On being white:

A conversation with the author of a fascinating new book on Zimbabwe’s commercial farmers.

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In The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Farmers’ Voices From Zimbabwe (Weaver Press), historian Rory Pilosoff explores the attitudes towards political power of that country’s commercial farmers over a 40-year period, describing how these changed and explaining why they changed.

Your book analyses the shifting politics of organised agriculture over 40 years. What drew you to the subject?

In Zimbabwe I ran an interview project with evicted white farmers about their experience since 2000 for Justice for Agriculture (JAG). In the process, I became interested in the history and evolution of the white farming community in Zimbabwe.

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Talking to evicted white farmers gave me direct and unadulterated insights into what they’d undergone, as well as first-hand experience of their responses to what had transpired.

Many of them described their experiences in language and terminology reminiscent of the Liberation War, which had ended over 20 years earlier. The use of words such as ‘gook’, ‘terr’ and mujiba were commonplace. This made me question why this response was so widespread and the ease with which the discourse of the Liberation War was so easily resuscitated by the white farming community.

The book is thus an attempt to provide answers to the clear and obvious echoes of past discourses in the white farming community. It seeks to explore the voice (or voices) of white farmers in Zimbabwe to establish a deeper understanding of their attitudes not only towards events of the very recent past (2000 and after), but also of the longer trajectory of Zimbabwe’s history.

One of the sources you use is The Rhodesian Farmer, which became The Farmer after independence. Why was this magazine such a valuable source?

Reading this magazine from 1970 to 2002, when it was shut down, offered a wonderful opportunity to trace the evolution of ideas, discourses and politics in the farming community. No other source offers this kind of long-term perspective and the means to watch the ebb and flow of these issues through some very troubled times for white farmers.

Broadly speaking, you find that Zimbabwe’s farmers were chameleon-like, changing their attitudes to fit in with the rulers of the day. You say, however, that their attitudes towards their labourers didn’t necessarily change. By the time the land occupations began had much authentic transformation taken place within the white community, or were the changes mostly superficial?

Listening to many of the interviews and reading many of the memoirs, it’s difficult to say that a great deal of transformation had taken place – the language employed, ideas expressed and the visions of what the labour relations were/should have been illustrate this.

Furthermore, I think private and public expressions of attitude (racial, political, and so on) were very different, and there’s sufficient evidence to illustrate that, in private (homes, country clubs, white society), bigotry and racism were still very much a part of the white farming mentality.

After independence the Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU) tried to present commercial farmers as food producers, quietly going about the business of feeding the country and anchoring the economy. They thought this was being apolitical, but was it really?

It’s very difficult for any group to remain apolitical in a political crisis, such as the one Zimbabwe witnessed from the late 1990s onwards. The farming community obviously saw value in aligning themselves with Robert Mugabe’s government – in a sense this was a survival tactic to try and weather the storm of majority rule and then the creation of a one party state.

It worked up to a point – even now the CFU still survives in some sense – but when farmers became the direct target of political violence, remaining apolitical was very difficult. You can be apolitical when you’re happy with the status quo. As such, being apolitical basically meant sanctioning the government’s actions as long as it never targeted farmers.

For years now in South Africa dissatisfaction with the system of ownership of land has been growing, much as it did in Zimbabwe prior to the ‘land invasions’. Do you detect any similarities between the CFU and organised agriculture in South Africa in the way it’s reacting to this increased pressure? What lessons can organised agriculture in South Africa draw from the CFU’s experience?

There certainly seems to be an increasing breakdown in communication between organised agriculture and government in SA. The two seem to be distancing themselves from each other and hardening their respective discourses on land control and ownership. This is not dissimilar to what happened in Zimbabwe during the 1990s.

As government and farmers grew apart, white farmers became more and more isolated and their race, and inability to connect to wider society, made them easy scapegoats for economic issues and political capital.

Obviously the ANC is a very different beast to ZANU-PF, and the states function very differently, but talk of nationalisation and the like widen this gap and harden positions.

The acid test will come when there’s a real threat to the ANC’s hold on power and how important land becomes in the fight for popular support and political ascendency.

Have new attitudes emerged among the few remaining white farmers in Zimbabwe?

I think that the events in Zimbabwe, encompassing violence, trauma and illegalities, have in many cases actually hardened and radicalised attitudes, and people have found more evidence for racist or bigoted thinking. This radicalisation is evident across wide ranges of Zimbabwe and is compounded by the continuing political uncertainty.

Others have found cause in ongoing crusades about ‘rights and legalities’ against the land reform process, without really digesting the contested past of land and its ownership in Zimbabwe.

But, certainly, there are many farmers who have been forced to reassess their past and place in Zimbabwe, and this has lead to new thinking about the past and their place in it. On the other hand, the longer this issue drags on unresolved, the murkier the responses will become.

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