Class, not race, war grips Zimbabwe

By Tafi Murinzi

BLAMED, along with the opposition party, for a lot that has gone wrong in Zimbabwe, many among the white minority have packed their bags and left.



, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif”>Those remaining are learning to live like expatriates. Their heads almost permanently down, they are careful to stay out of trouble — but not writer John Eppel.


He was cautious in the early years of Independence not to go beyond a mockery of fellow whites. Now, however, even the current rulers are fair game.


“Seeing the bad behaviour of black Zimbabweans in power, my conclusion is that the conflict arising is primarily class; race is only secondary,” he says.

At 58, Eppel has been around a long time, as he is quick to point out. But he says his recognition is fairly recent; ironically, and in large part, the result of a weariness with Zimbabwe’s dominant nationalist theme.


As part of post-colonial studies, “marginal writers”, who include whites, women and radicals, are beginning to receive much attention.


Eppel feels nationalist authors, who had hogged the limelight since Independence from Britain in 1980, are running out of ideas like many of neighbouring South Africa’s apartheid-era writers.


And if that is true of Zimbabwe’s major voices, that would be understandable. If anything, the last three general elections, including March’s, may point to a revolution gone wrong.


Intimidation, violence as well as allegations of electoral fraud by the incumbent government, a former liberation movement, has made a mockery of the struggle. Its main goal was extending the vote, and opportunity, to the black majority.


Yet half the population is in need of food aid following a five-year-old racially charged land reform programme. “All of us as whites have suffered the backlash of that hatred,” Eppel says.


The economy continues to crumble. Over 70% are out of employment, while a quarter of Zimbabwe’s 13 million people have emigrated.


Looking back, Eppel says his happiest time was the bygone days soon after Independence. As a teacher in a private school, he observed the racially divided student body merging, slowly.


But this only lasted until 2000 when the turmoil surrounding the farms began “and the whites became enemies again” while each racial group started “withdrawing into their tribe”.


Racial tension, which Eppel describes as colonialism that has yet to be purged from Zimbabwe, has also proved a defining thing in his battle to get published.


Local publishers, he says, found him “politically incorrect” because he is white. But another reason, he admits, was his style. “Satire isn’t popular and poetry even less popular and those are my two genres,” he says.


It took the writer 14 years to get his first novel out in pre-democratic South Africa. The book, The Great North Road, went on to win South Africa’s MNet Prize in 1992. His first book of poetry, Spoils of War, published after 12 years of trying, had received South Africa’s Ingrid Jonker award a year earlier.


To date Eppel has published 10 books. One of them, The Giraffe Man, was recently translated into French. Yet despite such hard-won successes, he enjoys no warm relationship with fellow writers in Zimbabwe. “There’s never been any sense of come in with us, you’re our contemporary,” he says.

He feels marginalised, and is hurt by being made to feel less of a Zimbabwean. But Eppel’s writing reflects none of this frustration.


Vibrant and hilarious, his fiction tackles the present socio-economic situation in the southern African state, albeit with tongue-in-cheek liveliness. Most surprising, however, is his harshness towards white characters.


“I have this double vision somehow,” he says. “There’s a part of me that needs to deal with that I was part of a white oppressing race. The other part is I love this country, I feel rooted in this country and that part I express in my poetry more.”


He describes his first book, which is also semi-biographical, as his most vicious attack on the white community where he grew up in Colleen Bawn, a cement plant in southern Zimbabwe.


In another, The Holy Innocents, Eppel creates an assemblage of beer drinking, loud-mouthed white characters. Most of them dress badly and drive company cars although they do not actually do much work.


They are the quintessential “Rhodies” — white Zimbabweans who carry the colonial Rhodesian attitude. Ironically, Eppel says it is mainly the liberal-minded whites, like the Jews, who have been the first to emigrate, leaving the “dyed in the wool racists who couldn’t go anywhere else

because they didn’t have the qualifications”.

But he says his focus has now changed. It is the “emerging bad behaviour of black Zimbabweans who’re in power” that he is mainly concerned with.


Now “I attack anybody who’s behaving badly — I don’t consider race anymore. I consider being Zimbabwean, being human. And if you’re cruel, greedy, hypocritical, self-righteous, I’ll nail you if I can. It’s the revenge of the weak, the guy who uses his pen rather than his fist.”


Presently head of the English department at a boys-only private school, Eppel says the satire does worry the white community, who respond with a characteristic silence. Even then, many still buy his books, especially his poetry which those who are emigrating find nostalgic.


Born in Lydenburg, South Africa, Eppel moved to Zimbabwe at the age of four. The cement plant and its social club, near West Nicholson in southern Zimbabwe, is the setting for his short story The Caruso of Colleen Bawn.

Also in his 2004 short story collection, going by the same name, is an assortment of fables of various themes.


*Tafi Murinzi is a pseudonym for a Bulawayo-based journalist.

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