Review: Bulawayo Burning - Marko Phiri

Mukai: the Jesuit Journal for Zimbabwe
No 57 August 2011
www.jescom.co.zw

Book Review

THE JOYS AND AGONIES OF BULAWAYO

Terence Ranger, Bulawayo Burning, sildenafil The Social History of a Southern African City,
1893 – 1960.

Weaver Press – James Currey (UK), 2010, 261pp.

Reviewed by Marko Phiri


If anyone is looking for walk-about around Zimbabwe's oldest African ‘township’ Makokoba
from its ‘continuous existence’, between 1894 and 1960, the best place to look could well be
Terence Ranger's 2010 opus – Bulawayo Burning (Weaver Press). The book paints a beautiful
lyrical picture of this place that dwells in the hearts of many Bulawayo natives, be they soccer
players, musicians, businessmen, gangsters or indeed politicians. Ranger begins by telling us
that his effort is a ‘historian's’ response in ‘prose’ to the ‘poetry’ of Yvonne Vera's Butterfly
Burning
set in the Bulawayo of the 1940s (p.5), which is why he calls it ‘Bulawayo Burning’.

As he says in an interview elsewhere: ‘Like Yvonne, I wanted to record the joys as well as
the agonies of urban life.’ This work is dedicated to the late award winning Bulawayo author.
And what emerges is an oxymoronic beautiful Bulawayo Burning, a ‘writing of history as
literature.’ He indeed succeeds in his attempts to make the book as readable as possible in
the literary form that he adopts. It moves from the typical historical texts that are usually
heavy reads used mainly as reference fodder for researchers and dwell on dates that lack
action packed pace of the genre of historical novels. Ranger's book is rather page-turning as
Bulawayo Burning is arranged and reads like a series of chapters of a novel, making it an
easy, at the same time compelling read.

No doubt a lot has been written about Makokoba, but Ranger attempts – with superb success I
think – to move his research to areas and crevices of this great historic place where not many
historians have looked and the result is no doubt an invaluable addition to the knowledge
about a place many have come to know merely as a dirty old place – and this is a place
which others have over the years actually suggested must be demolished to make way for
new urban housing. Ranger relies on diverse and very rich sources and juxtaposes Vera's
fictional characters with actual people who lived in Makokoba between 1929-1960. The oral
interviews with old Makokoba residents make this a unique contribution as the narrations give
us first hand insights from people who were part of that history when it was being made.

Ranger adopts a tone and style he says, resonates with South African author Jacob Dlamini's
Native Nostalgia (p.12), which is a historical narrative about South African townships
during apartheid. His then is a social history narrative about a Southern African township
(Makokoba) during the birth of nationalism. Ranger writes, ‘Sentence after sentence, in his

(Dlamini) book resonated with me: Nostalgia does not have to be a reactionary sentiment.
There is a way to be nostalgic about the past without forgetting that the struggle (about
apartheid) was just...’ (p.13).

This is a poignant reminder of approaches to the new world political order by contemporary
politicians whose nostalgia about the struggle sets them against the people as they – the
political elites – lose focus that ‘nostalgia does not have to be reactionary.’ Deriving from
its title, Ranger divides the book into different epochs of ‘Bulawayo’s burning,’ from the
Matebele King's capital (Old Bulawayo ironically was to again burn down in 2010), to the
1929 black-on-black violence to the 1960 Zhii Makokoba burnings which many historians
like to parade as the beginning of nationalist agitations but which Ranger obviously sees
differently.

This is a book that Education Minister David Coltart would do well and introduce into the
secondary school curriculum rather than have students waiting until they go to university to
study this piece of history before they pore with their young minds over this important work.
And this at a time when there is resurgence in the demand by the yesteryear nationalists for
a rewriting of the nation’s history, this time seen through pan-Africanist black lenses. It is
precisely Bulawayo Burning’s literary approach that would make it extremely readable for
young minds. But then because it is written by a white historian, so we are not likely to see
this in government schools for obvious reasons as Coltart has already been accused of doing
away with some texts favored by the nationalists from the school curricula!

From the narrative tour of the Landscapes of Bulawayo (p.56,57) on how this great city was
built, to the railways, (p.59), erection of abattoirs, you obviously question how the city has
been run down in the past few decades with the national railways now virtually dead, the Cold
Storage Commission dead, sewers dead.

The country obviously needs a book like this if we are to take a look at history through
lenses untainted by political correctness. For example, while a lot has been written about this
old township being a hotbed for political upheaval and nationalism, trade unionism, tribal
tensions etc, Ranger gives a human face to these events and makes it compelling to read about
such characters as Jerry Vera, Sipambaniso Khumalo, Jasper Savanhu, Charlton Ngcebetsha,
and many others who other historians have not given prominence in the labour activism,
political organisation, journalism of the time when in fact in this work they have starring roles
as central players in the bigger picture that was Makokoba of the 30s, 40s and late 50s.

But perhaps it is the intensive research that went into this work that utilised official council
records, archives and first person narratives that gives it its depth. It is here where we meet
the ‘Ndebele royals’ being forced to move in with common people, princesses and princes
arriving in Makokoba in the 1930s where they set up their new ‘homes’ with the white
governments and local administrators failing to understand that this was the bastardisation
of timeless cultures. It is here where we meet the 1929 Shona-Ndebele tribal clashes
(animosities that remain today), which Ranger says were ‘(a) clash between elements of
society in black Bulawayo and it rose out of the question of who was to determine its culture
and character.’ (p.84) ‘The Mashonas said that the Matebele have killed their people years

ago and that now they intend to kill the Matebele.’ (p.96) Ranger says the fights were
powered by mythic history. ‘But much more important than myth in defining “ethnicity” in
Bulawayo in December 1929 were job differentiation and ethnic hierarchies of prestige.’
(p.96).

We still get such sentiments in 2011, which have landed some Bulawayo activists in jail for
championing the cause of radical federalism. Ranger even quotes Charles van Onselom and
Ian Phimister’s The Political Economy of Tribal Animosity (Journal of South African Studies
6, 1 October 1979) who noted about the 1929 clashes: ‘Men did not fight each other because
they belonged to different ethnic groups. They fought each other because they had different
and competitive economic interests.’ This book locates these and other developments in a
black colonial township and offers glimpses for the present mapping of the nation-state. It
is here where we meet the birth of Highlanders, the city’s football giants and their ties to
the Ndebele royals (p.196), tensions between the Bulawayo municipality and the Rhodesian
government (p.210), (are we not seeing the same toady?), prostitution, illegal gambling,
gangsterism which ‘grew beyond the power of any policeman or social worker to restrain’
(p.150) and a lot more. Of course we meet Joshua Nkomo as a popular young politician, the
daring Masotsha Ndlovu’s defiance of the pavement laws. These were the racist laws which
prohibited blacks from using city sidewalks, the kind of laws we continue hearing about even
now by the nationalists who insist we must all be grateful to them for bringing black majority
rule now we can walk freely in the city centre! And oh yes, the cover says it all. It just blows
you away, everyone I know who saw the book quickly identified the picture on the cover as
Makokoba, and this picture having been taken more than fives decades ago! It shows just
how little the township has changed over these decades. With the ‘pacy’ Bulawayo Burning, a
picture indeed worth a thousand words.

