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(Almost) Out of Africa: The White Tribes

The Borrowdale Country Club, a once-elegant retreat in the northern suburbs of Harare, is a good place to measure the state of Zimbabwe’s beleaguered white population. Founded in the mid-1950s, when Zimbabwe was the British-administered colony known as Rhodesia, the club served as the sports and social center for two generations of ranchers, farmers, traders, administrators, and other members of the country’s once-coddled white minority. Above its polished mahogany bar, rows of plaques commemorate the winners of club tennis tournaments dating back fifty years; the wide veranda looks out over a lawn fringed by blooming jacarandas and frangipanis—and, beyond, a fecund valley and hills covered with handsome estates, many of them now owned by generals and top officials in the regime of President Robert Mugabe.

But a closer look reveals signs of decay: threadbare carpets, peeling paint, a rutted tennis court, and a weed-choked, potholed access road. The club is nearly deserted, most of its members having fled to Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, South Africa, or other countries in Africa that offer more stability and security. Since the defeat of Ian Smith’s white-minority government and the onset of black-majority rule in 1980, the club has opened its doors to all Zimbabweans, black and white. At the bar on a weekday afternoon, the only members I encountered were three elderly whites—I’ll call them Pat, Pete, and Nigel—who were chain-smoking and ordering gin and tonics at an alarming rate. I fell into conversation with them while waiting for the opposition member of parliament with whom I was to have lunch and talk about human rights violations in Zimbabwe.

“We’re among the last,” said Pat, a gray-haired, sallow-skinned woman in her sixties, exhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke. The club, she said, was down to a couple of dozen white members. “Those of us who can afford to are making plans to leave,” she told me. “The ones who can’t are finding it harder and harder to get by.” She said she was staying in Zimbabwe, but only because she had nowhere else to go. During the past decade she had watched her savings and her pension evaporate as a result of Zimbabwe’s staggering hyperinflation. (Figures from November 2008 showed the annual inflation rate at 89.7 sextillion percent.) Several white farmers she’d known had been murdered by gangs of so-called War Veterans, the shock troops of Mugabe’s violent land redistribution plan, and hundreds more had had their properties confiscated without compensation. The 2008 election campaign, during which Mugabe’s party thugs tortured and murdered hundreds of supporters of the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, was, for Pat, incontrovertible evidence that the country of her birth was beyond repair.

Now, having been stripped of her savings, her peace of mind, and her dignity, Pat stood to lose her passport as well. A bill passed by Zimbabwe’s parliament had made it illegal to have dual citizenship, obliging her to officially renounce her ties to Ireland and Great Britain—the birthplaces of her mother and father, who’d emigrated to Zimbabwe just after World War II.

Sitting at the bar next to Pat was Pete, a rugged-looking, lean-faced man who’d been driven off his farm six years earlier. “Look at the Nuremberg race laws,” Pete said bitterly, in the middle of his third gin and tonic since I’d sat down with him. “That’s a template for Zimbabwe. Your parents and grandparents determine your citizenship here, just like in Hitler’s Germany.”

At the end of the bar sat Nigel, a white-haired, frail-looking man in his seventies who gasped for breath between bites of roast beef and boiled potatoes. It was Nigel’s last week in Zimbabwe, he told me. Suffering from cancer and facing extensive radiation and chemotherapy that he couldn’t afford, he’d decided to move in with relatives in Great Britain, where he’d never lived before, to get on the national health plan. “There’s nothing left for any of us in Zim,” said Nigel. “Come back in a couple of years—the country club will be gone, too.”

Zimbabwe’s experience may be extreme, but it’s hardly unique. Africa’s white tribes have been gradually disappearing throughout the past half century, reduced first by the wave of independence that swept over the continent in the 1950s and 1960s, then by the wars, political instability, and economic turmoil of the post-independence era. The exodus has come in several stages. In 1962, one million Pieds-Noirs—as the white immigrants from Europe then living in Algeria were called—fled the country when France, under Charles de Gaulle, ended its colonial war there. The following year, Kenya won its independence (after the eight-year-long Mau Mau uprising), and by the end of the decade, more than half the original white population of sixty thousand was gone. At the end of the 1970s, Portugal’s withdrawal from Mozambique and Angola spurred an even greater exodus, with ninety-five percent of whites in both countries making for the exits—leaving behind an uneducated indigenous population. (Mozambique reportedly had a single black university graduate at the time of independence.) But nowhere was white flight more dramatic than in Zimbabwe, where the white population dropped from a peak of around 296,000 in 1975 (five percent of the country) to 120,000 in 1999 to just 30,000 today.

