Ian Smith denied our African humanity

BORN at the height of the national liberation struggle in the late 1970s, I grew up in post-independence Zimbabwe. Save for hazy memories, I cannot claim to possess a concrete self-consciousness of life under Ian Douglas Smith’s white supremacist Rhodesian Front government. However, having been born to young and unemployed school-leavers of peasant background, my life as a toddler was to be circumscribed in a brutally physical way by the paranoid security policies of Smith’s government.

I spent my early childhood in one of Smith’s concentration camps in a small village called Chibuwe in Chipinge district, on the country’s eastern border with Mozambique. This was a major operational zone for the nationalist guerillas fighting for black self-determination. In order to cut off the guerillas from accessing logistical and political support from the masses, Smith’s government herded African villagers living within such areas into concentration camps, which they euphemistically called ‘protected villages’ or “keeps”.

The rigmarole of concentration camp life revolved around the curfew siren and humiliating security checks. Its barbed wire fence epitomized the erosion of basic rights and freedoms for Africans and stood as an apt symbol of the limits placed in the way of African aspiration under white minority rule. On a broader national level, the fence, represented in the form of the police and the various prohibitions on African movement and domicile, cordoned off African want from white plenty and ensured the uninterrupted flow of white settler culture in Europeans-only enclaves, “far from the madding natives”.

My entire extended family – my grandfather, his sons and their wives and children – lived under the watchful eye of the concentration camp guard and in mortal fear of the FN rifle that swung from his shoulder. Their fertile lands in the rich farming belt of Middle Sabi along the Save River had since been seized and given over to white commercial agriculture.

It was no surprise that two of my older cousins – high on the idealism and fearlessness of youth - found this negation of their humanity and denial of aspiration unendurable and decided to cross over to Mozambique to join the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), whose commander-in-chief was Robert Mugabe. In the neighbouring district of Chimanimani, and in response to similarly dehumanizing conditions, four of my mother’s brothers also crossed over to Mozambique to join the armed struggle for Zimbabwe’s independence.

Meanwhile my father, Goodson Sithole, struggled to find a decent job in order to provide for his young family despite his brilliant GCSE grades. Reluctantly, he found himself cutting sugarcane on Anglo-American owned plantations in the southern Zimbabwe lowveld, later graduating from field to factory. It must have been with an unfathomable sense of anger and frustration that he endured this crass exploitation, reporting to superiors who owed their positions not necessarily to their superior intellect or education but to the colour of their skin.

The advent of independence and black majority rule in 1980 restored agency to Africans as authors of their own history and definers of their own humanity. It opened a whole new universe of opportunity and brought hitherto unfeasible aspirations into the realm of possibility. My father was one of those that took to the opportunities ushered in by independence with gusto. He enrolled at the University of Zimbabwe, benefiting from generous state funding, as I was also to more than 15 years later.

My father’s post-independence rebirth as a professional – a social worker - had an immensely positive impact on our family’s quality of life and the choices that accrued to us. My own family’s experiences of the transformation from white supremacist rule to national independence resonate, obviously with variations, in the lives of many of my compatriots.

Comparisons between life under white rule and present day Zimbabwe are insultingly simplistic in their reductionism. Comparing the state of supermarket shelves in 1977 to 2007 serves only a limited anecdotal purpose and does not even begin to capture the people’s overall existential narrative then and now.

Some media, reporting on Smith’s death, rhetorically asked whether the current crisis under Robert Mugabe had vindicated Smith’s self-fulfilling prophecy that black rule would ultimately fail. What they failed to give equal emphasis to was the implicit racism in Smith’s diabolic predictions, made on no sound evidence but rather out of his own malicious conviction of the innate incapability of the African to assume self-government. “Not in a thousand years”, is how he infamously put it.

Zimbabwe is where it is today because of Mugabe’s unlimited greed for power and penchant for violence and not, as Smith suggested, because he is black. Beginning with the slaughter of thousands of the Ndebele in the first years of independence, Mugabe has over his very long rule gathered the full range of atrocities imaginable into his quiver.

No one ever suggested that the achievement of black majority rule was itself a sort of “end of history”, a kind of nirvana in which politics would cease and everyone lived happily ever after. Rather, independence marked the beginning of the arduous challenge of nation-building, of constructing the institutions of democracy that colonial administrations either eschewed or, where they existed, applied only to the affairs of the white settler minority.

Ironically, the greatest challenge pro-democracy activists have faced in Zimbabwe has been in the form of the leviathan that Smith’s Rhodesian Front government built – the security state. Its raison d’etre continues predominantly to be the partial exercise of law and order clearly for the maintenance and reproduction of sectional interests.

From the murderous Central Intelligence Organisation to nefarious legislation such as the Law and Order Maintenance Act, now rechristened POSA, Smith bequeathed Mugabe an extremely handy toolkit guaranteed to frustrate popular attempts at building a genuinely democratic society. But more fundamentally, Smith denied our African humanity.