Mugabe and the White African (2009) – How to Poison Your Own Well

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.


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