For the last month or so I’ve been combing through Ian Smith’s autobiography, aptly named The Bitter Harvest.
It offers a new and refreshing historical picture of my country Zimbabwe through the eyes of the white man. Ian being an observer and key participant in the pre independence period offers a detailed yet succinct account of our great nation and articulates himself quite well in a manner peculiar to that period.
I often marvel at that style of writing which is void of fancy words for the sake of it yet rich in vocabulary, idioms and all matter of metaphors that are only applied as and when they are required. Minimalistic writing so to speak.
But let me not digress.
The history that we’re taught in school paints white people as the enemy that came to Zimbabwe to rape and conquer the land and abuse the natives. From an early age we are taught to despise white people and the pain they put us through on the road to independence.
But as I was reading the account of his life through his eyes I found myself admiring the man which was weird because it is littered with racist undertones and unnecessary innuendos. He makes a stark distinction when referring to the native people of Zimbabwe as blacks’and often berates their way of life and living. Statements like ‘Our black servant’ and hardly endear you to him and at times I put the whole thing down when I feel insulted but as an objective reader I try not to get emotional.
As a fighter pilot in the 2nd world war Smith’s plane was shot down by the Germans and he found himself trapped behind enemy lines after parachuting into rural Italy. Luckily he was harboured and taken care of by the local rebel (guerrilla) insurgency. What follows is what he describes as the best 6 months of his life in which he chronicles rich experiences in a rural community much like the Africans he often berated. He waxes sentimental about beautiful settings and customs quite similar to those of rural Africans. What he called exotic in Italy was stone age and backward when done by black people.
It’s quite sad that such an intelligent and gifted person would overlook hypocrisy of that level but such is the affliction of racism and discrimination that it taints even the most gifted minds. The irony is the rebel movement he celebrated and respected was identical to the same he faced in latter years when black people fought his government to secure the independence of the black majority where in this case the new players where seen as barbaric terrorists backed by fascists and communists. His words are quite harsh when he describes his enemies.
Life really is a contradiction. Love and hate are two sides of the same coin.
That said, there are tonnes of gems of wisdom from a man who lived a full life and defended what he believed in. He was a rare man the likes of which come once in a century. His admiration for Winston Churchill is quite evident and you can tell he modelled himself after Churchill’s strong man style of leadership. He was a man other men loved to follow having captained every team & led every organisation he was a part of and always put service above self. I find myself inspired by such and have taken notes and learnt a great deal from reading his biography.
I like how he spoke out against the abuse of power by politicians to line their own pockets at the expense of tax payers. He wasn’t a man for small talk and feverishly denounced the common practice of conferences and unnecessary meetings, conference-itis as he put it. This is common amongst politicians who use them to milk the benefits of travel allowances and five star hotels and service depleting much needed foreign currency that could be diverted to social services their people desperately need. The current administration in Zimbabwe is blatantly guilty of such extravagant fruitless gallivanting in the midst of real problems that need attention. He did not mince his words when it came to principle concluding that meetings are held regularly for want of other things to do.
Smith symbolised a society that considered itself more British than the British, and behaved as such. He believed in the old country, in the British Empire, and in the Empire’s civilizing mission.
In his brief yet descriptive account of the colonisation of Zimbabwe he tells of how the first white settlers in Zimbabwe ‘The Pioneers’, where by nature the kind of people who sought a challenge in preference to the humdrum sheltered life, with its security based in the knowledge that one lived in a society that provided protection and insulation from external forces. So their foundations were built by people with strong, individual character, with that important quality of having the courage of their convictions.
As an entrepreneur I can relate to that sort of drive and ethos.
Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) wasn’t the typical British colony, in fact the British Government in 1889 granted the British South Africa Company of Rhodes a royal charter to exploit land north of the Limpopo and so it abdicated the power to control what happened thereafter.
Rhodesia was autonomous and self governing on almost all domestic matters and unlike Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi) , it possessed a sophisticated economy based on agriculture, mining and industry through local enterprise.
White Rhodeseans invested so much in to this little country and where already pushing for independence from Great Britain in the style of Australia and New Zealand.
Smith passionately describes how he along with his contemporaries went toe to toe with the British government to try and secure Rhodesiaan independence.
He justifies this by highlighting the exemplary performance of Rhodesians all round. The economy was well managed, development was planned and there was steady progress with their contributions to the Second World War second to none.
There is a certain pride and concern about ‘Rhodesianness’and now ‘Zimbabweaness’ as some of it inadvertently rubbed on to the black majority.
I’ve seen and experienced the long upheld values and standards predating black students in schools set up for white Rhodesians that still exist to this day. In spite of our current economic woes there is a certain pride and level of aptitude that Zimbabwean people hold themselves to and as a nation we stand out in the region and the world.
Defending that Rhodesianness was Smith’s life’s work. They felt they had created a civilised eutopia. Anyone who lived his or her life here knows its reality. Whatever the origin of the white Rhodesians, they were simply not South Africans, nor were they the British abroad, talking of ‘home’. Ian Smith shows this in this book.
The uniqueness of its founding in many ways prescribed its essence. The colony was neither the outcome of British imperialism at the height of the ‘Scramble for Africa’, nor part of a vision generated in London.
As it was neither founded or funded by the Empire they felt it was their birth right to defend it.
His description of the beauty of this country gives you a sense of pride about this nation. In the book he waxes lyrical about the abundant natural beauty and perfect climate in this part of the world. They had a jewel in their possession and were not willing to let it go without a fight, but who can honestly blame them.
As a black Zimbabwean there is a lot to be grateful for that came from colonisation.
