It was a humbling experience to read what Pierre Ryckmans, later to be famous as the sinologist Simon Leys, wrote when he was only twenty years old. He had voyaged solo through the Belgian Congo not long before its independence, a vast territory of which his uncle, of the same name, had once been a famous governor-general. Ryckmans’ reflections on his journey have lost none of their pertinence in the sixty years since he wrote them, and go straight to the heart of the matter with unrivalled concision:
In outline, we might say that [the Africans’] ambitions push them to reject and become Europe at the same time. (When I speak of Europe, I mean the Europe that they know, that is to say the Europe in Africa). They want to be like these powerful men who humiliate them; they want to be those whom they do not want. . . .
It was for this reason that Mugabe, a highly intelligent man, was a revolutionary and a conservative at the same time.
Though I lived in Rhodesia (as it then was) for only seven months, and returned to Zimbabwe (as it had by then become) ten years later for only a couple of weeks, the country has occupied my thoughts since then intermittently but quite often. It raised, at least in my mind, questions of political philosophy which I am still not sure that I can fully answer.
Editor’s note: The first installment of a three-part series.
The first political leader of any consequence whom I ever met (and I have not met many since) was Ian Smith, Prime Minister of the pariah state of Rhodesia, as it was then still called. I was working as a young doctor in the country, in Bulawayo, and someone said to me at a garden party, ‘Would you like to meet the Prime Minister?’