Marko Phiri is a Bulawayo journalist and writer.

Speech at the launch of Bulawayo Burning by Angeline S. Kamba in Harare

Bulawayo Burning: The Social History of a Southern Rhodesia  African City 1893-1960, by Terence Ranger

Launched by the guest of honour, Angeline S. Kamba

Book Café, 23 November, 2010

SPEECH

I can’ help but feel I am most likely here under false pretences!


When I was first asked if I would be guest of honour at  the launch of a book by Terry Ranger, a book whose title was: Bulawayo Burning, I laughed and remarked: sure, if Bulawayo is burning, I must be there to find out who’s burning it and why they’re burning it! I did not know what I was letting myself in for!! My first reaction of enthusiasm was based on two things 1. I am almost a Bulawayo girl. 2. I have known the author since I went to the University of Rhodesia and Nyasaland to do my PCE – Postgraduate Certificate in Education, after I had obtained my BA degree from Roma which was then a Catholic University, and is now the National University of Lesotho, that was in 1958. You see, I am now at a stage when I readily admit my age. (Incidentally, I became the second African girl student to enroll at the new university, the first having been Sarah Chabvunduka, now Mrs Kachingwe who was then a second year undergraduate student.)

Hence I am pleased to be reunited with the author – a great friend and great teacher. Terry Ranger was in the first crop of academics to teach at that new institution. He did not teach me – I am not a history student, I know nothing about historiography, what I learnt during my  curatorship of the National Archives of Zimbabwe. In that period I learned a great deal from my interface with eminent history researchers – the Bhebes, the Mudenges, David Beach, Prof. Roberts, etc.

None the less Terry would get to know me because one of his great strengths was his ability to reach out to other people, perhaps even more so in the early days of that multiracial institution when a lot of good people of goodwill were committed to see the inter-racial aspect of the institution work. Frankly it does not surprise me that he has produced this work, which is a detailed and intricate social history of Bulawayo – covering the years 1893 – 1960, the year that I married Walter Kamba!

Gathering and putting together the material can’t have been easy, particularly in terms of the volume of information and evidence as the author himself admits. Again, I was struck by his gift of reaching out to various informants, again I thought, trust Terry to fill others with enthusiasm to the point where they wanted to tell him everything in the greatest detail.

When I started reading the book, or shall I say when I started to read it ‘physically’ as we say in my old profession of librarianship, and more specifically in cataloguing, which entails looking at the foreword, introduction, table of contents, bibliography, index, illustrations before actually reading the book, I wished I had turned down Murray’s invitation. Would I be able to digest so much detail, what would I make of the litany of characters, the good and the bad!

I mentioned earlier that I was almost a Bulawayo girl – and that was the real point of the attraction of book for me. I am a Kalanga girl born in Plumtree and hence Bulawayo to me as a young girl was ‘the city’ that  people aspired to go to, even though they associated it with the bad. You would hear grownups talk about a young woman who had gone to the city to whore – it sounds much stronger when said in Kalanga – ‘wakanda ku doropo ku no hura’, it seemed at the time that was the only reason women went to Bulawayo. In 1947 when my father became Headmaster of Luveve Primary School, we were told never to go anywhere near the Location/Makokoba as it was a bad place. By then, I had, in any case, been banished to Boarding School at Empandeni. The little that I saw of the city was when my Dad took me to purchase items which I required for school. I could not believe my eyes when I saw Makokoba – how could anyone live in a place like that? Better to be in the wilds of Plumtree, more so if one was lucky enough to be shielded by the Mission farm environments of Thekwane and Dombodema, which we were.

But then again a lot of Kalanga males looked more to the South than to Bulawayo. When I was later banished to Lesotho both for my secondary and university education, I used to spend all my short vacations with various uncles and cousins in places like Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Kimberley until I returned home on some long holiday – (1956?) and with two friends who were also studying at universities in South Africa, we got vacation jobs in the Bulawayo City Council under Dr Hugh Ashton, for whom we developed great regard and respect. That was during the development of more decent accommodation such as Mpopoma, which was in fact where we worked, mainly paperwork and interviews of residents. Dr Ashton was pleased with our work. I am not surprised that despite the problems that he endured in his dealings with a thoroughly non-progressive and right-wing administration of the likes of Macintyre and others in the latter period, he never lost his sense of balance and fairness. Hence I feel that I have seen something of the Bulawayo that Terry has portrayed – in fact he could have interviewed me, but then again I am pleased that he used my old institution the National Archives extensively!!

Historian or not, I was spellbound by the book, even when I had to keep going back to sections already read to check on facts and characters. The early part of the book revealed to me the importance of Bulawayo as the foremost colonial port – the contact point between the British and the Matebele’s royal  descendants of Lobengula and Mzikikazi, the savage nature of early colonialism which showed neither respect nor compassion, the destruction of royal settlements, and of course later the coming of other African players – from various neighbouring countries and regional localities Manicaland, Bechuanaland, South Africa, Mashonaland, clearly attracted by what they perceived to be opportunities for a better life in terms of jobs in industry, railways, domestic work, etc., despite horrific accommodation and the inhumane treatment at the hands  of the whites. I finally understood the reason why Bulawayo, even in its earliest days has always been somewhat a cosmopolitan city, not necessarily in the modern way, but nonetheless a city where cultures merged and despite the periodic conflicts, one cannot help but be struck by the tolerance . I think Bulawayo was an early player in terms of acceptance and respect of diversity  particularly multi-ethnicity. One of my recollections as a young girl on my school holidays at Luveve where my father was Headmaster is the fact that I heard more languages spoken, where I would have expected to hear mostly Ndebele. One heard more Shona, Nyanja, a bit of Kalanga and Ndebele.

The savagery of early colonialism was daunting – the treatment of ‘natives and kaffirs’ by the whites totally unbelievable. It is surprising that there wasn’t more violence. None the less it was only a matter of time before the natives found their voices and insisted on more humane treatment, better conditions of living, better accommodation and better-paying jobs and a voice in decisions regarding their lives and their affairs, despite the determined opposition of the likes of Macintyre .

