Hounded and courted: What happened to Africa's white settlers?

Most communities are hanging on by the skin of their teeth, seen as outsiders and legislated out of a place they called home amidst social pressures.

OVER the last 50 years Africa’s once-ubiquitous white settlers have slowly been disappearing from the face of the continent. Though many of these individuals lived most of their lives or were born and raised in Africa, it has been difficult to shake off the perception of their being outsiders. 

Simmering tensions between white communities and formerly colonised populations have continued to resurface at various intervals. This resentment is not unjustified; the wealth of much of Africa’s white population was built on unfair systems that allowed for land-grabs, fraud and extortion. But they have and continue to pay for this as the anger gives rise to waves of emigration to the European countries for which the white settler communities may have a passport but no affiliation.

In the 1960s the first great exodus occurred as settlers moved back to Europe following independence movements which rid African nations of colonial administrations. After the Algerian War of Independence in 1962 more than a million French “pied-noir” settlers returned to France, in 1963 once Kenya had attained independence from the UK over 30,000 settlers flocked out of the East African nation. 

For the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, policies were put in place by the newly independent governments to drive the colonialists out, resulting in huge emigration with approximately 95% of whites leaving. The situation in Zimbabwe however was the most dramatic. In 1975 the white population was almost 300,000, today it has dropped to below 30,000.

Today there are approximately 4.5million white South Africans. In Angola, Madagascar, Namibia and Tunisia, the numbers are in the hundreds of thousands while in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia and Ghana the number of white Africans are in the tens of thousands. A rough estimate would put the total white African population today at 5.3m or 0.53% of Africa’s total population.

But for these who remain, life in Africa continues to be fraught with uncertainty. Some view them as the rich subalterns whose presence positively supports African economies while others think Africans must free themselves from further “European colonialism” and fight for more local ownership.

In some countries laws are imposed which challenge their right to land, in some they challenge their right to work in the country. In countries such as Zimbabwe, the colonial tension which continues to simmer within the black population serves as a political pawn by which the government can use the white population for gains

Living on less than $9 a day

For white Zimbabweans the journey has probably been one of the rockiest. After independence the new President Robert Mugabe called for reconciliation and appealed to whites to stay and help rebuild the country. Many agreed and with the help of the country’s 4,000 white farmers, who employed 40% of the country’s black population, Zimbawe developed the fastest growing economy in Africa and social indicators that improved quickly. 

But as Mugabe slowly built his one-party state and increasingly used alarming rhetoric, white Zimbabweans knew their days were numbered. They chose to quietly withdraw from the political arena, maintain their social structures and pursue their economic interests. This resulted in the emergence of white dominated schools and clubs, perpetuating the insular character of the white community. 

As the country underwent a violent land redistribution plan, hundreds of white settlers had their properties confiscated without compensation. Today critics of Mugabe will say his policy of seizing most of Zimbabwe’s white-owned farms caused the country’s economic collapse from 2000-2009. Figures from November 2008 showed the annual inflation rate at 89.7 sextillion percent. 

This staggering inflation caused the savings and pensions of white Zimbabweans to evaporate and many live on $9 a day with a reliance on private food aid sent from South Africa. In July, as Mugabe warned that in the future “no white person will be allowed to own land”, the future looks bleak for the remaining white Zimbabweans and the 100-150 farmers who continue to clutch at straws.

In Algeria the white settlers, known as the “pieds noirs” for being born in the country, were all kicked out decades earlier—- returning to Algeria is a predominant dream for many of these former French Algerians. Though they numbered nearly one million, after the Algerian war of independence in 1962 the vast majority returned to France. During the colonial period this community took the most fertile 23% of the country’s farmland and were resented heavily by the native Algerians. 

Satisfy nostalgia
Until the late 1980s, some continued to make trips to Algeria but the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s completely cut off the exiles from their birth country. In 2006, there were estimates that 30,000 had returned to the country and in the last five years, groups of “pieds noirs” have once again been making pilgrimages “home” to satisfy the nostalgia of their youth.

