There is a form of vigilantism that is commonplace to the region of southern Africa. It is know as “necklacing,” a deceptively delicate word for one of the most gruesome manners in which one can be sentenced to die. It involves whipping up a suitably sized and menacing gang of “justice seekers” that have determined there is a traitor living among them. The gang then is persuaded to corner the unlucky soul, throw a tire around his neck, and light it on fire, all the while dancing around the person while he or she is burned alive, which can take a grotesquely long time.
I invoke this image right now because, figuratively speaking, the cretinous president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, is the charismatic and ghastly gang leader of these vigilante spectacles. In the name of racial parity, he has first whipped up the black “war veteran” Zimbabweans of his country to “reclaim” the land of the white farmers, many Zim-born themselves, in the form of “war-vet” reparations, often killing them and their families to do so. Now, running out of white farmers to turn on, black Zimbabweans are turning on themselves. And, all the while, standing behind this unruly, ill-equipped, feckless population of “wovits,” as the label has morphed into, is Mugabe himself, just itching to light the match.
The revolting decline and fall of what was once the most promising country, economically and politically, in southern Africa, pre-Mandela’s release in South Africa, is one that has regularly and exhaustively been covered in the foreign press. But we have smashed into the wall of compassion fatigue. At this point, unless Mugabe drops dead (he just turned 81 and announced his plan to be president until at least the age of 100) not much change seems imminent. So, we need to look for lessons, at the very least, to be gleaned from this travesty of a regime, until it is finally halted.
Well, the ruminative and talented Zimbabwean-born and raised Peter Godwin, journalist and filmmaker, has much to offer in the category of learning from our mistakes in his new memoir, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. (A bad portent that refers to a rare regional eclipse, that Zim has experienced twice in recent years.)
I say there is something to learn with some personal experience in the matter. In the pursuit of a book project started many years ago, I set out to interview every last living “Father’s of their Nation,” all the post-colonial leaders left alive in Africa. I snared five of them. Mobutu of Zaire, Chissano of Mozambique, Banda of Malawi, Kaunda of Zambia, and, lastly, Mugabe. The signs of his megalomania were already well established. This was in 1995. Things only got worse, of course.
The gut-wrenching statistics of Zimbabwe in the past decade are well known. And it looks like Mugabe, with literally nothing to lose, is determined to take the ship down with him (inflation is currently at 1,700 percent, the highest in the world). But Godwin, in beautifully sensitive, evocative prose, has managed to evoke a kind of persuasive nostalgia for the once beautiful and ambitious country.
Godwin manages to elegantly intertwine his personal returns to Zim to watch the decline of his father’s health happen almost simultaneously with the country his whole family feels so much love for. It is heartbreaking, but beautifully moving. The only misstep in the book, and it is minor, is the late, disclosed secret that Godwin’s father is actually a Polish Jew, not English, and a Holocaust survivor. Godwin never really gets to the bottom of this mystery, but maybe it’s just as well. One of the effects that Africa has on everyone, indigenous and otherwise, is to question one’s identity. It’s a country with a lot of questions that keep getting super-imposed by outsiders.
And maybe that is the problem. It’s time for the insiders to try and start answering the questions again. Perhaps then the country can return to the strength and beauty and dignity that brought it to independence in the first place.