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Lessing and Zim land question

By Tichaona Zindoga My Turn
Dorris Lessing, the author who died a few days ago, was certainly no politician - at least one of note - but there is something particularly arresting about her relationship with land, African land; Zimbabwean land.

That is, her attachment to, and espousal of power relations as exercised on the same especially during and after the colonial era. In 2003, she came up with a very rich piece on Zimbabwe that typically showed her partiality to the land, and, too bad for those that may have boxed her as a feminist or "leftist" writer, showed how deeply racist she was in so far as she did not perceive blacks as entitled to land or to be capable farmers.

This is one good way to celebrate this "only Nobel Laureate with Zimbabwean connections." For some of us, the first contact with Lessing was via a school setbook, The Grass Is Singing which enchants readers through her portrayal of the political- social-sexual relations of colonial Rhodesia, in particular the colonial farm, gripped us as did the tragic comeuppances of the story.

One thing more, when I was recently in South Africa, I picked up from a pawn shop a wonderful volume of short stories titled, "A century of South African short stories". For my 10 rand worth, Lessing had a couple of stories in the collection dominated generally by Afrikaner writers of various degrees of racism.

I immediately recognised her in her element: she exudes a familiar attachment to the land (like all of them). She revels in the African landscape; she likes mealies growing 10-feet tall at the farm; she tells of an old African chief that loses his kingdom to white government and "moved 200 miles east to a proper native reserve; the government land was opened up for white settlement soon."

The land grew vegetables "tasting as I have never found vegetables to test since"; the soil was "rich chocolate" and "warm" but, always, "black people on the farm were as remote as the trees and rocks."

A character, a girl with attachment to the land, despises her mother and neighbour for an undue nostalgia of London and contempt for the African soil. Her attachment to land cannot be gainsaid. Thus her 2003 ranting, racist piece impugning the land reform programme that benefitted 250 000 black families she thought were as remote as trees and rocks, should be read in this context.

The piece is entitled "The Tragedy of Zimbabwe" and she goes to extraordinary lengths to show her contempt for the African, and the African on the land of his ancestors. She maligns President Mugabe, the hero of land reform. She lies. She paints victims of her white folk. One would baulk at some of her utterances, really.

She tells us: "At the time of the whites' arrival in the area that is now Zimbabwe there were a quarter of a million blacks, and they lived in villages of mudwalled, grass-roofed huts. The women grew pumpkins and the maize imported from South America, and gathered plants from the bush. The men hunted. When I was a girl you met the men walking through the bush, dressed in animal skins, carrying assegais, people a step or two up from hunter-gatherers."

These savages did not own the land, least so deserve it. They were just too primitive to be called farmers, and their harmony with nature and self-sufficiency revolted Lessing. Mugabe must have been mad to kick start land reform. "Many people said he was mad: I among them," she writes. "…Did he really not foresee what his campaign of forcible acquisition of land would achieve?"

(Forcible acquisition by whites had been a godsend, no doubt!) She trashes black people as envying white life but unable to work like the diligent white farmers.

She tells us: "For the 90 years of white occupation, the blacks, most of them roughly torn from their village life, had watched - unreachably above them - rich whites with their cars and their black servants. The white people they saw as rich included many poor ones, but most blacks were so far below an apparently cohesive white layer that they could see only riches. Effortless riches… A fact about the white farmers that must be recorded is that most of them were very good farmers, inventive, industrious, with an ability to make do and mend, even when Mugabe would not allow the import of spare parts, supplies, sufficient gasoline. To visit a white farm was to be taken around by people proud of their resourcefulness."

Lessing trashes land reform as a return to the primitive years. She writes that new farmers grow "maize and pumpkins and the plant called rape on their patches-when it rains . . . The poor settlers are farming without machinery or even, in some cases, basic implements, such as shovels." Perhaps she didn't live to see the boon of these farmers which is now being acknowledged even in London, albeit grudgingly.

Would she care? So she would lie and paint black people as savages. She lies to project President Mugabe as manipulating the education system and rewriting history.

"He has recently set up compulsory indoctrination classes in villages throughout the country, mostly for teachers, but for other officials too, where they are taught that they should worship Mugabe and be totally obedient to Zanu, the ruling party . . . The students learn useful skills like how to murder opponents with a blow to sensitive parts of the body, and how to strangle them with bootlaces.

''This type of sadistic cruelty is not part of their own traditions and history, to which lip service is continually paid." Such mendacity will be difficult to surpass and it all stems from her racist beef over land.

Here is another vintage on the 'black savages': "The black elite drive around the white farms and say, 'I'll have that one.' 'No, I want that one.' Mugabe's wife had herself driven through the countryside, picking among farms like fruit on a stall. She chose a really nice one. ''A white farmer's wife watched a black woman arrive in her smart car. She was pushed out of the way, while the interloper began measuring for curtains. 'Are you going to live here?' inquired the dispossessed wife. 'Me? I wouldn't live in this dump,' the black woman said scornfully. 'I'm going to let it. I've already got three houses in Borrowdale' (the most fashionable suburb in Harare)." Other shockers 'black savages' can muster.

"On a pig farm the animals were dying because they had not been fed and watered since the white farmers were thrown off the land. And drunken blacks had hacked pieces of meat off some of the pigs and left them to die. A white woman vet stood by weeping, forbidden to help the pigs. But then one of the new black settlers, unseen by the others, came to her and said, 'We are townspeople, we have these animals now and don't know how to look after them. Please help us.' They had taken a couple of the dying pigs and put them in a shed. The white woman went with him and began showing him and his wife how to look after the animals."

She had such a fertile imagination, which is why she went on to produce so many works of fiction up to 60 novels.

(I have an unread "Memoirs of a Survivor", and the guy that I buy books from, whom I asked to find African books for me, says he has a couple more of "the books that you want".) No doubt the land is big a theme in Lessing's work. Yet land Lessing died without which should have inspired her extraordinary, bitter 5000 odd word rant, probably her last of 94 years, against the Zimbabwe of landed blacks.


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