HomeOpinionThe question is who are we?

The question is who are we?

I REGARD myself as an African of European descent. No one could really argue with that as I was born in Zimbabwe and my great grandfather, grandfather and father are all buried here in the soil of Africa.

My father never left the continent for any purpose, all my immediate forefathers would have regarded themselves as Africans. It would surprise many if I stated that in the very early stages of Dutch occupation of the Cape of Good Hope some 600 years ago, a Burgher stood up in a meeting with the Dutch governor and stated “I am not Dutch, I am an Afrikaner”.

The problem being that he would have considered that as an Afrikaner, they were of a distinct ethnic group — different from others who claimed their heritage as African. Racially superior and quite distinct!

This ethnic nationalism took root in South Africa as this element in our population developed their own unique language, culture and religion. It had European roots, but after hundreds of years it is recognised today as a distinct ethnicity. Today we almost regard the Afrikaners as an African tribe.

My own ethnicity is no less complex. My paternal lineage has its roots in Scotland and Ireland, where they were involved in the struggle for independence from colonial domination by England. But my mother was Canadian and her mother was almost Canadian Indian — a small brown woman that you could easily imagine living in a Tepee in the wilds of Canada.

I have just read a book on life at the turn of the 20th Century on the western seaboard of Canada. It shocked me how tough conditions were. I can easily understand why in the early 1920s the family relocated to South Africa and Johannesburg — the gold mining capital of the world. My mother only had three years of formal education. I was the first in my family to take a University degree.

In 1976 when the war in Zimbabwe intensified and the future looked dark indeed, when our political leadership, black and white, simply wanted a fight to the finish with only one outcome, I was challenged by a friend, who said to me, “Eddie, you have to decide where to go, there is no future for your family here.”

I was deeply disturbed by these sentiments and decided to go and look at the world out there. We took an extended holiday to Europe, starting in Switzerland, where I had been offered a job, then England and Scotland.

In England we hired a car and crisscrossed the country, travelling to Scotland and through the mountains that had been home to the Cross family in 1336.

It was a strange feeling as I really felt that I was among “my people” in Scotland. I had no such feelings about England, Ireland was different, Dublin is the one City in Europe where an African can feel at home.

But there was no doubt in any of us as a family when we landed at Harare Airport from the flight out of Heathrow. This was home. I turned down the job in Switzerland and we resolved that no matter how tough conditions became, we were Africans and would stay.

It is now 45 years since that decision was taken and we as a family have no regrets. Has it been easy, of course not, it has often been turbulent, even exciting but never dull. My friends emigrated to Natal in South Africa and frankly, have had a torrid time of things. It is not easy to change countries.

But it was one thing to live and work in a country like Rhodesia, where the people of your own ethnicity and background were in charge.

We ran the country, imposed our language, our faith and cultures, as well as our legal systems and practices on the majority people who have lived here for centuries before us.

We paid scant attention to their own religion and cultures and did not bother to speak their languages.

When we lost power in 1980 after nearly 90 years of dominance, we were ill-prepared for the experience of becoming a minority without power, made even more severe by the fact that over 80% of the population of European descent left the country.

Although I was born into an urban family, my godparents were farmers and ranchers in Esigodini Valley outside Bulawayo and I spent all my school holidays on the farm.

On the neighbouring Ranch were a family with a son who spoke Ndebele before he spoke English and we ranged through the Matopo Hills with our dogs.

We had the free range of the local Ndebele people, our chief was Simon Sigola. We sat around the fires in villages with men with the Induna rings in their hair. They talked of the days when the Impis of the Ndebele reigned supreme in central Africa.

We herded cattle, sleeping with the herd at night, made hay with ox-drawn machinery. Our herdsmen were either Ndebele or Khoi. They loved their cattle.

We hunted baboons, who were wrecking our crops and went back to school with great reluctance. I now know that while this sort of upbringing was not unique in this part of the world, we were deeply privileged to have had such experiences.

It prepared us for the future because we developed a deep respect for the people among whom we lived.

In the Cities, racial separation was almost total. White schools played sport with other white schools. The only contact we had with the people of colour was as masters of servants. Black people were shadows without personality, who cleaned our shoes and carried us to school on the back of their bicycles.

Then I went to the local university to take a degree in economics, suddenly I was in a racial cauldron. White students were a minority and we found ourselves living and competing with black students, who were often brighter than we were. It was also our first introduction to African nationalism.

I was a very active Christian student leader at the time and was invited one night to speak to a Methodist Youth Group in Mbare Township.

After the meeting I found myself speaking with a young Ndebele Youth Leader, who was clearly a radical. Unbeknown to me he was a Zipra cadre just back from military training in north Africa. He challenged me to come and see how the other side lived.

I spent three weeks with him in the townships. He became a Christian and never went back to the struggle, I became a radical and began to speak out on the injustices I had seen.

That led to a political career which led to me becoming the organising secretary of the Centre Party — the forerunner of the opposition to the Ian Smith government.

Now I have grandchildren. Unlike myself, they have been a white minority at school all their lives. They speak English with a Shona accent and have a majority of black friends — they have no concept of racial supremacy or even recognise the colour of the skins of their friends. My wife remembers a small child who asked her mother if she could bring a friend home for the weekend. The mother, a typical white person here, asked her daughter “What colour is your friend?” The little girl said she would go and see.

It is not easy to live in Africa, but at the very heart of the issue, we have to decide, deliberately, just who we are. If we are Africans then we need to recognise that we have a responsibility to make sure this place works, works for us, our children and grandchildren and for the people. We cannot sit on the sidelines and watch the game being played in front of us as if it was being played by foreigners.

This is not just a white thing, many young black Africans are abandoning their languages and culture as inferior. We all need to be proud of our heritage and to be Africans, not Europeans. I can remember a dinner in London with some Zapu friends, where the black girlfriend of one turned on me and said, “You are making a big mistake, I am not African, I am English.” I am proud to be African.

  • Cross is an industrialist, economist and former MP

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