Only in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela and his successor, Thabo Mbeki, emphasized racial reconciliation, has the white population, about 5.2 million, or eleven percent of the population, remained stable—although there is plenty of grumbling about spiraling crime and the loss of privileges under the African National Congress government. But in all, less than one percent of Africa’s population, or about 7.5 million out of one billion, is of white European descent, and the number is dropping.

 

I t is an African “end of history” that began when Portuguese seafarers started making forays around the continent in the fifteenth century. The real European engagement came four hundred years later, when adventurers, mostly from Great Britain, France, and Germany, advanced beyond Africa’s periphery and opened up previously impenetrable terrain. Their ranks include men such as Richard Burton and John Speke, who trekked across East Africa and discovered the source of the Nile in what is now Uganda; Heinrich Barth, a brilliant Arabist from Germany who traveled across the Sahara between 1852 and 1855, reached Timbuktu disguised as an Arab, and lived to tell about it; and Henry Morton Stanley, the war correspondent turned explorer whose bravery and brutality went hand in hand during his journeys across the Congo for Belgium’s King Leopold. There were scores of lesser known but no less intrepid figures, such as the German physician Gustav Nachtigal, who explored the most remote corners of what are now Chad and the Sudanese province of Darfur in the 1860s and 1870s.

By the mid-1880s, the so-called Scramble for Africa—the competition between European powers for territory on the continent—had largely run its course, although Italy was still trying to catch up. In February 1885, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, a latecomer to the colonial game, presided over the signing of the Berlin Act, which formally partitioned Africa into zones of influence. Then came the business of establishing control over territory, creating colonial administrations, and extracting as much wealth as possible from these new possessions. Different European powers carried out this process with varying degrees of brutality. The most notorious example took place in the Congo, which Belgian administrators turned into a vast slave state dedicated to the production of rubber. The French, British, Germans, and Portuguese, if less naked in their acts of brutality, still regarded black Africans as sub-intelligent creatures whose primary function was to serve as cheap labor.

Their methods of governance might have differed, one to the other, but the aim was similar: to keep indigenous peoples subservient and wholly dedicated to building the power and wealth of the colonizers. France, which ruled West Africa from a series of forts that stretched from the Senegalese coast across the Sahara, constructed a highly centralized system with a governor general based in Senegal, and lieutenant governors who received their orders and finances through the all-powerful governor. Conscription labor and the imprisonment of defiant natives became commonplace under this system. The British, too, practiced direct rule in their East African Protectorate—part of which became the crown colony of Kenya—carving up fertile land among white settlers and marginalizing Africans.

In South West Africa, now Namibia, the last part of Africa to fall under European rule, the Germans preferred to keep their footprint light, depending on indigenous soldiers provided by co-opted chiefs to put down resistance. The Belgians, too, in Rwanda and Burundi, practiced indirect rule, using the Tutsi tribe as overlords to keep in line the far more numerous Hutu. All developed variations on the apartheid system later codified and refined in South Africa. Speaking at Oxford University in 1929, a South African general and future prime minister, Jan Smuts, who favored a system of “institutional segregation” that led to apartheid, declared that the African “has largely remained a child type, with a child psychology and outlook.” Even Albert Schweitzer, the great Alsatian theologian and doctor who founded and sustained the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Gabon (then part of French Equatorial Africa), subscribed to this view: “The negro is a child, and with children nothing can be done without authority.”

The legacy left by these administrators and settlers differed from country to country: the Portuguese and Belgians left almost nothing behind but their language, while the influence of the French persists strongly in its former colonies, many of whose citizens maintain strong educational, cultural, even emotional ties to the former colonizer. And while few, if any, of Africa’s white administrators will be remembered for their enlightened racial views, the great railroad and communications network that the British built across East Africa at the turn of the twentieth century is but one example of the modern infrastructure they left behind.


W hite Africans have left an impressive legacy in other fields, from the great paleontologists Louis and Mary Leakey—and their son, the paleontologist, conservationist, and political reformer Richard Leakey; to literary figures such as the South African novelists J. M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer; to Roy Bennett, a farmer and opposition parliamentarian who faces a possible death sentence in his native Zimbabwe for rallying his countrymen, black and white, against the dictator Robert Mugabe.

