Whitewashing Zimbabwe's history
The documentary , directed by Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson, received a four-star review in the Guardian. It is an account of Michael Campbell, one of the few white farmers left in Zimbabwe after Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF began a violent land seizure programme in 2000. It portrays the 75-year-old Campbell’s struggle to resist the unlawful seizure of his Mt Carmel Farm by Nathan Shamuyarira, a senior Zanu-PF politician.
In 2008 Campbell, assisted by his son-in-law Ben Freeth, successfully challenged Mugabe before the South African Development Community international court, charging his government with human rights violations and racial discrimination.
The documentary is an emotionally charged depiction of the court case, and does not spare the viewer bloody footage and violence. “It resonates internationally because it is about big issues of human rights. It is about humanity and you do not have to understand Africa to get it”, Bailey has explained.
But it is precisely Bailey’s belief that “you do not have to understand Africa”, from which the documentary’s main shortcomings emanate. Zimbabwe is not Africa, and Africa is not Zimbabwe. The documentary lacks historical and political context. Land and race are important themes, but not once is the Lancaster House independence agreement of 1979, which perpetuated racially biased land distribution in independent Zimbabwe, mentioned. We are exposed to the emotional anguish of Ben’s British parents in Kent as they agonise over their son’s safety—but Britain’s role in Zimbabwe’s land problem is never mentioned. The documentary shows us that Mugabe implemented a racist land reform programme in 2000, but we are not told why, and how he gradually became racist. The documentary should have at least mentioned the challenging nature of racial reconciliation since independence—because it is the unravelling of reconciliation that informs the anti-white behaviour it depicts.
Bailey and Thompson go out of their way to demonise Mugabe. When the documentary’s title first appears on screen it is all in white. Then the word Mugabe begins to drip with what appears to be blood and slowly turns red, in the style of a horror movie. Mugabe’s statement that if redistributing land from whites to blacks makes him a Hitler in Western eyes then let it be—often quoted out of context—follows soon afterwards. We are even shown a newspaper headline that reads “we are like Jews in Nazi Germany”—words presumably uttered by a besieged white farmer.
Mugabe and Zanu-PF are guilty of horrendous human rights violations, but they are not Hitlers, and nor is Zimbabwe remotely like Nazi Germany.
The voice of someone spewing anti-white rhetoric reverberates in the background at opportune moments. The voice is unmistakably Mugabe’s. In contrast, the Campbell and Freeth families are presented as God-fearing, forgiving and compassionate. Mugabe is a failed leader, guilty of misgovernance; but crude juxtapositions with the “good” white farmer inhibit nuanced popular debate.
Black farm workers are constantly in the background. When they do come to the fore they are mute. “If I lose [the farm] we all suffer. We are in this together”, Ben remarks to a black farm worker who mostly nods his head and smiles. “Pray for me. I will bring you blankets”, Ben tells a group of black farm workers before he leaves for the SADC court in Namibia. Again the black farm workers do not speak. They smile, nod their heads and walk away under the rising Zimbabwean sun.
Whenever black farm workers and white landowners are filmed together in moments of compassion there is a palpable unease between them, a contrived empathy, and the fact that power relations are skewed in favour of whites is apparent.
Mugabe and the White African Male would be a more appropriate title for this documentary, because the voices of women are secondary. They have no agency. This is a documentary about white male courage in the face of Zanu-PF’s violent black males. For instance, there is little on the contributions of Angela, wife to Michael, and her daughter Laura, wife to Ben, to the resistance. And yet women are heroines too because when the brave men are away in Namibia fighting court battles with Mugabe’s lawyers, Laura and Angela courageously hold the fort against Shamuyarira’s pugnacious and ever-lurking farm invaders. As for black female farm workers, these do not even nod their heads and smile—they are simply invisible.
In the documentary Ben asks why, if you can be white and American or white and Australian, you cannot be white and African? Part of establishing white American and white Australian identities in America and Australia involved nearly exterminating the non-white Native Americans and Aborigines respectively; it meant claiming indigenous peoples’ land and forging white identity over many generations by subjugating and writing non-whites out of the history of those countries. America and Australia are the worst examples Ben could have cited.
Becoming “African” is not about economic integration alone—something many white Zimbabweans never grasped. It is also about social, residential and political integration, and about learning local languages. In the documentary the Freeth and Campbell families are distinctly white Europeans in Africa who claim to be white Africans based on their right to own land. Never are they shown speaking any of the local languages. They speak English only—even to the black farm workers. We are not shown inter-group marriages by their family members or by the neighbouring white farmers who appear in the documentary.
In a separate documentary by Hopewell Chinono called A Violent Response, which is about violence in Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections, Michael Campbell comments on the Mt Carmel Farm violence: “My faith in the African as a ruler in Africa has been shaken. I do not believe that any of them are capable of ruling themselves. Democracy is a joke”. Angela nods her head as he opines. Did Bailey and Thompson fall for Michael’s “I am a white African” pretensions, or did they choose to omit the unpalatable reality that colonial attitudes endured in independent Zimbabwe? What makes Mugabe and the White African dangerous is not so much its content, but Bailey and Thompson’s belief that they are actually “helping” the people of Zimbabwe by having made the documentary. - guardian.co.uk