HARARE — Hundreds of Zimbabwe’s elderly whites are being flown back to Britain by the same state that shipped them out to what was then Rhodesia over half a century ago.
For more than 50 years they enjoyed the good life and raised families as part of the colonial-era privileges of white minority rule. They survived the bitter and bloody war against Rhodesian rule. After the country achieved majority rule and became Zimbabwe in 1980, they stayed on in the place that had become their home.
Now, with their children gone and their pensions made worthless by stratospheric inflation, many have reluctantly accepted the British government’s offer of a free ticket “home” and a social safety net once they arrive there.
“It breaks my heart to leave,” said Len Huxley, 87, who distinguished himself fighting for Britain in World War II. “But I can no longer afford to live here.”
Inflation has now been tamed by the use of the United States dollar. From one billion percent a year ago, it is now minus 1 percent. But relief came too late for Huxley and his generation. With their savings wiped out and no other source of income many had to reluctantly accept the British government's offer of a plane fare back and automatic access to the country's generous welfare system.
White colonists first came to the country in 1890. By 1939 they numbered about 50,000. After World War II the colonial government provided assisted passages for immigrants, some of whom received land if they had served in the armed forces. Many members of the Royal Air Force who had been in the Empire Air Training Scheme in Rhodesia were smitten by the country’s beauty and returned at the end of the war.
In its heyday in 1965, Rhodesia's white population numbered 270,000 while the black population was 5 million. In November 1965 settler leader Ian Smith proclaimed UDI — Unilateral Declaration of Independence from British rule to avoid British pressure for majority rule.
Far from being ruined by United Nations sanctions, with South Africa’s help the rebel white minority-ruled country prospered at first, producing chrome, gold and tobacco and developing an infrastructure and industry that was the envy of much of Africa.
But the guerrilla war waged by Robert Mugabe and other African nationalists took a deadly toll and eventually crippled the economy. Many whites left towards the end of the Rhodesian war in the late 1970s and the advent to power of Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party. But others stayed on, as the transition to black rule did not change the good life they enjoyed. Most whites in Harare, the capital, had servants and swimming pools.
The good life diminished after 2000 when Mugabe began seizing white-owned farms and his rhetoric became more belligerent. His government embarked upon uncontrolled spending to ensure support of the black veterans of the bush war and Zimbabwe's economy plunged into crisis. The country’s middle class — both white and black — emigrated in droves leaving behind the remains of a once mighty colonial occupation.
Of the estimated 40,000 whites who remain in Zimbabwe today, some 5,000 are thought eligible for the British government’s resettlement scheme.
“What I will miss most is the warmth,” Len who is house-bound conceded, “but I cannot afford to be ill.”
While Zimbabwe has modern health facilities, they are all privately-run and benefit only those with expensive insurance. In Britain the elderly whites will be cared for by the National Health Service which is free.
Zimbabwe’s subtropical climate is reckoned to be among the most pleasant in the world — “the only thing Mugabe can’t ruin,” quip Harare wags. At 5,000 feet Harare’s “champagne air” — so called because it is dry and sparkling — is one of the country’s great attractions.
Now this forlorn little community of pensioners, many in retirement homes, is kept going by remittances from their offspring and surreptitious local generosity.
Phyllis Hatton, 84, won’t be among those going “home” to Britain. She came out in 1953, married and raised a son who is now 52 and lives in Zimbabwe. She has a small income from investments and lives in a senior citizens center.
“I couldn’t face that weather,” she says of England. “Looking out at that bleak grey landscape every day would depress me beyond words.
“Anyway, my son is here and I see him every week. I couldn’t dump myself on nephews and nieces.”
As she spoke, Harare enjoyed another utterly predictable warm and sunny winter’s day.
More GlobalPost dispatches from Zimbabwe:
Zimbabwe's split personality
Mugabe is still the boss
Harare rocks with cultural festival