The changing social life of Zimbabwe’s country clubs

David Hughes’ book, Whiteness in Zimbabwe, has come in for some stick in various reviews for painting a too uniform view of Zimbabwean ‘whites’. Not everyone was a white farmer in Mashonaland they argue. Whiteness has and had much more complexity. An excellent review essay by Andrew Hartnack is just out that covers this ground in a nuanced way.

This argument is of course correct, and these admonitions are appropriate if there was a sense in Hughes’ book – which I liked a lot (as do others) – that what he was talking about were all white Zimbabweans, and not a smallish but highly influential group of white older male farmers around Marondera (see Angus Selby's nuanced history of white farming).

But that said, I think there is an important job to be done in documenting the lives and views of this admittedly small but powerful group. For it is this group that has successfully generated a narrative around land and commercial agriculture that has captured the imagination and policy attention of many, generating multiple myths along the way. Yet in this narrative the racial basis and narrow economic role, as well as the massive state support, of white agriculture is rarely mentioned. These silences and biases are well captured in another excellent book that I have reviewed by Rory Pilosoff.

The social isolation and lack of integration with the wider (black) community in Zimbabwe’s rural areas created a distance that the rhetoric of post-Independence reconciliation could not close. These were maintained by a range of social, cultural and economic processes for twenty years after Independence, until land reform shattered this sheltered existence. To understand how this could have happened, when the writing was so obviously on the wall (and had been for decades, as of course urban, liberal whites knew full well), we have to understand the day-to-day lives and practices of rural whites (and perhaps especially men of a certain age), and how these generated particular ideas so out of kilter with reality.

One place to get a sense of this were Zimbabwe’ country clubs. They existed across the white commercial farming rural areas, and in the estates, and were exclusive realms where outdated and outrageous attitudes and cultural mores could be maintained. If you visited these places in the 1980s and 1990s (and I did a few times), you would have thought time travel was possible.

The shocking views, the bizarre dress codes, and the drinking habits portrayed a vision of rural, male whiteness that would make you think you were in a particularly non-PC film from the 1950s. These were the places where racial superiority was confirmed, and the trials and tribulations of commercial farming were discussed, sometimes in the exclusive men’s only bar, where a suitable evening dress code was required, and the conversations were overheard by a silent black staff who served the drinks.

Adrian Nel kindly pointed me to a great article in the M and G by Sean Christie focusing on what happened to Zimbabwe’s country clubs after land reform. It’s a fascinating read, and very telling on a number of fronts. In the reconfigured countryside, there is still a need for (mostly men) to socialise (drink) and play sports (mostly golf it seems). So now they are populated by a rather different crowd – military officials who have grabbed land, politicians carrying out their ‘cell phone farming’ and war veterans. But also there are still rural whites who have not abandoned their old haunts. Some are integrating in the new agricultural system with great agility, and have often taken over important roles in contract farming. They need to make connections over a beer or three, and some have revived once foundering clubs.

As the article shows, these clubs are being transformed for the new era. While the ‘glorious anachronisms’ (or actually rather shocking ones) persist, the new, post-land reform Zimbabwe also penetrates. I loved the story of the famous Shurugwi Saunders Park golf course now abandoned and under pressure from gold panners, only kept at bay by the Zimasco security guards.

I equally enjoyed the story about the Norton Country Club, now rebranded as the ‘Norton Golf Resort’, with the wonderful by-line ‘Preserving Nature, Preserving Rural Golf’, being taken over by a new pig farm and with its 18 hole course being in favour with the new politically well-connected local elite: all part of a no doubt complex local political bargain about who is allowed to do what where. And finally, while the Enterprise Country Club’s tennis courts may be overgrown, it still maintains its restaurant, and its facilities are used by the Goromonzi War Veterans Association for a weekly meeting in the tearoom.

Even if land reform displaced whites from most farms, it did not remove them from the rural areas. Indeed many whites remain engaged in agriculture in new ways, although often shunned by others cast as a 'mad' or 'crazy', as Lea Kalaora describes. In another nice article Christie documents the reopening of the Chinoyi Country Club by a new group of younger mostly Afrikaner whites, all engaged in contract farming, land leasing, agricultural marketing and transporting.

The next generation of ‘white sharecroppers’ are relaxed about this new arrangement, and indeed think that owning land and farming it oneself as their fathers did may be much harder work. They dismiss the CFU as a ‘restitution lobby’ for former landowners. The club is the focus for their male-oriented beer drinking social life, but it is not an exclusive, racially defined hang out, and the new now black farmers who have the land mix there too, striking contract deals and negotiating market and transport deals.

All of these anecdotes are small parables about life in the new Zimbabwe. A new configuration of elites, new social conventions, but also pressures on elite privilege from the masses from behind the barbed wire, who are threatening the golf courses, tennis courts and the manicured lawns. For it is not just the material transitions that are important in the process of agrarian reform, but also the social spaces and the cultural conventions that go with this.

If the country clubs are revived for a new A2 farmer elite, then I wonder what biases and distortions will be recreated in the Zimbabwean countryside that managed to persist untamed for so long in the same Country Clubs among the old white (male) rural farming elite in the past?

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

Post published in: Analysis
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