Unpopular History and the contradictions of Zimbabwe’s history by Bookworm

Published in The Standard on Sunday, 20th March 2016

Several years ago, as an undergrad student at Midlands State University, I had the fortune of meeting Louise White who was in the country on tour with her book, The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo: Texts and Politics in Zimbabwe. Her history seminars at the University of Zimbabwe were oversubscribed.


The book was not without its critics. Its subject is contested and shrouded in mystery. The question at the base of her thesis still lingers, Who killed Chitepo? His unresolved murder, just like Josiah Tongogara’s, is at the very heart of the nationalist history of Zimbabwe.

I was not so much fascinated with the fanfare and adulations Louise White received for the book, but the meticulousness and professionalism, and the profound results her curiosity and research produced. Her book was not a dossier to implicate the murderers but rather a detailed analysis of confessions and accusations emanating from the event and how they impact the story of Zimbabwe.

White’s new book, Unpopular Sovereignty: Rhodesian Independence and African Decolonization is an impeccable document that forces its readers to reconsider Zimbabwe’s history and historiography. These critical subjects have pre-occupied many including Terence Ranger to his very last breath. At our watch, Zimbabwe’s history is being re-written, edited and in some instances erased.

Contrary to the narratives propagated in The Herald or The Patriot, Robert Mugabe’s story is not synonymous with Zimbabwe. He is just but one man. Zimbabwe was liberated through collective resistance. But whenever he takes the stage, the applause from the audience is rapturous and sustained. Zimbabwe’s hand-picked elite fill the audience knowing that their careers, their incomes, their property and their futures depend on this man (and his wife), and that his speeches contain vital clues about which way their fortunes are tending.

This is why historical interventions are important, more so as reminders of how neglectful we are to our national history. Reading White’s text, I have been encouraged, as she was ‘to rethink how I read texts and also to attend to the genealogies of language in which the historical experience of power and privilege are recorded.’

The study no doubt resets the foundations for the understanding of decolonisation and Zimbabwe’s history. While parts of the book focus on the infamous Rhodesia Unilateral Declaration of Independence, there are many lessons to be drawn for contemporary Zimbabwe as White concludes ‘The history of Zimbabwe is Rhodesia.’ There are many similarities and continuities for both nations, both in local politics and international relations.

There are obvious examples such as the introduction of restrictive legislation and curbing of press freedom, questions on the loyalty of the armed forces given a deteriorating situation, the expense of maintaining a large civil service, restricting citizenship and voting rights. Rhodesia and Zimbabwe are both pariah states to the world.

The book also locates Rhodesia’s independence in the era of decolonization in Africa, the 60s, a time of great intellectual ferment in ideas about race, citizenship, and freedom. White shows that Rhodesia was just as concerned with questions of sovereignty and legitimacy that preoccupied the newly independent African states. But it was a different kind of legitimacy – ‘Most of the leadership of the Rhodesian Front and a great many federalists boasted that Rhodesia in the early 1960s was the heir of the British Empire.’

White writes, ‘Rhodesia was the first pariah nation, sanctioned well before South Africa was… Sanctions against Rhodesia were not the first instance of this, but they were one of the most meaningful. Indeed, they provided the model for the UN sanctions that would become commonplace in the 1990s.’ And once again Zimbabwe also became a pariah nation slapped with targeted sanctions.

The chapter on the Lancaster House negotiations was very revealing. Lancaster House was great theatre. White posits that, all the suspense of negotiations, of who would walk out and who would compromise, was not only anticipated but understood to be part of the process. What is made apparently clear is the lack of historical records from the parties involved. Even Joshua Nkomo in his autobiography, My Story, mentions Lancaster in passing.

This lack of history of our national politics is problematic. For instance, White says, ‘Before UDI and again in the early 1970s, a great deal of African politics took place in Rhodesia’s jails.’ And Masipula Sithole’s Struggles within the Struggle gives a glimpse into how the prisons shaped the politics of Zimbabwe. Yet, there is no substantive prison literature, especially from the black prisoners most of whom were leaders in the struggle for liberation. This has created gaps in our history.

Interestingly, White points out that there is a ‘sheer amount of white writing – memoirs and novels and polemics – written about Rhodesia’s renegade independence during it and after Rhodesia ceased to exist.’ As black Zimbabweans we have not written enough of our own story. It is time. And a book like Luise White’s has left me with even more hunger to understand our country’s complicated past.