For the now-independent countries in which these white Africans have elected to remain, however, stability and prosperity remain elusive. True, technical expertise can be taught, and infrastructure put into place, but the failure of many African nations to emerge as viable states stems from more complicated factors. Some of this may be cultural, some geographical and climatic, some the result of a culture of dependency and a pernicious colonial legacy. The borders arbitrarily drawn by colonial rulers threw together tribal groups into artificial states that, in too many cases, began to fall apart as soon as the white overlords pulled out. For many of these countries, a true sense of nationhood has failed to develop.

A pattern of poor leadership, which can’t purely be blamed on the white colonials, has also affected many African countries. From Zimbabwe to Ivory Coast to Kenya, post-colonial dictators have regarded governance as primarily an opportunity to enrich themselves, their tribes, or their clans: other countries, like Somalia, fell victim to civil wars that have set them back a generation or more. South Africa has been governed by enlightened leaders since the end of white-minority rule in 1994, but still suffers from the huge inequalities in education, health, and economic opportunity fostered by decades of apartheid.

Those whites who remain in Africa today dwell in a state of uncertainty, surrounded by countries that have imploded through civil war and tribal strife, and burdened by the knowledge that they serve as convenient scapegoats for African demagogues seeking to turn racial resentment into power. The new reality is reflected in an outpouring of memoirs written by white Africans in recent years, such as Peter Godwin’s When a Crocodile Eats the Sun and Douglas Rogers’s The Last Resort (both portraits of life in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe), and Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked , a series of prose snapshots of South Africa’s largest city in the post-apartheid era.

These books portray a world of rampant crime and high anxiety, of still gaping inequalities in wealth, and a roiling undercurrent of black African anger. The rage is certainly not unjustified: much of white wealth was built through fraud and violence, through landgrabs and extortion of mineral and other rights that have never been properly adjudicated. But one of the tragedies of Africa is that white flight, rather than bringing greater opportunities for blacks, has, in example after example, produced poverty and instability, the loss of both an economic base and the expertise needed for future development.

 

I first encountered the charmed—and tenuous—existence of white Africans during the 1990s, when I lived in Nairobi as Newsweek’s sub-Saharan Africa bureau chief. No other country has so epitomized the romance of Africa, or its cocoon of white wealth and privilege, as Kenya has. Typical of most of the continent, that privilege was rooted in injustice: the white settlement had begun in 1904, when the British colonial government forced Masai tribal elders to put their thumbprints on a treaty that stripped the nomadic people of their ownership of the Rift Valley, a fertile swath of highlands and lakes in central Kenya. (The rest of their territories, one south of Nairobi and the other in the highlands of Laikipia, northwest of Mount Kenya, would be taken away seven years later.)

Much of the land was purchased for little more than administrative costs by English aristocrats such as Hugh Cholmondeley, Lord Delamere, whose descendants continue to lord over his vast estate near Lake Elementeita in the Rift Valley, about two hours northwest of Nairobi. Other whites settled in the fecund suburbs of Nairobi, such as Lavington, Muthaiga, and Karen—named after the Danish writer Karen Blixen. Books such as Blixen’s Out of Africa and Beryl Markham’s West with the Night captured the exhilarating freedom and adventure that colonial Kenya offered whites—hunting safaris, flights over the savanna, “sundowners” on the slopes of extinct volcanoes. (The dark side was revealed in James Fox’s White Mischief , a tale of adultery and murder among the “Happy Valley” set in the 1930s.) That lifestyle remained largely intact after Kenya’s 1963 independence. Although whites lost their political power and more than half left the country, those who remained were assured by the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and his successor, Daniel arap Moi, that their land and other privileges would be left intact—as long as they adhered to their end of an unspoken bargain, and kept out of politics.

By the time I arrived in Kenya, the deal had begun to break down. Under Moi’s corrupt dictatorship, the economy was stagnating and crime was worsening: carjackings were rampant, and many whites, as well as affluent blacks and Asians, lived hunkered down behind layers of barbed wire, high walls, and electrified fences, protected round the clock by security guards known as askaris. Then in 1995, Richard Leakey, son of the well-known paleontologists, broke the whites’ end of the bargain. He accused the ruling party of rampant corruption and neglect of Kenya’s crumbling infrastructure, and started an opposition political party called Safina. The move was the boldest intrusion by a white into African politics since the independence era, and it infuriated Moi, who called the Kenyan-born Leakey an atheist, a racist, and a colonialist, and unleashed goons to beat him and thrash him with whips.

White Kenyans were terrified. One afternoon I witnessed a telling scene at State House, Moi’s presidential palace, where dozens of whites had gathered in a poignant display of deference to the autocrat who held their destiny in his hands. Led by Philip Leakey, Richard’s younger brother, these white farmers, ranchers, and businessmen pledged their fealty to a crumbling and corrupt regime. Listening to their testimonials, the president beamed from his carved-teakwood throne. “I won’t attack the European community,” he assured them. “I am only after Leakey.”

