'Mugabe And The White African' Fight For Farmland

Mike Campbell i i

A White African: Mike Campbell bought his farm after Zimbabwe achieved majority rule in 1980 -- and after obtaining a "certificate of no interest" confirming that the government didn't want to acquire it for redistribution. Robert Mugabe's government has since declared that Zimbabwe's land is "for Zimbabweans." Robin Hammond hide caption

itoggle caption Robin Hammond
Mike Campbell

A White African: Mike Campbell bought his farm after Zimbabwe achieved majority rule in 1980 -- and after obtaining a "certificate of no interest" confirming that the government didn't want to acquire it for redistribution. Robert Mugabe's government has since declared that Zimbabwe's land is "for Zimbabweans."

Robin Hammond

Mugabe and
the White African

  • Directors: Lucy Bailey, Andrew Thompson
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 94 minutes
Not rated: Scenes of violence and its consequences

Engrossing and enraging, Mugabe and the White African is the saga of a Zimbabwean commercial farmer who is persecuted for the crime of growing mangoes while white. The documentary is powerful, as far as it goes, but would be stronger if the filmmakers had been able to follow the story further.

At issue is Mike Campbell's right to the property he bought after majority rule came to the formerly white-governed Zimbabwe — property that is thus relatively untainted by colonialism. The farm provides home and work not only to the 75-year-old's family — notably his strongest ally, son-in-law Ben Freeth — but also to about 500 black Zimbabweans. Meanwhile much (if not most) of the commercial farmland seized from whites by the government of Zimbawean president-for-life Robert Mugabe now sits fallow, contributing to a scandalously high hunger rate in a nation that once helped feed its region.

The movie begins in 2007, when Campbell and Freeth are pressing their case to the Namibia-based human-rights tribunal of a regional body, the Southern African Development Community. Campbell's (black) lawyer contends that her client is a "white African" with as much right to own land as anyone else on the continent.

Mugabe is concerned with a looming reelection campaign, so his attorneys keep asking that the case be postponed. Campbell and Freeth are frustrated — and very aware that their battle is not limited to the courtroom. Mugabe's allies regularly threaten and assault white farmers and their black employees.

Several times during the film, Campbell confronts potential attackers or offers aid to those brutalized by government thugs. Even if he wins in Namibia, there's no guarantee that men with axes and iron pipes won't thrash him and his family.

Laura Freeth i i

A Community In Flux: Campbell's daughter Laura Freeth, pictured with the women of her embroidery workshop, lives on Mount Carmel Farm in an adjoining farmhouse with her husband Ben and three children. Between workers and their families, the farm provides a living for 500 people -- who would be cast adrift, the Campbell clan says, if they lose the farm. Robin Hammond hide caption

itoggle caption Robin Hammond
Laura Freeth

A Community In Flux: Campbell's daughter Laura Freeth, pictured with the women of her embroidery workshop, lives on Mount Carmel Farm in an adjoining farmhouse with her husband Ben and three children. Between workers and their families, the farm provides a living for 500 people -- who would be cast adrift, the Campbell clan says, if they lose the farm.

Robin Hammond

Indeed, Campbell's intransigence sometimes seems as perverse as it is principled. He has three young grandsons, after all, and relatives who appear to be living quite comfortably near London. Various family members' assurance that God has a purpose for them isn't especially reassuring, since Mugabe has a competing plan: demonizing whites to distract from his destruction of the country's economy.

In one of the movie's most astonishing sequences, the wealthy young man who has been promised the Campbells' land arrives to rage at them, and at all white people. "We don't want you anymore," he barks. The would-be owner's qualification for operating a sprawling commercial farm? He's the son of a government minister.

Campbell is hardly a saint, and this is no detached look at his battle to keep his spread: Introducing the central characters, co-director Andrew Thompson identifies his protagonist as his father-in-law. Mugabe doesn't have that sort of kinship with the movie, of course. He's glimpsed only in TV news clips, although it's doubtful he could have made a better case for his policies if Thompson and his filmmaking partner, Lucy Bailey, had been able to interview him.

In those darker days before the tumultuous 2008 elections and the tenuous power-sharing agreement under which Zimbabwe is now governed, most TV news and documentary production was prohibited by Mugabe's information ministry, so much of this movie was filmed covertly; Thompson has said Zimbabwe was a tougher place to shoot than Iraq, Afghanistan or the Gaza Strip.

There are three climaxes to the story, one hopeful and two horrific. Unfortunately for the narrative, the cameras weren't present for all of them. Presenting the final developments as sentences on a black screen deflates the movie's impact.

What the filmmakers did get, however, is gripping. Zimbabwe goes mostly ignored in the West, but Mugabe and the White African may draw some needed scrutiny of the Zimbabwean strongman's campaign to drive farmers from his famished nation.

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