Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

An example of the racial narrative in Western media’s coverage of Zimbabwe

Posted by CM on September 30, 2008

A recurring theme on this blog is how the British media in particular long ago descended into a deep racial miasma over Zimbabwe. Other Western media are only a little bit less so.

The reason that media goes off the handle over Zimbabwe, and over Robert Mugabe in particular, is not because the country’s problems, as bad as they are, are the worst world crisis, but because Mugabe has made no secret that the country’s troubled racial and colonial history very much inform his world view and actions. More so than any other leader in modern times, he has pilloried the creeping revision of British colonialism as a sort of gentle, benign enterprise by good white people ‘helping’ the backward natives. And he has not been shy or diplomatic in doing so.

This is unheard of, a breaking of all the unspoken rules. Of course the British understand that the Africans cannot have the view of their subjugation as being one they should remember fondly. But the ‘deal’ that almost all African countries have made with their former colonial powers is that if they behave themselves and talk and act like good boys and girls, they will be rewarded with handouts and ‘development aid.’ And the really good natives might qualify for a ‘state visit’ by some British minister. The best natives might even be invited to Buckingham Palace in order to enjoy the privilege of bowing before the English queen.

Most African leaders, including Mugabe in the days when he was still a good native, find these kinds of inducements simply irresistable. One of the continuing scars of colonialism on the African psyche is to have ambivalent feelings about the former colonial master but still pine for his approval. Mugabe only rejected this when he himself was rejected by the British for whom he once had a sick, slavish affection. He was considered as being increasingly ‘wayward’ in his speech and actions, especially against Zimbabwe’s once all-powerful white farmers.

This breaking of the rules of engagement that are accepted by most of Africa’s weak, donor-dependent states is why the British political and media establishment so revile Mugabe, not that he is a cruel, ruthless despot to his own people.

So outraged have that UK establishment become over the outspoken Mugabe they cannot think straight on anything to do with Zimbabwe. The racial feelings Mugabe stokes in them are so strong that they are largely incapable of any longer being able to analyse Zimbabwe calmly and outside the straitjacket of their deep Mugabe antipathy.

Here is an interesting story from the Scotsman newspaper. It is tragic, but also a funny illustration of what I mean about racial feelings being on full display in how much of the British and other Western media writes on a lot of aspects of The Zimbabwe Crisis.

Farmer’s daughter mauled by Zimbabwe ‘guard lions’

An eight-year old Zimbabwean girl was mauled by a lion and a lioness her white farmer father kept to deter attacks by supporters of the president, Robert Mugabe. Courtney Sparrow, who suffered a hole in her throat and serious injuries to her arms, face and head, has undergone ten hours of surgery in Milpark Hospital, Johannesburg.

Her father, Ron Sparrow, one of a handful of whites still farming in Zimbabwe, said he used the lions after the farmhouse in Zimbabwe’s south-eastern Masvingo district was subject to four attacks by so-called war veterans loyal to Mr Mugabe over the past three months.

The “war vets” began invading and appropriating white commercial farms in 2000, when there were 5,000 white farmers in Zimbabwe: now there are barely 200 on much reduced acreages.

Mr Sparrow told the Afrikaans-language newspaper Rapport that while he was away on business in neighbouring Mozambique, his wife, Margaret, had secured the farmhouse.

But two lions broke through a weak window and the lioness attacked Courtney. A domestic worker, whom Mr Sparrow did not name, was injured when she tried to rip Courtney from the lioness’s grip. When Courtney tried to run away, she was attacked by the male lion. A black farm labourer, also unnamed, beat off the lion with a stick.

Courtney was first taken to a Zimbabwean hospital but it had no painkillers.

I could have understood the ‘whiteness’ of the girl being mentioned in passing, since the angle the paper chose was to illustrate this as yet another manifestation of how ‘Mugabe’ has caused Zimbabwe’s once all-dominant, poor rich white farmers great misery. But her whiteness is not centrally material to what happened to her or to relating the import of the story. The emphasis of the fact that she is white therefore comes across as being quite heavy-handed.

