Review of Sites of Struggle: Essays in Zimbabwe's Urban History - Dr A.S. Mlambo

Sites of Struggle: Essays in Zimbabwe's Urban History
Brian Raftopoulos and Tsuneo Yoshikuni (eds)
2001 [1999]: (pp: 288) 210 x 145 mm
ISBN: 0797419845

Zambezia
2000
Reviewer: Dr A.S. Mlambo



Sites of Struggle: Essays in Zimbabwe's Urban History is undoubtedly one of the most significant books published on Zimbabwe's socio-economic and political history in recent years. Edited by Brian Raftopolous and Tsuneo Yoshikuni, medical two scholars with unquestionable scholarly credentials who have, illness in the past, produced pioneering work on various aspects of Zimbabwe's urban social history, the book is published by the newest player in Zimbabwe's book publishing industry, Weaver Press. It addresses various issues, which have, hitherto, been neglected by scholars of Zimbabwe's historical past and, thus, fills a gaping hole in Zimbabwe's historiography.

Numerous studies on the cultural, agrarian, industrial, religious and other types of Zimbabwean history exist. Until now, however, much remained unknown and uninvestigated, about the process of urbanisation in colonial Zimbabwe; the constraints and opportunities confronting the urban African communities; their coping mechanisms and strategies, and the various battles they waged in their struggle to retain their dignity, and control of their own lives, during the colonial period. The impression was, thus, created that apart from some trade union activity and formally organised political movements in the post-Second World War era, there was nothing of substance happening in Zimbabwe's urban areas which merited serious scholarly analysis. Sites corrects such an erroneous impression and shows that there was a rich ferment of cultural, ideological, political and social activity among the African communities in the colonial urban areas which helped shape the trajectory of development at both the local and urban level and in the wider national arena. Rather than being helpless victims of the economic, social and cultural hegemonic power and dominance of colonial settler society, Africans contested the colonial dispensation at every stage.

The petty-bourgeoisie in pre-1933 Bulawayo grabbed every opportunity inadvertently and reluctantly offered by colonial capitalism. Africans re-asserted cultural morays and practices, adapted cultural traditions to new urban settings. The so-called 'middle class' tried to set the norms of respectability and contested the disputes to which such efforts gave rise. Urban communities participated in new religious institutions, and even domestic workers subverted the dominant colonial white society from within. So it was that urban Africans constantly strove to carve out their own space, control their own lives and to blunt and mitigate the impact of colonial policies and practices as best they could under the circumstances.

It is these and other issues pertaining to the urban African experience that Sites documents and analyses. Organised into eleven chapters, Sites contains chapters by some of the leading scholars in urban social, political, cultural, religious, labour and gender history, among others.

For example, in Chapter 1, Stephen Thornton analyses the struggles and experiences of the African petty-bourgeoisie in Bulawayo as they fought to compete with the more established colonial capitalist businesses in the first quarter century of colonial rule. He demonstrates that some Africans, especially women, were able to seize the few opportunities that were opened up by colonial capitalism and thus acquired a relative degree of independence from wage labour. Thornton argues that these groups initially hoped that they would be able to participate in the evolving colonial political and economic dispensation but soon found that the dominant colonial society had no place for them. It was then that they turned their backs on the colonial system and began to work with other discontented groups to struggle against the European administration. The entrenchment of segregation, especially following the report of the 1925 Morris Carter Commission, gradually eroded what economic opportunities had been available to the Africans in the past and eventually eradicated the African petty-bourgeoisie in Bulawayo.

Similarly, Timothy Scarnecchia's and Terri Barnes' chapters focus on the gender aspects of the colonial urban scene, the first, analysing the debates that surrounded the efforts to promote 'respectability' among urban women in Harari African Township and highlights the tensions between middle class families, who considered themselves to be 'stable', and single migrant workers whom they regarded as 'unstable' and from whom they consistently tried to distance themselves. The latter explores the complex and sometimes contradictory attitudes of the state and the African males to women's presence in the city, the constraints which the women encountered as well as the opportunities which they took advantage of despite the generally unfriendly legal and social climate within which they operated.

Raftopolous and Yoshikuni's contributions analyse 'the changing effects of rural–urban relations on the urban process' and examine how changes in the rural areas impacted on developments in the city, while chapters by Kaarsholm, Hallencreutz and Pape explore urban culture and politics in Bulawayo, religion in the city and the role of domestic workers in the liberation struggle, respectively.

Sites is as impressive in the quality of the research and analysis which went into the chapters contained in it as it is surprisingly diverse and pleasantly comprehensive. As anyone who has ever had to edit a wide variety of divergent papers to produce a single volume book will know, it is not always easy to make sure that all papers compliment each other well and that the final product is both thematically and stylistically coherent. The selection and editorial problems that Raftopolous and Yoshikuni faced must have been considerable, considering that the book deals with, in their words, the spaces created for different groups of Africans at different periods in the urbanisation process, the contradictory responses of the colonial state to the problem of the stabilisation and reproduction of labour; the relationship between ethnicity, the labour process and differential relations to rural production processes, the effects of rural-urban linkages on labour organisation and on the broader struggles for the imagining of national identity; the effects of regional labour supplies on urban structures and forms of urban organisation, the struggles over the mapping of the city along racial, class and gender lines; and finally the gendered nature of the colonial city and urban struggles.

