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Mugabe and reconciliation: The genesis and meaning of `We Are All Zimbabweans Now'

By James Kilgore

[This paper was presented to the Center of African Studies, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, on February 3, 2010. It is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with James Kilgore’s permission.]

Good afternoon. I'd like to thank the Center for African studies for inviting me here this afternoon and particularly Merle Bowen for organising this session. This is the first time that I've spoken publicly to a group about my book and I'm quite excited about it. I’ll try to keep my excitement in check. I had in mind to do three things. First, I’d like to talk a little bit about the background of the writing of the book. It's somewhat unusual as I wrote it during my period of incarceration from 2002 to 2009. Second, I assume most people haven't read the book so I thought I would give a brief plot summary of the novel. Third, I wanted to discuss what the novel means, what it is I actually wanted to say in this story which I’ve titled We Are All Zimbabweans Now.

There are three forces that drove me to write this book. The first one was a simple factor of the lack of activity options when you're incarcerated. Since I'm not a big fan of the major social activities in prison – dominoes, weightlifting, card games, and I’m a little bit too old for the daily grind on the basketball court – I needed to find an activity that would keep my mind alive and fill a lot of time. Writing was a good choice.

The second was, I'd lived and worked in Southern Africa for 20 years. My family and friends were there. Writing a novel based in Southern Africa was a way to connect, to maintain some kind of emotional tie to that experience and all those people from 9000 miles away. Last, Southern Africa went through incredible changes during the time I was there. I lived through much of 1980s Zimbabwe, the period right after independence. I was also was in South Africa during the run-up to democracy and eight years of post-democracy. I did a lot of education and research in schools and colleges, with social movements, community groups and trade unions in the region. All this meant I had a few things I wanted to say. A novel felt like the perfect platform. I had one problem though, I’d never written a novel.

So one morning I sat down in front of the 40-year-old Olivetti manual typewriter in the day room at the Federal Detention Center in Dublin, California, and started writing. Within a few weeks I managed to put together a draft and send it to a friend who’d just finished a PhD in literature. I expected her to give me glowing reviews. She wrote back and told me politely that it was worthless, lacking all the essential elements of a good novel like plot, character, setting, tension, etc. She actually gave me what I thought was quite patronising advice: “read more novels.” I fumed for a few days, then swallowed my pride and started to read more novels. And I kept writing. For the next couple of years I was bounced around to various penitentiaries and prisons, but that novel was always with me. At one point I even had access to a computer with a hard drive, but by the time I got to my final draft, I’d lost all access to technology and had to write it out – all 595 pages with a ballpoint pen. From there I mailed it to my friend Stephen Morrow in Sydney. He assembled a wonderful group of friends in Australia. They deciphered my dreadful hand writing, put it onto computer and sent it to the publisher Umuzi, in Cape Town, who agreed to publish it. Without friends in life, where would a person be?

The plot of the novel

Now I'm going to briefly summarise the story for you. The story takes place in early 1980s’ Zimbabwe, right after independence. The protagonist is a young American graduate history student named Ben Dabney who travels to Zimbabwe with a totally idealised picture of Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwean notion of racial reconciliation. He places Robert Mugabe in the same category as people like Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King. As a researcher, Ben wants to tell the story of the Zimbabwean miracle of reconciliation to the rest of the world. When he arrives in Zimbabwe he is greeted with a very warm reception by some fairly high-level players in the government and the ruling party. Plus, he has a romantic involvement with a disabled former guerrilla, Florence Matshaka. So things are going quite well for him... Then he starts a side research project – inquiring into the death of a liberation war leader, Elias Tichasara, who died in a mysterious car accident right before independence. There had always been rumors about political plotting behind his death. As Ben begins to probe this death he finds layers and layers of mystery, of reticence, of distortions, of out and out lies of – all kinds of power plays by people to protect their own interests relative to Tichasara’s death.

At the same time, Ben also takes a trip to Matabeleland – the south of the country. He goes there to interview a former guerrilla comrade of Florence’s, Nomonde Dube. She's a teacher in a rural school. While Ben is at the school the army comes in and parades all the teachers out onto the soccer field in the name of searching for dissidents. The soldiers beat the headmaster; one of the teachers disappears; Ben has to get out of there as quickly as possible. When he gets back to Harare he tries to raise the issue with people; tries to get some publicity. He’s convinced Mugabe doesn't know about this and Ben’s trying to inform his hero so that the government will see the light and stop what in Ben’s mind looks like senseless violence.