Before their arrival we lived in huts, foraged and subsisted on a very small scale. We were hunters and gatherers really often at the mercy of all manner of disease, drought and natural disasters. Infant mortality was relatively high and with the arrival of the white man, the black population started to rise and stabilise and people got educated for the betterment of their family and society as a whole.
However this should not be mistaken for heaven as the white people thought they were doing us a favour. Truthfully we didn’t want for anything more outside our scope of reality before they came here.
Frustration is indeed a function of expectation. We were content (taiita zviripo). You don’t wake up dreaming about cars and sanitation when you’ve never seen or experienced such therefore you are not indebted to whoever puts you on to this. Civilizing is a misnomer. One hand washes the other and truthfully they benefited more from the relationship than we did. They built their massive fortunes and empires from the sweat of our labour.
Unfortunately Smith died without ever understanding this. We didn’t come to Europe and ask to be civilised. We do not owe you a thing.
In his biography Smith doesn’t hesitate to remind the reader that they brought civilisation to this part of the world which was centuries behind Europe.
Rhodeseans where not the Ku Klux Klan white supremacist type racists nor did they follow the South African model of an explicit, rigidly enforced apartheid, or ‘apartness’ of the races, written into the law of the land.
If anything they lived in a ‘separate but equal’ fantasy.
For Ian Smith, white rule was the natural order of things. White settlers had built the country, they paid the taxes, and they deserved to reap the fruit of their labours. Blacks, he maintained, were happy in their separate universe. When pressed, he might talk of a gradualism, of ‘evolution not revolution’ as if to suggest that one day blacks might take charge.
His attitude towards Africans was empty of hatred. He bullied them, but politely. He hectored and lectured them, but not at the level of personal abuse. Because he he could always ban them, detain them and lock them up – which he often did – he felt unthreatened by them at a personal level. They were opponents but within the wider contours of history and geography.
I don’t really take colonialism personally as only someone who didn’t live through the period can only do.
With the current economic shambles Zimbabwe is in the throes of I can at least empathise with those that claim life was better under Ian Smith than under Zanu PF rule.
As a student of history I’m grateful for his detailed account of his contribution to the welfare of our country though I do feel sorry for him when I try to wrap my head around his legacy and quantify his achievements.
As one of the brightest minds of his generation he spent the best years of his life fighting for the independence of a country he thought belonged to him.
The British who denied him this prior to UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) and then subsequently labelled him a rebel marking Rhodesia a pariah state where the same nation he put his life on the line for defending their sovereignty in the second world war against the Germans.
The same sword they Knight you with is the one they’ll use to bring you down.
The old Rhodesia is gone forever , and modern Zimbabwe is home to twice as many elephants as white people yet in his book he rarely acknowledges the black majority.
It is here where his legacy and that of other die hard would be Rhodesians crumbles.
Unlike Australia and New Zealand they just did not have the numbers and native African tribes have called this place home for thousands of years.
They came in 1889 and modernised the country and in essence they were mere regents and trustees of the territory until we the natives came of age. Zimbabwe was never theirs to defend and give away nor gain independence from their British overlords. They were just good caretakers. They personalised what wasn’t theirs.
And so Ian Smith will just be a footnote in the long history of this beautiful country and will be a scant grain in the sands of time.
I was surprised he lived such a remarkable life of service. Good and bad indeed depends on which side you’re on. I’m sure he’s been immortalised by the white minority he so dearly fought for yet he’s a devil to most black Zimbabweans.
With the benefit that oft comes with hindsight it could perhaps be cruel to call him delusional yet utterances like ‘I don’t believe in black majority rule ever, not in a thousand years.’ hardly do him any favours. History can be a cruel judge when you are on the wrong side of it and it is a fact that history is written by the Victors not the losers and they will naturally paint a picture that glorifies their side.
Things that may seem obvious today where probably improbable to those that lived through it.
In our daily lives we are non the wiser with the tunnel vision of the present . Oftentimes we find ourselves chasing roads that lead us nowhere in careers and relationships that are unfulfilling, registering empty victories to keep up appearances with people we don’t even like.
We are essentially building homes on other people’s land hoping to leave a legacy. A fools errand to be honest.
As good as it is to learn from your mistakes its even better and wiser to learn from the mistakes of others. After all, foresight is a gentle teacher.
Don’t build your home on someone else’s land as they can kick you off whenever they feel like and do as they like with it.
There’s an argument to be had for the deterioration of life for the average Zimbabwean after Ian Smith but that’s neither here nor there.
It is our country to mess up because it belongs to us and the hell of being second class citizens in our own country tending to the needs of a minority can not be cast aside and downplayed because we have an ailing economy.
I’ve lived in a free Zimbabwe all my life and I have interfaced with different races at school and society as a whole and never have I felt limited or inferior because of the colour of my skin. I’m proud of myself and proud of my Nationality and that is something I can not put a price on.
It is said that satisfied needs do not motivate, so many people take this freedom earned through blood and struggle for granted. If you spend an hour in a room full of racists sneering and abusing you in whatever way, then you will appreciate what freedom really means.
I look at the marginalisation and mass incarceration of black people in America and wonder. I can put a price on their obviously superior standard of living but my peace of mind regarding my race is priceless. Even rich black Americans never truly escape racism and you’re much more acutely aware of it when you’re wealthy.
As an entrepreneur in a difficult economy I understand how awful life can be under harsh conditions but I look at people who believe a good job and a rented lifestyle are the epitome of success and remind them that theirs may be a bitter harvest at the end if they do not invest in themselves. Ask yourself this question, if I die today how long will it take to find my replacement at work or in a relationship. That puts you square with where you stand.
Don’t build your home on someone else’s land and don’t settle for what ain’t yours.