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The Roots of 'Necklacing': Why White Farmers in Zimbabwe Are Responsible for the Killings in South Africa

South Africans wouldn't be killing Zimbabwean refugees if it weren't for the stranglehold Zimbabwe's whites have on its farmland.
 
 
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"The native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism in our relations with the barbarians of Southern Africa ... I personally prefer land to niggers." -- Cecil Rhodes, Founder of "Rhodesia" (Zimbabwe) (1887)

"We do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new Government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests." -- Clare Short, UK Secretary of State for International Development (1997)

There was a sad little war in South Africa last week. Actually, it was one of the latest battles in a war that's been going on for over a hundred years. Like they say in the Congo, " Mokilo e komplike ," "It's a complicated world.

Like a lot of wars, this one was between two groups that lost out in the bigger war. Now they're forced to fight each other for scraps, while the real bad guys, the British, send camera crews to go "tsk-tsk" at how uncivilized it all is. The way the BBC tells it, this wasn't even a war, just "riots" by Zulu mobs targeting Zimbabwean immigrants, but it was war. In most places and most times, war isn't uniformed armies meeting on the field of battle, but mobs looking for people from the enemy tribe to kill. When they find them, they kill them just like the Zulu mobs killed any Zimbabwean immigrant lucky enough to fall into their hands: in the goriest way possible, in order to scare the rest of the enemy tribe off the disputed turf.

It may not sound pretty, but then Gettysburg probably wasn't very pretty either, if you were screaming your head off after getting your leg blown off by a cannonball. The Great War wasn't very pretty if your eyes were melting down your face after you'd been gassed. The Eastern Front wasn't pretty, if you were a peasant woman wondering which army would be the one to rape, rob and kill you. You could go out on a limb and say that war in general isn't that pretty, if you're actually in it. So why do most people flinch at this kind of war, with mobs necklacing immigrants, more than they do at "conventional" war? One reason is that in this kind of war, the mob goes out of its way to invent new, horrible ways to kill people. Take necklacing, the favorite lynching method in South Africa for the last few decades. You tie up the victim, douse a car tire with gasoline, wrap it around his neck, and set it on fire. Pretty nasty stuff, but not "crazy" or "senseless."

The first thing to consider is how something as grim as necklacing got started. Necklacing evolved in the townships as a way of punishing police informers. You have to imagine the situation a little more vividly than most squeamish first-worlders are willing to do: the police and the army have a monopoly on weapons, so the guerrillas -- in this case, the ANC -- has to rely on its superiority in intelligence, information, secrecy. Ever since Michael Collins taught the Irish to stop trying to fight the British Army and focus on "putting out the eyes" of the occupier by killing his spies, guerrillas have been able to take down militarily superior forces. But this method requires that the guerrillas know everything about the occupiers, and the occupiers know nothing about the guerrillas. Anyone who informs for the police or army is a deadly enemy, and has to be killed in a way that will not only end the immediate threat but terrify anybody else who might be thinking of turning snitch into reconsidering.

And there are always potential snitches around. Again, use your imagination; this stuff isn't happening in Switzerland but in places where people are very poor and desperate. The police and army aren't squeamish about putting pressure on potential informants, and they control both rewards -- money -- and threats, like the power to arrest or "disappear" anybody they want. The pressure to inform is very strong.

Against that, what does the insurgent neighborhood have? It can't put people in jail, or pass out big wads of cash, or rely on moral force to keep the locals in line. Again, imagine how enemy occupation would play out in the neighborhood where you grew up (if everybody was suddenly poor and terrified). Some families might resist the occupier, but others would be, let's say, tempted. Others would just be terrorized into collaborating. Either way, they know enough to name names, provide a list that will wipe out the insurgency in your town.

If the neighborhood thinks somebody's a threat, they have to act fast, and they have to do something so horrible it'll stick in everybody's memory. That's how you get necklacing: the horribleness of the death is the whole point. And what you see with necklacing is that it's horrible to look at, not just to suffer. There are all sorts of ways to kill people so as to produce horrible pain, but that's not the main point in this kind of killing. It's the show that matters. In a lot of necklacings, in fact, the victim was beaten to death or shot, then necklaced. The point was to make a spectacle of them, an example, let everybody see their corpse burning slowly. A whole ritual evolved where everybody took turns bashing the burning body with sticks. It didn't hurt the victim, who was already dead, but it looked horrific and it forced everybody in the neighborhood to make a demonstration that they were on the insurgents' side, made them accomplices. Again, it's not pretty, but it worked; informing got to be much less popular as a career choice in places like Soweto.

OK, you could say, but that's informants, that's the ANC; what's that got to do with Zulu mobs necklacing poor Zimbabwean immigrants? A lot, actually. These Zulu mobs have a simple goal: they want the immigrants out. They don't have the military power to wipe out large numbers of immigrants; that's what those nice conventional armies, the ones we like so much, would try to do. They have to use the few hours they have before the army is called in to terrorize large numbers of immigrants by killing a few in a particularly horrible way. In a bizarre way you could even argue that this kind of terror killing is less bloodthirsty than bombing cities, where the goal is to wipe out everybody in the place. No mob hopes to do that. They want to kill a few with maximum exposure, to scare the rest back across the border. That's why the township mobs fighting the apartheid government were usually tolerant of news crews filming their necklacings: they wanted as much publicity as they could get. They wanted word to get around: "This is what happens to informers." Of course, "mob rule" means things get sloppy, the victims aren't always informers, just unpopular neighbors. And of course, smooth talkers turn the mobs against personal enemies, people whose TVs they want, and so on. Part of the process is implicating everybody in the neighborhood in the killing, so it's more important to just do a necklacing or two than to pick the right victim.

