By Obert Chifamba
The role of country clubs in propping up Zimbabwe’s agro-based economy should not be underestimated. They were largely popular in the pre and post-independence era and were a preserve of mostly white commercial farmers and estate managers. They formed exclusive realms socially isolating whites from black communities and promoting extreme attitudes and cultural mores.
Essentially, country clubs provided venues for farmers to make connections over a beer or three discussing both trivia and important production matters. It was at country clubs that the erstwhile white farmers would share ideas and expertise on important agricultural matters while networking at the same time. It was also there that they would even discuss market trends, form associations that would represent their interests in different matters relating to farming.
Of course, the farmers would also add some fun to the serious business matters usually by playing such elitist sports such as golf, cricket, tennis, rugby and in some cases swimming or even arrange the occasional trips as a group of farmers. They would also procure inputs as a group scoring huge discounts, which made farming easier and cheaper for them while negotiating for services was also done easily as a group than as individuals.
This kind of scenario also tended to reinforce the existing social boundaries that shut out indigenous black farmers condemning them to less profitable farming activities without hope of ever breaking into the league of the elites where they would meet to discuss farming as a business.
The stage was only set for a shift in the status quo when the Government of Zimbabwe adopted the land reform programme to evenly distribute prime land to all Zimbabweans and today, more than a decade after the programme, many farmers have scored immense successes but it seems the idea of teaming up to work as a group or groups is still eluding them.
The social seclusion and absence of integration between whites and the wider (black) community that was inherited from colonial Rhodesia has remained in force well after independence and the rhetoric of post-Independence reconciliation could not do anything to address the problem.
A range of social, cultural and economic processes ensured that the state of affairs remained intact until land reform shattered this sheltered existence. But the new crop of farmers that benefited from the land reform programme does not seem interested in continuing with this country club tradition that was founded by upper-class elites between 1880 and 1930, a culture that was proclaimed to be “the very essence of American upper-class” by 1907.
In essence, country clubs originated in Scotland <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotland> and first appeared in the US in the early 1880s. Country clubs had a profound effect on expanding suburbanisation and are considered to be the precursor to gated community <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gated_community> development. They were mostly privately owned, often with a closed membership, which generally offered both a variety of recreational sports <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sport> and facilities for dining and entertaining.
Typical athletic offerings are golf <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golf>, tennis <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tennis>, and swimming <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_swimming>. A country club is most commonly located in city outskirts or suburbs and is distinguished from an urban athletic club <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sports_club> by having substantial grounds for outdoor activities.
Country clubs can be exclusive organisations. In farming areas the country club is often not as exclusive or expensive as it is in cities where there is competition for a limited number of memberships. Farmers’ country clubs are neighbourhood bars and grills where everyone is welcome. There is always good food and a relaxed atmosphere, they are great spots for friends to meet.
Today, this good food would essentially include braaing and snacks accompanied by drinking and music.
Country clubs provide the space for farmers to detox and put to bed piles of stress that would have accumulated with time in their line of business. But to enjoy all these benefits, the farmers pay a joining fee that is agreed on. In addition to the fees, some clubs have additional requirements to join. For example, membership can be limited to those who reside in a particular farming community while those from faraway places may be asked to pay a little bit more in a gesture to demonstrate their genuine commitment to the cause.
Sadly, as I move around the country, I see a lot of once-vibrant country clubs that are now lying derelict due to discontinued use while some of the few that are being utilised have either been converted to houses by resettled farmers or satellite learning rooms in some instances. Some have had their roofs ripped off by criminal elements taking advantage of the absence of farmers that used to monitor and take care of them.
Most of the facilities have inevitably deteriorated, as there is no one giving due attention to infrastructure or even maintaining the surroundings. Here and there you can spot golfers on the course fairways downing acacia pods with miscued drives.
Sports are no longer played at most of the country clubs in Zimbabwe, though this is not to say the social function has been lost.
The bar at Harare South Country Club, for example, is very popular with the new farm owners in the district, who have started a soccer team called the Boozers XI and meet there for social games.
Whatever the current crop of farmers do, they need to know that country clubs can serve as professional platforms where they can conduct business. If they are the type that have a lot of meetings to attend, they can conduct them in country clubs. This always invokes a sense of professionalism.
Also, as members of a country club, they don’t have to pay every single time. Their membership allows them to enjoy the sports amenities anytime they wish. The country club is a great place to extend their network. They get to meet people who are influential or have the same interests as them. They can, for instance, even meet potential business partners.