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A brilliantly crafted white wine
Malcolm Ray
Published: 01-MAR-07

Much of the contemporary literature on Zimbabwe, post-independence, has largely been either social or economic broadsides of a nation in turmoil. Broad canvas strokes of a nation in the yoke of an evil empire.

Few give the lie of a ‘nation’, as if by some mysterious force of gravity, Zimbabweans — black and white, rich and poor, rural and urban — view the country’s collapse through a single lens, with the same degree of pain and aversion of a repugnant kleptocrat.

Peter Godwin, a Zimbabwean journalist now living in New York, debunks this fiction of a happy homogeny and, in a fastidiously constructed tapestry of allegories, challenges the myth that white fears and anxieties are anything other than racial animosity toward the loss of privilege and power.

This is not Godwin’s intention — it’s in the subtext of his narrative of his family’s rapid fall from the prestige and the colonial insulation of a community once buffered by the institutional separation of race and class. His father and mother, both professionals and privileged, are first-generation Zimbabweans — his father a Polish Jew, his mother a British immigrant. Their life together pre-Mugabe is almost regal.

But ‘goodness’ is relative and social and political inertia is as much a crime as active complicity in a politically repressive society that for decades systematically denied blacks the wealth of the nation. Godwin’s family lives the good life — without consciously harming others. They earn well, employ black help and mind their own business. A nice, happy, white liberal family — mum, the good doctor; dad, the engineer.

And Peter Godwin? The police reservist in the old government, an armed body in the service of the old guard.

Yet all around them, there’s carnage. Black poverty cuts a deep scar in the society. It’s the 1970s and Zimbabwe’s social malaise is brewing a melting pot of political upheaval.

Godwin makes no bones of his family’s support for Zapu, the opposition party, backed incidentally by Western proxy interests. Theirs was tacit support for parties, later the MDC, that represented in varying degrees a black counterfoil to the threat of a Marxist dictatorship (the days of colonial rule were over and the idea of a white opposition unthinkable).

By the close of the 1970s Lancaster opens a flank for Mugabe’s unstoppable rise. His victims are black people — the infamous Matabele massacre — and Godwin deftly weaves such anecdotal evidence of a dictator bent on personal aggrandisement into his storyline, presumably to lend succour to the perception that this is not about racism. Certainly, Godwin would like us to think that this story is about the persecution of both whites and blacks in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

The 1990s is the onset of the Godwin family’s fall. They fall quickly. Privilege turns to poverty, a bright blue pool-turned-fish farm becomes Godwin’s metaphor for the onslaught.

The fishpond now feeds the family, money is scarce, resources are depleted, health services are run down, basic amenities like clean water is a trickle, Zimbabwe’s currency is in freefall, goods and services don’t come cheap anymore, and Godwin’s father, George Godwin, now aging rapidly, is in poor health.

Politically, a culture of absolute intolerance is almost official and Mugabe’s marauding (war veteran) goons are ransacking white-owned farms. Godwin’s sister, Georgina, a journalist at the state broadcaster, is eventually blacklisted by the government for her criticism of the government’s methods and redistribution agenda.

Beguilingly, she flees to the UK, along with most white farmers and professionals who become refugees from the former colony, where she starts a foreign news service on the wires devoted exclusively to exposing Mugabe. They’re stripped of their identities as Zimbabweans. Those who choose to remain, like Godwin’s parents, the older ones, are forced to resign their dual citizenship; in fact, renounce foreign identities and pledge allegiance in a perverse public display of patriotism to Zimbabwe — Mugabe.

This theme of personal identity plays constantly in the book and Godwin painstakingly paints a picture of victimhood, as if white identities were really ever anything like Zimbabwean. His father, Godwin discovers, is the product of a family hunted down during the era of Nazi expansionism. Again the victim, this little voyage of personal rediscovery arms Godwin with the ammunition he needs to make his case for white victimhood and loss. His father’s death — poverty and deprivation all around him — is inextricably the tragedy of loss, persecution and social stigma. Throughout the book, we bear witness to Godwin’s father’s ineluctable demise. He literally rots to death — his feet gangrenous, his heart broken, his lungs drowned in bodily fluid. Events and narratives orbit this good man’s incremental slide — the personification of the inevitable mortality of a generation of white Zimbabweans.

Overseas, the new generation, the younger ones like Godwin, sink new roots, begrudgingly, in unfamiliar places. Their sons and daughters, for whom Zimbabwe is known only as ‘Africa’ are American, British, Australian.

In the end, one can’t help but wonder whether Godwin’s graphic portrayal of Zimbabwe’s decline through this personal account is as much a picture of Mugabe’s brutal completion of his victory as his moral defeat in victory.

The invisible hand of the black African stereotype — the post-colonial tragedy of social implosion — is not lost on Godwin’s punctilious narrative. Would the tenor of the book, understandably emotional, have been as conservative had Zimbabwe’s transition been a democratically chosen route to redistribution and redemption? Would Godwin have railed against the former colonial conquests of a nation as equally, if not more, brutal and tragic for the majority of (black) people who must survive his country’s turmoil? The moral subtext of the book is that those who fled, like Peter Godwin and his siblings, did so because they were either forced to or had nothing left to stay for.

Yet, somehow, there’s a bitter aftertaste — the subjective fate of Godwin’s family unavoidably tends toward the same objective conclusion: despite the brutality of the repugnant and morally reprehensible Mugabe, a generation of whites would have preferred to flee Zim rather than share their privilege. Here, the force of gravity that welded the ‘nation’ into a kleptocracy of party apparachiks in the Mugabe government on the one side, and the citizenry — black and white — on the other, comes apart. Those who left were predominantly white with the luxury of choice.

We witness in the concluding chapter Godwin’s description of a “black tramp” rising from an ablution facility in the ground. His hair clings together like glue in filth and rot, his clothes are dirty and tattered. He’s utterly hopeless, unlike others. But read differently, he’s also paradoxically the savage, the image of an seething black Zimbabwean mass, the image of hordes of plundering barbarians waiting to storm the now decayed ‘Godwin fortress’, now shorn of the hedge that once lined the outer edge of the front lawn, the boundary that once shielded white privilege from the cruel reality of black Zimbabwe.

Outside, the street hawkers eye the Godwin household, hawkishly waiting for the imminent day when all that was Godwin’s is theirs. - Business in Africa Magazine

  • Author: Peter Godwin
  • Title: When a crocodile eats the sun
  • Publisher: Picador Africa



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