The emergence of a character like Sipambaniso, his courage and strength of character remains remarkable, particularly in view of the fact he was no advocate of violence, but believed in dialogue. His influence in the then peace and governance issues was truly remarkable. I had to keep going back to look him up again and the various roles that he played. He stands tall in the history of Bulawayo.

The fact that Terry claimed some close complementarity between his work and Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly  Burning made me curious enough  to quickly read Yvonne’s book which I had never read, even though I had gotten to know her well, and indeed saw her just  before her death. Makokobas the main arena of Butterfly  Burning was  largely the ‘doroba’ that had been painted as the bad doroba/city in my childhood, and could now understand it better, as I read its establishment and growth in Terry’s more substantial history.

Indeed, even as I discovered that Bulawayo was the initial bedrock of colonialism, I became convinced that it was also the foundation of the struggle for people’s rights. What is striking is that a lot of the people who had suffered so much humiliation at the hands of the colonial government – both local and central became outstanding statesmen in arguing the case for better treatment, better accommodation, better social amenities.

The period from the early fifties becomes even more fascinating as for me the characters become real people, with people I knew, or knew about from my Dad, but it is fascinating also in the sense that it is the prelude to the struggle that finally wins us independence and gets us to where we are today.

The likes of Jerry Vera, the Samkanges, Grey Bango – a relative of mine as I am a Bango too, Charlton Ngcebetsha who was close to my Dad, Masotsha Ndlovu, Jason Moyo, William Ngwenya, Jasper Savannu, Mike Masotcha Hove etc. etc. They made the history of our contry

Thanks Terry for taking down Memory Lane!

Speech at the launch of Bulawayo Burning by Lawton Hikwa in Bulawayo



Speech by Lawton Hikwa

Guest of Honour at the Launch of Bulawayo Burning in Bulawayo

26th November, 2010


First, I would like to congratulate Professor Terry Ranger and Weaver Press for respectively writing and publishing Bulawayo Burning. The book is a very welcome addition to the social history of this beautiful City of Kings, Bulawayo and more so, a very timely contribution towards local and national historiography. It is the first of its kind in comparison to other narratives in the past that merely scratched the surface of the social history of the City, without due attention to the detail we witness in Bulawayo Burning. The book is written in literary style, untypical of the usual social historical narrative style. It speaks very beautifully about Bulawayo and personalities associated with events in the city, without being oblivious of the historical facts.

The book covers 67 years of the social history of Bulawayo, beginning 1903 and ending in 1960. The ending of the book in 1960 was deliberate because Bulawayo Burning is a direct response to Yvonne Vera’s novel, Butterfly Burning. The novel is set in Bulawayo’s oldest township, Makokoba in 1946 and is dedicated to Professor Ranger.   It tells the story of the love between 50 year old Fumbatha and a much younger and youthful Phephelaphi Dube. Life in the township is captured as difficult, some times even inhibitive towards any attempts to maintain some form of dignified humanity for the residents. This is typical of Ranger’s social history narrative of Bulawayo. The period from 1893 to 1960 had its moments. Moments of social and political difficulty, revolution against white settlers, racial segregation, ethnic segregation, urban life, and many more.

I take it that the friendship between the late Vera and Ranger already shows us that theirs was beyond being just a gesture of solidarity. Solidarity is an important part of friendship, but there is more to it than that. Friendship starts with mutuality; it is about shared interest, shared focus, and common cause; it is about reciprocated knowledge, esteem, admiration, and respect. In Bulawayo Burning, one further picks up that Vera’s and Ranger’s friendship is also about affection, which goes beyond mutuality as does loyalty. It is not just about mutual benefit and exchange. Vera’s Butterfly Burning is set within the landscapes of Makokoba in Bulawayo. Ranger’s Bulawayo Burning is an historical narrative within the larger and spatial landscapes of Bulawayo. In both their works, Ranger and Vera record the joys and agonies of urban life.

Both writers believed in oral accounts and evidence therein. Vera’s evidence was largely imaginative and at times bordering on myths while Ranger’s is historical and factual. Both write consciously about black urban culture, culminating in the feminization and the transformation of black Bulawayo. The establishment of new settlements in the West Commonage, as an historical fact speaks to that. In fact, both works draw upon urban oral memory, albeit for different purposes.

Bulawayo is outlined as the cradle of African nationalism. Racism and ethnicity are narrated about in context and not merely as emotional characteristics of communal division or segregation. Indeed a story is told that racist Bulawayo settled whites in the eastern suburbs so that they could avoid the sun when driving to work in the mornings as well as when they drove back home in the evenings. The blacks could endure the sun, hence their settlement in the western suburbs!

May I dare Terry for another book? The story is not yet finished. Perhaps another writer or writers will emerge as Terry suggests. New subjects are emerging, for example water and sanitation, environmental history, climate change, urban agriculture, heroes and heroines, national healing and reconciliation, conflict resolution, mining, inflation, informal sectors, disease, emerging politics and many more to add to the historiography.

The trajectory of Ranger’s research cannot be overemphasised. He has written extensively and in the main, about Zimbabwe’s rural colonial history and the liberation struggle. Again, allow me to congratulate Terry for writing the book and Weaver Press for bringing it out for our reading pleasure, information and knowledge.

Let me also wish everyone here a Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year.

I thank you.

Lawton Hikwa, Dean, Communication and Information Science, NUST

26 November, 2010

Writing History as Literature: Bulawayo Burning by Terence Ranger

SOAS African History Seminar
Wednesday, 2 December 2009
‘Writing History as Literature: Bulawayo Burning. 1893-1960’ - Terence Ranger


My last seven days have been remarkable for three things. I completed my latest – and probably my last – monograph; I celebrated a significant
birthday; and this evening I am giving a seminar at SOAS. The book is my tenth; the birthday was my 80th; but this is only my third SOAS seminar in
fifty years as an Africanist. So this is really the most remarkable of the three events. What I plan to do is to bring all of them together. I want to talk
tonight about my book in the perspective of those fifty years. It is different from my previous books and I want to explain how and why. I retired from Oxford in 1998 and went for three years as Visiting Professor at the University in Zimbabwe. I had free access to the Archives and to the field. I had finished my work on the Matopos [Voices From the Rocks, 1999] and my collaborative work with Jocelyn Alexander and JoAnn McGregor on northern Matabeleland [Violence and Memory, 2000] I wanted another research project. At first Jocelyn and JoAnn and I planned to do another collective project, moving north into the Zambezi Valley. But they did not get a research grant and JoAnn carried through that project on her own [McGregor, Crossing the Zambezi. The Politics of Landscape on a Central African Frontier, 2009]