So, I think you can see what is generally happening here – we have this idealistic student whose notions of Mugabe and reconciliation are kind of unraveling. His research becomes very complicated, his relationship with Florence becomes even more complicated, and he also comes under pressure from the Central Intelligence Organisation, who don’t like his research. He has to find a way to battle out of that. Does he succeed? Does he live happily ever after in the end? I won’t spoil it for you so I'll stop there.

The meaning of We Are All Zimbabweans Now

Now what did it all mean? I’m trying to address three main issues in this book. In a broad way I’m revisiting some old questions: Who makes history? Who writes history? I’m consciously trying to counter some of the mythology that has grown up around Zimbabwe, particularly post-2000 after the land seizures and the descent of the Zimbabwean economy into hyperinflation and chaos. A new history of post-independence Zimbabwe has emerged in the wake of those land seizures. Conservative Western reporters and white Zimbabweans who view themselves as the ultimate victims of Zimbabwean independence are writing that history. Their project is to re-resuscitate colonialist historiography, take us back to bosses, madams and “natives”. The following quote is illustrative, an example of what I tried to respond to in my novel:

The final arrival of the former insurgent leader Robert Mugabe in the new Zimbabwe, heralded a new form of warfare against white and black alike – the result of naked megalomania. The rule of law became redundant. Tyranny replaced the democratic process. National self-sufficiency gave way to drastic shortages and malnutrition. Through all this sorry history one thing stood out – the indomitable spirit of the white and black Zimbabweans who were the victims of this insanity. -- Eric Harrison, author of Jambanja

Apart from the absurd notion that colonial oppression and exploitation represented some kind of democracy, there are two things in this quote that I tried to contest in We Are All Zimbabweans Now. I’d call them historical myths. The first of these is that Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) from day one has been at the helm of a ruthless unchanging, totally repressive dictatorship; that for nearly 30 years now the Zimbabwean people have suffered under the yoke of a leader who is some sort of combination of Idi Amin and Ceausescu. Some people have even tried to parallel Mugabe to Hitler because his mustache looks something like the Fuhrer’s.

I want to clarify that I’m not a Mugabe-phile, but I think it's important to look at the 30 years of post-independence Zimbabwe in a nuanced fashion, particularly the 1980s. Because the 1980s had a very different set of problems and tensions than today, a different dynamic, a different balance of forces if you like. In the 1980s, authoritarianism coexisted with a broad program of social reform. One writer called it a “schizophrenic state”. Repression coexisted with hope. There was a horrible offensive by the army on innocent civilians in Matabeleland, yet at the same time, vast expansions of social services were taking place. A large percentage of the people also believed in the future, that their children would live much better than they were living

There was a concrete reason for this optimism. The Zimbabwean government made good on a lot of its promises. For example, the demands of people for the expansion of education, for the expansion of healthcare facilities, for better access to land and inputs for small-scale farmers and a range of other services – the demands of women for some form of a redress of the inequalities in both legal and social status. The government addressed these in a substantial way in the 1980s.

For instance, there was not a single government high school in the rural areas for black Zimbabweans at the time of independence and that is where 70% of the people lived. Within two years the government had opened 613 high schools in the rural areas, plus another 117 in urban areas. Many of them were built with the participation of the parents. Secondary school enrolment rose from about 75,000 in 1980 to 470,000 by 1985. Primary school was free; secondary school was very inexpensive. For those who were able to gain access to the University of Zimbabwe, there were also full bursaries. So there was an incredible expansion of education.

Similar things happened in health – clinics sprouting up across the country – 163 built in the first four years. There were massive campaigns to inoculate babies against childhood diseases. Infant mortality fell by nearly 40% in the first five years after independence.

In agriculture, although there was a minimal land redistribution, support went to small-scale black farmers. Seeds, pesticides, fertilisers and other agricultural inputs were made available – access to credit improved and an extensive education program for small-scale black farmers enabled them to improve their farming methods and to begin to take part in the production of cash crops – cotton, coffee, tobacco that were previously the preserve of whites.

So the government made serious changes. In other words, with all its problems, the decade of the 1980s was nothing like what would happen in the early 2000s. The schizophrenia of the 1980s brought reform (but clearly not revolution). The madness of the 2000s boasts no meaningful reform. There is no optimism at the grassroots level, only the fear that things can always get worse.

