Review of Becoming Zimbabwe - Lloyd Sachikonye

B. Raftopoulos and Alois Mlambo (eds.) (2009) Becoming Zimbabwe: a History from Pre-colonial Period to 2008                             Weaver Press and Jacana 260pp.

One of the sharpest contests during Zimbabwe’s decade-long crisis from 2000 has been over the interpretation and writing of the country’s history. In the ideological struggles between the authoritarian state and the democratic movement, history has become a contested zone. The Mugabe government has sought to exploit Zimbabwean history to legitimize its hold on power as heir of the liberation movement and a custodian of natural resources especially land. Robert Mugabe himself argued for a ‘correct’ history adding that measures should be taken to ensure that the History of Zimbabwe is rewritten and ‘accurately’ told, and recorded to reflect the events leading up to the country’s nationhood and sovereignty . This version of history has focused mainly on three episodes of struggles: the First Chimurenga or Uprising of 1896-97 and the Second Chimurenga of the late 1960s and 1970s against the colonial state, and on the Third Chimurenga which sought reclamation of land . Zanu PF proclaimed itself the major protagonist in the Second and Third Chimurengas, a history of struggles written in triumphal tones with opponents castigated as colonialists and imperialists, as sell-outs and outsiders..

A new book that is ambitious in its scope and sweep has appeared to challenge this attempt at hegemony in the writing of history by the Zimbabwe state and primarily by intellectuals associated with Zanu PF. Edited by two well known and respected Zimbabwean historians, Brian Raftopoulos and Alois Mlambo, the book is also the first major attempt, in a single volume, to provide a synthesis of Zimbabwean history from pre-colonial times to the contemporary era. The book’s main focus is to track the idea of national belonging and citizenship in the broad context of state formation and changing contours of political economy. State construction and nation building from a myriad of ethnic and racial groups and the instilling of a sense of a common citizenship is a protracted process. It is clear from the 7 chapters of the book that state formation in the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial eras was a complex process that involved many actors within the geographical territory that constitutes present-day Zimbabwe. 

For instance, the chapter by Gerald Mazarire challenges the perspective that has viewed Zimbabwean pre-colonial history largely in terms of the rise and fall of empires –the Great Zimbabwe, the Mutapa, Rozwi and Ndebele states. While these large states are of interest, it was misleading to assume that nothing of significance happened before or afterwards, or outside their frontiers. The development of a colonial political economy is explored in the chapters by Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Alois Mlambo. A distinctive white-settler political economy emerged from the 1890s to the 1940s: it was centred on mining and agriculture which drew upon significant African labour migration as well as involved extensive land expropriation. The Second World War (1939-1945) and growth in population provided an impetus to substantial industrialization by the 1960s to1970s. However, racial discrimination and especially economic grievances centred on access to land and jobs provided ignition to rising nationalist sentiment in the 1950s and 1960s.

The chapters by Mtisi, Nyakudya and Barnes explore social and economic developments during the UDI period (1965 to 1979) and the war for liberation (1964 to 1979). A distinctive outcome white settler rule under Ian Smith during this period was substantive development of infrastructure and diversification of the economy and growth in the size of the working-class. However, white extremism begot a form of virulently militant nationalism especially after 2000. This was partly an outcome of the crisis that beset the country from 2000 and partly international isolation which are explored in the chapters by James Muzondidya and Brian Raftopoulos. In his assessment, Muzondidya, observes that the main characteristics of the post-independence state were lack of tolerance for political diversity and dissent, heavy reliance on force for mobilisation and a narrow, monolithic interpretation of citizenship, nationalism and national unity. For instance, hundreds of thousands of migrant farm workers from neighbouring countries were denied citizenship and right to vote.

In his chapter, Raftopoulos shows how during the decade beginning 2000, Zanu PF drew on a combination of revived nationalism that privileged its role in liberation of the country, prioritised the centrality of the fight for land, and demonised all those outside the selective ‘patriotic history’ it espoused. Nevertheless, despite its tight hold on the state including key levers of propaganda, Zanu PF has not succeeded in achieving hegemony in the writing of history and still less in politics. It lost the 2008 parliamentary election, and Mugabe was beaten by Morgan Tsvangirai in the first round of the presidential election. Since 2008, it has been forced to share power with ‘outsiders’, those it once termed ‘sell outs’.

This book succeeds in presenting a highly readable history of this simultaneously ‘old’ and ‘young’ country drawing upon extensive archival and scholarly sources as the rich bibliography illustrates. It shies away from partisan or patriotic history while providing a learned and extensive critique to that version that has been constructed by Zanu PF aligned intellectuals and state media. Clearly, the process of state consolidation and nation-building is complex enough. It remains ‘work in progress’ which cannot be a monopoly of one political party or movement.

This review was written by Lloyd Sachikonye, a senior researcher based at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Zimbabwe.