Then my close friend and remarkable writer, Yvonne Vera, published a novel set in 1946 in Makokoba township, Bulawayo [Butterfly Burning, Baobab, Harare, 1998] . The novel was dedicated to me in commemoration of ‘a glorious friendship and faith’ – a dedication which has appeared in all the translations of the book, sounding passionate in Latin languages and cool in Scandinavian ones. It was a challenge to me as a historian. Yvonne was
writing about a period seventeen years before she was born and seventeen years after I was. She did no research but listened to her grandmother talking and listened to the township music of the late 1940s. She drew upon some of the experiences of her mother, Ericah Gwetai.[Ericah Gwetai, Petal Thoughts, Mambo, 2008]

By the time I read Butterfly Burning I had already found some very un- poetic files in the National Archives about Bulawayo –on Labour Boards and tensions between Sir Godfrey Huggins’ government and the Bulawayo Council – and given seminars to the UZ Economic History department. This
un-poetic material has found its way into the book. But after I had read Butterfly Burning I decided that I would make Bulawayo my major research
project and that I would write about it not from the perspective of political economy but rather from the perspective of moral economy. If Yvonne
could plumb the experience of townsmen and women in the 1940s without doing any academic research what might I be able to achieve if I did lots of
it? Bulawayo was in many ways an ideal project for a septuagenarian historian, It would not involve the restless landrover roaming on which my other
Matabeleland books had been based. Bulawayo is manageable. I stayed in the gloriously anachronistic Bulawayo Club. When Yvonne first entered it while she was Director of the Art Gallery she gazed around in astonishment, ‘We’ll take this as it stands’, she said, and pointing to some club members
gathered round for tea, she added: ‘and we’ll have them too’. But the club is wonderfully situated for research. It is less than ten minutes away from City Hall, where the Historical Reference Library is situated, with its comp- rehensive and invaluable collections of the African press. At City Hall too
the Municipality stores its minutes and subject files going back to the 1930s.

Across the road is the glass administrative tower where sit archives rescued from the move of the old Council departments, among them bulging files of
Advisory Board minutes and of innumerable African Associations. The club is fifteen minutes away from the Tredgold Buildings where the Bulawayo
National Archives were then housed. The BNA holds a deposit of Municipal materials up to the 1930s, an excellent oral history collection and much
more. The club, moreover, is just over twenty minutes walk away from Zimbabwe’s oldest African township – the Old Location, now Makokoba,
which has existed continuously since 1894. Until the late 1940s Makokoba was the only township; Yvonne’s novel is necessarily set there; and my book is in many ways a biography of Makokoba. My student research colleagues, reared in other more seemly Bulawayo townships, approached Makokoba with caution and even fear. It was, they thought, a place where you were likely to have your tape recorder stolen or even be assaulted by a gangster. They came to love it in its current incarnation as a place of old men and women, clustering round the market and the barbers in the morning with plenty of time and inclination to talk and knowing where at that time of day everyone else was likely to be. One could read intensively in Bulawayo city and talk intensively in Makokoba So far, so good. But Bulawayo’s very accessibility, its readiness to be read and talked about, soon presented a problem. Yvonne wrote her novels in intense bursts. She would shut herself away somewhere for three months and emerge with a book. I was trying to respond to her with evidence, but the evidence poured in so abundantly that I became overwhelmed. Yvonne became impatient. ‘Where is that book?’ she would demand. Alas, it has been finished only after her death. This has been a result of the slowness of historians but it has also been a result of the contrast between writing a rural case study – as my last three books had been – and an urban history.

