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For Zimbabwe's Whites, Success Lies in What Hasn't Happened

December 18, 1987|RICHARD HARWOOD | The Washington Post

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Seven summers ago a black Marxist prime minister, Robert Mugabe, took up residence in Government House, a victor after 15 years of barbaric civil war.

Each day since has been a day of amazing grace for the shrinking white minority, now numbering barely 100,000 out of a population of more than 8 million.

Politically and militarily they are impotent. Psychologically, many remain disoriented and confused by their loss of power. But a cornerstone of their historical experience--the "Rhodesian way of life"--endures as one of the remarkable benevolences of the new socialist ruling class.

Whether South Africa's whites, confronted now by growing pressures for black majority rule, can look to Zimbabwe as a model for their own future is conjectural at best. But this country's experience clearly refutes the idea that black rule in Africa inevitably leads to oppression of whites and economic collapse.

"I could not," said one of the country's retired white generals, "match my style of life anywhere else in this world."

His pension, like the pensions of thousands of white government and military retirees, is paid in full each month by the Mugabe government. He maintains his home in one of the many lush suburbs of Harare, tranquil places of jacaranda, bougainvillea, gardeners, maids and Rhodesian Ridgebacks, traditional guard dogs of the private estates. There are private schools, subsidized by the government, ballet classes and a riding academy for little ladies and gentlemen.

Life of Luxury

In corporate parking lots in the city's industrial belt--still dominated by white owners and executives--the vehicle of choice for managing directors is clearly the Mercedes-Benz, despite reported importation costs far in excess of $100,000. In the city center, atop the new wing of the grand old Meikles Hotel, a pool of abstract design shimmers in the sunlight, ringed by young European women in bikinis. The pool-side decor is out of Bloomingdale's. Uniformed African waiters glide about in elegant style with drinks and hors d'oeuvres.

These are earthly symbols of a profound reality in Zimbabwe today. Sixty percent of the economy--not substantially less than in pre-revolutionary times--remains in private and mostly white hands. Out in the countryside, land ownership has changed very little since Mugabe's assumption of power. Under a white government, 6,000 whites owned about 42% of all the farm land in Zimbabwe. Another 42% was shared by more than 800,000 communal farm families. The rest was in government hands.

Today, according to Dennis Norman, tobacco company executive, member of Parliament, commercial farm owner and former agriculture minister, land ownership breaks down in this way: 33% to 34% belongs to 4,500 white farmers, 42% still belongs to the hundreds of thousands of communal farmers and small freeholders and the rest is in government parklands, game reserves and resettlement estates.

One result of this attractive division of agricultural wealth is that the average age of Zimbabwe's white farmers has dropped from 53 in 1980 to 37 today, according to the Commercial Farmers Union. The only substantial drawback to white agribusiness is that farmers continue to be killed off by "dissidents" and "bandits"; nine have been killed this year.

When blacks took power here in 1980, Mugabe spoke passionately and often of the coming "socialist transformation" of Zimbabwean society. He speaks of it still and with the same eloquence.

In the introduction to a recent book on Christianity and socialism, he wrote:

"The elimination of an individualist society, with its attributes of inequality and selfishness, and its replacement by a collectivist society, with its attributes of equality and selflessness, is undoubtedly a moral philosophy. When we talk of socialism versus capitalism, we are actually talking of morality versus immorality, of equity versus inequity, of humanity versus inhumanity, and I dare say, of Christianity versus un-Christianity."

Rhetoric Versus Reality

Those are noble and idealistic sentiments, worthy of any good Marxist. But there has been during these past seven years what Prof. Tim Hawkins of the University of Zimbabwe has called "a yawning chasm between socialist rhetoric and actual government policy."

Analyses by Zdenek Silavecky, chief economist of Standard Chartered Merchant Bank in Harare, conclude that nominal corporate profits before taxes in 1986 "were more than double their 1980 levels." He calculates that the return on capital investment before taxes last year was 17.7%, which, even discounted for inflation, compares favorably to rates of return in the United States and Western Europe.

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