacks were not tortured or brutalised, or not often; they were treated as inherently inferior. Let anyone nostalgic for that culture try telling me with a straight face that at a white braivleis (barbecue) in Salisbury in the 1960s you could venture the opinion that, given equal treatment, equal rights and more education and training, Africans should take their place in partnership with whites, and that we should be working towards that — and not be dismissed as crazy, or a communist, or a traitor. Smith’s aim was simple: to keep the blacks down.

But that was then and this is now. The country’s vast potential wealth is still not being applied to the general population — it never has been — but is in danger now of being abstracted by China rather than the likes of the De Beers corporation. A disputed election on a disputed register threatens. A tragically misconceived plan to ‘indigenise’ urban businesses could add to the hundreds of thousands of Africans who lost their jobs when white farmers were forced out. And amid the mild, accepting passivity that has been the charm as well as the bane of the Mashona people, everybody waits and worries — including those brave white liberals who, unlike us, stayed to try to make it work.

Zimbabwe is not about to explode, or implode; millions will probably not be murdered in their beds; and human industry and ingenuity persist, despite politics. The politics wasn’t right then and it isn’t now, but I return from the country with a slightly increased faith that it could all come right in the end.

Zimbabwe is full of good things and full of good people. Go and see for yourself. You will be safe, comfortable and welcome there; and may return as I have with every simple judgment undermined, and no strong conclusion except one. I was wrong. No purpose is served by shouting at them.

Written byMatthew Parris

Matthew Parris is a columnist for The Spectator and The Times.

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