Today I burnt a pot and overcooked the beans. I am yawning and sleepy. I am suffering from slight vagueness and staring into the distance. This time it is not from staying up dancing with Germans, but from staying up reading a great book. I finished it at 01:30 this morning, which is fine in theory except that Ollie invariably rises 06:00. Four and a half hours’ sleep is not really enough for me to function usefully, but the book was worth it.
So, what kept me gripped and awake until the early hours of this morning was Peter Godwin’s When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, the story of Zimbabwe’s recent tragic decline. Once the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe is now a devastated country, where the life expectancy is 33, where a packet of mince costs thousands of Zim dollars and where crops no longer thrive. Godwin is a New York-based journalist, but he grew up in Zimbabwe and his story is based on his frequent visits home to see his aging parents. It combines a bleak overview of how badly things are going wrong politically with moving accounts of his parents’ increasing frailty. It begins and ends with the death of his father, George.
We honeymooned in Zimbabwe in 1994, and were so impressed with its success in achieving genuine racial harmony (something which was a mere pipe dream in South Africa at the time), that we talked about moving to Harare. Godwin describes his homeland as the “Switzerland of Africa”, a ridiculously peaceful country with a strong economy surrounded by nations rife with war, civil war and racial injustice. His book details how in ten short years, Zimbabwe became one of the poorest countries in the world. The title, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, is the English translation of the Shona expression for an eclipse. It also aptly describes what has happened in Zim: the country has been eaten by a dictator and his thugs.
I was particularly moved by Godwin’s concerns about his parents, because of course I worry about my own. As things deteriorate in the country, their life becomes more and more difficult. Having lost one daughter to an ambush during the country’s civil war, both their other children emigrate. Their pensions are reduced to funny money, they struggle to afford groceries, their retired housekeeper – who they had treated as a member of the family – returns with a bunch of goons to try to extort more money from them, and their increasing ill-health means they have to put their lives in the care of doctors and hospitals that barely function.
Godwin’s empathy is not only for his own family. He describes the hundreds of thousands of farm workers who become refugees when farms are “redistributed”, the struggles of the opposition party against an increasingly repressive state, people who cannot feed their families, the fate of animals left behind on farms, the millions dying of AIDS. It is a bleak picture.
Of course, as a South African, I feel very tied to Zimbabwe. Cousins and friends grew up there, I know many Zimbabwean immigrants who are trying to make a new life in my homeland. What I have to hope is that South Africa’s future does not hold the same bleakness. I have to hope that the “Rainbow Nation” is not just a pretty metaphor, that the rule of law will hold, that it will never became a one-party state, that the current land redistribution system will continue to work, that the medical system won’t be ruined, that the recent government anti-retroviral programme will take hold, and that white people who have given their lives to South Africa – as Godwin’s parents gave theirs to Zim – won’t become second-class citizens. I also hope that the ANC government will never turn on South Africa’s population the way Mugabe has turned on his, that they will treat the people who voted them into power with respect and that they will never, never try to eat the sun.