The Scotsman’s chosen spin on this story is political, rather than human interest, so it is understandable that they do not delve into the irresponsible recklessness of a man endangering his family’s life by ‘protecting’ them with a pair of wild lions. But for me what leaped out of the story was the utter foolishness of what is carefully, deliberately described as the girl’s “white farmer father” and in the next paragraph, as “Ron Sparrow, one of a handful of whites still farming in Zimbabwe.”

The ‘persecuted white farmer’ angle is far more important to the story as written than the issue of what the hell Sparrow was thinking to have “kept” these dangerous predators as guard animals. But the story makes it clear that so nightmarish is the life of a white farmer in the Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe that one such white farmer felt driven to the desperate act of ‘hiring’ a pair of untamed lions to ‘protect’ his family from Mugabe’s marauding war veterans.

The blame for the poor girl’s near fatal encounter with the lions is therefore the fault of…you guessed it…old Robert Mugabe, not her father’s dangerously reckless decision to ‘keep’ the animals. There you have it: You see what a nasty chap Mugabe is?! Geez, the fellow must be really satanic, driving innocent white farmers to depend on wild lions for a sense of security for their families.

One could ask if the lions were not much more dangerous to Sparrow’s family than any threat from ‘Mugabe’s war veterans,’ but the story did not seek to pursue what would seem an obvious and very relevant question. And while we are often told of how the irresponsible, starving natives are ill-treating and killing the country’s wildlife for meat, no question is asked about the propriety or legality of Sparrow “keeping” a pair of prized wild animals as sentries, although those reluctant sentries turned on his own child.

The race of the farm labourer who eventually beat off the lions that broke into the house to attack the child would seem to be totally irrelevant to the story as well. In any case, we all know that in the plantation model of commercial farming that existed in Zimbabwe, any labourer working for a white farmer would necessarily be black. But for some reason the writer of the story wants to be sure we are in no doubt about this, and is very careful to refer to him as “a black farm labourer.”

The white farmer, his wife and child are all humanised in the story by being named. A ‘domestic worker’ who tried to protect the child and the ‘black farm labourer’ remain nameless, identity-less. Yet these two anonymous characters are the true heroes of the piece, the literal saviours of the child from its ‘white farmer parents’ extremely poor judgment, which almost caused the death of the child.

The story calls for sympathy not so much for the girl who almost died from her parent’s irresponsibility, nor does it focus on the heroics of the two workers, both of whom we can safely assume to be black, although only explicitly (and irrelevantly) told so about the labourer, not the ‘domestic worker.’ No, the one we are strangely called to sympathise with is the white farmer, for having to go to such foolish extremes because of his suffering at the hands of Mugabe’s war veterans!

Don’t tell me the shrill telling of the story of Zimbabwe in “the international media” is mainly about concern for ‘economic collapse’ and ‘human rights’ for the natives. Subliminally or otherwise, it is centrally and primarily a deep racial narrative.


2 Responses to “An example of the racial narrative in Western media’s coverage of Zimbabwe”

  1. […] (Source) […]

  2. CM said

    Hello Mandebvu.

    Thank you for tracking my post back to your site. Sorry the post apparently got you a little uptight. But as you don’t specifically identify what you disagreed with and/or are unhappy about, it is difficult to engage you in debate, if that is what you want.

    Your opening comment, “There are those who do not believe the activities in Zimbabwe and prefer to detract instead on the written word,” suggests you may have missed the whole of the post. I hope it is not because you reacted to it emotionally rather than calmly and rationally, even if you disagreed with it.

    There is not a hint in my post about whether I believe or disbelieve the story in The Scotsman that is the subject of my post. Belief or otherwise of “the activities in Zimbabwe,” as you refer to them, is not the issue. It is instead one of analysing a very real and troublesome angle of Western media coverage of Zimbabwe.

    It is a pity you make it clear you don’t like my tack on the issue, but don’t then spell out why, if only for the benefit of your readers. That would have also made intelligent debate with you on the issue possible.

    Thanks anyway for publicising the post amongst your readers. It is good for them to get a different-from-yours interpretation of “the activities in Zimbabwe.”


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