Don’t push too far

Nobel prize winner and Zimbabwe’s best known author world-wide, Doris Lessing, died last week.

The principal character in her first novel was a white woman in colonial Southern Rhodesia, where Lessing herself grew up. Beyond that, differences between the author and the character increase.

Lessing married a farmer and did not fit in white farming society. So far she resembles her fictional character, but the reasons for their disagreement were opposite. The woman in the story, brought up in a totally white suburb, proved unable to relate to the farm workers. She provoked them so far that one eventually killed her.

Doris Lessing, a communist in her youth, was no defender of white rule, but her picture of the murdered woman’s husband is interesting. He is rather like a good feudal lord; he believes he has a right to his farm and to his power over his workers, but he recognises that he can’t push them too far.

He felt some responsibility for their welfare, or at least for keeping them happy. He probably thought that he knew better than his workers what was good for them, but he didn’t shout that at them. He tries, as the story develops, to show his wife that she can’t just boss them around as if they were mombe. She won’t learn, and the story ends in tragedy. The man who is hanged for killing her is portrayed very sympathetically; he was provoked beyond endurance.

Are you surprised that Doris Lessing was deported for writing this book?

She spoke to white society and she spoke from the inside, but that society did not want to hear. There were white farmers like the husband in her story, but settler society was afraid that its power was threatened by the rising tide of African independence. Their ruling party deposed Prime Minister Garfield Todd for being “too liberal”, but was still defeated in the next election by Ian Smith, who promised white rule would last a thousand years.

In fact it didn’t last much longer than twelve years, like Hitler’s “Thousand year Reich”. More than half the white population left before 1980. Some were driven out because they supported majority rule. Others, a majority, probably felt that Smith was going too far, as the husband in Lessing’s novel saw his wife was going too far.

They had accepted a life of privilege as long as things were quiet, but they knew that Smith’s thousand years of white rule would end in their lifetime though the hatreds he stirred up would live much longer. They sent their children to school outside the country, then quietly “went on holiday” never to return. Look at the Central Statistical Office’s figures for white school enrolment in the 1970s if you don’t believe me.

Those hatreds remain. White people are rare, so traces of their malign influence have to be found round every corner and hiding under every stone. Without the fear of that, our present dictatorship would have gone the way of Ian Smith’s long ago.

Where are the educated and talented people, sons and daughters of the soil, who are needed to help us run a modern economy and a modern government? Some were too outspoken and died in car accidents or quietly, suddenly and equally mysteriously. Most, like the supporters Ian Smith needed if he was to realise his dream, to have voted with their feet.

Where are our own doctors, teachers, nurses, lawyers, engineers and economists? Some work for international organisations, others make their full and valued contribution to some other country’s economy, many, despite their qualifications, are sweeping hospital corridors in Johannesburg or Huddersfield.

That is Zanu (PF)’s legacy and the reason why they can’t produce a government budget, let alone a policy to revive farming or manufacturing.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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