Makokoba is a little place. For most of its existence it contained only three or four thousand people; even in its most crowded state in 1960 it contained
only twelve thousand. It is infinitely smaller and much less populated than Makoni district or the Matopos or Nkayi and Lupani. But as one of our
informants warned us, this little Makokoba contained a world. By contrast to any rural district it was much more closely monitored and administered and
researched. Even in the days when the Council cared little about the social realities of Makokoba, they were careful to list every resident, their type of
house and its value. Makokoba contained Stanley Hall and Stanley Square where virtually every significant political event (and most social ones too)
took place between 1930 and 1960. From the 1940s onwards these events were attended and reported on by the CID, producing a mass of evidence.
Makokoba even threw up its own newspaper, Charlton Ngcebetsha’s wonderful Home News which began in 1953 as the organ of the Makokoba
Residents Association. The township was the subject of many Inquiries and
sociological surveys. There was much more evidence for tiny Makokoba
than for whole districts: reports from many officials, police and
administrators instead of a single district Native Commissioner and his
assistant.
Moreover, the occupants of the Old Location enjoyed a much wider range of
choice than did peasants in the rural areas. The Rhodesian government
divided up the country areas into distinct missionary zones so that, for
instance, every child educated in Mazoe became a member of the Salvation
Army. But around Makokoba there grew up a ring of mission churches – Anglican, Catholic, Wesleyan and American Episcopal Methodist, Brethren,
Presbyterian, Lutheran, etc. By contrast to three or four missionaries
reporting from a district, Makokoba had a dense and complex ecclesiastical
history. It boasted African Initiated churches, like the African Methodist
Episcopal; Kenan Kamwana and other early Watch Tower preachers taught
there; Mai Chaza ran a spectacular crusade there with lots of embarrassing
public female confession; African Apostolics met in the open air. The
Salvation Army processed through Makokoba. There was a mosque in
Makokoba. Behind closed doors, and in the cemeteries, ‘traditional’
ceremonies from all over Central Africa were performed. And there were as
many social rituals as religious – boxing matches attended by a thousand
people in Stanley Square; football matches in Barbourfields; concerts and
dances and film shows; parades of male dandies and from the later 1940s
onwards parades of female beauties. The mix of religions and ethnicities in
Makokoba added many flavours to what became known to young dandies as
‘Style Bulawayo’. It was this range of choice which attracted young
migrants, male and female, from the rural areas. Despite awful housing
conditions they wanted to know what it felt like to be participating in
making the culture of a real city.
This meant that oral life-history evidence collected in and about Makokoba
and Mzilikazi was different from rural life-histories. In the town there was
no trace of the chiefly histories which pre-occupy most rural residents. The
culture which was reflected was the contested and changing culture of the
townships rather than rural ‘tradition’. There were certainly myths but they
were urban myths of youth and survival and strangeness and of sporting and
political heroes. My research associates, Busani Mpofu, Hloniphani Ndlovu,
Lynette Nyathi and the rest, collected over two seasons hundreds of rich first
person testimonies. We would gather twice a week in the Club to review
progress. We quickly found that questions about well-known events – like
the 1948 general strike – brought formulaic answers. People really wanted to
talk about their own lives, often in surprising ways. After a while we
realized that we were not being told much about religion but this turned out
not to be the result of any reluctance to talk about the topic once we showed
our interest in it.
In short, there was a super-abundance of evidence. I soon realized that I
could not carry my study forward to the present as I had done with my rural
case studies. So the book ends in 1960 and someone else will have to write
the second volume, from 1960 to the present. (I hope that might be Busani Mpofu, who was so exhilarated by the interviews he did for our book that he
dedicated himself to becoming a historian; returned to UZ to take an
Honours year and an MA and is now completing his doctoral thesis on
Bulawayo at Edinburgh).
But this superabundance and richness made it possible to write a historian’s
response to Yvonne Vera. I too can write about experience and memory and
subjectivity. So I have decided to make this book in many ways like a novel.
Of course I have not tried to write in Yvonne’s style. My dedication of the
book to her says that it offers ‘mere prose for your poetry’. (I have quoted
quite a bit directly from Butterfly Burning which raises the literary level).
Nor have I taken the license she enjoyed to invent. As far as I could make it
so everything in the book is factual or actual, though the oral life-histories
which I quote are full of invention. Of course, this gives Yvonne great
advantages over me. To take only one example, she was able to invent a
heroine for a period in which the written sources usually don’t offer even the
names of the women to which they refer. And she was able to write rapidly,
producing a fluid oil-painting, while my book is made up of thousands of
little pieces of evidence, like a mosaic. How to make it move has been my
problem.
Yvonne’s work willfully subverts chronology. Her first novel, Nehanda,
compresses the birth, youth ministry and old age of a woman into the six
years between 1890 and 1896. Even the much more realistic and located
Butterfly Burning allows itself to draw into the year 1946 features of
Bulawayo life that had by that time disappeared – like the ban on Africans
walking on pavements which had in fact been overturned in the late 1930s. It
also extends forwards to incorporate aspects of black urban culture which
had not yet developed. I have no desire to compress whole lives into a few
years. I have tried to avoid anachronisms – though in using life-history
testimony it is probably impossible to avoid them altogether. But some
aspects of Yvonne’s approach to time I have tried to emulate. Yvonne often
wrote between the lines of history. The opening words of Butterfly Burning
are: ‘There is a pause. An expectation’. The story takes place before the
1948 general strike when all the frustrations of her characters are building up
but can find no public expression.(They find a tragic personal one in
Phelephelaphi’s self-abortion and suicide by fire).
I am by nature a ruthlessly narrative historian. I have been fighting a long
time against the post-modernist depiction of narrative as intrusively male and colonial. Like John Peel I regard narrativity as a precious possession of
African cultures and of African individuals. I want this book to present a
narrative which is not hegemonic. So the idea of a pause, even one filled
with expectation, is an attractive one. One ought not to rush straight ahead to
1948 as though it was foreordained. One ought to strive a history in which
no-one is quite sure what will happen next – Becoming Zimbabwe, as the
title of Brian Raftopoulos and Alois Mlambo’s new one-volume history has
it, rather than The Road to Zimbabwe. And so in this book I have tried to
avoid historicism by not knowing, for example, the Joshua Nkomo is going
to become a hero. His own auto-biography has him emerging as hero in
1952. I sternly make him wait until the end of 1960. Nkomo’s emergence as
hero is a climax of the book but not its resolution. The reader by that time
knows quite enough about Nkomo’s ambiguities to realize that after 1960
there is plenty of time for him to fall out of hero-hood and to regain it
several times.
And I have adopted the Vera pause, a break in the narrative where the scene
is set up and we wait to see what will happen within it. I have used fictional,
or dramatic, terminology for the divisions in the book. It begins with a long
Prelude which carries the back-story from 1893 to 1930. Then comes the
pause chapter - chapter One which describes the landscapes of the city and
its Location, mapping them according to the grid lay-out of the European
town and its frontier streets to east and west, their houses only on one side of
the road, looking east to settler civilization and west to barbarism - and to
the Location. This is the stage on which the coming drama is to be set. I
have tried to sketch both European and African perceptions of the town and
of the Location, where self-built circular African houses and yards were
giving way to municipal straight lines.
All the while, of course, I have had to keep my eye on fires, to justify in
historical terms, as well as literary ones, my title Bulawayo Burning. It can, I
think, be justified. The book begins with the spectacular blaze and explosion
which destroyed Lobengula’s capital in 1893 as the white fortune hunters
spurred ahead of the column only to find all the King’s ivory and cloth in
ashes. Then in chapter two, after the landscape pause, comes a narrative of
intense drama in which the events of less than a week are treated at as much
length as the decades covered in the Prelude. This chapter is called ‘The
First Fires, December 1929’. It deals with the so-called ‘faction fights’ –
which Phimister and Van Onselen have famously analysed as an exercise in
political economy and which I analyse as an exercise in moral economy. The confused movements of phantom armies and the wild rumours arose in my
view as a struggle over who should determine ‘Style Bulawayo. O, Style
Bulawayo’, those words which young Manyika migrants exclaimed in
ecstacy as they paraded the Location streets in their finery. The flames arose
from veritable ‘bonfires of the vanities’ as Manyika bicycles, suits, books
and savings were piled up and set alight in railway compounds and outside
township houses.
A character emerges from the chaos – appropriately enough, a character
whose name and reputation emerges from myth. He is James Mampara
(Scoundrel), a real man obscured by the legends of his agility, strength,
smartness and boxing and cycling ability. But then as the flames die down
and the chaos recedes, I am really able in chapter three to adopt Yvonne’s
technique of illuminating structures through the interaction of characters.
This chapter is called ‘City versus State, 1930-1949’. The characters are
white – the Prime Minister and archetypal Englishman, Godfrey Huggins
versus Bulawayo’s big city boss and archetypal Lowlands Scot, Duncan
Macintyre. The issues are huge ones, no less that the role of Africans in
towns and the implications that has for citizenship. It is justifiable to narrate
the controversy in terms of personality because of the small scale of
Rhodesian municipal and national politics – with parliaments of thirty or so
members and Municipalities of 15 or so councilors. Rich verbatim sources
exist for the hard-hitting and often scurrilous exchanges between the two
