David Caute Colin Legum - Essay

Colin Legum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["Under the Skin"] is a brilliant narrative account of the messy end of white rule in Rhodesia. It is authentic, pitiless and yet, in the end, sadly disappointing. Its strength lies in David Caute's gifts as novelist and playwright to capture dialogue and atmosphere. He has no need to create characters, they present themselves—mostly angry, hateful, self-justifying and sadly worried people who, as they go under, still deny any misdeeds or mistakes on their own part; still defy the rest of the world and fiercely blame others for all of their misfortunes….

Although he writes with a fiercely unapologetic bias against the old Rhodesian society, David Caute nevertheless appears to have had closer contact with whites than blacks during the four years, 1976–80, that he spent visiting Rhodesia to witness its death-throes. And although he is clearly on the side of the guerrillas, he appears to have no illusions about the future….

White Rhodesians were, of course, justifiably proud of their contribution to building up the country; but, equally of course, black Zimbabweans must refuse to recognise their contribution because so much of the wealth was hogged by the whites and, much worse, because they insisted on treating blacks as dependent children. The lesser breed was habitually referred to as 'those people,' or simply as 'munts' or 'kaffirs.' Caute repeatedly comes across whites who attribute whatever can't otherwise be easily explained as being due to the 'k-factor'—their belief, to the very end, that kaffirs would never be able to run the country for themselves. The 'k-factor' embraced such shortcomings as laxity, laziness and inefficiency.

In the end the White Rhodesians, relying heavily on the 'k-factor,' found they were up against something new: the AK factor—the Russian AK gun, now in the hands of 'Africans,' no longer just 'kaffirs.' The killings and brutality that followed (on both sides) are fully, and often movingly, chronicled, but what the book lacks almost entirely is any serious social or political analysis. What is worse, it ignores, or fails to deal adequately with, crucial events belonging to the period covered by the narrative.

Colin Legum, "The K and AK Factors," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), February 27, 1983, p. 32.