The New Statesman Profile - the white man in Africa

The French and the Portuguese got out; but the British stay, trying to forget the murderous acts of

Thirty years ago, travelling through Mozambique on my way to Rhodesia, I stopped at the market in Beira to find that the women behind the vegetable stalls, speaking volubly in Portuguese, were all white. I didn't often see poor whites in the English-speaking parts of Africa, yet here they were, part of the scenery, happily serving the equally poor blacks. The Beira marketplace, after the uptight and racially charged societies of Kenya or South Africa, seemed cheerful and relaxed. Full marks to the Portuguese as colonialists, you might say, although their apparent racial tolerance was more the result of their centuries-old promiscuous breeding with indigenous women than to any inherent moral superiority.

A few years later, most of the whites in Mozambique and Angola, including the market women of Beira, headed back to the home country they had never been to. Portuguese soldiers got tired of being sniped at by the guerrillas of liberation groups such as Frelimo and the MPLA, and made their own revolution back in Lisbon, handing over Portugal's African colonies to the freedom fighters. Great mountains of wooden crates, piled up on the quayside at Lisbon during the heady days of revolution, gave a dramatically visible presence to this gigantic exodus. Portuguese settlers never had any nonsense about describing themselves as Africans: they were Portuguese and proud of it, and when the moment of truth arrived, they decamped en masse.

So, too, did the French colons from Algeria. They didn't think of themselves as Africans either. They believed that Algeria was French. When Charles de Gaulle refused to recognise this conceit, and pulled the plug on them, they upped sticks and headed for the quayside at Marseilles. A million colons were obliged to reintegrate themselves with some difficulty into French society.

Alone among the representatives of the European colonial powers, many of the British white settlers - in Kenya, Rhodesia and South Africa, the only British colonies where such settlement was significant - stayed on in Africa. Some thought of themselves as "Africans". The British settlers, unlike the French and the Portuguese, or indeed the Belgians, the Italians and the Germans, had always been ambivalent about Britain itself. They were often in conflict with the government in London, which never supported the narrow sectarian interests of the white settlers, believing in equal rights for all colonial subjects regardless of race.

Not that this was much use to the Indians of Canada, the Maoris of New Zealand, the Aborigines of Australia or the Xhosa and the Khoikhoi of South Africa. British settlers exterminated these peoples in the course of the 19th century, or drove them into distant parts of their countries where they could be kept out of sight and thus forgotten. The evidence has always been available, but only in very recent years have we been made aware that Nazi genocide had its precedents in Europe's colonies.

Extermination, combined with a steady stream of recruits from Britain, enabled white settlers in several regions of the Empire - Australia, New Zealand, Canada - to become the majority of the population. In Africa, they remained in a permanent minority, retaining their economic power but - by the 1960s in Kenya, the 1980s in Zimbabwe and the 1990s in South Africa - losing their political hegemony.

The whites in Africa were now faced with a choice. Would they leave the continent they had done so much to despoil, or would they try to stay among the peoples that their fathers and grandfathers had enslaved or slaughtered? The settlers in each colony reacted in a different way.

The British in South Africa, whose presence dated back to 1820, formed with the Afrikaners - white settlers with a far longer pedigree - as much as 10 per cent of a total population of almost 45 million. Seemingly unaware of their privileged position on top of a desperately poor and dislocated black society, they confidently made plans to prolong their stay indefinitely. In Latin America, after all, an equally tiny and rich elite had lorded it over an impoverished majority population for centuries. Yet even in Latin America, the confidence of the white elites is being slowly eroded.

In Kenya, more recently colonised, the white settlers kept a low profile after independence. Only 3 per cent out of a population of 27 million, the richer ones cleverly allied themselves with the government, to their mutual benefit. As a result, President Daniel arap Moi - a more unpleasant character than the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe - receives a better hearing in the foreign press.

