Two films – one fiction and one documentary – tell an African story from the perspective of the white people involved, who find themselves labelled as the enemy. Both films confront us with the colonial past and raise questions about the feasibility of exporting democracy and enforcing it on fundamentally different societies.

Willemien Sanders
Dr. Willemien Sanders, lecturer, department of media and culture studies, Utrecht University.

Mugabe and the White African

SYNOPSIS: Michael Campbell is one of the few hundred white farmers left in Zimbabwe since President Robert Mugabe began his violent land seizure program in 2000. Like other white farmers, he has suffered years of multiple land invasions and violence at his farm. In 2008, Mike challenged Mugabe before the SADC (South African Development Community) international court, charging him and his government with racial discrimination and violations of Human Rights. On the brink of losing everything, Mike and his wife Angela, daughter Laura and her husband Ben Freeth stand united by their courage, their faith and their hope. Whatever the verdict handed down by the court, this audacious and unprecedented stand may yet cost them their lives.

White Material

SYNOPSIS No more smirking. We’re stopping the bullshit right now and staying put. The regular army is preparing to re-establish order in the country, to clean up, to eliminate the rebel officer also known as the Boxer and rid the countryside of roving child soldiers. All the expatriates have gone home, getting out before things turn nasty. Of the Vials, coffee planters who have lived here for two generations, Maria stands firm. She’s not about to give in to rumours or abandon her harvest at the first sound of gunfire. Just like her father-in-law and her ex-husband who is also the father of her son, (a little too much of a slacker in her opinion) she is convinced that Cherif, mayor of the neighbouring town, will protect them. If she asks him to, he will save the plantation.

Two new films show us a perspective on contemporary Africa and the fate of its white citizens; neither is very positive. The documentary Mugabe and the White African focuses on a farmer’s efforts to safeguard his legally owned farm against Mugabe’s land redistribution programme in Zimbabwe. White Material is a fiction film about a white plantation manager who seems unwilling to take the civil war that is raging around her seriously – until it lands on her doorstep. In both films we recognise contemporary African societies struggling to find their way decades into their post-colonial existence.

The documentary Mugabe and the White African follows farmer Michael Campbell and his son-inlaw Ben Freeth as they challenge the Zimbabwean government before the Southern African Development Community (SADC) court in Windhoek, Namibia. They want to keep their farm, which Campbell bought after independence. It is the first international case to be brought before the SADC court. The film focuses on the significance of justice in a country where all infrastructures, including the legal one, are failing and falling apart. In the meantime, the family has to deal with threats as well as physical attacks by Mugabe followers and ex-soldiers who claim they are now entitled to the land.

In the fiction film White Material the situation of the white family who own the plantation is less explicit. In an unnamed African country, we see scenes containing elements we may recognise from various actual civil wars in Africa: rebels, child soldiers, hate radio, men with machetes and bats, retreating foreign troops. It is a country in turmoil, but Maria, the manager at the family plantation, is unwilling to admit how serious the situation is, despite the many recommendations to leave. Slowly, however, the violence closes in on her.

Both films tell their stories from the perspective of the white people involved, who find themselves labelled as the enemy. Racism is back in Africa it seems. This is particularly clear in the Campbell and Freeth case, in which the only reason ever mentioned for demanding white farmers’ properties is the colour of their skin. It is never because they are incompetent or absent farmers or beat their workers, nor because they are commercial farmers, because black commercial farmers are left alone. Maria and her family are also referred to as foreigners. Both Maria and Ben Freeth know the men who threaten them, their names and families. But no matter how long they have lived there and how rooted they feel, they do not “belong”. In both cases the situation also affects the workers and their families; the farm and plantation function as small communities. The films share this social reality, in which people who have lived and worked peacefully on their property for years are suddenly expelled, their citizenship brought into question.

White Material is a psychological portrait of a woman witnessing the disintegration of her world, despite her best efforts to deny what is happening. Spanning just two days, the story goes back and forth between the moment Maria celebrates her freedom on a bike – and the moment she comes homes at the end of the following day, to find the plantation in ashes. Slowly, we see Maria realise the danger, not just for herself but for her son as well. The camera is always focused on the characters, constantly near them. There are few images of beautiful Africa. The film is really about the psychology of realising that you are in a battle you cannot win.

Robert Mugabe

Mugabe and the White African views like a feature film, opening with a build-up of tension that promises an exciting story. The voice-overs are mostly those of the participants, which creates a closed narrative. The filmmakers are almost completely absent, except for a few questions. A substantial amount of the film was shot by community members. The film centres on the course of events concerning the court case, with the verdict as the climax. Once again truth turns out to be stranger than fiction. Mugabe and the White African spans a period of over a year and a half, which is mainly due to the never-ending postponements of the court case initiated by Campbell. During the first session, it is accepted as a case but the court decides to adjourn for a few months. Upon their return to Windhoek for the continuation, Campbell and Freeth have to read in the papers that the case has been postponed again and they return empty handed. The next session is scheduled for May 2008 and again the case is postponed for a few months, with the Zimbabweans blaming a lack of staff  and resources. The case is finally held in the autumn of 2008.

The main characters in both films respond very differently to their situations. Of course Maria’s unwillingness to face the seriousness of the situation is not helpful, but like the Campbells and Freeths, she has no desire to give up her life, her plantation. Like them, she has nowhere else to go. Like them, she feels rooted in her country. Their responses differ though: Maria does not resist and tries rather to appease everyone, hoping things will turn out for the best. The Campbells and Freeths do resist what is going on, defend themselves and rely on what they know; the rule of law. This takes immense courage and determination. Mugabe and the White African explicitly depict how justice fails in Zimbabwe, how it has become void and meaningless. Mike Campbell and Ben Freeth are in a battle they can win, and they do. But Mugabe claims the land reforms are not subject to the SADC tribunal and Zimbabwe consequently gives up its membership and disregards  the verdict.

Both films confront us again with the colonial past and raise questions about the feasibility of exporting democracy and enforcing it on fundamentally different societies. They raise questions about the viability of nation-states created by drawing lines on a map. And they leave us with a painful contemporary question: what is the right response when there is no legal common ground to rely on? When people play by their own rules? What should Campbell and Freeth and Maria do? None of them see running away as an option and fighting did not help any of them. The question goes beyond the films themselves: what should we do? What is the right response to countries that are independent and sovereign but do not accept the rule of law or democracy as we in Europe know it? Today, with African opposition to Mugabe’s rule painfully absent, and Chinese investors ready to take over, no questions asked, what is the right course of action for the ‘international community’?


© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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