men, Parliamentary Hansards, verbatim records of Municipal Association
meetings, minutes of Bulawayo Council and committee meetings and so on.
When I gave an early version of this chapter to the Economic History
seminar at UZ, Government Phiri exclaimed: ‘I though this was going to be
a sober and detailed examination of local government but it is like a chapter
out of Charles Dickens!’ I was, of course, delighted. Macintyre was a mass
of contradictions – a Scottish craft unionist, in favour of state-run industry,
leader of the Southern Rhodesian Labour Party in parliament, a master-baker
of legendary frugality, an advocate of short-term ‘bachelor’ migrant labour
for Africans and a bitter enemy of African ‘stabilisation’ in towns. Huggins
was equally contradictory – an apostle of ideal segregation whose legislation
brought about permanent urban African settlement.
This chapter is the ‘whitest’ thing I have ever written. So in chapter four I
play a bit with chronology myself and go over the same period, 1930 to
1949, from the perspective of African experience. This was the world of
Yvonne’s major male character, Fumbatha (the clenched first), a man whose hands are in every building in Bulawayo. Fumbatha is an up-tight man who
keeps his secrets. I needed someone much more expressive. So for ‘Mr
Black Bulawayo, 1930 to 1949’, my chapter four, I chose Sipambaniso
Manyoba Khumalo, through whose life I narrated the sporting, cultural,
ethnic, industrial and political life of black Bulawayo in this period. I don’t
narrate the 1945 railway strike except in so far as Sipambaniso was
involved; I don’t narrate the 1948 strike, of which he was the main
spokesman, except in so far as he was involved; I discuss football and
boxing because he was the best footballer and boxer; I discuss Bulawayo’s
modern musical life because he ran the best dance band and choir; I discuss
Ndebele royal ritual and memorialisation because he organized them; I
discuss trade unionism because he was the mainstay of the Bulawayo
Federation of African Trade Unions; I discuss national and local politics
because he was on the executive of the Bantu National Congress, was
elected to the Makokoba Advisory Board and set up the Makokoba
Residents Association. I find him a man perfectly consistent across all these
activities. Born in the Location of aristocratic Ndebele parents, a member of
the Ndebele royal clan; educated and living all his life in the Location; a
CID man and welfare officer – Sipambaniso perfectly represented the long-
term residents of the Location (especially the Ndebele ones) and consistently
expressed their interests.
Taking a man’s life like this cuts across the problematic of political
economy. What class was Sipambaniso? As a trade unionist he represented
‘proletarians’ – men dependent on their wage labour, the Fumbathas of this
world. As a Khumalo he walked with chiefs and princes. As a musician and
master of ceremonies he represented the modern urban elite. As a footballer
he represented black Bulawayo. Classes are collectivities: few individuals fit
into them exactly.
With a character like Sipambaniso I run into a problem that I can share with
Yvonne. Once I was talking about my Bulawayo research after a day’s
workshop in Philadelphia. Unexpectedly a Zimbabwean arose at the end. He
turned out to be a member of the UZ English department. ‘We teach
Butterfly Burning at UZ’, he said. ‘Of course, we admire its skill. But it is
too frivolous. Joy keeps breaking in. All one needs to know about urban
Africans during colonialism is that they were smears under the white man’s
boot. And if your book is going to be entertaining it will be of no use to us
whatever.’ Yvonne used to call Butterfly Burning her ‘light book’, although
it contains an abortion and ends with a suicide. But it is full of music and clothes and opportunities of self expression. In a way Bulawayo Burning is
my light book, though it has the fires, and racist repression and slum living.
But in the Sipambaniso chapter, and perhaps still more the later ones, joy
does keep breaking in, especially in the oral life histories. People don’t wish
to remember their lives as mere smears. Somehow one has to balance in a
history as Yvonne does in her novel – or still more in the introduction to her
exhibition of township photographs, Thatha Camera – the memory of
immiseration with the memory of a sort of personal freedom.
I share yet more with Yvonne in chapter five which is about the feminization
of black Bulawayo in the 1950s. Here I draw on oral life histories to reveal
the world of young female immigrants and run-aways as they came to
Makokoba. They had to stay with relatives or lovers in rooms so crowded
that they slept on the floor under beds where couples were making love. But
they were young; they had the opportunity to earn money as factory workers
or nannies or shebeen girls; they were able to buy stiff petticoats and high
heeled shoes; they were able to dance and to enter beauty competitions.
After decades when township girls were dowdy pea-hens and the young men
were the peacocks quite suddenly the African press was full of photos of
stunning young women. Lawrence Vambe recalls a friend asking him:
‘Where have all these girls come from?’ And our oral informants, now old,
recall that they were ‘seen, really seen’. Much of this chapter is like a
footnote to Butterfly Burning but there is room for other women – the
staunch Christian matrons of the uniformed church movements who formed
powerful Women’s Associations; the girls who, unlike Yvonne’s heroine,
managed to become nurses.
Then the narrative moves on beyond Yvonne’s novel and into the vexed
1950s. Here there has to be not one representative character – a Sipambaniso
– but several. One is Hugh Ashton, who became Director of African
Administration in Bulawayo and transformed its reputation from reactionary
to progressive. Another – at Yvonne’s special request – is her uncle, Jerry
Vera, the social and sporting Mr Bulawayo of the 1950s; the first black
advertising icon; welfare officer and cultural nationalist. Yet another is
Charlton Ngcebetsha, the short, feisty and provocative editor of the Home
News. A fourth is a sort of articulate embodiment of her hero Fumbatha, the
building union trade unionist and nationalist, J.Z. Moyo. And a fifth is the
hero in waiting, Joshua Nkomo, a pupil and friend of Ashton, a close friend
of Jerry Vera. In the complex chapter six I trace the explosion of
Bulawayo’s townships in the 1950s as Ashton’s building policy creates a dozen townships instead of one and as lease-hold and site-and-service
schemes create a residential pattern based on class. Makokoba remained as it
had always been – over-crowded, impoverished, full of women. I trace the
emergence of a fractured nationalism, based on the resentments of poverty in
Makokoba and on the frustrated aspirations of lease-holders in Mpopoma. At
the end of the 1950s a feeling of restlessness pervaded black Bulawayo – a
fractious pause and an uneasy expectation. The banning of Congress in
February 1959 and the arrest of all its Bulawayo leaders – Ashton’s friends
and responsible men – left a vacuum which in Matabeleland the founding of
the NDP did not fill. Nkomo was away in exile in London. There was no-
one to hold nationalism together. Unemployment turned the poorest against
women working in industry. Ngcebetsha feared an ethnic explosion like
1929.
So comes the final chapter, seven, as the pause ended and forebodings were
realised. It is another chapter of compressed narrative in which history runs
fast and slow at the same time - ‘1960. Black Bulawayo Burns’. Here indeed
are the fires again as during four days of riot – Zhii - at the end of July 1960
every store and every beer-hall is set alight; looters scurry between the
flames; twelve Africans are shot. Here both the old and new landscapes of
Bulawayo come into play. The white town shrinks behind what has been
since 1895 its western boundary, Lobengula Street, lined with bayonets. The
townships are left to themselves in all their newly variegated social
complexity. Rioters from Makokoba and other poor areas attack not only
stores and municipal property but also the newly built houses of the wealthy
in Pelendaba and Pumula. Great cleavages open up within black society, as
lease-holders demand to be given arms to protect themselves against the
poor, and between black and white society as ‘moderate’ Africans denounce
a government which has left them to their fate. Married women denounce
‘single’ men as animals; ‘bachelors’ denounce the elite as inhumane. The
chapter, and the book, ends with Nkomo’s triumphant return from exile in
November 1960 and the NDP’s sweeping victory in the Advisory Board
elections in December.
The book’s ending is a cliff-hanger, leaving many questions unresolved.
Could Nkomo’s ambiguities – trade unionist, businessman, populist,
capitalist, Methodist, the chosen one of the High God shrines in the Matopos
– prove effective in holding Bulawayo nationalism together? Could Nkomo
and Ashton work together to avoid a long stalemate as the new nationalist
Advisory Boards demanded a majority on the Council and dissolved themselves? Could the feminization of black Bulawayo withstand the
patriarchism of nationalism? Could the vitality of Bulawayo musical and
sport culture survive the coming long years of Rhodesia Front repression?
These are questions for whoever writes the second volume to answer.
In this book there is a very brief postlude suggesting some possible patterns.
After 1960 there was never again an upheaval like zhii. Urban musical and
dramatic culture atrophied as singers and actors migrated north. Stanley Hall
and Stanley Square in Makokoba – where virtually every significant labour
or nationalist meeting had taken place –ceased to be the focus of
Matabeleland’s political life. Nkomo and J.Z. Moyo spent most of the years
between 1960 and 1980 in detention, prison or exile, Moyo being blown up
in Lusaka. Jerry Vera dwindled into a discredited and ignored old age.
Charlton Ngcebetsha, contrary as ever, was eventually arrested and detained,
doggedly producing his newspaper as the Gonakudzingwa Home News.
Ashton, however, remained Director of African Administration until his
retirement. He managed with Nkomo’s help to set Bulawayo’s African local
government on very different lines from Salisbury’s. The old township
Advisory Boards were not revived. Instead one large Board represented all
the townships. It was divided into committees which mirrored and shadowed
the committee of the Council. It acted as a Council in waiting so that after
1980 there was a smooth and effective Africanisation of Bulawayo local
government. An efficient ZAPU Bulawayo Council presented in the 1980s a
challenge to Mugabe’s government. I can’t think that a second volume can
be as entertaining, as literary, as this book. But Makokoba remains, as
disreputable and feisty as ever, resisting all demands that it be knocked
down, and not yet turned into a theme park. The last news item I have read
about Makokoba is a story about its inhabitants, stones in hand, driving out
the technicians who were trying to read the electricity meters.









