Whites in Mandela's Land Keep Eye on Mugabe's

'Newly Africanized' South Africa doesn't want troubled Zimbabwe as a role model

The South African town of Louis Trichardt sits just south of the main Zimbabwe border post located at the top of the N1 highway. It likes to boast it is "The Gateway to Africa."

In other words, "Africa" is "up there" in Zimbabwe and beyond - not "down here" in the South Africa that was white-ruled until Nelson Mandela became president in 1994.

Now South Africans often look north-eastward past Louis Trichardt and wonder whether their "newly Africanized" country will go the way of Robert Mugabe's troubled Zimbabwe, which was white-ruled Rhodesia until he took over in 1980.

Four years into the Mandela era, the illusion that South Africa is not part of "Africa" persists among the country's white minority.

For them Zimbabwe's sometimes good news - on economy, crime, and education, for example - is undermined by the too-familiar African tale of failed Marxist policies, corruption, dictatorial tendencies, and disregard for human rights.

"South Africa doesn't have to experiment with Marxism," said Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, in an interview in Harare. "Everyone knows that's dead."

Yet many South Africans look askance at the string of desperation measures President Mugabe has taken in the past year, the latest being his military intervention in Congo's war and his ill-conceived land reform - seeking to appropriate millions of acres from white owners without compensation. He wants to regain the considerable prestige he enjoyed nationally and regionally as Zimbabwe's first president.

"So you've been up in Africa," a Cape Town hostess said to a friend just back from Zimbabwe.

"We're expanding into Africa," Johannesburg businessmen tell their shareholders of forays to the north.

It used to be that Zimbabwe wasn't part of "Africa" either. Until 1980 it was Rhodesia, a little heaven for colonials exiting post-independence Burma and India and Britons fed up with rationing and the damp.

In Rhodesia's beautiful tropical highlands they enjoyed a perfect climate, English manners, cheap black labor and land, and guarantees that all the good jobs were set aside for whites. While the rest of the Western world was going mod, then hippie, then punk, young ladies in Salisbury still wore white gloves to tea.

After a vicious war in which atrocities were committed on all sides, Mugabe's Marxist government won the 1980 election and renamed the country Zimbabwe. Rhodesians suddenly found themselves in Africa.

Not for long. They fled south in convoys down that N1 highway, past the monument in Louis Trichardt to Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid. They found new havens in Durban, Pretoria, and Cape Town.

Now that black majority rule has spread to South Africa, several hundred "Rhodies" are driving back up the N1 each year, seemingly for good. They're even more of a minority now: In 1970 there were 250,000 whites to 5 million blacks; now there are 70,000 whites to 12 million blacks.

Zimbabwe's immigration service reports that each month about 100 ex-Rhodies apply to return to the country, with 400 last December alone.

"There's a category of retired persons who are going back to stay with their children and because it's not much fun struggling on their Zimbabwe pensions in South Africa," said John Redfern of the Pretoria-based Rhodesia Association of South Africa.

"In other cases it's younger people returning to help elderly parents manage a farm or business."

Joy Maclean, the widow of a Rhodesian "native commissioner," moved from southern Zimbabwe to South Africa in 1984, "but it was never the same as Rhodesia."

In 1996, after her husband died, she returned permanently to live near her daughter in the Zimbabwean city of Bulawayo. Like so most of urban Zimbabwe, Bulawayo is pretty, tidy, organized - and black.

"I love it here," says Mrs. Maclean, who lives in a garden flat near her daughter's home. "Rhodesia has always been my home. I love the Rhodesian bush. It's true that everything here is such a mess, a lot of muddle and confusion and fraudulence and corruption.... It's a tragedy, but one feels one can still contribute something."

As recently as last year, farmers Keith and Charlotte Kirkman thought Zimbabwe was still the land of opportunity for their children. "We had a family meeting and the two of our children who live and work outside the country decided they would return permanently," said Mr. Kirkman."Then six weeks later, this happened."

"This" was Mugabe's announcement that he would expropriate, without compensation, 12.4 million of the 27 million acres of Zimbabwean farmland owned by whites.

Mugabe's government has had its successes. It doubled school enrollment between 1980 and 1994 and has boosted the literacy rate to 80 percent, according to the UN Development Program. And it has maintained an economy that, drought years excepted, has enjoyed positive growth and is more diversified than any other in the region save South Africa, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Mugabe's chickens came home to roost last year when an independent newspaper revealed that healthy senior government officials were ripping off disability grants intended for veterans of the liberation war. To placate enraged war vets, his natural constituency, Mugabe gave them grants of roughly US$10,000 plus monthly pensions of US$80.

Those "gratuities" cost US$90 million, necessitating whopping tax increases. Those taxes then set the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions on the warpath.

Its national strikes demonstrated the newfound power of its leader, Mr. Tsvangirai, and encouraged spontaneous demonstrations against food price hikes in January. The police responded brutally both to strikes and riots.

MUGABE then backpedaled by imposing price controls and continuing with food and fuel subsidies the treasury cannot afford. Meanwhile, the financial sector is already reeling from the failure of a bank owned by Mugabe's crony, Roger Boka. As rumors abound that Mugabe used low-cost-housing funds to build a mansion for his new wife, his Cabinet is in revolt and the economic indicators indicate free fall.

Between January and September the Zim dollar lost more then 55 percent against the US dollar. Inflation has soared to 30 per cent and interest rates top 40 percent.

It must be said that in terms of infrastructure, crime, and the health of its economy, Zimbabwe is still far better off than the rest of the continent outside South Africa.

White South Africans remain highly sceptical of the "African renaissance" promoted by South African deputy president Thabo Mbeki. He believes the age of the African dictator is ending and responsible government and economic growth are taking root.

South Africa has a lot more going for it than Zimbabwe had at independence, according to Zimbabwean labor leader Tsvangirai, who fits the emerging mold of the African renaissance leader.

The creation of Zimbabwe, said Tsvangirai, "came through the barrel of a gun that believed in strong central government that doesn't give a hoot for people. But South Africa has a strong constitution to protect its people from dictatorship and a powerful civil sector, particularly trade unions, so the accountability process is very strong there."

Finally, Tsvangirai said, "Mandela has set the tone, not just for South Africa but for the next generation of leaders.

"You won't find the same extremism in politics there that you find here."

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