Nicholas Kristof wants it both ways

The New York Times columnist traveled to Zimbabwe and wrote two totally different stories for his paper that read like night and day.

Nicholas Kristof, second from the left, on a TV news panel show (Rachel Maddow, Flickr CC).

In the first of two op-eds the The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about his recent travels to Zimbabwe in Southern Africa, he can’t get himself to let go of the usual clichés. In it, he emerges as the daring journalist hero. For one, he goes on about how he had to disguise himself as a tourist to get into Zimbabwe. This is of course despite the fact that 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 concedes that the majority of Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF’s victims are black and not white (the usual frame in Western media), for some reason he spends a lot 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 man. Only a first name.

In any case, one of the effects of Kristof’s reporting on the nostalgia for empire, colonialism and white apartheid by his black Zimbabwean interviewees, is that white Rhodesians and Jim Crow nostalgists wrote in to The New York Times to comment approvingly.  Just 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 after the end of colonialism.

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 traveling alone. Later in the same column, Kristof reveals that “… I took my family along with me on this trip (my kids accuse me of using them as camouflage).”

Which leads to the next question: Did they accompany him on his daredevil reporting excursions in the Zimbabwean rural areas?

We find out in his second column of the week.

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.

Kristof then proceeds to praise the locals for speaking perfect English, that they are always grateful to see visitors, and how “polite” the police are. The average black Zimbabwean brutalized by the police would be surprised at the good naturedness of their local constabulary. The post concludes as follows:

… 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.

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!”

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.