07/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Zimbabwe Whites Flown Back To UK

By Zimbabwe Correspondent (author cannot be identified because of Zimbabwe's press restrictions) | GlobalPost

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 in the 1950s.

For more than 50 years they enjoyed the good life and raised families as part of the colonial-era system of white minority rule. They survived the bitter and bloody war to end the Rhodesian regime. After the country moved to majority rule and became Zimbabwe in 1980, they stayed on in the country 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 get there.

"It breaks my heart to leave," said Len, 75, who refused to give his last name and 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 1 billion percent a year ago, it is now minus 1 percent. But relief came too late for Len and his generation. With their savings wiped out and no other source of income, many had to accept the British government's offer.

The offer is for British citizens and nationals with the right of abode in the U.K. who are over 70 and are considered vulnerable because of their care needs or medical conditions. It is expected to target households whose members have already registered with the British Embassy in Harare.

"The situation in Zimbabwe continues to make it hard to access food and medical care.
That's why we are offering help to older and vulnerable British people who are unable to support themselves in Zimbabwe and want to resettle in the U.K.," said British cabinet minister John Healey when the repatriation program was announced in February.

Britain will assist the returnees by paying for travel and helping with financial support and housing following relocation. The government has encouraged Britons in Zimbabwe to consider relocation since 2007 but the latest offer provides an additional incentive.

There are an estimated 12,500 British citizens still in Zimbabwe, of whom 3,000 are over 70. The British government believes that between 500 and 1,500 will be eligible for the scheme, which will run for more than a year.

White colonists first came to this country in 1890. By 1939, they numbered about 50,000. After World War II, the colonial government provided passages for immigrants, some of whom received land if they served in the war. 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.

By 1950, the numbers of whites swelled to 80,000 and then 100,000 in 1955. In its heyday in 1965, Rhodesia's white population numbered 270,000 while the black population was 5 million. In November 1965, white leader Ian Smith proclaimed UDI -- Unilateral Declaration of Independence from British rule to avoid British pressure to move to 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 toward 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 change to black rule did not alter the good life they enjoyed. Most whites in Harare, the capital, had servants and swimming pools.

The good life became tough when 2000 when Mugabe began seizing white-owned farms and his rhetoric became more anti-white. Mugabe's government started 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 climate," Len 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 community of pensioners, many in nursing homes, is kept going by remittances from their offspring and surreptitious local generosity.

Phyllis, 84, won't be among those going "home" to Britain. She came out in 1953, married and raised a son who is now 45 and lives in Zimbabwe. She has a small income from investments and lives in a senior citizens home.

"I couldn't face that weather," she said of England. "Looking out at that gray 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.

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