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United by "our mutual mistrust of the Chinese": really?

Jan Raath suggests that racial divisions can be overcome -- by turning mistrust on another minority.

Am I missing something? Or is Jan Raath's piece in today's Times, headlined "Chinese bring Zimbabwe's black and white together", actually quite offensive?

In the column, he tells the story of the Harare suburbs' fundamental transformation since numbers in the white community collapsed from 112,000 to 12,000 (replaced by a black population that "exploded" from 340,000 to 1.6 million). At a residents' association meeting, tensions between black and white members of the association are eased by "our mutual mistrust of the Chinese", which serves as "the catalyst for a comradely encounter".

With little irony, Raath describes how a complaint about the building of an illegal dormitory for Chinese workers "broke the ice" at what was, up till then, a fraught gathering. He writes:

The residents laughed, cheered and clapped. The manager knew all about the Chinese. He had been there to tell them they had no planning permission, but none of them could understand him. Laughter. Construction would be stopped and the building would be demolished, he said. The whites cheered and clapped him too.

This feeling of exultation is shared by Raath, who approvingly writes that the episode "opened the gates for us to vent our grouses". He concludes his vignette with an observation from a middle-aged woman at the meeting, who says: "You know, they've got an abattoir near the airport. For dogs and pythons."

The moral of his piece is that racial divisions can be overcome by banding together -- to designate yet another ethnic minority as "the other". Raath seems amused by stereotypes about eating "dogs and pythons", as well as the planning association manager's struggles to overcome the language barrier.

It's no surprise that the complaint that triggers the love-in is phrased in the language of white, male paranoia: "When my wife and daughter are swimming in my pool, these Chinese stare at them over the wall." Not too far removed, really, from the irrational fear of the "foreign sexual threat", as voiced by Mosley et al in the 1950s.

The piece may be intended as a faithful account of a minor meeting, but to present the events as an example of racial harmony is nothing less than daft.

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