It's messy. War generally is, whether it's mob war or the firebombing of Tokyo, where in our "good war" we necklaced somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people without losing too much sleep. The British necklaced even more in Dresden and put up a statue to Bomber Harris, the man who directed the raid. Of course we did it from the air, and somehow nothing is really bad if you do it from high altitude, or so most people seem to think, even when your incendiary bombs set the pavement on fire and deep-fry civilians in the same black goo as a tire melting around some poor unlucky Zimbabwean's neck.

These Zulu mobs, ugly as they are, are fighting for sensible, serious reasons: jobs, wages, the chance to have a decent life. They're up against a refugee crisis a lot more serious than ours ever was. Here's the situation: out of South Africa's 50 million people, about five million, one tenth of the population, are recent immigrants. Most of them are from Zimbabwe, just north of SA. These immigrants aren't the bad guys here, but they are desperate, which means they'll work for next to nothing. That means that most employers in the poor neighborhoods where these Zulu rioters live will either hire cheaper Zimbabwean (or Mozambican) workers, or force local Zulus to work at the same pitiful wages the immigrants are willing to take. And with a 30% unemployment rate, the average Zulu trying to feed his or her family doesn't have a lot of bargaining power. So they've had to sit and watch as wages went down, jobs were lost to immigrants, and the hope they had after the "Rainbow Nation" hoopla all turned to dust. You'd riot too. In fact, Americans have a long tradition of riots like this. We've killed a lot of people, especially Chinese people, in pretty nasty ways, for bringing down wages -- and we're filthy rich compared to the Zulu.

A better question to ask would be, what sent so many Zimbabweans fleeing into South Africa, driving wages down and messing up the place? The official answer to that in the Western press is that it's all the fault of Robert Mugabe, the old ex-guerrilla who runs Zimbabwe. I don't buy it. Mugabe's an old fool, an egomaniac, yeah -- most of the men who rule countries are. Bu the damage to Zimbabwe was done a long time ago, and Mugabe's in trouble with the Western newspapers for trying to fix things. That's what blows me away: in all this coverage of Zimbabwe, nobody asks simple questions like, "Who owns the farmland, and why?" The situation's changing fast now, but keep in mind that just ten years ago, 4000 white farmers "owned" three-quarters of all the good land. That's less than one percent of the country's population controlling three-quarters of its useful farmland. That's why Zimbabwe's a mess. Imagine what this country would look like if there were 300 million Native Americans crowded into shantytowns, with a few thousand European settlers living on huge plantations. That's the population profile of Zimbabwe. Mugabe's been taking that land back, and whatever else he's done, he was in the right. He has the military power, and for all you Christians out there, he has every moral right too, as far as I can see.

After all, what right do those white settlers have to the land? Their great-grandfathers stole it at gunpoint, or got it by dirty tricks, a little over a century ago. Funny how nobody ever wants to talk about that. The man who took Zimbabwe for the Brits, Cecil Rhodes, was a classic Victorian closet case who distracted himself from his sinful urges with a bloodsoaked vision of British flags flying from Cape Town to the Mediterranean. Rhodes would use any sleazy trick to take the land he needed. When he couldn't force or trick King Lobengula, leader of the Matabele who ruled southern Zimbabwe, into selling off his land, he sent the king a British doctor who was under orders to turn the King into a morphine addict. Once the King was strung out, Rhodes grabbed the Matabeles' land. King Lobengula killed himself.

That's how a few whites ended up with three-quarters of the decent land. And this didn't happen in the long-ago far-away time. It was barely over a century ago (1884-1902). So when rightwing papers like the UK Telegraph scream about Mugabe's land grabs, I have to laugh.You can't rob a thief, and the Brits who grabbed Zimbabwe's farmland are nothing but thieves who've lost their power to hold onto what they stole. They're just getting their loot taken back by the people they stole it from, but if you listen to the BBC you'd think these farm seizures are the greatest crime in history. BBC crews have been out there for years, filming every "white-owned farm" that gets handed over to Mugabe's guerrilla veterans, showing long sobby close-ups of the dear old white guys' heartbroken livestock as if this was the real tragedy. They love to focus on the little dogs especially -- boo hoo, little doggy lost its home! Nobody ever mentions the sick stuff that happened to put that farm into British hands in the first place.

The Zulus who are necklacing a few poor Zimbabweans now lost out the same way, massacred by British armies using modern weapons in a series of wars a little over a century ago. Until they sent warriors armed with spears up against the redcoats' repeating rifles, they were one of the great empires of the world, moving south in their own wave of conquest. But like everyone who got in the Empire's way, they were slaughtered and forced off the good land by the same holier-than-thou white people who stole all the farmland in Zimbabwe. That's what we have here: two groups of Africans robbed and gutted by the Empire, forced to fight over scraps, while the descendants of the white land thieves still hold all the land and money.

And I'm supposed to blame the Zulu rioters here?

Check out Gary Brecher's new book, "The War Nerd" (Soft Skull, 2008).

 
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