Terence Ranger and Zimbabwe’s nationalist politics

Terence Ranger (left) with some of Zimbabwe’s nationalist leaders Robert Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo and James Chikerema

Terence Ranger (left) with some of Zimbabwe’s nationalist leaders Robert Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo and James Chikerema

Stanely Mushava Literature Today
Book: Writing Revolt

Author: Terence Ranger
Publisher: Weaver Press (2013)
Terence Ranger’s latest personal offering, “Writing Revolt: An Engagement with African Nationalism, 1957-67”, is a vastly riveting account which tags the historian in the mid-century revolutionary ferment. “Of the making of many books about Zimbabwe there seems to be no end,” Ranger observes in his 2011 instalment for “Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute”, assigning “inexplicably popular white Zimbabwe memoirs” to an ephemeral shelf life cluster.

We have heard patronising dirges by former Rhodesians whose potency, for the most part, inheres in how much they qualify for carbon copies of the conventional characterisation of our country as a trouble spot shorn of its yesteryear allure.

While such books are guaranteed an immediate audience, being flavoured to the tastes of the dominant market segment, they are flawed, subjective and negligible in the long term.

Then there are, within the Zimbocentric outburst, books which Ranger calls diamonds that need no international licence to be traded and consumed. Their claim to durability is historical rigour and occupation with relevant Zimbabwean issues.

“Writing Revolt”, a compendium of historical nuggets and autobiographical sketches, can be safely uploaded into the latter domain by virtue of its attention to detail and ideological proximity to the African cause.

Native responses to colonialism, including trade unionism, rapid response unit Christian Action Group co-ordinated by Tolstoyan Guy Clutton-Broke and all-out firebrands such as the African National Congress, National Democratic Party, Zapu and Zanu are recounted with a first-hand aptitude.

Drawn from an extensive dumpsite of Ranger’s correspondence with the principal political activists including prisoners and exiles, family and academic colleagues and his co-conspirator John Reed’s diary, the tome benefits from engaging personal conversations as opposed to a sequence of technical references, that firewall of scholarship.

Reed’s diary entries, which recurrently stream into the narrative, capture with Boswellian meticulousness the dons’ exploits in the looming storm.

Ranger explains the dual bearing of his book. “‘Writing Revolt’ might mean producing a record of the African awakening which I witnessed during those ten years. And it might mean the process which led me to write that first book (Revolt in Southern Africa 1896-7). This book is therefore intended as both a history and historiography.”

Drama and intrigue knock the reader right from the cover where Ranger and his wife Shelagh, decking a Ndebele fur hat and animal print coat respectively in an apparent show of camaraderie, are seen off at the Salisbury Airport by Maurice Nyagumbo, Joshua Nkomo, James Chikerema, Robert Mugabe and Reed on the day of his deportation from Southern Rhodesia.

Ranger was ejected from the country in February 1963 for political subversion, precisely his participation with the outlawed Zapu in which he was a district vice-chair.

He had also fallen foul of the system with his work on “Revolt in Southern Africa” which was in bold variance with settler policy to annihilate authentic African history.

Prior to his expulsion, Ranger served a three-month restriction where he was confined within a three-mile radius of his University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (UCRN), now University of Zimbabwe, workstation. The restriction was levelled as a death-knell against his political activity and research interests.

“Though I am aware that the history of our country will be put in its perspective by one of our lot, who will not be accused of prejudice when certain facts are in question, it is also vitally important that a person like yourself should go the whole hog in pioneering the insights of Zimbabwe’s history,” George Nyandoro wrote Ranger, commiserating with him on the debilitating prospect of the restriction on his research.

While the memoir is recorded with particular emphasis on the period between 1957 and 1967, Ranger tucks in an autobiographical preamble stranding from 1929, the year he was born, to 1957, when he came to Salisbury as a 28-year-old academic only to be entangled in the political dynamics of an epoch in history.

Despite being part of a wafer-thin section of unbigoted, progressive Europeans, Ranger confesses embracing “inoperable and ridiculous” ideas about Africa in line with the mainstream characterisation of Africa as the backyard of civilisation when he came to Southern Rhodesia.

Some of these were imbibed from a teenage literary inventory featuring Rudyard Kipling, Rider Haggard and Joseph Conrad. Ranger denies retaining the odd effects of such an education in his adult responses to Africa, as they got washed away in real-time interactions with the African realities.

Racist sterilisation of education to efface pre-colonial African achievements as a ploy to disorient natives was endemic in the colonial system. Ranger elicited a backlash for asserting, against conventional dogma, that Great Zimbabwe was built by the Africans.

The monumental site, which majestically attests the sheer ingenuity of the Hungwe people centuries on, has been erroneously ascribed to foreigners based on white supremacist scruples which rule out blacks’ capability of civilisation on their own.

The Khami ruins were also an object of Rhodesian propaganda. “It was official doctrine that none of them (Zimbabwe and Khami)  had been built by Africans and the South Rhodesian government used to insert ‘causeries’ in the African Press to prove that Great Zimbabwe had not been built by the Bantu,” recalls Ranger.

There has been a sustained effort to salvage black pride by reverting to forgotten accomplishments as a stimulus to perform again. Matthew Ashimolowo’s “What’s Wrong with Being Black?” and Mensah Otabil’s “Beyond the Rivers of Ethiopia” feature in the sprawling inventory to this end. With the Black History Month upon us, it is pertinent to draw the incentive for fresh exploits from the yesteryear feats.

Ranger initially fell foul with the establishment when, during his tenure as UCRN warden, he embarked on the desegregation of student quarters in the interests of inclusivity. One emotive case involved Sarah Chavunduka, the first African female student.

Fellow students and their parents fiercely resisted her acceptance into the girls’ halls of residence and Ranger was branded a “Nigger lover” for his efforts. The matter spilt into the Press and Parliament with inordinate racist abandon.

One of the unsettling letdowns in the book is noted Zimbabwean intellectual Stanlake Samkange’s cowardly withdrawal from nationalist politics for a comfort zone outside the country.

“I appear to have come to the conclusion that one of the most important principles – that of love of one’s fellow men and sacrifice and service towards other people is not worth it and is plain rubbish,” Samkange wrote to Ranger in 1964.

“Terry, if I could get a job outside this country I would take it and go for many long years. There is nothing to fight for here – it is not worth it,” he wrote. Samkange returned to politics towards independence and was part of the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia project but lost in all subsequent elections before quitting for good.

Counter-attitudes and hostilities subsequent to the nationalist split knock the reader as an undue united anti-climax to the movement. Had Professor Ranger proceeded to beyond 1967, the story might have been more ideal but not with its downsides.

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  • Shava

    This professor is a genius and his writing are honest to the core – unfortunately because we, the black majority are averse to reading – we are prone to living in the moment. Zimbabwe had a lot of unsung heroes and one such who comes to the fore is Maurice Nyagumbo who was close to the good professor – and whose political journey was chronicled in a book entitled “With the people” by Ranger.

    One day I read an article written by one of the current political (insiders) correspondents who was denegrating Nyagumbo and making him look like a thief and pitiful and at that very moment I knew that we are now leaving in an era of convenience but HIStory cannot be changed for convenience sake.

    “Lest we forget” –