Eye on Zimbabwe: Peter Godwin

Photo: Byran O'Brien/The Irish Times/Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun started out as a work of straightforward journalism—the story, told by the son of Rhodesian white settlers, of the once-prosperous nation’s steep decline at the hands of dictator Robert Mugabe, who destroyed its white-owned farms. Then Peter Godwin found out that his father, a paragon of Britishness, had long hidden his past as a Polish Jewish refugee from the Holocaust. (He died not long after the revelation.) So the author of Mukiwa, a book about his white African childhood, ended up writing another very personal account. Godwin, who now lives in New York, spoke with Boris Kachka.

There was hope recently that Africa’s leaders would force Mugabe to step down—or at least to stop arresting and beating the opposition. Is that dashed?
He’s turned [the leaders] around. He’s a wily old fox. There is a messiah complex which comes with having been a liberation leader—you can’t possibly imagine the people ever subsequently turning against you.

Can Zimbabwe ever be a democracy?
Well, the two rivals for succession are both deeply compromised characters. One used to be the head of the secret police. So we’re all clutching at straws, because whatever will lead to change, people will go for. Even in the medium-term, there really has to be a constitution and proper elections. But for a transitional phase, it’s any port in a storm, really.

You were kicked out of Zimbabwe for reporting on atrocities in the eighties, but have returned over the years. Do you think people like you should be doing more?
Everybody used to say, “Why don’t Zimbabweans just rise up and do something?” And the problem is they do—they rise up and leave the country. This is the most educated population in Africa, but they’ve all buggered off. And the paradox is that insofar as the economy peters along at all, it does it on the remittances of people like me, who are outside the country, supporting people still there.

Some critics have questioned your politics, particularly your writing, “A white in Africa is like a Jew everywhere.”
Who do you think would object, whites or Jews? One of those critics was trying to suggest that I was directly comparing Mugabe with Hitler. It’s completely absurd. What I’m talking about is the sense of insecurity. And for my father, in personal terms, to find himself again in a situation where he was worried that [because of] his identity, his future and indeed his present was insecure—he’d crossed half the world to get away from this thing, and it had caught up with him.

Obviously, the history of colonialism in Africa makes Zimbabwe a very different situation.
But in Zimbabwe the whites who stayed on were the very ones who weren’t allergic to the prospect of black rule. That’s one of the big conclusions of the book, which is that in this weird way, Mugabe managed actually to create a nonracial society by uniting his foes.

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun
Little, Brown. $24.99.

Eye on Zimbabwe: Peter Godwin