/ 22 January 2007

Rider Haggard rides again

The swashbuckling colonial novelist remains a persistent feature of many books on Africa. Events are not merely reported, but interpreted through the incredulous eyes of our intrepid ”white man in Africa”. Curiously, this retrograde genre remains extremely popular in South Africa.

Peter Godwin’s recent book on Zimbabwe, for example, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, sets the scene with a highly-coloured account of the British defeat at the battle of Isandlwana. The author writes that, according to the few British soldiers who escaped, ”the Zulus went mad with bloodlust” and, ”if an enemy soldier had been seen to be particularly brave, the impi cut out his gall bladder and sucked on it, to absorb the dead man’s courage, and bellowed Igatla! [I have eaten!]”.

I checked several reference books. Not a mention of this, so I contacted three of our leading historians. ”Looks like colonial mythology,” said the first, a professor. ”Sounds like an invention,” agreed the second. The third, an acknowledged scholar in that field, was brutally succinct: ”colonial, racist garbage”.

Godwin’s book is a best-seller, extravagantly praised. It’s a gruelling account of the often cruel humiliations of mostly white farmers. It makes little attempt, however, to tell the story of previous black dispossession or even current black suffering under the despotic rule of President Robert Mugabe.

With so little historical analysis, what is the point of the opening scene, where Godwin is on assignment in KwaZulu-Natal? In a 1998 essay, Battling with Banality, historian Jeff Guy discusses the popular mythologisation of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, remarking of one typical account: ”The themes were exploited successfully by Rider Haggard a century ago. Secret histories divulged by an ancient Zulu to a young white man who watched ‘as tears streamed down an old man’s craggy, leathery face’.”

Godwin opens chapter one: ”It is night, and I am sitting around a fire with Prince Galenja Biyela. I am sitting lower than he is, to show due respect. Biyela is 90-something …” A few pages later the chapter concludes, ”Prince Biyela pauses to gulp another shot of the Queen’s tears, as the Zulus call Natal gin, and the silence is jarred by a ring tone”. It is the call that summons the author back to Zimbabwe and the theme of his book; his father has had a heart attack.

The best, often moving, sections describe the gradual decline of his parents, having to deal with the indignities of old age as they try to cope with the collapse of a once-flourishing economy. As with most British writers, it is the fate of the whites that interests Godwin. This colonial-era perspective leads to a throwaway description of Mau Mau, ”where black domestic workers slit the throats of their white employers”.

Here’s another view from the historian Basil Davidson: ”11 503 Mau Mau killed, 1 035 captured wounded, 1 550 captured in action, 26 625 arrested and 2 714 surrendered, indicating a gruesome relationship between killed and captured. Against this, British and colonial forces lost 167 troops while 1 819 ‘loyal civilians’ were killed — this last category included Africans and Asians. The total number of European civilians killed was 32.”

The 1950s independence rebellion in Kenya was represented (like Governor Sir Bartle Frere’s crude anti-Zulu slanders in 1879) as a threat of savage terror against innocent white settlers. Any book that rehashes such propaganda is not to be tossed aside lightly, but in the words of Dorothy Parker, should be thrown with great force.

A long line of British colonial novelists, suggested Ngugi wa Thiong’o in his classic work Decolonising the Mind, prepared the way for later media attitudes to Africa. One persistent legend is that of ”timeless Africa”. Godwin, discussing some irrational attitudes to Aids in Zimbabwe, reasons: ”I think of Prince Biyela’s Zulu impis cutting out the gall bladder of a brave adversary and sucking on it to ingest his courage … And I realise that maybe not so much has changed as we all thought …”

The major revelation of the book is Godwin’s discovery that his father was Jewish, having hidden his identity after escaping from Poland in 1939. This leads the author into some grotesque flights of fantasy about the fate of white folk in Africa. He states, ”A white in Africa is like a Jew everywhere, on sufferance, watching warily, waiting for the next great tidal swell of hostility”.

Many whites in Zimbabwe are undergoing an appalling experience (often not as bad as their black compatriots), but to compare the fate of whites in Africa to that of a people who suffered pogroms and a holocaust is hysterical, ahistorical nonsense.

Then why does this sort of one-sided hyperbole resonate so strongly with the South African book-buying public? Because many are white and it reflects their fears.

Crocodiles were thought by early European explorers to be the most pitiless of all creatures because they ate their own young. Female crocs were seen to take their progeny into their mouths; and, as crocs seize both animals and humans, bloodthirsty assumptions were made. Closer observation, however, apparently tells us that, rather than consuming her own offspring, this is the way a crocodile protects its young.

Surely by now, rather than merely excitable colonial-scented yarns or blinkered, racially focused chronicles, we should be demanding more accurate information and a deeper, broader perspective from current writers on Africa?

Bryan Rostron is a freelance writer