Why did this type of reform happen at that time? During its first years of rule, Mugabe and ZANU-PF maintained some connection to their popular base, to the people’s demands and needs. Lest we forget, the liberators of Zimbabwe mostly came from a rural background. They were not wealthy people. Their life experiences pre-1980 was not that different from the vast majority of disenfranchised black Zimbabweans. As the 1980s moved on and these new rulers became more accustomed to wielding power and more used to living a certain kind of lifestyle, the distance between them and the ordinary rural citizens and the ordinary people living in the townships grew enormously. But in the early 1980s that relationship was very different. People expected the government to meet their needs. The government even at times conducted campaigns against corruption in its own ranks, the most famous of which was the Sandura Commission in 1988, which investigated corruption by leading government officials around a government-owned car factory. As a result of that commission a number of cabinet ministers resigned. One even committed suicide. So I'm trying to give in this novel a flavor of what the 1980 was like – that it wasn't like the 2000s. That’s the first point on where my novel rejects from Harrison’s view of history.

The second issue concerns the role of whites in the 1980s. Today’s rewritten Zimbabwean history present an image of white farmers as completely innocent victims in the process of land seizure by an evil African tyrant. While I am not at all in support of the way in which the government of Zimbabwe has gone about redistributing land, accounts like Harrison’s would have us believe that from the moment of independence in 1980 all whites were fully on board with this notion of reconciliation. And as the myth goes, throughout the ensuing two decades these beleaguered “European” warriors did everything in their power to make a non-racial, democratic Zimbabwe work. There have been some suggestions that white farmers themselves were trying their best to redistribute land and share the land with the black majority.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing.

For those who arrived in Zimbabwe from other countries in the 1980s, one of the most striking facets of Zimbabwean society was how the white population clung to racist ideas and the extent to which they tried to win over white ex-patriates to their to their notions about “primitive natives” and so forth. The local whites maintained separated social clubs; in many cases they opened up separate schools so their children would not have to be in the same classroom with blacks, particularly poor blacks.

A look at the actions of the major force that represented white agricultural wealth and power, the Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU), will dispel any fantasy that whites bought into reconciliation. The CFU fought tooth and nail to block land redistribution and to maintain white ownership of the lucrative commercial farming sectors in Zimbabwe, particularly tobacco, the biggest cash crop in Zimbabwe. The CFU often did this by making alliances, often quite corrupt alliances in fact, with the ruling elements in the government. To say that these white farmers were in any way actively trying to deracialise Zimbabwean society be would be a total distortion. Moreover, the government did very little to pressure them to do so.

Reconciliation was powerful during this period. It may not have contained the spiritual motivations of forgiveness that inspired Ben Dabney to come to Zimbabwe, but reconciliation was put into practice in a serious way. The 2% white population maintained a guaranteed 20 of the 100 seats in parliament until 1987. Ian Smith, the last white prime minister of Rhodesia, a man who said the country wouldn’t be ruled by a black in “a thousand years”, campaigned openly and sat in that parliament. (On one occasion he actually collapsed in the parliament building and the government saved his life.)

During this period, the whites voted on reconciliation with, well, the ballot. In 1985, after half a decade non-racialism, whites elected members of Smith’s racist party to 15 of the 20 seats reserved for them. They couldn’t have made a clearer statement in rejection of reconciliation.

These unchanging attitudes of whites become important down the road because in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Robert Mugabe and the war veterans began to openly attack the whites of Zimbabwe for their racism and lack of transformation, such comments had a certain resonance within the black population. Everyone certainly didn’t support the steps the government took but what Mugabe said was not a far-fetched pack of lies, as it has been portrayed in the Western media.

Why does this matter?

Those are two myths of Zimbabwean history that I've tried to use the story of Ben Dabney to counter. I’m contesting the way in which that history has emerged in the media today because I think it’s a history that’s informed by some very racist and colonialist notions about African societies and the role of whites in Zimbabwean society in particular. And it’s disturbing to such ideas once again gaining credence.

Moreover, re-writing the history of the 1980s obscures the real roots of today’s problems – the structural adjustment policies Zimbabwe implemented in the 1990s. The government’s Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) of 1991 removed the momentum of reform of the 1980s and put the country on the course where structural adjustment usually leads – the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. By the late 1990s the working class, the war veterans and rural citizens were mounting strikes, demonstrations and land occupations on a scale never seen in Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s rule was under threat. He needed a ploy to defend his power. He chose buy off the war veterans and turn them into a paramilitary force. He paid them $50,000 each and a monthly pension of $2000 for life. With this maneuvre Mugabe successfully divided any potential united front of the oppressed classes and bought himself some very competent enforcers, the war veterans. He then could reward those enforcers and his close political allies with land.

