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March 28, 2003 at 12 AM

A Besmirched Jewel

Author Doris Lessing offers a rather extensive analysis of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and how it arrived at its current nadir.

The piece, from The New York Review of Books, discusses what I see as the fundamental paradox of many African states today: colonial white regimes, including in Rhodesia, were politically brutal, but in general offered a better quality of life to the population than the regimes that replaced them. As Lessing tells it, Mugabe roared into power on a wave of loyalty, reading from a book of promises, few of which have ever been fulfilled.

Here is the heart of the tragedy. Never has a ruler come to power with more goodwill from his people. Virtually everybody, the people who voted for him and the ones who did not, forgot their differences and expected from him the fulfillment of their dreams — and of his promises. He could have done practically anything in those early years. When you traveled around the villages in the early Eighties you heard from everyone, “Mugabe will do this…. Comrade Mugabe will do that….” He will see the value of this or that plan, build this shop or clinic or road, help us with our school, check that bullying official. If Mugabe had had the sense to trust what he heard, he could have transformed the country. But he did not know how much he was trusted, because he was too afraid to leave his self-created prison, meeting only sycophants and cronies, and governing through inflexible Marxist rules taken from textbooks.

Lessing doesn’t mince words. Her view is that Mugabe ruined whatever chance there was for a peaceful and fruitful transition from pre-revolution Rhodesia to Marxist Zimbabwe by inflaming the people with anti-white propaganda. In this light, white farmers, who were no doubt productive labourers, end up seeming like heroes, a perspective that unfortunately ignores their complicity with a racist regime. At the same time, what has transpired in Zimbabwe has not only failed to right colonial wrongs, it has made a resource-rich country threadbare. Poor black farmers haven’t replaced rich white ones; unskilled, disillusioned youths have, and Lessing says that Mugabe’s regime has taken land away even from some black farmers.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the article, and the most divisive, is Lessing’s examination of how European customs and “our customs” (local customs) have melded into modern practice.

If you want to see just how much “our customs” really mean, then visit the park in Harare on Saturday or Sunday, where dozens of wedding groups arrive, the brides in flouncy white and veils, with bridesmaids and pages. The woman may be very pregnant, or with several small children. But this rite of passage into the modern world, the white man’s wedding, they must have, and the photographers are there to preserve the beautiful sight for posterity. … In fact, “our customs” are strongly valued when they have to do with the subjection of women. The law of the land may say one thing on paper — Zimbabwe’s early Marxist phase, as in other Communist countries, imposed many kinds of equality. But “our customs” still make sure that a woman has no right to the money she has earned, or to her children. She is her husband’s vassal. When Mugabe was met at the airport by hand-clapping and kowtowing maidens, and he was criticized (in the early days) for this sign of backwardness, the reply was “it is our custom.”

Overall, a fascinating, if depressing, read.

Update: The latest on Zimbabwe from the New York Times: “Internet reports from Harare describe hospital wards full of people suffering from severe burns and broken fingers and toes. Photographs show men and women with swollen lash marks across their backs and chests. Opposition leaders report that more than 1,000 people have fled their homes and that more than 500 people have been arrested.”

Comments

Thanks for posting this. Doris Lessing is a wise observer and a thoughtful and intelligent writer, and one of my favourites.

Kate M. | Mar. 28, 2003 — 10 AM

Interestin how the Africans still cling to Western cultural values even after they have thrown out the colonialists. It reminds me of a story a friend in the Peace Corps told me about his experience in West Africa. He said he would go into huts in villages that had no electricity and the families would have TeeVees (though they had no power or reception) prominantly displayed in their central rooms, with the stickers from the original packaging still pasted on the screen. When he would ask them why they didn’t take of the stickers, they were somewhat bewildered. It seems that the appliances were kept like some kind of modern fetish. No more absurd, I suppose, than how westerners bring back trinkets from the third worls and display them as pieces of art.

Beerzie Boy | Mar. 28, 2003 — 10 AM

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