When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

So your husband travels for an entire week, meaning no one ever so gently reminds you when it’s time to sleep. And you find yourself stuck in a hospital waiting room for almost an entire day. And you just happen to have received a large stack of interesting books from a friend.

What does all that make? Ample time to read a book and write another book review!

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin [click image for more]
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun picks up where Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa, another Peter Godwin book, had left off: Whereas Mukiwa is a memoir of Peter’s childhood and coming of age in the Rhodesian armed forces during the early years of the civil war, this second book describes what happened in what was now called Zimbabwe after independence up until the present day.

What happened (and still happens) there was not pretty, to put it mildly. But while we all sort of know what has been going on, it’s another entire matter to be given all the grisly details – of a large-scale genocide early on in Matabeleland, where the newly-minted governing party (ZANU-PF, still to this day under Robert Mugabe’s leadership) suspected spies around every corner, of the eviction and brutal murders of the white land owners, of the equally brutal repression of the budding opposition party MDC, of hyperinflation and gross mismanagement and cronyism in government circles, of the totally unnecessary decline and collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy, which until the early 1980s had been one of Africa’s strongest…

The sad thing is, it could have been very different. Most Rhodesians, black and white alike, were very optimistic and enthusiastic about their new country, and the new black leadership initially struck a conciliatory tone, much like Nelson Mandela would model later in South Africa. Except it didn’t last. Paranoia set in, the civil war veterans (called wovits) were demanding compensation when they realized that their lives were now no better than before, scapegoats were sought, and the country descended into anarchy or rather was held in the grip of a brutal dictatorship whose elite was only intent on enriching itself. Every single ANC leader in South Africa should read this very book and take it as a warning tale of what can happen if people like Julius Malema, the ANC Youth League leader (who thankfully was recently reprimanded and suspended from the party, pending appeal), amass too much power and are allowed to spew their hatred.

Having grown up in Germany with a fascination of anything Third Reich and my parents’ and grandparents’ part in it, I cannot help but see the parallels to Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship in Zimbabwe. The start with more or less free elections, the slow erosion of civil rights, the mounting vilification of one particular racial group, the random brutality, the grip of extreme fear making widespread protests almost impossible. You look at white Zimbabweans from the outside and you say to yourself, why didn’t they leave much earlier, when there was still time, much like the Jews in Germany?

Well, I think that’s easy to say from my modern-day expat perspective. I will always have another country to flee to. But the whites in Zimbabwe never saw themselves as expats. It was the country of their birth, a country they loved above all, and a country they wanted to make work for everyone. And I think most people there just couldn’t believe that the government would go as far, because they still held on to a belief in civic principles, even when it was obvious that those principles were violated at every turn.

What I love about When a Crocodile Eats the Sun is how it merges historic events with the very personal tale of the author’s family. Much of Zimbabwe’s decline can be observed by the increasing plight of Godwin’s parents, who at first refuse to acknowledge that anything is amiss, and then refuse to leave even as they start living in fear. The story is written in an effortless prose and yet some sentences seem as if they took hours to craft, they are so poetic.

I can highly recommend this book not only for a better understanding of Zimbabwe but Southern Africa in general. Incidentally, the friend I borrowed the book from grew up and lived in Zimbabwe herself before emigrating to South Africa, and confirms that much of the story reflects bits and pieces of her own life. I can’t wait to hear more about that over another two cups of coffee!