Ultimately then, the reason behind the land seizures was not Mugabe wanting poor peasants to have land but the president’s need to have some carrots to provide to his sycophants. In hindsight, buying off the war veterans was a brilliant political ploy, perhaps the only step Mugabe could have taken to defeat the groundswell of opposition and keep himself in power.

Of course by now you might be thinking: why does all of this matter? I think it does. If you rewrite that history as a static sort of dictatorship, the vibrancy of the rebellion of the oppressed classes in the 1990s is missing. And the root of that rebellion as a response to the immiseration caused by structural adjustment also disappears.

If I had lived in Zimbabwe in the 1990s, I would have loved to write about that period. But I wasn’t there. Since I was writing largely from memory in a prison cell in California, I had to focus on what I knew. But any history that leaves out change, also leavse out struggle and class conflict. That’s not the kind of history that teaches us any real lessons, nor is it actually very interesting.

Ben Dabney as protagonist

I’ve taken a slight detour from my main story line, but that’s okay. I’ve got a little time left to discuss my protagonist, Ben Dabney. His story is that of many outsiders, expatriate researchers if you will, who go to Zimbabwe or other African countries on various missions of “goodwill”. When Ben Dabney arrives in Zimbabwe he begins by taking what I would call the path of least resistance for expatriate researchers. He hangs out with foreign academics, goes to their dinner parties, joins in their esoteric academic discussions. He also makes friends with people in high places in government who give him lots of ideas about his research and considerable support. At this point Ben is falling into a ready-made trap for external researchers, following that path of least resistance.

It’s easy for an expatriate to stay in the circles of power, whether they be academic, government, corporate or international development organisation circles of power. It’s comfortable, especially for a white male, with little need for self-reflection. Ben could have continued on this path and ended up a successful academic, but he didn't. He got sidetracked. He began to delve into the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans and to ask some bigger questions. He didn't allow that narrow circle of power to determine his research path and his lived experience of Zimbabwe. Ben realised that he couldn’t make very meaningful observations about Zimbabwe without having some understanding of how ordinary people, especially women, carry out their lives, how they perceive the government, and how they perceive their own history.

So although Ben Dabney arrived with a certain paradigm, a certain focus on Robert Mugabe as hero, he finished with a very different perspective because he was able to interrogate his own assumptions and theories.

This was difficult at times. It left him feeling very alienated, sometimes very foolish but he managed to penetrate the Zimbabwean reality. He went out of the capital city. He went to rural farms. He went to rural schools. He began to have an understanding of what happens outside that circle of power and he developed emotional ties to the people. He went to places where an expatriate white person didn't go and he remained aware of how he was treated there and that his treatment was connected to the history of racism and colonialism in Zimbabwe. He explored all of this over and over and over again. This was not a quick process, not a tourist’s guided tour on a luxury bus that takes you past a statue here or to visit a museum. Ben’s tour was unguided, long and slow, a journey often complicated by the fact that most of what was going on was taking place in a language or languages he didn't understand.

I offer the Ben Dabney character as a counter to foreign journalists, especially whites, who want to write the complete story of Zimbabwe quickly and simply. It can’t be done. History is complicated. Developing an understanding of the culture and politics of another country takes time. And you can’t get that understanding by staying in five-star hotels or by not asking difficult questions about your research and about yourself.

Ben asked those difficult questions: How does my research have meaning for the people I'm researching? For whose benefit is the research? Is it for me so I can gain academic fame, is it part of a bigger grand academic project? Is it going to change the lives of the people that I'm researching, is it going to change me and how I live my life when I go back to Wisconsin? These are complicated questions for which there are no easy answers for Ben or for anyone else – but they're questions that Ben Dabney constantly asked himself rather than taking the path of least resistance, rather than staying perched above Zimbabwean society in that circle of power.

Ben Dabney broke out of that circle. He got himself into a whole lot of trouble for doing that, but in the end he was a better researcher for it and he also became a better person. He not only researched Africa but he learned from Africa. He came to understand the importance of ordinary people, particularly women, in the making of history and the importance of ordinary things in his own life. That’s where I think good research and a good understanding of history should lead.

I’ll stop there and look forward to your questions and comments. Thank you.

[James Kilgore is presently a research scholar at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. He was a fugitive from US justice for 27 years for political activities related to the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s. He spent two decades of that time in Southern Africa, where he worked as a college director, trade union and social movement educator and researcher under the name John Pape. He was arrested in Cape Town in 2002 and extradited to California, where he spent six and a half years in prison. During his incarceration he wrote the novel, We Are All Zimbabweans Now (Umuzi, Cape Town, 2009).]

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