Review: When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

A white woman in South Africa suggested that I read this 2006 book by Peter Godwin, and I am glad that she did.

I mention the color of her skin because skin matters in this memoir of how Zimbabwe fell apart in the late 1990s. This “change of condition” was shocking for many (including me) because of Zim’s prior reputation and status as a safer, richer place than its neighbors. This book explains how those relative positions changed as Robert Mugabe (Zim’s dictator) struggled to hold power. (There are strong parallels with Venezuela’s more recent descent into chaos, which was fueled by a similar “power at all  costs” dynamic.)

Background: Whites controlled Southern Rhodesia in the post-colonial period, but they lost power to Black rebel groups, one of them (ZANU-PF) which was led by Mugabe. After this 1980 liberation, Mugabe allowed the Whites to stay and work, which meant that they continued to run large efficient commercial farms. These farms did not just give Zimbabweans food security and jobs (at least 100 workers for every farm owner, plus around 3-400 dependents), but also export earnings and a reasonably prosperous countryside.

The Issue: Mugabe could not deliver on his promises of a better life for all, so he started blaming Whites twenty years after they had lost power. Plenty of Blacks knew Mugabe was trying to save his own skin, and they joined a rival political party (the MDC) in an attempt to vote Mugabe out.

The Chaos: Mugabe brutally suppressed this peaceful, democratic opposition. Godwin’s memoir traces how Mugabe’s thugs attacked and terrorized Black and White Zimbabweans, extracted $1 in booty for every $999 they destroyed. Citizens’ suffering is immense (Wikipedia):

…at the time of independence in 1980, the country was growing economically at about five per cent a year, and had done so for quite a long time. If this rate of growth had been maintained for the next 37 years, Zimbabwe would have in 2016 a GDP of US$52 billion. Instead it had a formal sector GDP of only US$14 billion, a cost of US$38 billion in lost growth. The population growth in 1980 was among the highest in Africa at about 3.5 per cent per annum, doubling every 21 years. Had this growth been maintained, the population would have been 31 million. Instead, as of 2018, it is about 13 million. The discrepancies were believed to be partly caused by death from starvation and disease, and partly due to decreased fertility [as well as emigration]. The life expectancy has halved, and deaths from politically motivated violence sponsored by the government exceed 200,000 since 1980. The Mugabe government has directly or indirectly caused the deaths of at least three million Zimbabweans in 37 years. According to World Food Programme, over two million people are facing starvation because of the recent droughts the country is going through.

Godwin’s memoir is compelling because it weaves between his reporting as a journalist and the stories he tells about his friends and family.

Oh, and what about the title? It refers to a belief that a celestial crocodile will eat the sun when it is unhappy with humans on earth. Mugabe, despite an unprecedented repeat eclipse in the middle of the chaos, stayed in power for years after this book (he died in 2019). His replacement is not much better. Pity the people of Zimbabwe.


Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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