Interview: Terence Ranger - Bulawayo Burning

BULAWAYO BURNING Q & A

Interview with Professor Terry Ranger, author of Bulawayo Burning

Q: Your first book, Revolt in Southern Rhodesia 1896-7 (1967) describes the burning of the Ndebele royal capital Bulawayo and the founding of the pioneer settlement that replaced it. Between that book and Bulawayo Burning you have written extensively about Zimbabwe's colonial history and its liberation struggle, viagra buy but mainly in its rural context. How would you describe the trajectory of your own research and writing that has led you from Revolt to Burning?

A: Up to Bulawayo Burning I have felt that all my books about Zimbabwe have been necessary books. When I first came to Southern Rhodesia in 1957 the white settler government was putting adverts in the African press insisting that blacks did not build Great Zimbabwe. The Bantu Mirror replied to young black readers who had asked for African history rather than Rhodesian history that there was no African history. There was an enormous frustrated appetite for an African past. At the same time there was a wonderful Archives in Salisbury which no-one had yet made use of for a study of African experience and activity. It was
necessary to make use of these Archives and I was able to do so. Fortunately when I was restricted by the government to within a mile of my house the Archives just fell within that limit! So before I was deported in 1963 I was able to collect the material for my first two books, Revolt in Southern Rhodesia, 1896-7 and The African Voice in Southern Rhodesia, 1898-1930 . I wrote these books in Tanzania. After that, though, I was unable to return to Zimbabwe until 1980. Then there was another necessity. It was important to study the guerrilla war in the countryside and especially the role and expectations of the peasantry. And so I researched in Makoni district in eastern Zimbabwe and published in 1985 Peasant Consciousness and Guerrilla War, one of the first two books to be published by James Currey. By this time, though, there was a new necessity. The history which was being proclaimed by the new Zimbabwean government drew almost entirely on the records of the past of Shona speakers. People in western Zimbabwe were being left out of the new national history and the record of the liberation war. Moreover, state repression in Matabeleland and the Midlands was responsible for many thousands of deaths. So just as in the 1960s it was necessary to insert Africans into Rhodesian history it was now necessary to bring western Zimbabwe into the history of the new
nation. It was this that resulted in my Voices From the Rocks, 1999, a history of the Matopos hills and southern Matabeleland, and the book I wrote with Jocelyn Alexander and JoAnn McGregor, Violence and Memory, 2000, a history of northern Matabeleland climaxing in the repression of the 1980s. By this time I had retired from my Oxford Chair and returned to the University of Zimbabwe to teach. I felt that now I had responded to the necessities and that I could research and write a book just to please
myself. And so I chose to respond to Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning, which was dedicated to me, and to write a history of Bulawayo. Bulawayo Burning can be seen as the third in a trilogy of books about Matabeleland. But I see it rather differently. Yvonne used to call Butterfly Burning her ‘light book’, even though it contains a self abortion and a suicide by fire. Bulawayo Burning is my light book even though it
includes details of extreme poverty and repression. Like Yvonne I wanted to record the joys as well as the agonies of urban life.

Q: The book is dedicated to, and indeed inspired by, the late Yvonne Vera. Could you explain to an audience who perhaps is not familiar with her novel Butterfly Burning just how that book inspired you not only to write a social history of Bulawayo, but write about it in the way you did?