The white settlers in Zimbabwe - 70,000 in a population of 13 million - have played their cards with less skill, as they have done throughout their brief history, following Ian Smith into the gestural politics of unilateral independence and, now, joining opposition groups in an attempt to oust Mugabe. As in South Africa, though with less cause, the settlers became possessed of the ridiculous idea that they could pass as Africans, and they do so in an ersatz, pastiche kind of way. You can spot them from miles off in their exotic tribal costume, open-necked shirts and long baggy shorts, grown men caught up and captured for all time in some adolescent rite of passage. Anywhere else in the globalised world, their fashion statements might have been mediated through Benetton or Gap, but here these worried tribal elders remain fixed in aspic, glumly and uncomprehendingly looking out at their burning ranches.

How extraordinary that they should replace the famine sufferers and flood victims on British television's nightly righteous indignation slot. The British weakness for sentimentality should not have blinded so many people, and so many journalists, to the inherited iniquities of the settlers' ancien regime.

Picture for a moment the scene in eastern Poland nearly 60 years ago, in 1942. Here in the fertile lands around Zamosc, where Rosa Luxemburg was born, Heinrich Himmler removed the Polish farmers and sent them off to labour camps, replacing them with flaxen-haired Saxon peasants, called upon to plant crops and to defend the outposts of the newly extended German Reich.

Then go back another 50 years, to the 1890s, and consider the arrival of the British "pioneers" in the land of the Shona and the Ndebele, then called Rhodesia. Each was given title to a 3,000-acre farm, to secure the ramparts of the British "Reich", while the indigenous peoples were packed off to distant deserts or forcibly recruited as cheap labour. When the Shona and the Ndebele launched an uprising, their armies were slaughtered, their leaders executed. Many were driven to take refuge in caves, where the British dropped sticks of dynamite through holes in the roof. "We burnt all the huts, and a lot of niggers that could not come out were burnt to death," recorded one British rifleman. "You could hear them screaming, but it served them right." Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, took part in the repression and called for the natives to be "ruled with a hand of iron in a velvet glove". If they writhe under it, he wrote, "you must take the glove off for a moment and show them the hand".

The German farmers in eastern Poland lasted for no more than two harvests before the Soviet armies drove them out. We would be most surprised if they were still there. Yet the British farmers in Zimbabwe, from a comparably iniquitous beginning, have managed to hold on for more than a century. In spite of their frequent biblical rhetoric, they forget the words of the Second Commandment, warning that a jealous God would visit the sins of the fathers upon the children "unto the third and fourth generations".

The Lancaster House agreement of 1980, which ended the war in Zimbabwe, gave the white settlers a chance to leave the scene, with a small cash sum. The farmers, eternally ill-advised, opted to remain, convinced of their right to enjoy stolen land and to exploit a large and impoverished workforce. They would have done better to emulate the plantation owners of the Caribbean in the 1830s, who lived for years off the fruits of the work of their slaves, and then successfully demanded compensation from the British government when slavery was abolished.

The inhabitants of former colonial societies fondly imagine that they have made the desert bloom, that they live where there was once a wilderness. But they forget what once happened on their land, that they are living on the slopes of a volcano. All over the world, the volcanoes are rumbling. The Mapuche in Chile are on the warpath, so too are the Guarani in Brazil. Up and down the Americas, from Canada to Argentina via Mexico, there are the sounds of the great revival of the native American nations. These were the first victims of European colonialism, and they are making their voices heard in unexpected ways. The same is true of the Aborigines and Maoris in Australia and New Zealand. The descendants of the murderous settlers of past centuries feel guilty and uncomfortable, uncertain how to react.

The white tribes of Africa are of more recent origin than the European settlers in the Americas; but they, too, are being forced to consider the crimes that are part of their historical inheritance. If they continue to think of themselves as Africans, they must understand that Africa has no history of democracy of the kind currently promulgated on a global basis by the United States, nor of the rule of law, nor of the "free and fair" elections so beloved of Robin Cook and Peter Hain. Given their history, the white settlers and their heirs would be the very last people to succeed in imposing such things. Most British settlers would have been wiser, like the French and the Portuguese, to have accepted a return passage to Europe long ago.

The writer was the foreign editor of Tanzania's state newspaper in the 1970s. His book on Hugo Chavez and the politics of Venezuela, In the Steps of the Liberator, is published by Verso this month

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The tiny group that controls us all