White and wrong

Livingstone's Tribe: A journey from Zanzibar to the Cape

Stephen Taylor <em>HarperCollins, 260pp,

I can still remember the ivory paperknife I treasured as a boy. It was a gift from my Rhodesian cousins who visited once in the mid-1970s with tales of a land of exotic beasts and perpetual sunshine.

Little did I know then that our small terraced house in an English new town was a refuge for these tanned, genteel people with a strange accent. Much later, I understood that they were fleeing civil war. Eventually, they returned to the new Zimbabwe, lured by promises of continuity.

Robert Mugabe came to power in 1980. Like Jomo Kenyatta before him and Nelson Mandela after, he assumed control with magnanimity, thanking the whites for the infrastructure they had created. He spoke of racial reconciliation: "Let us forgive and forget. Let us join hands in a new amity." No wonder my cousins returned. How could the dark, damp Britain of the 1970s appeal to these sophisticates of the veldt?

In January this year, the last of our family left Harare for good; 20 years into their reprieve, life in "Zimb" had become simply too awful. In pulling the plug from the Kariba dam a few weeks ago, Mugabe sent billions of gallons of water crashing into the neighbouring country that had sheltered him during his days as the ruthless Marxist guerrilla leader of the Shona ZANU forces. In one night, he was instrumental in the destruction of Mozambique.

His ruin of Zimbabwe has been far more insidious. He has pilfered its money with the kind of efficiency that once made the Zimbabwean tobacco markets the envy of the world.

The coffers now empty, Mugabe is looking for others to blame for the consequences of his own excesses. By picking a diplomatic fight with the old colonial overseer, Britain, and instructing veterans from the bush war to occupy the land of white farmers, he aims to whip up one last racial frenzy, turning blacks against the few remaining whites.

It is a cheap political shot. The difficulties of colonialism are manifold; the memories too recent. The claims of white farmers to all the best land are certainly tenuous. No one really doubts that some kind of land settlement should be reached in Zimbabwe. However, simply chasing off highly efficient, skilled managers and replacing them with a disaffected military rabble will solve nothing, which is why Mugabe will not get away with it. The bespectacled, owlish looks and silver tongue that carried him so far can take him no further.

Like Nicolae Ceausescu's last years in Romania, absolute power has detached Mugabe from reality. While he believes in the opacity of his own transparent gestures, the population has grown incredulous. Southern Africa's Marie Antoinette is about to fall.

As a researcher into tropical disease, I frequently berate colleagues in the pharmaceutical industry for their failure to investigate new drugs to fight the crippling infectious diseases of Africa.

Why, I ask them, do they spend their research budgets hunting for medications to provide further comfort for affluent westerners while the world's poor die? They argue, without shame, that the search for profits drives the drug industry, as it does most industries. How many Africans could pay the prices required to make anti-malarial drugs into Viagra-like pharmaceutical blockbusters?

I recently found my eloquence on this subject stifled. If I were really interested in saving Africans, said an employee of a pharmaceutical giant, then why didn't I get off his back and into Kwik-Fit? Why, if drugs companies had a moral obligation to humanity, shouldn't mechanics, too? Shouldn't they sort out those bloody matatus, for a start.

Matatus are clapped-out minibuses, ubiquitous across Africa. They haul people around, compressed at densities that make the Northern Line in rush hour seem luxurious. In most African cities, more people die in matatu accidents than from disease.

It was mainly by matatu that Stephen Taylor travelled the roads of eastern and southern Africa as he traced the decline of white power in Africa. In 1997, Graham Boynton charted the same territory in Last Days in Cloud Cuckooland (Random House, US). His odyssey was informed by memories of a Rhodesian boyhood - not least by traumatised Belgians fleeing the Congo in 1960 and arriving in Bulawayo with tales of beheadings, rapes and other horrors. For Boynton, the rearguard action of Afrikaners to preserve their land seems like a heroic struggle.

Taylor takes a different approach. Less infatuated with violence, his journey is driven by a search for those whites who stayed on after the European powers abandoned their African colonies. These are "Livingstone's tribe".

For Taylor, the matatu driver exemplifies all that has gone wrong in African politics. Life is not held with the same sanctity as it is in the west. How could it be, on a continent where so many children die during their first year? So, given power over people's lives at the wheel of a matatu, drivers act with reckless abandon. The same wanton fatuity converts meek, affable souls, familiar to anyone who has ever strolled the streets of an African city, into psychopaths when handed a Kalashnikov.

As a journalist, Taylor watched with sadness the early years of Mugabe's regime unfold, reporting in the Times in 1982 the massacres of thousands of Ndebeles in Matabeleland. It was natural for Mugabe's Shona tribe to lord it over the Ndebele of Joshua Nkomo, just as the whites had lorded it over the blacks. In Africa, the winner takes it all.

V S Naipaul, in his Booker prizewinning novel In a Free State (1991), describes a couple of disengaged whites making a journey south across an unnamed, war-ravaged African state. Eventually, they make it to the fortified city at the state's southernmost point, a discernibly vulnerable white stronghold at the frontier of violence.

Boynton, in Last Days in Cloud Cuckooland, filled in the historical facts that eerily conform to Naipaul's predictions. Taylor's travels, too, have left him gloomily convinced of the inevitability of the extinction of whites as a group capable of surviving in Africa.

Michael Barrett is a lecturer in biomedical sciences at the University of Glasgow and formerly at the University of Nairobi