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White Ex-Soldier’s Book Opens Old Wounds in Black-Ruled Zimbabwe

Times Staff Writer

It was while watching a street battle in South Africa that Bruce Moore-King felt the first stirrings of disgust at his role years earlier as a white soldier in Rhodesia.

“I saw the police fire on some black children from an armored car,” he recalled from the porch of his isolated bungalow outside Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. “My first reaction as an ex-soldier was that it was shameful to fire from an armored car. It shocked me, and I began to see what it was to have been a Rhodesian.”

That vision has been causing a certain amount of discomfort among Rhodesians who chose to stay on in the country after 1980, when it became independent Zimbabwe.

In letters to the editors of Zimbabwe’s major newspapers, in calls to radio shows, and in asides in the hallways of the still largely white businessmen’s clubs, the burly former infantryman has been vilified and criticized for, as one radio caller put it, “pulling the scabs off old wounds.”

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The old wounds were inflicted during nearly 15 years of war between white Rhodesians and black guerrillas, beginning with Prime Minister Ian Smith’s unilateral declaration of independence from Britain in 1965 and ending just before independence.

The focus of the complaints is a book Moore-King wrote in his tin-roofed house here. Its title is “White Man Black War,” and it is the journal of a former Rhodesian soldier’s conversion to Zimbabwean.

Written with all the fervor of the born-again, the slim paperback volume traces Moore-King’s withdrawal from what he says was a quasi-religious commitment that he and other young Rhodesians felt to Ian Smith’s vision, and from their faith that they were fighting, as he puts it, “because a black Zimbabwe wouldn’t be worth living in.”

Instead, as Moore-King discovered upon returning to his homeland after years of wandering abroad, “whites live today as good if not better than in Rhodesia.”

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But it is also, he argues, a place where the evils of white rule have been replaced by a quieter, uglier and more visceral and resentful white racism.

“One of the strange things is an increase in emotional racism,” he said. “There’s a bitterness that I don’t remember from before.” On many white-owned plantations he has visited, “there is no form of decent housing, no attempt to raise the quality of life of the laborer.”

Patronizing Attitude

“During the war,” he added, “there was at least a patronizing attitude of looking after our blacks. Now you hear stories like one about a general manager of a company who was asked by his workers for a raise. ‘I’m not here to look after the welfare of blacks,’ he said. ‘Ask Mugabe for it.’ ” The reference was to Robert Mugabe, the guerrilla leader who became Zimbabwe’s president.

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So far, about 3,000 copies of “White Man Black War” have been sold, and “for a market the size of Zimbabwe’s, that is a lot, so my publisher tells me,” Moore-King said.

It is vivid in its depiction of the war, baleful as it recounts the racism Moore-King encountered on his return and sarcastic in its frequent repetition of Ian Smith’s familiar line: “We always had wonderful race relations in this country.”

Unsurprisingly, the book has been all but ignored by many leading whites here and derided by others. Ask about it around the Harare Club, the largely white businessman’s enclave in downtown Harare, and most of the lunch crowd will shake their heads and reply, “Sorry, haven’t heard of it.”

Eventually, some will admit to having heard of it, though not to having read it, and will add, “What would lead him to write a thing like that?”

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Undermined by Hindsight

But other white Zimbabweans say the book has forced them to confront the fact that they waged a bloody war on grounds that have been undermined by hindsight.

“You’ll still never hear them talking as if they lost this war,” said a white journalist whose family still owns extensive plantation land in Zimbabwe.

Indeed, Moore-King seems to have put his finger on some distasteful undercurrents of race relations in apparently placid Zimbabwe. One is the barely concealed glee of some whites at the birth pangs of a young government facing difficult economic conditions and, until about a year ago, residual rebel fighting in the bush.

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“What really angered me was the weak examples given to show we were right (to fight),” he said. “Guerrillas, shortages, corruption: It’s all seized upon.”

Others have noticed the same thing. When several Cabinet ministers were implicated recently in a scheme to profiteer on scarce, government-built cars, “everyone was cynical, but the whites more so than the blacks,” said Robert A. Stumbles, an Oxford-educated white lawyer, born in Rhodesia, who served on the public commission investigating the scheme.

‘Whites a Little Surprised’

“I think the whites were a little surprised,” he said, “to hear the president say this would be investigated.”

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It is not unusual to hear white businessmen, the beneficiaries of one of the most protectionist industrial policies in sub-Saharan Africa, complain about the black employees they say they are trying to bring into management.

