William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Zimbabwe: The triumph of hope over experience

Southern African politics is a rambunctious affair. It’s far removed from the predictable and safe parameters of the established Anglophone democracies against which we surreptitiously measure ourselves.

It’s a bit like being slung into a tumble dryer with a sack of razor blades. One accepts that one is going to incur nicks and cuts, with an outside chance of some major bloodletting.

Human rights lawyer and politician David Coltart, who is in South Africa promoting his historical autobiography, The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe, knows this better than most. Some of his comrades in the Movement for Democratic Change, of which he was a co-founder, were disappeared and murdered. He himself was harassed, jailed and has been the target of death threats, kidnapping and assassination attempts.

To endure such travails takes uncommon personal courage and faith. That faith might be secular, a deeply held ideological conviction of the kind that buoyed many in the liberation movements during South Africa’s struggle for freedom. Or it might be religious.

Although there is nothing preachy about Coltart or his book — which is not only a searingly honest description of his political journey from being a typically gung-ho white Rhodie but also a detailed, riveting chronicle of Zimbabwe’s descent into despotism — he makes it clear that it was his Christian beliefs that inspired his actions and sustained him. So Coltart dug in for the long haul, possibly little realising how long that might end up being, whereas most prudent whites abandoned Zimbabwe and headed for greener pastures.

Since a similar Rhodie-style sidling towards the exits afflicts white Saffers, the question is obvious. How do whities — indeed, any minority bereft not only of the “correct” proportion of melanin but maybe also faith or ideology — deal with an empowered and sometimes embittered black majority?

The greatest threat, said Coltart in an interview, is minorities doing everything possible to maintain their comfort zones by retreating into social laagers. “Engagement with your fellow citizens is necessary because without it our disconnected thinking and complacency are never challenged.”

“One must accept that there will always be populist groups that try to delegitimise the participation of other groups in politics and broader society. In Zimbabwe it was not only about whites but about any grouping that was marginalised the moment it posed any threat to Zanu-PF. Something readily forgotten or not realised by outsiders, is that the Zimbabwe conflict has never been simply a black on white one and that blacks have suffered far more under [President Robert] Mugabe than whites ever have.

“Even the seizure of the white farms had less to do with addressing land issues than it had to do with rendering mute the farmworkers, the only black people in rural areas who were not dependent on Zanu-PF patronage.

“It’s in any case a mistake to think that most of one’s fellow citizens will fall for that kind of exclusionary rhetoric. But that said, it depresses me as a regular visitor to SA how the critical mass of whites to this day fail to understand the role they played in oppression, as well as the privilege that they still retain. It’s as if they were anaesthetised by Nelson Mandela’s reconciliatory stance.

“And the growing pains will continue. SA is still in transition and there is still a long road to be travelled in terms of transformation. Minorities need to make themselves indispensable to that process, using the fruits of privilege to improve the lives of the vulnerable.”

Coltart scoffs at those who posit that SA will inevitably trace the same orbit into decline and authoritarianism as Zimbabwe. “The critical difference is the war – the military conflict in SA was just never as intense as it was in Zimbabwe. There just isn’t the same legacy of anger.”

He points also to the depth of democratic institutions in SA. Civil society, the trade unions, the universities, the media and the justice system are all stronger in SA after 22 years of democracy, than they ever were in Zimbabwe. “There is not as much latitude in SA’s political system that can be exploited by a tyrant.”

The Zimbabwean story of the past 50 years is one of human resilience in the face of successive murderous governments, indifferent to the privations of its own people. As Coltart puts it, “Rhodes begat [Ian] Smith and Smith begat Mugabe.”

So why should it change now? Coltart’s final chapter heading gives his answer: “Endurance inspired by hope”.

David Coltart’s
The Struggle Continues is published by Jacana.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

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    • Paul S

      Coltart is right about us minorities needing to use our unquestionably privileged positions and skills to the benefit of SA. While about it, make the effort to learn the elements of your local black language and attempt real engagement. Black folk understandably still see us as detached and aloof, given that very few whites have made even the slightest effort to move out of the laager Coltart refers to. I am constantly amazed by how little whites understand black culture and how it works in day to day SA life. Simply because no effort has ever been made to engage and understand. My gran grew up on a farm and was fluent in Xhosa – the immediate connection she had with black folk was streets ahead of anyone else’s.

    • Sifiso Xolile Ndlovu Zgwanyanw

      A great read! Thank you.

      A point of correction to Mr. Coltart:

      “Even the seizure of the white farms had less to do with addressing land
      issues than it had to do with rendering mute the farmworkers, the only
      black people in rural areas who were not dependent on Zanu-PF patronage.