Fortunately, the editors were able to surmount the problems posed by the diversity of the topics covered by the contributions to produce a book that not only has a coherent thematic unity but one which is both stylistically consistent and, to borrow an American expression, 'hangs together' extremely well.

Thus, despite the diversity of topics covered, indeed, because of it, Sites is a very rich and informative book that is impressive by any measure of assessment. It is a welcome addition to the field of urban social history in general and the urban social history of the Zimbabwean city in the colonial period in particular. By making the very rich urban colonial history of Zimbabwe available to the public, Raftopolous and Yoshikuni deserve to be congratulated for blazing a new trail which should stimulate both experienced and new scholars of the Zimbabwean past to probe further some of the historical developments discussed in the book, to critique analyses and viewpoints expressed in it and to advance further the frontiers of historical knowledge through new research. This will provide a corpus of knowledge which will complement the already rich fund of historical knowledge that has been produced by generations of scholars in the areas of Zimbabwe's rural, economic, religious, cultural and political history and thus enhance the understanding of the country's evolution and development.

Sites has already made a good beginning by illuminating and deepening as well as well as challenging conventional knowledge about various historical developments in Zimbabwe. For instance, John Lunn's re-interpretation of the meaning of the 1948 General Strike brings a new and refreshing perspective to a subject about which much has already been written and raises new questions which demand further investigation, while Raftopolous and Yoshikuni's chapters clearly suggest the need for more nuanced analyses of rural-urban relations and interactions, and their role in the development of Zimbabwean nationalist politics. For his part, John Pape enjoins scholars to re-visit their understanding of the much-neglected and marginalised domestic workers who have tended, in the past, to be treated as victims and 'loyal servants' who passively accepted their lot under the colonial dispensation rather than as actors who, not only subverted the colonial status quo from within, but who also took enormous risks to support the liberation struggle. Thus, by venturing into new areas of research and analysis and/or re-examining and re-interpreting already known evidence, the contributors to Sites not only call for revision of conventional wisdom about historical developments in Zimbabwe but also point to new vistas of research for scholars working on the Zimbabwean socio-political and economic experience. They have, therefore, made a notable and very welcome contribution to scholarship which should help advance scholarship considerably.

In addition, both the editors and the contributors have produced a book which, despite the serious nature of the subjects it deals with, is written in jargon-free and easily accessible language whose style of presentation is aesthetically pleasing and intellectually satisfying. Equally to be congratulated are the publishers, Weaver Press, for facilitating the dissemination of such important and pertinent scholarship and doing so in a well-packaged and meticulously edited book which anyone would be proud to have on their bookshelves.

Sites should be of interest to both the serious scholar and researcher who has an interest in urbanisation studies in general and the history of Zimbabwean urbanisation in particular, as well as the casual reader who wants to understand the historical forces that shaped the development of Zimbabwe. The diversity of topics covered, the impressive research that went into the writing of each chapter and the highly impressive analytical rigour with which the contributors approached their subject will impressanyone who reads the book.

Sites should also be extremely useful to urban planners, those who work in the social services sector, educationists, those interested in a gendered understanding of history and, most importantly, policy makers, at both national and municipal levels, who will find their understanding and appreciation of current problems and tensions in the cities enhanced by reference to the history of the colonial urban experience. Indeed, as the editors of the book rightly point out, housing, health, transport and other problems colonial administrators and policymakers had to grapple with continue to 'face their post-colonial counterparts, but in an exacerbated form'.

To the above categories of readers and the many international readers who have an interest in Zimbabwe's social, economic, ideological and cultural history and whose understanding of the history of the urban communities in their home countries will be enriched by reading Sites, this book is highly recommended.

© The author/publisher

Review of Sites of Struggle: Essays in Zimbabwe's Urban History - Miles Larmer

Sites of Struggle: Essays in Zimbabwe's Urban History
Brian Raftopoulos and Tsuneo Yoshikuni (eds)
2001 [1999]: (pp: 288) 210 x 145 mm
ISBN: 0797419845

BSF Newsletter
2001
Reviewer: Miles Larmer

During the deliberations of the 1994 Britain–Zimbabwe Research Day on Urban history, ailment the editors decided it was important to gather work on urban history into a representative volume.

The study of urban life in Zimbabwe has increased in both quantity and quality in recent years. It is noteworthy, stuff though not perhaps entirely coincidental, that this collection of such studies has appeared at a time when discontent and resistance to ZANU(PF) rule has been expressed in overhelming urban support for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the 2000 elections, and the continuing possibility of further urban unrest challenging the rule of President Robert Mugabe.

