November 21, 2011

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

So your husband travels for an entire week, meaning no one ever so gently reminds you when it's time to sleep. And you find yourself stuck in a hospital waiting room for almost an entire day. And you just happen to have received a large stack of interesting books from a friend.

What does all that make? Ample time to read a book and write another book review!

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun picks up where Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa, another Peter Godwin book, had left off: Whereas Mukiwa is a memoir of Peter's childhood and coming of age in the Rhodesian armed forces during the early years of the civil war, this second book describes what happened in what was now called Zimbabwe after independence up until the present day.

What happened (and still happens) there was not pretty, to put it mildly. But while we all sort of know what has been going on, it's another entire matter to be given all the grisly details - of a large-scale genocide early on in Matabeleland, where the newly-minted governing party (ZANU-PF, still to this day under Robert Mugabe's leadership) suspected spies around every corner, of the eviction and brutal murders of the white land owners, of the equally brutal repression of the budding opposition party MDC, of hyperinflation and gross mismanagement and cronyism in government circles, of the totally unnecessary decline and collapse of Zimbabwe's economy, which until the early 1980s had been one of Africa's strongest...

The sad thing is, it could have been very different. Most Rhodesians, black and white alike, were very optimistic and enthusiastic about their new country, and the new black leadership initially struck a conciliatory tone, much like Nelson Mandela would model later in South Africa. Except it didn't last. Paranoia set in, the civil war veterans (called wovits) were demanding compensation when they realized that their lives were now no better than before, scapegoats were sought, and the country descended into anarchy or rather was held in the grip of a brutal dictatorship whose elite was only intent on enriching itself. Every single ANC leader in South Africa should read this very book and take it as a warning tale of what can happen if people like Julius Malema, the ANC Youth League leader (who thankfully was recently reprimanded and suspended from the party, pending appeal), amass too much power and are allowed to spew their hatred.

Having grown up in Germany with a fascination of anything Third Reich and my parents' and grandparents' part in it, I cannot help but see the parallels to Robert Mugabe's dictatorship in Zimbabwe. The start with more or less free elections, the slow erosion of civil rights, the mounting vilification of one particular racial group, the random brutality, the grip of extreme fear making widespread protests almost impossible. You look at white Zimbabweans from the outside and you say to yourself, why didn't they leave much earlier, when there was still time, much like the Jews in Germany?

Well, I think that's easy to say from my modern-day expat perspective. I will always have another country to flee to. But the whites in Zimbabwe never saw themselves as expats. It was the country of their birth, a country they loved above all, and a country they wanted to make work for everyone. And I think most people there just couldn't believe that the government would go as far, because they still held on to a belief in civic principles, even when it was obvious that those principles were violated at every turn.

What I love about When a Crocodile Eats the Sun is how it merges historic events with the very personal tale of the author's family. Much of Zimbabwe's decline can be observed by the increasing plight of Godwin's parents, who at first refuse to acknowledge that anything is amiss, and then refuse to leave even as they start living in fear. The story is written in an effortless prose and yet some sentences seem as if they took hours to craft, they are so poetic.

I can highly recommend this book not only for a better understanding of Zimbabwe but Southern Africa in general. Incidentally, the friend I borrowed the book from grew up and lived in Zimbabwe herself before emigrating to South Africa, and confirms that much of the story reflects bits and pieces of her own life. I can't wait to hear more about that over another two cups of coffee!

8 comments : said...

Have you read 'Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight' by Alexandra Fuller? It's also a memoir of a white girl growing up in Rhodesia. Very interesting, funny and sad. You would love it -- I would lend it to you but I already lent it to a Zimbabwean friend of mine and told him to pass it on!

Jozie Days said...

I enjoyed reading your book review on 'Crocodile'. It made me especially sad today as South Africans are desperately trying to stop the POIB (protection of information bill)from being passed by the ANC lead government. In Zimbabwe the bill that was passed called 'Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act' (AIPPA). It was enacted to oversee how the print and electronic media operated in the country. It was enacted in 2002 by a ZANU-PF dominated parliament. This was one of the many things that lead to the troubles Zimbabwe faces today! Obviously Mr Zuma has been taking lessons from his northern neighbour!

I also felt the sadness in the fact that we lost the only country we ever knew. Our parents and grand parents grew up there. Our children were born there. We were not foreigners but Zimbabweans of many colours. We never thought that so many of us would be living in the diaspora - most of us will never go back.

I look forward to our next cup of coffee together!

Sine said...

2summers - yes, I have read "Don't let's go to the dogs tonight" and thought it was good, although that family seemed just a wee bit crazy:-). I liked her young years better than the later years but nevertheless a good account of life in Zimbabwe. Not sure why I forgot to include it in my list, it was a bit long ago that I read it. Thanks for mentioning it!

Sine said...

What can I say, JD? It came well recommended!

And yes, I was shocked today that the secrecy bill was passed, I though for sure it would fail. The hypocrisy of our government is unbelievable, isn't it? I treated the Dalai Lama incident tongue-in-cheek when I wrote about it, but this is seriously bad. And here I was hoping that even if the ANC doesn't shy away from curbing the freedom of the press on moral grounds, it would at least do so by virtue of being smart and NOT repeating the mistakes made in Zimbabwe, because seriously, who would want their country to go that way?

Thanks for pointing out the parallels between POIB and AIPPA. Or does pointing that out already fall under the auspices of the secrecy bill and make us subject to conspiracy charges?

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Fantastic post! When you deal with these topics I almost always find something to half correct or disagree with slightly but you aced this one 100%.

When I look at the full history of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and think over the same things you speak of here I can't help but think that there are far worse things in the world than minority rule.

Sine said...

I guess that's a compliment:-) I feel like I just turned in a paper to be graded and got it back with an A+.

In a way I guess you could say Singapore has always had minority rule. And it's worked out pretty great for them. I am an idealist at heart and will always plug for democracy, but the older I get, the more I have to acknowledge that some other forms have their benefits if managed well.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

I meant it as a compliment.

Sometimes I worry that my forays into African history and my defensive support for a more old fashioned analysis come off as a criticism of what you are saying. In my brief reply I was wanting to show how I thought you did an excellent job dealing with a touchy subject (for some).

Sine said...

Oh, I totally got it, was just talking tongue in cheek. I don't think you're coming across as overly critical, just immensely informed and with a wealth of historical knowledge to contribute. As long as we leave U.S. politics out of it. I respect you for always coming down on the side of basic fairness. Treat everyone with respect and no different regardless what their culture or skin color. If the old regimes had only done that. But that's the hard thing. Colonialism almost always went along with these injustices. But as you point out, it also brought many positives to these countries and left behind some order and civic institutions that the new governments were well advised to keep in place and protect. India, I believe, in some ways managed to do that (of course not in terms of lifting everyone out of poverty, we are a long way from that, but they seem to have survived the switch to democracy better than others).