We are all Migrants

If you think about it – all of us are migrants in one form or another. I have just watched a classic American Cowboy film and was again reminded that the US has turned a tiny number (never more than about 5000 individuals) who were the original cowboys on the open plains of America, into a vast business based on legend. They were dirt poor and worked and played hard but bore little resemblance to the images that we see on our screens and which have made them a household name across the world.

Their efforts to find a new home from an overcrowded and desperately poor Europe, as refugees, led many out onto the Prairies where they were given small farms (160 acres) on which to build homes and start farming for a living. The indigenous peoples who lived on the open prairies were just brushed aside or hunted down.

If I think of my own family history, we can trace ours back to Robert the Bruce of Scotland who fought a liberation war against the English at the beginning of the first Century after 1000 years AD. This was made famous by a recent film (Brave Heart) and after their defeat, my family fled Scotland (we are descendents of the Graham Clan of Montrose) and moved as migrants to Ireland where we settled in the North, near Belfast.

Nearly 800 years later, my Great Grandfather, G W Cross, sailed out to South Africa where he was one of the founders of the Baptist Church. He moved about South Africa, fought in the frontier wars in the Eastern Cape and then in the Boer War against the English in what was the first liberation war in Africa and left behind a large family who went on into business, the law and politics. My paternal Grandfather became a Magistrate, spoke Afrikaans like a native and was posted all over South Africa serving the needs of small rural communities.

He also left behind a large family and died in 1953 having served South Africa with distinction – Chairman of the Railways, Chairman of the Public Service Commission, confidant of Jan Smuts, the Prime Minister. In fact I can remember having coffee with Smuts on the stoep of their home outside Pretoria in about 1948, before the defeat that brought apartheid to that country.

In the depths of the Great Depression, my father, who was working for an American oil company, was told that they had no work for him in South Africa but if he was willing to go to a place called Southern Rhodesia, he would retain his job. He and two friends caught a train and travelled to Bulawayo where the three men became citizens – my father staying on in the Company but the other two going into the Civil Service and into business. They did not even have to have a passport to enter the country and take up residence.

They came to a country that was itself populated by migrants – the Shona people originated in West and Central Africa, migrating southwards until they ran into the northern boundary of what is now South Africa. In the early years of the 19th Century two groups of Ndebele arrived from South Africa and settled in the area around my home town today, Bulawayo (the Place of Slaughter). These brought with them their military culture and tradition and they subjugated the tribes that occupied the South Western regions of the country before commencing their annual raids against all neighboring tribal groups.

The first whites arrived some 50 years later as hunters, missionaries and adventurers. They were followed by the first military unit in the last decade of the Century and after a series of battles and a short guerilla war, they occupied the country, turning into a Dominion within the Empire.

The Ndau, arrived even later in the early 1930’s and settled in the Eastern Highlands. The only truly indigenous people, the Khoi were hunted down and killed and today only a small (2000 people) of mixed race descendents remain. Zimbabweans are all migrants.

When you think about the early Boer settlers on the Highveld of South Africa and the Treks to Melsetter and even further afield into Africa, fleeing the repressive control and dominance of the English in the Cape and Natal, their achievements, courage and determination makes the US cowboy look like a wimp. Native American Indians were a formidable force and skilled bush fighters; they were equally savage and cruel. But compared to the Zulu’s and the Ndebele under Mzilikazi, they were easy prey to western dominance and armed conflict.

One of the greatest defeats of history on an English Army, was inflicted by the Zulus in Natal. The first great liberation war was the Boer War in the early 1900’s when a tiny force of Afrikaner men took on an English Army of 500 000 troops and held them at bay for three years. The stories of their exploits will never be told the way the Americans have used their cowboys and this is a shame, because it is one of the most remarkable stories of all time.

But like them or hate them, they are us. We are all migrants, people who for many reasons have left their ancestral homes and carved out a new life for ourselves in a foreign land that we now call home.

Many in Africa have fled our conflicts and our economic collapse and found their way to new homes in foreign lands. I was once taken to dinner in London by a group from Zapu, the Nationalist Party that largely represents the Ndebele minority in Zimbabwe. One of the men had his girl friend with him and she sat next to me at the dinner. Half way through the evening she said to me, “You are making a serious mistake! You think I am African, I am not, I am English.” Now she was as black as those at the table and I was taken aback by her rebuke. I asked her how long she had been in England and she said she had come with her mother. I doubt she had been in the UK for even 20 years.

Because of our history, those of us who are of European decent and pale skinned, are often vilified and it is claimed that we have no place in Africa, no real citizen rights. I am so glad that this was rectified in our new Constitution which now outlaws discrimination against anyone born an African. I have felt for many years that one of my personal goals in Zimbabwe was to play a small role in making sure that my Grandchildren can truly claim their heritage (of which they can be very proud in many cases) and also their Citizenship as real Africans.

Like those early Dutch Settlers in the Cape who confronted Dutch emissaries with the words “We are Africans” (Afrikaners) to claim their right to control their own affairs, the day is coming when all of us who have made Africa our home, will be able to rejoice in our diversity and backgrounds and be equally proud to be representatives of our country.

In the meantime, all of you who are having to deal with new waves of migration elsewhere in the world, just remember, we have all been there before. They are just like us and one day will be our brothers and comrades in the struggle for a better world.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 27th December 2015