Raftopolous and Yoshikuni are clearly conscious of the potential role of the urban civil society in providing an alternative to ZANU(PF), and the studies in this volume provide not only a rich and diverse history of urban Zimbabweans coping with and resisting colonial forms of control, in their efforts to survive and prosper, but also illustrate a (mostly unspoken) continuity between these historical struggles and those of the present day.

Rhodesian towns were founded on an inherent belief that they were domains of white dominance. The equally important idea of Africans as essentially rural people, and the importance of keeping them that way, was consistently promoted by the British South Africa Company and later settler governments. This ideology, supported by legistration (the 1901 Masters & Servants Act, and the 1902 introduction of Pass Laws), instituted the concept that Africans could migrate to towns only to labour for Whites, and should then return to their villages. However, the need for this and further legislation (for example, the 1946 Native (Urban Areas) Accommodation and Registration Act) to restrict the movements of Africans, demonstrated the difficulties of such efforts, in the context of the economic contradiction upon which rhodesia rested. White settlers sought to prevent urban settlement, and to restrict African workers to mines and settler-owned land; but economic development required a growing and stable population of skilled African urban workers who were simultaneously consumers.

As some of the writers in this book demonstrate, this contradiction created opportunities for Africans to make a living and become residents in Salisbury (now Harare), Bulawayo and other towns, despite the law, and periodic attempts to limit their numbers and room for manoeuvre. Stephen Thornton shows that in Bulawayo, the growth of European-owned business provided opportunities for Africans, not only to settle and sell their labour on a more-or-less permanent basis, but also for some to establish small businesses, at least until the gaps in colonial control were closed in the 1920s and 1930s. Theresa Barnes shows how in the same period, African women were in some respects exempt from legislation aimed at controlling 'native' males, and were therefore able to enter towns independently, to the concern of African men, who encouraged the authorities to take action against unaccompanied women, including deportation to rural areas.

As alternative economic opportunities narrowed in both town and countryside, economic growth and relatively liberal government in the 1940s and 1950s drew increasing numbers of Africans into urban employment. However, as Raftopolous shows, the uneven impact of colonialism created different African presences and perspectives in Bulawayo and Salisbury. The decisive impact of settler agriculture in Matabeleland created a significant Ndebele presence in Bulawayo, where employment in industry was the basis for trade unionism and nationalist politics from the 1940s. In contrast, the peasantry in Mashonaland survived relatively intact, and the majority of the African population of Salisbury was made up of migrants from neighbouring territories, who inevitably had limited interest in the future of Rhodesia. This changed substantially in the 1950s, when increasing implementation of the 1934 Land Apportionment Act pushed more Shonas into urban migration. In both areas, urban Africans sought to improve their lot in diverse individual and collective ways, through employment, education, cultural organisations and the Church.

From the late 1950s, the aspirations of educated and elite urban Africans to improve their individual lot, and (as was occurring throughout sub-Saharan Africa) to provide the foundation for post-colonial governance, were rudely shattered by the increasingly repressive settler-dominated government. Instead, they turned to alliances with the mass of urban Africans, through both trade unions and nationalist organisations, such as the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union and the Bulawayo City Youth League. The problematic nature of the relationship between unions and nationalists is touched upon, but not explored in detail in this book. However, Raftopolous makes clear that the diverse interests of the urban African population mean that support for particular nationalist organisations was never inevitable

Following the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, the nationalist struggle moved into exile and to the rural areas. The practical retreat from an unwinnable urban conflict was justified by an ideology of guerrilla warfare, which was based on the peasantry as the engine of change. Academic study on this period has therefore tended to focus on rural areas, most notably Terence Ranger's work on peasant consciousness and the liberation movement. Unfortunately, this volume provides few studies which rectify this imbalance, an exception being John Pape's tantalising glimpse into domestic servants in Salisbury and their support for ZANLA forces in their areas of origin.

Founded on nationalist ideology, independent Zimbabwe has tended to recreate the colonial idea of Africans as fundamentally rural peoples. As oppositon to ZANU(PF) rule has increased, its urban opponents have been painted as relatively priviledged, and living off the wealth of the peasantry, to whom ZANU(PF)'s policies were centrally directed. As the studies in this book show, rural-urban links are in fact more complementary than exploitative, the rural poor benefit from wage remittances, visiting town for jobs and markets, and many urban workers returning to their areas of origin to retire.

It remains unclear, however, if the victory of ZANU(PF) in rural areas in this year's Parliamentary election was due simply to oppression, or based on a perceived difference in the interests of rural and urban Zimbabweans – the current state of the country clearly precludes any such examination for the immediate future.

This study provides a valuable counterbalance to the existing literature on rural Zimbabwe, and its studies demonstrate convincingly that urban Africans have played as important a role in the making of relations have been consistently dependent on, and intertwined with, each other. Future studies of Zimbabwe, both historical and contemporary, need to break down the urban–rural divide in such studies, and establish a new Zimbabwean historical discourse, which makes all its people the subject of their own history.

© The author/publisher