Belonging awkwardly – white Africans

Instead of integrating with African cultures, the first European settlers adopted a strategy of social escape and more recently used conservation to justify their sense of belonging, which fuelled land invasions in Zimbabwe. This is according to American anthropologist David Mcdermott Hughes, who spoke to Sean Christie about the provocative statements he made in his latest book, Whiteness in Zimbabwe – Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging.

Belonging awkwardly – white Africans
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Zimbabwe is renowned the world over for its national parks, which have been maintained even though tourism in the country has largely collapsed. Yet, to quote a reviewer of one of your books, you see environmentalism as “an ideology and practice inflicted by powerful outsiders on poor people who are increasingly exposed, as a result, to the risk of losing their land.” What do you propose as an alternative to the current model?

The colonial understanding of parks was that these spaces should be free of agricultural production. However, this approach wasn’t consistently applied even during the colonial period and, of course, Lake Kariba, which is an industrial site, is the greatest exception to the prohibition of production in parks. I find it remarkable that post-colonial conservationists tolerate and even embrace Kariba, which was brought into being at unprecedented ecological cost. There’s something wonderful in this, though, because it demonstrates that conservationists have the breadth of spirit to accept industrial production in “wilderness” areas.

I say let’s broaden that generosity still further to include cattle and crops, which are much less damaging to mopani woodland than flooding it with water! What I’m really calling for is an inhabited park, a more European-style working landscape, and for consistency, because the Lake Kariba exception is so enormous it should lead to a restructuring of Zimbabwe’s whole environmental policy.

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The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority has said poaching at a certain conservancy is largely driven by “a perception that wildlife resources, which are a public asset, have been the preserve of a few with the majority receiving little or no meaningful benefits.” Do you agree?

Yes, I did sense at some point that occupiers/invaders were killing wildlife and cutting trees in a way that was spiteful, because they recognised they had “suffered” for that wildlife and those trees, as whites justified their exclusion on the grounds of conservation.

If a landscape is being fenced off for the sake of a species, and you want to get rights to that land, then there’s an incentive to go in there and kill the members of that species – to destroy the basis for conservation in order to access that land. This is why the value structure of large-scale landholders who practice conservation may ultimately kill conservation and eradicate the species.

There are alternatives. For example, in my 2006 book From Enslavement to Environmentalism: Politics on a Southern African Frontier, I suggest that the best way of saving African elephants where they’re hunted would be to domesticate them and make them work for people.

20 years ago domestication was considered impossible and the solution was to make elephants work for local African communities through eco-tourism. However, while working in and around Zimbabwe’s Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE), I found that communities earned revenue from sports hunting rather than eco-tourism, and even that happened only in a minority of cases because that money passed through so many hands, with local government taking a hefty cut.

It’s been claimed that some white farmers in Zimbabwe stocked their land with game as conservancies were originally immune to the land reform programme, but in the end this just made the situation messier, resulting in the slaughter of many animals. To what extent is this true?

In Zimbabwe, all through the 1990s there were debates among policy makers, including the Commercial Farmer’s Union (CFU), about what constituted under-utilised land. The CFU agreed to relinquish under-utilised land, but maintained there was very little of it, and commercial farmers put wild species there, so they could then say, “We’re utilising all the land because we’ve got kudu here.”

At the same time, though, farmers love wildlife, and many I interviewed were very nostalgic about the highveld they grew up in, which had a lot more wildlife on it, and they desired a more multi-species landscape that reminded them of the “old Africa”.
For farmer-conservationists, the environment is personal and, after the land invasions, some are on record equating the cutting down of trees by their new neighbours to rape. Even if the paramilitaries had allowed them to stay, these individuals could not have abided their new neighbours. Rather than helping these farmers to fit into the new dynamics of the highveld, conservation drove them from it.

So the proliferation of conservancies was driven by economic self interest and a cultural romance, and I think it did hold back land reform for some years – long enough to make it very ugly and bloody.

In your book you say Zimbabwe’s white farmers became emotionally invested in the non-human environment and adopted a strategy of social escape instead of trying to integrate with the black society. Why?

White farmers in Southern Africa have difficulty thinking about how they belong in a country under majority rule, and one of the things Zimbabwe’s white farmers began to say to me after the land invasions was that they had been too rich and too visible.

“What we should have done after independence,” some said, “is integrate all of our clubs. We should have invited every black business manager and farm manager we could find to join, lowered our rates, changed the structure of the club entirely so that it could be bi-racial, or we should have simply done away with these institutions altogether, as well as relinquishing land.”
But for years, rather than doing this, farmers sought succour from their minority status in the environment, in impounding rivers, ploughing according to certain rules and in all-white enclaves rather than through an engagement with black society.
And so they remained blind to the gathering danger of African politics. When they came round it was too late.

You describe how some white Zimbabwe farmers who have managed to stay on the land have adjusted their attitudes towards their new neighbours, as well as their approaches to agriculture, and you see a lesson in this for all non-European white communities. What is that lesson?

When one is in a minority and tremendously wealthy and visible because of the car you drive, the house you live in, and a difference in skin pigment, then there’s a vulnerability there, and what interests me is the moment when people in these situations cease to feel vulnerable.

This is happening in the US, because we have a small number of billionaires who own half the wealth, and they flaunt it, this served to provoke the Occupy Wall Street movement and this may result in higher taxes for those billionaires. If they hadn’t flaunted their wealth, but had rather enjoyed it with greater taste and understatement, they might have avoided this sort of thing.

So there’s a difference between feeling humble and acting humble, and I guess I’m saying that any white commercial farmer in Africa would be in a better position to preserve some privileges by, firstly, voluntarily redistributing some land, and, secondly, acting more humble.

This second suggestion might not help people cowering in fear of crime or in tragic areas like the KZN Midlands, but in public one might take care not to project the colonial position of mastery with which blacks frequently associate whites.

I argue that whites in Zimbabwe should learn to “belong awkwardly”. If they do, they might one day counsel others, Americans not least, to learn to do the same.

• Email David Mcdermott Hughes at [email protected]