New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has an op-ed in the paper today about the political crisis in Zimbabwe that is full of the usual clichés with him as daring journalist hero. He had to disguise himself as a tourist, among other things. This is of course despite the fact that–harassment from elements within the Zimbabwean regime aside–most journalists, including that of CNN and Al Jazeera or correspondents based in neighboring South Africa, have been going in and out of Zimbabwe and reporting from there without any difficulty.

Though Kristof dispenses with the idea that the major victims of Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF’s pogroms are white, he spends much of the column highlighting the fact that local blacks felt things were better under white, racist rule.

In a week of surreptitious reporting here … ordinary people said time and again that life had been better under the old, racist, white regime of what was then called Rhodesia.

“When the country changed from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, we were very excited,” one man, Kizita, told me in a village of mud-walled huts near this town in western Zimbabwe. “But we didn’t realize the ones we chased away were better and the ones we put in power would oppress us.”

“It would have been better if whites had continued to rule because the money would have continued to come,” added a neighbor, a 58-year-old farmer named Isaac. “It was better under Rhodesia. Then we could get jobs. Things were cheaper in stores. Now we have no money, no food.”

Over and over, I cringed as I heard Africans wax nostalgic about a nasty, oppressive regime run by a tiny white elite. Black Zimbabweans responded that at least that regime was more competent than today’s nasty, oppressive regime run by the tiny black elite that surrounds Mr. Mugabe.

One effect of Kristof’s reporting is that white Rhodesians (and Jim Crow nostalgists) wrote in approvingly.  (Go look at the comments on Kristof’s blog).

But I was not surprised that people brutalized by white racists would want to long for what they may perceive as a time of cheap and plentiful food and jobs. Whether the facts bear them out is not the issue. The present is too stressful. And they have not tasted the fruits of liberation 30 years on.

I also wondered how these people – who Kristof describes as very poor and desperate–perceived him when they saw him come into their villages? As a journalist? Or more accurately as a white Western tourist with resources and therefore someone to whom they assumed they should say the things they thought he wanted to hear?

Then it also turns out he wasn’t alone. Later in the column Kristof reveals that “… I took my family along with me on this trip (my kids accuse me of using them as camouflage).” Another question: Did they go with him on his daredevil reporting excursions in the Zimbabwean rural areas?

But that’s not the end of it. A click away is Kristof’s blog, On The Ground.  There you’ll find a blog entry written like a puff travel piece about his time in Zimbabwe entitled “Skip the South of France. Try Zimbabwe.”

Here’s an excerpt:

True, President Robert Mugabe is a tyrant who has mismanaged the country, and his relations with the United States are deeply strained. But Zimbabwe has little crime and people are friendly, and the sights are simply astounding – with hardly any tourists around to admire them. It’s also cheaper than other countries in the region.

He also goes on about how people speak English, are always grateful to see visitors, and how “polite” the police are, and ends on this note: “… So, don’t be scared away by Zimbabwe’s political problems. Yes, it’s a mess, and Robert Mugabe is a thug. But it’s still a lovely country, and a terrific place to visit.”

The two columns are like night and day. (On a sidenote: It was like reading a travel article on 1980s Apartheid South Africa as one commenter on Kristof’s blog wrote. Something like: “Visit South Africa!” Sure, don’t go if you’re black and apartheid is a bit thuggish, but it’s a beautiful country!”

The guy has no shame. Luckily Africans don’t care about him.

Sean Jacobs

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.