Movie of the Week: Mugabe and the White African (2008)

I believe that nowhere in the world is race more of a contentious issue than in Sub-Saharan Africa. Where the developed world seeks to, at least in word, move on to a racially and ethnically integrated model, Sub-Saharan African countries still largely follow an old model that clearly divides white and black, and even tribal shades thereof. Barbed wire capped walls protect us whiteys from the black world outside, we’re offered prime seats on minibuses over mothers with babies, and people readily associate us with money and opportunities. South Africa will never escape it’s racially divided past, and even tiny Malawi’s strict citizenship, residence and business rules divide individuals into distinct categories restricting opportunities to restrain foreign influence of the economy, while capitalizing on non-Malawian money and capital.

Zimbabwe acheived independence from Britain in 1980, the last African colony to do so. Until that point, policies of racial division held certain lands as belonging to white and certain less-desirable lands as belonging to black Africans. The spectre of a system vastly similar to that of the United States and it’s own aboriginal peoples, continues to this day. Robert Mugabe, perhaps one of the worst political leaders alive today, has used the narrative of past racial injustices to consolidate and hold on to absolute power.

In the late 90’s, Mugabe introduced a brutal land redistribution scheme intended to strip white Zimbabwean farmers of their large swaths of arable land and redistribute it to landless black peasants. In reality, Mugabe waged a nepotistic land-grab of incredible proportions, awarding established and working white farms to his own relatives and cronies. White farmers, some of whose familes had been farming in Zimbabwe for more than 100 years naturally resisted the seizure of operations which they were deeply invested in. Mugabe tacitly endorsed a policy of violent appropriation, agitating the populace toward a race war against a possibly real or imagined white enemy. Gangs of unemployed men were mobilized to invade homes, steal property and worse yet, terrorize, beat, maim and kill white occupants who resisted.

Mugabe and the White African” is a document of Mike Campbell’s fight to hang on to his 3000 acre farm. Where many farmers sensibly fled upon the threat of violence, Campbell took the fight to the Southern African Development Community, a regional cooperative groups of 15 Southern African states, whose function “is to promote sustainable and equitable economic growth and socio-economic development through efficient productive systems, deeper co-operation and integration, good governance, and durable peace and security.” The film chronicles his repeated trips to hearings in Namibia, the endless postponements by Mugabe’s team, home invasions and violent beatings by Mugabe’s thugs, and his eventual judicial victory.

Campbell’s case is obviously complex. Recognizing that Campbell has a right to the land, brings up broader issues of race and belonging in Sub-Saharan African countries still embittered after Colonialism, and the subsequent racially charged fights for independence. If Campbell wins then the state has to recognize that white persons can be African, shaking the very foundations of statehood and politics. However, a win for Campbell is a loss for Mugabe, for whom the history of racial struggle is the very foundation upon which his power lies.

Some will say that Campbell deserves what he gets, as a foreign opportunist buiding his wealth on the backs of poorly paid black Africans, and this may be true. However, in this film questions as to how far individuals should be held accountable for the transgressions of a broader group are immediately apparent to the viewer. While we can easily fault Campbell and all of white Africa for the crimes of the past, there comes a point, when enough is just enough, when the violence is too gut-wrenching to excuse.

In the end, what we are left with, is the future of Sub-Saharan African states. Do they passionately hold on to their colonial pasts, thereby enduring as governments only defined by the fact that they were once colonies, or do they move on, embracing more cosmopolitan and truly independent societies as many other former colonies have done. If anything, “Mugabe and the White African” underscores the personality crisis that African states must face and the difficultly in creating one anew.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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