Is there a future for the white tribe of Africa?

I received the following e-mail from a close friend in South Africa yesterday. He is the most thoughtful white South African I've ever met. That is why his e-mail is so sad. He writes:

"It's all rather sad in Zim. I never in my wildest dreams expected it to come to this. Brutal race war looming a la Indonesia, Malaysia. Well, you certainly can't say the whites came in on invitation 100 years ago, but still there must have been a better way to resolve the dilemma of history. The choices Mugabe and those around him have made will destroy Zimbabwe. No white or Asian can ever trust again now, that there is a permanent place for him or her in that country . (I don't know if you know that the threats were made that after the whites they'll go for the Asians). Already radical black leaders here and in Namibia are saying the same thing should happen... and even in Kenya.

"What frightens me most is that the choices of moderates are slowly being whittled away. But, as VS Naipaul says in A Bend in the River, the world is what it is. Trying too hard to grasp on to the big picture has been a mistake. That way bitterness dwells. History will take care of itself, one has to believe in the power of individual relationships."

Five years ago, after the first non-racial elections in the country's history, my friend believed that whites would always have a place in the new South Africa. They would have to make adjustments of course, that was inevitable, but he believed the words of reconciliation spoken by Nelson Mandela. But what is now happening in Zimbabwe is changing all that, and not just for the more liberal-minded whites in South Africa. When the old anger is summoned up - and believe me it is very deep in South Africa - the liberal white is even more of a target than the right- winger.

In his Booker prize-winning novel Disgrace, JM Coetzee uses the story of a brutal rape on a white farm as a parable to define the limits of power and possibility for the white in modern South Africa. There was neither justice nor retribution for the rape victim. This was how it would be, Coetzee intimated. The whites who stayed in South Africa would have to adjust themselves to a new dynamic: they might retain wealth and privilege, but in crucial areas they would find themselves entirely subject and vulnerable.

I think it is probably more true to say that whites - other than the super-rich who can buy patronage - must join the vast ranks of Africa's unprotected. In this world you can be murdered, raped, beaten and robbed and you must learn to absorb the blows and keep going. It can be very hard work being part of a minority in Africa. Consider the fate of Uganda's Asians expelled under Amin, the Tutsis of Rwanda or any of the countless small groups oppressed by larger tribes. Millions have been butchered on the African continent because they had the misfortune to belong to a less powerful tribe, or because some cynical despot decided it was time to protect his own backside by indulging in some skilful scapegoating. The whites of Zimbabwe are sadly but the latest in a long line of the continent's innocent victims.

There are some on the left who rather enjoy seeing the white landowners being set upon. Shame on them. Of course it is wrong that most of the good land in Zimbabwe still belongs to a small minority, but it is like that because it has suited Robert Mugabe's purpose. Mugabe hasn't wanted a solution of the land problem. For pity's sake, he's had 20 years to do something. Without the whites to scapegoat he might have to consider taking responsibility for the disaster that Zimbabwe has become under his rule.

Perhaps there is a little reverse racism going on here. Because they are white, because their forefathers were the oppressors, is there a belief that the whites of Zimbabwe are simply getting what they deserve, or that they have no right to protection and concern? The people being attacked on farms across Zimbabwe were born and reared on the African continent. They are not settlers, and they have contributed immeasurably to the welfare of their country; and anybody who believes that running a farm in Africa is a gin and tonic-soaked party should think again.

With the exception of South Africa and Zimbabwe, there are no sizeable white populations left anywhere in Africa. In Kenya there is a small elite which, by and large, keeps out of politics. Those who did get involved with the opposition were attacked by President Moi's thugs and subjected to an anti-colonial rant of which Robert Mugabe would have been proud.

These days, whites in Africa are a curious mix of aid workers, mineral exploiters, mercenaries, arms dealers and evangelical missionaries. Sometimes, in remote corners, the roles even overlap. These are the new whites who come for a short while to fight famine or save souls or make money and then return to the cold climes from which they sprang. The aid community and missionaries excepted, these are people who have no long-term personal investment in Africa. They come and take and vanish.

The old colonial settlements in the Belgian Congo and French and Portuguese Africa have all vanished, with the settlers long ago fled to Europe. The same can be said of the old British territories of Zambia and Malawi and Tanzania. I've met scattered survivors of colonial Africa all over the continent: the ancient French plantation-owner near Kafountine in Senegal, the even more ancient Portuguese couple who ran the big pool- hall in Luanda, the Afrikaners of Eldoret in Kenya, innumerable strange Belgians in out-of-the-way towns in central Africa.

They had all been absorbed, taken over by Africa by the time I met them. Europe - if it meant anything at all - was a childhood memory. They could never return and would die in Africa. Like the characters in JM Coetzee's novel, these people had accepted Africa and what it might do to them. They experienced civil war and coups d'etat, and had lost and regained property more times than they could remember. Africa was part of them all right, but not in the romantic sense described by writers like Karen Blixen. They had toughened themselves to endure the continent, and had survived.

Is that how it must be for the whites of South Africa or Zimbabwe? I think the farmers of Zimbabwe have already made their choice. Most of them will stick it out and hope that the elections bring the end of Mugabe's regime. And for all my friend's understandable pessimism, South Africa's whites need not end up being completely marginalised.

Part of the answer is to stay involved in politics. Staying out - as whites have traditionally done in post-colonial Africa - is a very big mistake. It simply heightens a sense of separateness from the rest of the country. If whites are to have a future they must lay the ghosts of their own past to rest; put away the memory of their oppressor forefathers. Some, like the murdered farmer David Stevens, have already done that in Zimbabwe. In years to come, a grateful nation may look back and regard him as one of the first heroes of Zimbabwe's liberation from its tyranny.

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent

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