Review of Unpopular Sovereignty - Derek Matyszak

Reviewed by the discussant, Derek Matyszak, Senior Researcher, Research and Advocacy Unit,  at the seminar on 18 June, 2015 at SAPEZ in Harare.

From the very first Chapter of Professor Luise White’s Unpopular Sovereignty: Rhodesian Independence and African Decolonisation, one is struck by the sheer depth of research, which gives one the impression that the author has read almost every available official document and text on her subject. Indeed, the work benefits from Prime Ministerial files taken from Zimbabwe’s National Archives by Ian Smith to his alma mater, Rhodes University, which only became available after Smith’s death in 2007. The result is a work rich in fascinating and often hitherto undisclosed detail making it essential reading, even for those who believe that they are already thoroughly familiar with the politics and history of Rhodesia from the early 1960s to 1980 – Rhodesia’s “UDI period” to the first elections of Independent Zimbabwe.

For those familiar with the political milieu of contemporary Zimbabwe, one is also struck by political continuities and how much past remains inside Zimbabwe’s present. White cautions against simplified historiographies, a writing of colonial history in broad and casually ahistorical brushstrokes, in which scholars link events without paying attention to the twenty or thirty years of what happens in between (p. 312). Indeed, there is a strong temptation to do so, as glib examples of mirroring seem to abound – for example, Ian Smith’s arrogant narrative of the pariah Rhodesia State being the last bastion of western Christian civilisation fighting off communist influences, which decadent western nations, Britain in particular, did not have the gumption or were too decadent to resist; and Robert Mugabe’s narrative of the pariah Zimbabwe, the embattled enclave of pan-African values fighting off decadent western influence, particularly that of Britain, by which other African countries have become corrupted or do not have chutzpah of a leader, such as himself, to resist. Both governments see themselves as having “cowboy cabinets”, prepared to heroically cock-a-snook at British laws and sensibilities. As White writes

“However it is told, the history of Rhodesia is a heroic one: either the small brave white ruled nation standing alone in a hostile world or the inevitable victory of guerilla armies fighting on behalf of African masses and defeating minority rule.” (p. 18).

Thus the discourse of heroism continues. But other less facile continuities are also made evident by White. There is the ongoing debate about citizenship, dual nationality and what it means to be Zimbabwean, just as important as the imaginary of “a Rhodesian” so deftly exposed by White. So too, and fundamental to contemporary Zimbabwean politics, is the distrust of the rural vote, conceived as a vast pool of subjects rather than citizens, seen by Mugabe as so susceptible and vulnerable to manipulation in the poll for Smith/Muzorwa’s 1979 “internal settlement” establishing “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia” and still seen as such by today’s opposition.

White concludes by taking us into the corridors of Lancaster House, where many of the agreements that brought about the 1980 Constitution were negotiated, as were the elections which started Mugabe’s 35-year-plus long rule. This latter part of Zimbabwe’s history has been infrequently and inadequately considered and analysed to date. Professor Luise Whites does much to remedy this. The book will undoubtedly become the key reference point for historians, politicians and all others engaged with pre-and post independence Zimbabwe and who eschew a grand narrative of the decolonisation process.