But it didn’t take long before the antics of another white African brought more unwanted attention to the community. Thomas Cholmondeley, the heir to the Lord Delamere estate, was a classic “Kenyan Cowboy”—a gun-loving aristocrat who flew his own plane and partied in lavish retreats with affluent British expatriates and fellow white Kenyans. In 2005, Cholmondeley shot to death an undercover Kenya Wildlife Service ranger, a black man, on his property, claiming he mistook the man for a robber. A year later, Cholmondeley struck again, this time killing a poacher—another black man—who was stalking antelope on his ranch. “The white community has spent decades trying to shake off the image of Kenya’s Rift Valley as the ‘Happy Valley’ playground of decadent and racist toffs,” observed Chris McGreal in the Guardian during Cholmondeley’s celebrated murder trial. “Now Cholmondeley’s killings have prompted wags to redub the place, ‘Trigger Happy Valley.’” Cholmondeley was eventually convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight months in prison. (He had already served three years in detention while the trial dragged on.) The incident was a reminder of the racial divide that persisted in Kenya—and it made many white Kenyans sense the undercurrent of black resentment, and the fragility of their own position.

Indeed, Kenya’s whites had only to look a thousand miles south, to Zimbabwe, to see a cautionary tale in progress. As in Kenya, the prosperity of Zimbabwe’s white population was rooted in violence and thievery stemming from 1888, when Cecil Rhodes’s emissaries crossed the Limpopo River from South Africa. The whites struck a deal with the chief of Matabeleland that gave them mineral rights to the territory in perpetuity in return for a monthly lease of one hundred pounds, plus one thousand Martini-Henry breech-loading rifles, one hundred thousand bullets, and a gunboat on the Zambezi River. Soon, however, Rhodes simply confiscated the land—killing thousands of the chief’s warriors in the process—then distributed it to white farmers and relocated six hundred thousand “native” Africans onto so-called Tribal Trust Lands.

A new wave of immigrants from Europe after World War II further squeezed the expanding black population. By the early 1970s, when civil war broke out against the white, racist government of Ian Smith (who had declared Rhodesia independent from Great Britain in 1965 and defied international sanctions), whites made up one percent of Rhodesia’s population—but controlled more than half of the land.

After independence, Mugabe, encouraged by President Samora Machel of Mozambique—whose own country had been stripped and left destitute by its fleeing Portuguese population—appealed to whites to stay and help rebuild the country. Most agreed, and over the next fifteen years, Zimbabwe developed the fastest-growing economy in Africa. The country’s four thousand white farmers employed forty percent of the black population. Hard currency poured into the country through the sale of minerals and cash crops such as tobacco. But as Mugabe built a one-party state and suppressed dissent, whites knew that their privileges could be yanked away in an instant. “We are living with the Sword of Damocles over our heads,” one white farmer in Bulawayo told an Associated Press correspondent in 2000. By then, in fact, the blade was already falling.

In the late 1990s, increasingly fearful that Mugabe’s one-party state would jeopardize their own future, many white farmers began throwing their support—and their cash—toward a growing opposition movement called the Movement for Democratic Change. As is well known by now, Mugabe used the country’s inequitable distribution of land to increase his power, unleashing mobs to seize white farms that he then turned over to squatters, soldiers, and ruling-party cronies. Mugabe’s violent, ill-conceived confiscations destroyed the agricultural sector, depleted the country’s hard currency reserves, drove out the white population, and wrecked the economy.

 

T he real victims of Mugabe’s folly were black Zimbabweans, but whites suffered too. Hustling became a way of life: at the height of hyperinflation, I met a number of whites who were surviving by the black market—driving across the Beitbridge border into South Africa, stocking up on petrol, bribing customs officials, and then selling the precious fluid in Zim for hard currency. The economic meltdown also gave rise to a new phenomenon: white poverty. Peter Godwin’s When a Crocodile Eats the Sun describes his own parents’ deepening destitution, to the point of near-starvation, in the capital city, Harare.

During my visit to Bulawayo, a southern opposition stronghold, in the run-up to the March 2008 presidential election, I was startled to encounter a pair of white tramps, both men in their twenties, hovering around the outskirts of a campaign rally for an opposition member of parliament. Out of work, their savings devoured by hyperinflation, with no access to hard currency, they were camping in the ruins of a nearby game park, they told me, surviving on handouts of food and clothing from their more affluent neighbors.