“There’s a lack of initiative,” said a Zimbabwe banker, a former Rhodesian army man. “The standards of education here are very low.”

The publication last October of “White Man Black War” came just as race relations were entering a particularly delicate phase, because Zimbabwe has reached the point where more institutions are moving into black hands.

Although most Zimbabweans, black and white, would probably agree that race relations are as healthy here as in any country in Africa, there is no doubt that change has caused friction.

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White Physicians’ Boycott

Early this year the annual dinner of the Zimbabwe Medical Assn. was organized for the first time by blacks, not whites. No white physicians attended. Local tennis and golf associations, which had heavily white memberships, became almost entirely black as white members resigned when black executives were appointed.

Irritation at the whites’ refusal to mix economically and institutionally with blacks has crept unmistakably into government pronouncements. In April, Joshua Nkomo, a former guerrilla leader who is now a Cabinet minister, attacked the white community for its practice of sending children overseas to be educated, leaving behind a largely black public school system.

Zimbabwe is one of the few nations in sub-Saharan Africa where whites are still a sufficiently large and economically potent community for race relations to be an important issue.

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One diplomat in Harare recently summarized the change wrought by independence this way: “The government is black; the private sector is largely white. The best agricultural land is white. In the middle ranks of industry, there are a lot more blacks, but the upper level is white.”

Of the 5,000 farmers who own 50% of Zimbabwe’s cultivable land, 4,400 are white.

Less Pay for Blacks

In a report last year commissioned by the Commercial Workers Union, a University of Zimbabwe economist noted that among insurance companies surveyed, “promotions are rare among blacks, and those who are promoted are paid less than their white counterparts.”

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There is little question that the residual white community--about 80,000 remain of more than 250,000--has thrived in relation to those in even comparably wealthy African economies. To those who stayed, the first inkling that they might have been wrong came with their surprise at the civilized image projected by the new leaders.

The nominally Marxist Mugabe had been derided as “the Red Terror” throughout the war. But as Alec Smith, the son of Rhodesian Prime Minister Smith, recalled in his conciliatory 1984 book, “Now I Call Him Brother”: “When he appeared that first night on television to announce the independence of Zimbabwe to the nation, many whites were taken off guard by this cultured, well-spoken and highly articulate man who was now their prime minister.”

Mugabe has proved to be more pragmatic than Marxist, chiefly to the benefit of the white farmers and industrialists. In April, after a long delay, his government promulgated an investment code to attract foreign capital that is regarded as a model on the continent. One of Africa’s hard-line rhetoricians against South Africa, Mugabe has nonetheless avoided imposing sanctions that would damage his country’s economy, which is dependent on Pretoria.

Moore-King was not the first to detect the positive aspects of staying on in Zimbabwe. He had fought in the bush for six years when he left Rhodesia in 1978 at age 26. He worked as a laborer in Crete for a year, spent a couple of years in Britain selling insurance and houses and in Germany selling encyclopedias to U.S. service personnel.

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“I was homesick a hell of a lot of the time,” he recalled. So in England he joined the expatriate community of “Rhodies.”

“There were places we’d haunt, trying to re-create the old life,” he said. “The Brits saw us as hard-drinking loudmouths. Most of us were ex-soldiers.”

In 1983, hankering after the familiar climate of southern Africa, he moved to South Africa. There, in the closest thing to a Rhodesian-style social order, he found himself for the first time working side by side with blacks as a consultant for a maintenance firm.

“One day,” he said, “I started thinking about right and wrong. Gradually my attitude was changing.”

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Then his parents died in Zimbabwe, and he returned in November, 1985, with his English wife “to sort things out.” He toured his old haunts, visited the scenes of terrifying fire fights. He met old friends and discovered that he was repelled by the old attitudes.

‘I Just Don’t Like Kafirs’

In an exchange he recounts in the book, an old chum, using the southern African term of denigration for blacks, remarked, “I’m sure you’re quite right, Bruce, your arguments and all that, but I just don’t like Kafirs.”

The book closes with a vignette about a white farm manager roused from sleep to help transport the body of one of his loyal old hands from the hospital where he has died back to the farm for burial. Unceremoniously bouncing the truck over the rutted roads as family members in the rear wail in mourning, the manager curses all the way home.

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“The corpse thuds against the tailgate, bouncing and bouncing as the pickup hurtles along the rough road,” the account goes on. “ ‘If you want to make that godawful racket, you can get out and walk!’ the manager says. ‘Right now! Understand?’ It struck me (the author interjects) that that attitude wouldn’t have been acceptable even in the middle of the war.”


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