In terms of the nostalgia and romanticism of Africa, no other white settler community has encapsulated this more than white Kenyans. The dramatic hunting safaris, sundowners in picturesque places and self-imposed segregation of the white community found in the colonial era have been somewhat preserved until today. Kenya’s white population currently stands at about 20,000, but only a quarter of them can trace their lineage as far back as 1963 - when Kenya gained independence from Britain. 

Nevertheless, the country continues to have a cocoon of white wealth and privilege that is rooted in injustice when white settlement began in 1904 and stripped nomadic people of their lands. This wealth has been maintained by their ownership over vast swathes of fertile lands as well as domination of the country’s high-end tourism market. 

Following independence many of the settlers quickly diversified out of agriculture and hunting – today there are fewer than 100 farms owned by white families on less than 0.5% of Kenya’s land, compared to the 6,000 white farms that existed before Kenya’s independence from Britain in 1963. For the white Kenyans one of the biggest challenges they face is crime and raids on their land or farms –but unlike their counterparts in Zimbabwe they are not under political siege. 

This means that, for the moment, they will continue to thrive in their adopted country and their legacy will be preserved by their children who, after being sent abroad for boarding school, will often return to Kenya to work in the family business, or expand their own entrepreneurial companies.

Similar to white Kenyans, French white settlers in Cote d’Ivoire had a good life in Africa. Even after independence the West African nation was fairly stable and offered a variety of restaurants, nightlife and weekends away on the coast. The capital, Abidjan, was even nicknamed the Paris of Africa. But this all hid simmering resentment. 

The relationship between the French expatriates and the black African population was sown with tension, for all the usual reasons: land inequities, gross disparities of wealth and isolation of the white community. Like Mugabe, when Laurent Gbagbo came into power he brought to the surface popular anger against the French. 

During the civil war in 2004, when half a dozen French peacekeepers at a base in a breakaway northern province died in a bombing attack by the Cote d’Ivoirian air force, the French military destroyed the entire air force, making every Frenchman in the country a target. The French military evacuated almost the entire expatriate population of 14,000 most of whom never returned. Today, only approximately 3,000 remain.

In Namibia, the white community continues to hang on – although their situation is also looking increasingly precarious. With one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world, land reform is one of Namibia’s most hotly contested issues. In 2000, white Namibians - mainly Afrikaners and Germans – made up only 6% of the population owned half the land. Today, there are approximately 4,000 commercial farms in the country and almost half of those are white-owned. 

These high figures exist even though many white Namibians changed to tourism and transformed their farms in game lodges and guesthouses because extensive cattle breeding was generating less profit. In recent years the issue of land has been reaching boiling point with the black population increasingly angry about the proportion of white-owned property. President Hifikepunye Pohamba even came out with a statement that the white population must give up land or possibly face a revolution. He said, “we are not talking about confiscation, we are talking about them to sell the land to the government in order for the government to distribute the land to - I don’t like to use the word black - but to those who were formally disadvantaged by the situation.”

Welcoming countries
Though several countries Africa are posing a hard environment for former colonial families to live in, there are a couple of African nations that are welcoming white settler populations with open arms. 

In South Africa hundreds of thousands of whites left South Africa following the African National Congress’s landslide election victory in 1994. Twenty years on, the exodus shows signs of slowing and even reversing. There are estimates that some 340,000 have come home in the last decade. “Lifestyle” is one of the top three reasons given by white South Africans for deciding to go home, along with family connections and “a sense of belonging”. 

Nigeria has also been welcoming to former settlers. In 2010 white Zimbabweans, forced off their land by Mugabe’s reforms, accepted Nigeria’s offer of free land and guaranteed bank loans in exchange for their help in reviving Nigeria’s nearly moribund agricultural sector. With an initial loan of $250,000 per farmer, the men drilled wells, built houses, imported tractors and seed drillers, and planted their first maize crop that July. The farmers went on to hire many local workers created productive fields.


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