During Zimbabwe’s struggle for democracy, Robert Mugabe may have seemed – may in fact have been – a genuine freedom fighter. In his 30 years of rule (as either president or prime minister), his public image has become more than a little tarnished. He has maintained his power through a series of elections whose illegitimacy has become increasingly apparent. He is charged with continual human rights abuses. And – perhaps most damning – he has destroyed his nation’s economy and infrastructure. In other words, he can’t even claim that his moral lapses were necessary for the good of his people.
While the catastrophes he has brought upon Zimbabwe are, in general terms, covered by international news outlets – who have not been exempt from his attempts to control all press coverage – the new documentary “Mugabe and the White African” ups the emotional ante by putting a human face on his victims. As the title suggests, it’s primarily a white face – a fact that, given the country’s colonial past, might seem lightly ironic, were the details not so brutal.
In 2007, filmmakers Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson decided to document the case of Michael Campbell, whose Mount Carmel Farm had been seized by the Mugabe administration as part – on paper, at least – of a “land reform” program. The 75-year-old Campbell and son-in-law Ben Freeth decided to fight the confiscation, despite being subject to the threats of violence that had caused other white farmers to flee the country.
The constitutional amendment that created the land reform says nothing about race, but its effect, by design, was to disenfranchise white farmers exclusively. Furthermore, the seized property was transferred to political and military cronies, who often scavenged whatever could be liquidated, rather than to actual farmers, who could cultivate the land.
Their legal challenges rebuffed by the Zimbabwean judiciary, Campbell and Freeth took their case to the international tribunal of SADC (Southern African Development Community), of which Zimbabwe is a member. Mugabe’s attorneys secured several delays in the hearing, allowing time for further intimidation of the plaintiffs and invasions of the farm by the new designated “owners.” Shortly before the final scheduled court date, thugs kidnapped and severely beat Campbell, his wife, and Freeth.
The final hearing is the most extraordinary scene in the film. When the judges find for Campbell and begin to consider a contempt charge against the government for violating a court order to lay off the farmers for the duration, Mugabe’s lawyers do something straight out of an implausible courtroom drama: They simply get up and walk out. (Mount Carmel Farm was later torched, leaving Campbell, Freeth, and their 500 workers essentially homeless.)
If there’s anything missing from Bailey and Thompson’s searing documentary, it’s a consideration of the possible arguments against Campbell and Freeth. That is, there is a historical context that might deserve redress. A not-crazy argument can be made that, given the history of colonialism and government-sanctioned repression of black rights, the property held by whites – seen as a group – was obtained illegitimately. It may be a wrong argument but one worth bringing up, even if only for the purpose of knocking it down.
It may also be irrelevant, since Mugabe’s “land reform” is a sham and has had disastrous effects for the economy and hence the majority of black Zimbabweans. The farmers’ legal team rightly scores points by showing that this is “land reform” in name only. But, if, theoretically, Mugabe really was redistributing “white” land to poor black farmworkers previously shut out of ownership by the ruling whites, would Campbell and Freeth’s position be less worthy?
I am in no way defending any aspect of Mugabe and his wretched regime. But the broader issue of redressing historical wrongs should at least be addressed. (Indeed, the counterexample of Nelson Mandela and South Africa suggests that policies guided by such notions of “payback” are not merely morally questionable, but also tactically inferior.) The Campbell/Freeth family are sympathetic and admirable protagonists, but Bailey and Thompson’s convincing presentation of their personal courage doesn’t completely compensate for the absence of that discussion. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)