Although its descent has been the most dramatic, Zimbabwe hasn’t been the only African country afflicted by mass white flight this decade. During the 1990s, in the last days of the relatively benevolent dictatorship of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, I traveled regularly to Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, then known as the most French city in Africa: one could order a croissant and café au lait at any of the countless Parisian-style patisseries that lined the downtown streets; catch the latest films of Gérard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye at the French cultural center; and spend weekends at Mediterranean-style beach resorts.

The relationship between the French expatriates and the black African population was sown with tension, for all the usual reasons: land inequities, gross disparities of wealth, the self-imposed segregation of the white community, the whites’ perceived arrogance. Houphouët-Boigny’s death brought to power Laurent Gbagbo, a demagogue who incited tribal animosities, provoked a civil war, and whipped up popular anger against the French. In 2004, half a dozen French peacekeepers at a base in a breakaway northern province died in a bombing attack by the Ivory Coast air force. In response, the French military destroyed the entire air force, making every Frenchman in the country a target. The French military evacuated almost the entire expatriate population of fourteen thousand, most of whom never returned. And Ivory Coast is today an economic basket case where whites remain in jeopardy. In 2006, while on a brief stopover during a flare-up of racial tensions, I was mobbed by club-wielding thugs on a taxi ride from the airport, who screamed, “Francais! Francais!” Only the payment of $100 in bribes, and the presentation of my U.S. passport, saved me from a beating—or worse.

 

W hat’s the future of Africa’s dwindling white tribe? Surprisingly, the prospects aren’t entirely grim. Over the last five years, some African governments have finally recognized the economic benefits brought by an affluent, educated, white population. Hundreds of dispossessed white farmers from Zimbabwe have started farming again in Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, and Uganda, bringing their agricultural expertise to impoverished nations. Four years ago, in Kwara State, a Muslim-dominated part of Nigeria two hours north of Lagos, I met thirteen white Zimbabweans who had accepted the state governor’s offer of free land and guaranteed bank loans in exchange for their help in reviving Nigeria’s nearly moribund agricultural sector. The leader of the group, sixty-five-year-old Graham Hatty, had lost his profitable, sixteen-thousand-hectare commercial farm in 2004, when a Zimbabwean general appeared at his house with an expulsion order: “He told my wife and me, ‘I’ve been wanting this farm since 1999, and I’m going to take it.’”

Hatty and his fellow farmers had originally been skeptical about the move to Nigeria. “We had heard that the Nigerians were crooks, that people who travel to Nigeria never come out again,” he told me. “But we had no other option.” Hatty and twelve others arrived in early 2005, followed by their wives a year later. With an initial loan of $250,000 per farmer, the men drilled wells, built houses, imported tractors and seed drillers, and planted their first maize crop that July.

At the time, it was an open question whether the locals would accept the interlopers—some peasant farmers had been forcibly relocated to make room for the Zimbabweans—or whether the state government would make good on its promise of financial support. But when I checked back in with Judy Dix-Hatty, Graham’s wife, in January 2010, I discovered that the group was hanging in despite difficulties. “We are growing 500 hectares of cassava this year and that is all going according to plan,” she wrote to me in an e-mail. “Selling is slow, due to transport troubles. . . . The government is very slow at fulfilling their continued promises of extra finance. It is frustrating, but as expected in W. Africa. . . . The local population accept us totally and give us little trouble.” The farmers have hired many local workers, turned fallow land into productive fields, and begun to impart some of their expertise to the local government and surrounding communities.

Back in Zimbabwe, meanwhile, Robert Mugabe, under increasing international pressure, agreed last year to form a unity government with the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. The U.S. dollar is now the official currency, and the era of hyperinflation has ended. But Mugabe still controls the security forces and runs a de facto dictatorship, and the white population seems destined to keep declining. Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, has said that even if his party takes power, he will not return land confiscated from whites—although he concedes that Zimbabwe needs to come up with a more rational approach to land reform.

Judy Dix-Hatty spoke for other exiles when she wrote me, “Zim has a long way to go before we’d consider moving back. Very depressing. The country has been trashed.” At some point, perhaps, a democratic regime of the future might restore confidence and rebuild what was once Africa’s most dynamic white community. Until that happens, however, the dispersal and decline of this community will stand as a testament to the unresolved grievances that continue to blight the continent.

Joshua Hammer worked for more than a decade as a Newsweek correspondent in Europe, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. The author, most recently, of Yokohama Burning, he is currently a freelance correspondent based in Berlin.

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