A: Yvonne’s novel is set in Makokoba township in Bulawayo in the late 1940s. She did no historical research but drew on the stories of the women of her family and on the township music of the period. The result was a marvellously vivid account of African urban desires and frustrations. I felt challenged as a historian to see what could be achieved if I did do the research. It turned out that there was a huge body of evidence in the national and municipal archives; in the African press; and in the memories of old township residents. I wanted to provide a historical background to Yvonne’s novel, going back to the destruction of Lobengula’s Bulawayo by fire in 1893. I wanted to tackle the same themes as the novel. Yet there were great problems. Yvonne could write rapidly and fluently, drawing on her own imagination. I had to piece together thousands of bits of evidence, like a mosaic. The problem was to make it move. To do so I drew on literary models so that my book contains chapters which set the scene; chapters which narrate intense and
brief events; characters through whose lives the nature of urban life is revealed. In a way this is history as literature.

Q: You first wrote about the 1960 Zhii riots (which are the culmination of this book) in your collective biography of the Samkange family, Are We
Not Also Men?
(James Currey 1995). The Samkanges appear prominently in this book, and Revolt was dedicated to the memory of Sketchley
Samkange. Can you say something about your long friendship with the Samkange family and how they influenced your writing?

A: All my writing on Zimbabwe has been a response to friendship. Bulawayo Burning is a response to a deep friendship with Yvonne Vera. Peasant Consciousness was set in Makoni district because I have known
for fifty years the African church of St Francis and the Nyabadza family
who live there.
When I began to learn about African history in the late 1950s and early
1960s I shared my findings with my comrades in the nationalist
movement, Maurice Nyagumbo, Ndabaningi Sithole and the rest. My
papers were read in detention areas and in prisons before they were
published. The dearest among these friends was the young activist
Sketchley Samkange, a man of infinite charm, courage and sweetness of
nature. His death by drowning in Nyasaland was a terrible tragedy. But I
continued to know the Samkange family and especially Sketchley’s elder
brother, Stanlake, and his wife Tommie. Stanlake had often spoken to me
of his father’s papers but he never made use of them in his own writing.
After his death Tommie asked me to look at them and to advise her on
their value. I was then researching on the Matopos but when I began to
look at the Samkange papers I was diverted. They form an unrivalled
collection of family papers. I began with a literal cob-webbed tin trunk,
filled with letters by and to Stanlake’s father, Thompson. Soon I
discovered more and more. It was a huge treasure trove, preserved
because Stanlake knew its value and because he had bought a house –
indeed a castle – large enough to contain it. I lived in a flat at the castle
and worked day and night on the papers. Tommie gave me complete
access and complete freedom – and the occasional gin and tonic. In many
ways this too was a necessary book because Thompson was a very
important religious and political pioneer and it was astonishing to be able
to read his mind.
Q: You first lived and worked in Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia then) in
the 1950s and early 1960s, a period covered in this book. You were based
in Salisbury (Harare). What was the reputation of Bulawayo and its black
townships then, what were the main differences between the two cities?
A:I regret to confess that I came to know very little about Bulawayo
between 1957 and 1963 while I was teaching at the University College of
Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The University was in Salisbury; the Archives
were in Salisbury; most of the African intellectuals who were my friends
lived there. I went to Bulawayo only after the Emergency of 1959 when so many nationalists – including Sketchley Samkange – were detained in
the fortress-like Khami Prison. My wife and I used to drive families of
the detainees to visit Khami. We visited the township. But my
impressions of Bulawayo were mostly derived from its music – the
township jazz which was so influenced by Johannesburg. I did not meet
most of the characters who figure in Bulawayo Burning, though I knew
Joshua Nkomo well from his visits to Salisbury.
Q: Zimbabwe's liberation struggle and guerrilla war have been male led
and male dominated. You have written in passing about women as
queens, spirit mediums, modernizers (especially in the churches), and
nationalists. Here you have an entire chapter on 'The Feminization of
Black Bulawayo', and women figure prominently in the photos in the
book. Does this mark the feminization of Terry Ranger?
A: Perhaps it does. One could not write a book in response to Yvonne and
neglect Bulawayo women, The main character in Butterfly Burning is a
young woman who yearns to escape from the routine fate of township
girls – a butterfly who is crushed. But the novel is also full of other
women and of fashion and dance. Yvonne’s wonderful exhibition of
township photographs, Thatha Camera – from which some of the photos
in my book are taken – argued for the post second world war period in
Bulawayo as a time of ‘liberation’ for young women. Our old women oral
informants echoed this idea. The problem in writing about Zimbabwean
women is their silence in the sources. I devoted a chapter in Are We Not
Also Men? to Thompson’s wife, Grace, but there is not a single letter to
or from her in his huge archive. Even for Bulawayo Burning I could not
discover the name or any details about the wife of one of my main
characters, Sipambaniso Manyoba Khumalo. But by the end women do
figure prominently in photos and in the text of the African press.
Q: You have been writing about the history of Zimbabwe (and Africa
more generally) for over forty years, covering a wide variety of subjects.
If you were to have another forty years in which to write, what would
your research agenda be?
A: I have been luckier than most historians in having been able to carry
out so many successive archival and field projects, not only in Zimbabwe
but also in Tanzania. This has been all the more remarkable because all
my work has been based on archives based in Africa. I have never used
the Public Record Office! I wish I did now have the prospect of another
forty years in which to start one new Africa-based research project after
another. There is no substitute for detailed research and I don’t want to dwindle into professorial generalization. I am now out of primary sources
– except for my own records contained in the Ranger Papers in Rhodes
House. So a memoir is probably my next project.
But if I were given another forty years of energy and access to materials
I would find myself in a very different situation. I would not ‘need’ to
recover any particular aspect of the Zimbabwean past because so many
young Zimbabwean historians are now doing so. With their mastery of
the vernaculars they will write about belief and identity much more
profoundly than I have been able to do. My work would now be very
much part of a collective project, not only alongside Zimbabweans but
also working with my own ex-students, now impressive colleagues. I
think I would want to go back into the nineteenth century. I would be
tempted to try another biography. I aim now to write an article about one
of the characters in Bulawayo Burning, Charlton Ngcebetsha, the
irrepressible editor and politician. Bulawayo Burning represents my first
exploration of the history of white Rhodesians and there is a great deal to
do in this field. The old white self-glorifying history has been succeeded
by a notion that whites were not important at all. And I think that, greatly
daring, I would like to work on South African history. With all its
impressive strengths South African historiography lags behind
Zimbabwean in some respects. I would love to write a book on South
African landscapes which followed the example of JoAnne McGregor’s
Crossing the River, her wonderful account of both black and white
constructions of the Zambezi landscape. South African landscape history
seems focused only on white expropriation and reconstruction of the land.
Above all, I’d like to try to discover if African religion does not still
function in South Africa, as it does in Zimbabwe. At the moment we only
have histories of South African witchcraft and essays in generalized spirituality.