Continent of discomfort and agitation

Soldiers in Zimbabwe's Liberation War - Are We Not Also Men?
January 19, 1996

The processes of African escape from the racist or other cultural constrictions of imperialist history - in this context of British imperialist history - have been complex and prolonged; and perhaps it is only now, while these processes have still to be made complete, that we are beginning to measure their influence. They drew in all manner of men and women. They saw the launching of countless protests and of great insurrections. They spread anger or despair, often both at the same time, and when they were done they were seen to have left a power of muddle and confusion as well as the fragile sources of a different way of life.

Within the past 50 or 40 years these processes have come to be labelled on the colonial and post-colonial scene with the catch-all but reductive name of nationalism, although what has been most vitally at issue was far less the building of new nation states than the upholding of destruction, through thick and thin, of systems of race-defined oppression. Much has been written about these dramas: without a doubt, much more remains to be written.

Terence Ranger has devoted many years of an often brilliantly original scholarly career of research, writing and teaching to the study and elucidation of African belief and thought in central Africa, and especially in the Rhodes-founded settler colony of Southern Rhodesia which, in 1980, became the sovereign republic of Zimbabwe in the wake of a settler-provoked and eventually ferocious war.

Here, in the arena of his latest studies and writing, he gives us the fascinating case of the Samkange family, and uses it to examine the role and record of that small but always potent fragment of central African nationalism composed of the educated African elite in Southern Rhodesia. Necessarily Christian, effective modern education being then available only to Christians and even so to very few of these "elected ones", the Samkanges and their families and friends embraced Wesleyan Methodism with a wonderful patience, charity and willingness, indeed eagerness, to believe the best of British behaviour and example.

We can see, from our distance, that they were bound to become disillusioned - with the British, but not with their Christianity. Having to face and survive the social and cultural realities of the British and Afrikaner settlers who achieved power in Rhodesia from the start, and who were continually reinforced by new settlers from Britain, especially after the first world war but then again after the second, the Samkanges and their kind moved in slow and painful steps from puzzled protest to anger and political revolt.

It is altogether a remarkable and moving story, and Ranger tells it with his usual patience and lucidity, so that Thompson Samkange and his family, together with those who stood alongside them, are seen to achieve and even to epitomise a depth and dignity of human resonance which all those brutal years of violence, at their worst during the 1970s, have combined to obscure and even to obliterate. And the story here is all the more memorable and penetrating because Professor Ranger was granted admission - he says little of the admirable tact and modesty that must have been required - to the family archives, very rare in their kind, of this elite which greatly respected documents and saw to it that these should somehow be preserved. For this reason, too, his study is thus a very significant contribution to measuring the origins and motivations of educated nationalism through its years of most testing struggle.

As we well recall, the settlers defended their racist dictatorship as a necessary way of preserving what they were pleased to call "civilised standards", meanwhile denying even an elementary social justice, not to speak of a political justice, on the grounds (which seemed self-evident to them) that treating Africans as human beings would "drag us down to their level". Only the dogged application of a counter violence availed to overcome this wretchedly self-regarding humbug; and the mounting of that sufficient counter violence had to be dangerous as well as difficult.

For various reasons, as Ranger points out, the war of anti-colonial liberation on the African side has been surprisingly little written about. Now, in a brief but valuable collection, Ngwabi Bhebe and Ranger give us some relevant action-biographies and memoirs.

The long-term value of this scattered evidence will be enhanced when we have a promised second volume, now in process of production, that will look at social, political and ideological aspects of the war. As things stand, one is struck by the evidently profound isolation of these leading fighters. The essay by Jeremy Brickhill, described as having served in guerrilla intelligence, is still capable of asserting, even this long time after, that "no African liberation movement has actually seized power from a colonial regime".

This, of course, was precisely what was achieved by the liberation movements PAIGC in Guina-Bissau, Frelimo in Mozambique, and, quite recently, the EPLF in Eritrea. The barriers to mutual appreciation, going by what Brickhill and others have written, and here write again, have for these fighters been stubbornly high and hard to penetrate. This, undoubtedly, must be counted as another obstacle on their perilous route.

It is a particular pleasure to welcome, with this volume, one of the earliest publications of the University of Zimbabwe.

Basil Davidson is a historian specialising in Africa.

Soldiers in Zimbabwe's Liberation War

Editor - Ngwabi Bhebe and Terence Ranger
ISBN - 0 85255 659 4 and 609 8
Publisher - James Currey
Price - £35.00 and £12.95
Pages - 211

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