We must make a commitment to our continent

OPINION – They came as political and religious refugees, individuals seeking wealth and opportunity, and sometimes just out of a sense of adventure.

Encouraged by the aggressive and expansionist empires of Europe, what started as an insignificant trickle in the 1600s became a steady stream and the immigrants quickly subdued the indigenous populations that lived in the areas they settled.

These were people mainly of European extraction who came as settlers, rather than as colonial administrators. They carved out farms from the veld and found deposits of mineral wealth. They brought their languages and cultures, legal and administrative systems. They organised governments and local administrations and regarded these arrangements as being superior to the cultures and institutions they displaced and suborned. They built cities and infrastructure and established educational and health services.

While they controlled the levers of power in these emerging countries and societies, their security and culture and even their languages were safe – but this security proved fragile and unsustainable as time passed and as indigenous majorities began to demand a greater say in how they were governed.

Where settler and indigenous whites held control, the movements that represented the indigenous populations were almost always forced to resort to military means to help force change. When change came, the consequences were almost always traumatic for the Africans of European or Asian descent.

The sudden re-emergence of cultures that had been suppressed by the white governments of the past and their missionary associates were often misunderstood and any failings justified by deeply held racial prejudices.

Suddenly the secure, privileged cocoon that had been the life of the whites and many people of Asian descent, vaporised. These Africans were cast adrift on a sea they did not recognise and which offered few clues of any way forward.

For representatives of the colonial administrations in much of Africa, the solution was simple – return "home". They were guaranteed pensions and even jobs and the change was seamless. The subsequent collapse and decay of the countries they had left behind were of concern and interest, but mainly in an academic way.

For those people who had settled on the continent and who regarded Africa as home, the situation was much more complex. Many had no right to any other citizenship and, in fact, had few known relatives in the countries from which their ancestors had come.

The origins of this conflict are not new. In the mid-1600s a Cape burgher was recorded as saying in a meeting with local Dutch administrators that he was not a Dutchman but an "Afrikaner". His successors flourished in Southern Africa, creating a new language and fiercely resisting any changes in their culture and religion.

People of English extraction had a more complex and difficult relationship with Africa. Some, such as Cecil John Rhodes, were unashamed agents of the British Empire and saw it as their sacred mission to paint the continent red.

The collapse of the Portuguese empire in Africa in 1975 and the domino effect this had on the Rhodesian and South African governments has left the indigenous communities of European and Asian extraction seeking a new country. For many this has taken the form of a new migration with hundreds of thousands seeking new lives in places like Australia and Canada. But for a significant few, it has been a journey to discover how people of such extraction find a new home in the transforming communities where they were born and make their living.

I aver that many white Zimbabweans remain in the former Rhodesia for a number of reasons. For some, it is simply that their wealth and status cannot be transported to a new continent. For others, it is an opportunity to exploit a vulnerable and often corrupt environment. The latter possibility has spawned a tiny minority of extraordinary characters who have often wreaked mayhem on the countries that receive their attentions.

However, there are those who have the sense that we are really Africans by adoption and birth. I can recall my own visit to the country from which my ancestors came in 1867. I found myself a stranger in a strange land and was glad to get home – Zimbabwe. For those who share this view and these feelings, it is vital to bear in mind that acceptance and recognition will not be easy – the sins of our past haunt us – but it is starting to happen. It means that those people of European and Asian extraction who wish to be accepted as Africans must make a commitment to the continent and its peoples and to a new way of life that includes local languages and cultures and mutual respect and recognition.

Hundreds of millions of Africans have fled the continent to settle in the northern hemisphere. They quickly come to regard themselves as natives of their new countries and are rapidly assimilated. Africans of European descent find that transition much more difficult, but it is starting to happen. The outcome might be a Brazilian situation where colour is no longer an issue, but culture and language is. The process starts with each person discovering who they are: those who realize they really are African must then work to earn the right to be accepted as such.

  • Cross is a founder member of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change, and is the party’s policy co-ordinator