      Mr. Coltart did not get it then and he is still not getting it now. Addressing the land question was and is still more important to Zimbabweans than getting rid of Mugabe. Mugabe was not enemy number one to landless black people; the enemy was commercial farmers who were greedy and not willing to share the land they controlled. Bad governance came third on the list, to economic participation and property ownership. Zimbabweans today are calling out Zanu PF officials who unduly benefited from land redistribution; they are not happy about that as they were unhappy about gung-ho rhodies controlling all the land.

      Before the violent land seizures, there was already a growing movement in Zimbabwe; farm workers, war veterans, small scale farmers and others were increasing pressure on the government of Zimbabwe to make land available as promised. Mugabe, losing popularity at the time, also facing a growing opposition, took advantage of this movement that was already in play. He looked the other way as white farmers in Zimbabwe were violently dispossessed of land by angry black war veterans.

      Mugabe saw an opportunity and rode on the wave, saving his skin and giving the people what they wanted at the same time.

      The opposition in Zimbabwe, that Mr. Coltart is a part of, was so confident of defeating Mugabe that it did not see it necessary to address the land question at that time. It was also receiving funding and support from white farmers who maintained key positions in it, so it could not act against them nor be seen to be on the side of the growing movement for land redistribution. The other priority for the opposition was to get London and Washington’s endorsement and support, giving Mugabe plenty of material to brand it a white puppet movement for the benefit of white people and black sell-outs. Mugabe went to town with this and he still is playing that card to this day. The opposition in Zimbabwe is stubbornly sticking to its stance on land and it is refusing to acknowledge the positives that resulted in the land policy of Mugabe. Addressing social issues of inclusion will not win anybody votes.

      In my opinion, it is not too late for the Zimbabwe opposition to adopt a new position and to side with the people. Zimbabweans need leadership with a solution that benefits all, just like South Africans are in need of a leadership with a vision that benefits all.

      The lesson to learn for South Africa is simple; don’t ignore or underestimate the importance of giving, (I repeat) giving land that is in the hands of the few and very wealthy people, to the many and very poor people; follow this by supporting the land owners to grow the inclusive economy.

      The worst case scenario, which might actually happen, is Julius Malema becoming president, because he is the only one taking the land question seriously. Regardless of how much I want to see inequality and poverty come to an end in South Africa; I don’t see Malema as the right man for the job at this time, he will not get my vote. However, I can’t speak for the millions of poor people frustrated at both the government and official opposition skirting around the issue and not being decisive at all.

    • Rory Short

      Land reform should also address communal land holdings and turn these into freehold with title deeds so that development can get a real boost in those areas. Land reform in areas which are already freehold should only consider people who actually want to farm otherwise it will be a failure for the whole country because we will then inevitably become dependent on UN food aid to feed our large and growing urban population.

    • The Mentor

      One should remember that Roy Bennett speaks the local language like a local and was highly respected by the black community of Chimanimani (who voted him in to office) but his real engagement with the black people of the country was a threat to ZANU PF and in the end, his downfall as a white politician

    • Sifiso Xolile Ndlovu Zgwanyanw

      Roy Bennett is still quite popular in Chimanimani, he won the parliament seat in a fair contest in a fair election (if it were not fair he would not have won). It is regrettable that his constituents were given the finger by the government of Zimbabwe via trumped up treason charges against the man. In all fairness, he did serve his time in prison for knocking out another parliamentarian in the middle of a session, but the treason charges that followed are just plain ridiculous. After the last election in Zimbabwe where his party lost again, he did, I believe blinded by frustration, post Facebook messages to incite members of his party to commit acts of violence and to render the country ungovernable by whatever means. That, in my opinion was irresponsible and played in the hands of Mugabe. Zimbabwe’s politics are quite interesting: Roy Bennett, as one of the last commercial farmers in Zimbabwe, is, as I stated before, quite popular in his community and loved by the many poor farm workers there. He was also the treasurer of the opposition and one of the individuals who funded the opposition for the primary purpose of removing Mugabe from power, so as to maintain the status quo; that of making sure that large tracts of land remained in the hands of a few commercial farmers like himself. As loved as he was in his community, he had just as many if not more enemies outside of his community. Even though he speaks the local Shona language fluently, he remains blind to the glaring fact that equality and ending poverty trump social inclusion at the end of the day! Zimbabwe’s opposition politicians, like South Africa’s opposition politicians are their own worst enemies. Quite sad.