Response to ‘White African: What might have been’

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I OFTEN hear people fantasising about the good old days, when the Smith regime was still in charge of the country. That’s perfectly natural; in times of trouble one looks back at the positive aspects of yesteryear, and plays down the negative aspects. The psychologists amongst us will testify that our minds are built that way.
I’ve felt compelled though to respond to a May 1 article by Kariba Kay entitled “White African: What might have been”, which publicly expresses these fantasies by using emotive words like “terrorist” in 2017 to describe Zimbabwe’s children who were fighting a colonial, repressive regime.
Kariba basically argues that Zimbabwe-Rhodesia should have been allowed to stand, which would in turn would have created a flourishing economy. To Kariba Kay, all failures post-1980 are therefore solely at the feet of the current regime because White Zimbabweans were completely removed from the levers of power.
I attempt to respond to the article – not by exonerating the current Zimbabwean regime of atrocities and mismanagement – but by highlighting flaws in Kariba Kay’s arguments. I respond as a citizen of Zimbabwe (independent of any political affiliation) whose only bias is the belief that colonisation – in any guise – is unjustified. Below are some of the arguments made or insinuated by Kariba, and where I think the flaws are.
Colonisation was good because it modernised a primitive society
The argument here is that we should somehow be grateful that the British colonised our country. That argument misses the full picture. Yes, our economies were not developing at the same pace, but trade and collaboration would have yielded a much better outcome than colonisation. Through things like the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1965 and the banning of black civilian opposition parties earlier that decade, Smith allowed people Kariba now calls “terrorists” like Mugabe to thrive.
The civil war brought about by wanting to refuse black majority rule “in a thousand years” killed off any hope of black moderates taking over power, and turned moderates (like Mugabe) into militants. The Muzorewa concession discussed in Kariba’s article came 20 years too late. Thousands of lives had already been lost, so black opposition leaders (who by then had spent a combined total of over 100 years in prison without trial) were not going to back down at that point. It is therefore playing fast and loose with history to just go back to 1979 and ignore even the short historical stride back to UDI in 1965.Advertisement

Kariba also argues for the positive aspects of the British invasion, like reading and writing, while those who supported him in the comments section of the article argued that our backwardness was going to get us colonised sooner or later, and we were fortunate that the Brits got there first. I’m not denying the positive aspects that came with the British. I just don’t agree with the notion that Colonisation was the only way of getting those positive aspects. And who is to say that we wouldn’t have been in a position to fight off other potential colonisers (perhaps with British allies!) if they tried to colonise us?
We frame a better future by learning. By not learning from that Muzorewa example, the descendants of the settlers didn’t hand over a lot of the idle land mentioned in Kariba’s article until it was (again) too late. The process was then hijacked by “terrorists” and beamed across the world as black people proving again that they are barbaric and uncivilised (with the narrative conveniently underplaying the fact that the same land was at the heart of a civil war that ended 20 years before).
The economic consequences of that chaotic exercise are then seen as a result of that black unciviliasation, and no blame is placed on white Zimbabweans who were reserving land for kids who were not yet born, while the majority black people had to share 30% of arable agricultural land in their native country. Some truths are inconvenient, but we ignore them at our peril.
Mugabe is worse than Smith
Kariba portrays the exit of Smith from the scene as being the point when all of the nation’s problems started. He (Smith) had after all handed over a thriving economy with social freedoms. All responsibility for everything that went wrong post-1980 should therefore lie at Mugabe’s door. Again – while Mugabe must account for his own failures, I strongly disagree with this romantic view of Smith’s role in Zimbabwe’s history.
Here’s a simple economic example: Smith’s economy was geared towards ensuring that the 300,000 white people were well-catered for, with nearly all of the 7 million black people playing a supporting role in the economy. Most black people did not make it past what is now Grade 7.
Mugabe – on the other hand, immediately needed to cater for those marginalised 7 million people at independence, using the same resources that Smith was using to look after 300,000. Form 4 immediately became the new norm among that 7 million (something previously preserved for white people). All this needed to be paid for, and made for a much larger in-tray than prioritising 300,000 people, whether or not a black person was in State House.
From the political angle; Smith basically created a system which would only be defeated by someone willing to play by his rules, and Mugabe obliged. Example: Mugabe’s failure is not disbanding and continuing to use State institutions like the CIO to subvert the freedoms of the people. He didn’t create these institutions, or change the way they operated. Another example: The Herald being used as a propaganda tool. If you look in the archives, you’ll see that Smith used the Herald in exactly the same way that Mugabe and Zanu PF do today.
Zimbabweans basically need to rid themselves of a regime that toppled one very similar to it. The problem is; because Smith, and after him, Mugabe, have basically said “unless you are militant enough, you’ll never rule this country”, history will keep repeating itself until someone breaks that cycle. But that cycle will only be broken by a person who is bigger than Smith or Mugabe, regardless of their race or political affiliation.
Mugabe has ruined thriving state-owned enterprises
Kariba also argues that Mugabe inherited thriving state-owned enterprises in NRZ, AirZim, GMB etc and ran them to the ground. This is also a very simplistic way of looking at history. Those companies were monopolies, and Economics (and specifically the theory of Market, Conduct and Performance, which was written by the same British and American people who now look down on us!) will tell you that in a country closed to competition (which Rhodesia was, due to sanctions), such companies thrive.
But remove those barriers to competition (which happened almost immediately at independence) and those organisations immediately struggle, because they are not built to compete. This was going to happen even if Smith won the elections outright in 1980. Mugabe’s failure is not reacting to the failure of this model of organisation, which – according to Economics – was inevitable. So – again – Mugabe has plenty of failures to account for, but the British cannot be casually exonerated from the current mess, and think they’d have done better with the same set of circumstances. They should only be thanked out of courtesy if they offer to help to clean this mess up, because they helped to create it.
Some have argued that Mugabe is solely to blame because he’s recruited his cronies on the Boards and Management teams of those companies. That argument again ignores the fact that Mugabe inherited a very flawed system that was open to such abuse. Why give the Prime Minister/President sole power to appoint the management of the only railway company in the country? They don’t do that in the UK!
I repeat – these organisations were not built to operate in a normal environment. The British handed over war-time systems and institutions, expected the new regime to make them work in peace times while redressing 90 years of inequality, and look down on it as a failure because those inherited systems turned out to be unfit for peace times.
I could write a book in response to Kariba’s article (I’m in danger of starting to do so in this article!). The “what-if” scenario proposed by Kariba is interesting, and is not without merit. But it misses out a lot of history, which may well be inconvenient from Kariba’s perspective. Like Kariba, I long for a better Zimbabwe too, and hope that I’ll get to see it in my lifetime.
I also hope that future leaders will rule and be judged fairly, regardless of race. I believe every special interest group (race, gender, religion etc.) should be included in government, so that the government’s operations reflect the needs of all of Zimbabwe’s people (including descendants of those that arrived in 1890). We need to start moving away from this fantasy that white people would have done things better, because that’s not necessarily true.