In the 1880s a man named Cecil Rhodes established the British South Africa Company. Created along the lines of the somewhat more famous British East India Company and backed by a private mercenary army known as the British South Africa Police, the BSAC cut a swathe through Southern Africa waging wars, acquiring land and playing various local kingdoms and principalities off against each other. By the end of the 1880s, the BSAC had received a royal charter and their lands lost their original political identities in favour of the name of Rhodesia. For over seventy years, the British South Africa company oversaw the economic exploitation and development of the lands through a collection of White land and business owners. Eventually, in 1965, Southern Rhodesia declared its independence. This, as far as many white Zimbabwean land-owners are concerned, is when the rot set in.
Mike Campbell purchased the Mount Carmel estate in 1974. He did so under the white-minority government of Ian Smith but when Smith’s regime collapsed and the country changed its name to Zimbabwe Rhodesia under a black government. While many white land-owners left the country, either for Apartheid-era South Africa or ‘Home’ to Britain, Campbell stayed to work his land. He had no problems with the government. No problems until 2000 when the government of Robert Mugabe launched a programme of land seizures whereby the land of Zimbabwe would be returned to Black Zimbabweans who had long been disenfranchised first by the colonial rule of the BSAC, then by the rule of Ian Smith’s White-minority government and then by the inequalities of a capitalist system which, despite de-colonisation, left much of Zimbabwe in the hands of a few rich land owners.
Like many of the White land-owners who stayed on after de-colonisation, Mike Campbell was the victim of government intimidation and violence as one by one the old land-owners were forced off their land and the land was turned over to government cronies whose lack of interest in running the farms at all let alone for the common good has resulted in wide-spread famine and the economic collapse of what was once one of Africa’s most prosperous countries. Where other land-owners sold below market rates and ran, Mike Campbell stood his ground. He stood his ground by taking his case to the Zimbabwean supreme court and when that failed he took it to a South African Development Community tribunal in the hope of forcing the Mugabe government to respect his property rights over the Mount Carmel estate.
There is a fascinating political documentary to be made out of this struggle. What is so fascinating about Campbell’s case is that it seems to serve as a microcosm for many of the moral and political issues surrounding the West’s relationship with its former colonies. Indeed, should a government ignore property rights in order to redress an old economic injustice? When that old injustice was motivated largely by a racist mindset, is it acceptable for a government to adopt a similarly racist mindset in order to redress the moral balance and undo the harms of the past? If this sort of redressing of the moral and economic balance is morally acceptable, then can a government’s ends justify their means and are they compelled to obey bodies of international law when those laws protect the status quo? Many political questions can be asked of Mike Campbell’s court case but Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson’s documentary Mugabe and the White African is not interested in asking them.
Mugabe and the White African is not an ostensibly political film. In fact, it is a film with little historical insight and almost no interest in investigating the truth or falsity of the myriad claims made by either the Mugabe government or the white land-owners. It is a film that is content to give itself over entirely to the task of putting across the viewpoint and experiences of the Campbell clan. However, because the Campbell clan see themselves in quite political terms, the film finds itself sympathising with their politics and this makes for a decidedly unsettling experience.
It is impossible not to empathise with Mike Campbell, his son-in-law Ben Freeth and their respective families. Employing over five hundred workers in a country crippled by nearly 80% unemployment, the Mount Carmel estate provides an oasis of financial security in a country that is tearing itself apart.
Night after night, the Campbells hunker down in their beds as the Mugabe regime uses its infamous paramilitary ‘War Veterans’ in a campaign of brinksmanship and intimidation designed to force them off their own land. Night after night, the invaders come. Night after night, the Campbells and their guards chase them away. Night after night, the Campbells protect what they have knowing that if they go too far then the government will use force to evict them. Night after night, the Campbells posture and bristle defiantly knowing that if they show any weakness at all then the thugs will encroach further into their land.
This nightly game of cat and mouse. filled with late-night dashes through unlit farmland and an eerily fragile sense of domestic safety could have been lifted directly from Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971). The tension is almost indescribable. It is also made worse by the fact that every time the Campbells seem about to get their day in court, the South African Development Community push back date of the tribunal allowing the game of intimidation to continue. Clearly, the Zimbabwean government are playing for time in the hope that the situation will ‘resolve itself’ one way or another.
It is certainly difficult not to empathise with Mike Campbell and his family as they endure terrible hardships at the hands of a brutally ruthless and despotic government. However, by seeking to paint themselves as the victims of anti-White racism, the Campbells effectively manage to poison their own well by forcing us to consider their case not on its own merits but in light of Zimbabwe’s tragic colonial history and it is difficult to sympathise with people who benefit from one racist order only to play the victim card when that order changes. Indeed, when the Mugabe regime — for all its brutality, corruption and dishonesty — paint Campbell and his family as the last bastions of a profoundly unjust and racist period of Zimbabwe’s history, it is clear that they do kind of have a point.
The film depicts Campbell as a person who exists in a world that is almost entirely White. Indeed, despite claiming to consider himself a Zimbabwean, Campbell and his family seem to have only limited contact with Black Zimbabweans: Whenever Ben or Mike mention their ‘friends’ these ‘friends’ invariably turn out to be wealthy land-owning White people. Whenever Ben or Mike talk to non-White people those people are their employees and are roundly patronised for their troubles (in one particularly unpleasant scene Ben orders some farm workers to pray for the success of his father-in-law’s court case).
The film perfectly captures this sense of racial entrenchment by filling the screen with images of nameless and faceless Black people hanging about in a threatening manner. As in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001), non-White people are presented as an ever-encroaching alien tide. As something sinister, as something to be resisted and feared.
Had the film chosen to focus solely upon the brutality of the Mugabe regime then Mugabe and the White African would have undeniably generated a lot of support for the Campbells and their plight. However, by repeatedly stressing that the Campbells are the victims of racism, the film draws our attention away from the brutality of the Mugabe regime and towards the decidedly murkier waters of post-colonial ethics and politics. Whether in Britain, America or Zimbabwe there is something undeniably distasteful about rich White men claiming to be the victims of racism and the distastefulness of this idea makes it difficult to completely sympathise with Mike Campbell despite the horrors that he and his family have had to endure. Indeed, a quick trawl of youtube revealed this video in which Campbell proclaims that if it were not for the White farmers then Black Africans would be unable to feed themselves:
Is this man the victim of racism or an actual racist? He could be neither or he could be both and therein lies Mugabe and the White African’s somewhat unsettling nature. It is a film that throws us in at the deep end of post-colonial politics only to refuse to give us any sort of life-line. To watch Mugabe and the White African is to be put in touch with one’s own sense of guilt. To watch it is to question one’s own actions and one’s own motivations. To watch Mugabe and the White African is to be lost in a moral maze.
Some good thoughts in this. I couldn’t help but think of Claire Denis’ White Material both when watching the film and reading your article.
I have yet to see White Material. I have it on DVD but I am saving it for when I am at my most lucid :-) I’ll definitely watch it with this film in mind though, thanks for the conceptual link Nate.
[…] Mugabe and the White African (2009) [Ruthless Culture] : This documentary has a decidedly mephitic air about it. It’s not really politically engaged […]
[…] I wrote in December 2010, Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson’s documentary Mugabe and the White African (2009) is a troubling […]
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