Review of Becoming Zimbabwe - Terence Ranger

Constructions of Zimbabwe


Brian Raftopoulos and Alois Mlambo, eds., Becoming Zimbabwe. A History From the Pre-Colonial Period to 2008, Jacana, Johannesburg and Weaver, Harare, 2009, pp.260, ISBN: 978-1-77922-083-7. (Available in the UK from African Books Collective at £22.95)

Jaroslav Olsa, jr. and Otakar Hulec, History of Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawai, Lidove noviny, Prague, 2008, pp.656, ISBN: 978-80-7100-952-2

Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, The Ndebele Nation. Hegemony, Memory, Historiography, Rozenberg, Amsterdam and UNISA, Pretoria, 2009, pp. vii and 215, ISBN: 978-1-86888-565-7




Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Do ‘Zimbabweans’ Exist? Trajectories of Nationalism, National Identity Formation and Crisis in a Postcolonial State, Peter Lang, Oxford, 2009, pp.xiii and levitra promotional coupons 412, ISBN: 978-3-03911-941-7



There is a public history in Zimbabwe which is still insistently propagated on state-controlled television, radio and in the state-controlled daily and Sunday press. This version of the country’s past – now generally described as ‘patriotic history’ – assumes the immanence of a Zimbabwean nation expressed through centuries of Shona resistance to external intrusion; embodied in successive ‘empires’; incarnated through the great spirit mediums in the first chimurenga of 1896-7; and re-incarnated by means of the alliance between mediums and ZANLA guerrillas in the second chimurenga of the liberation war. That pre-eminent regime intellectual, Professor Mahoso, expounds in his weekly column in the Sunday Mail the vital importance of this living history, which is not, he insists, to be confused with mere tradition. In Mahoso’s view, spelt out during the electoral crises of 2008, the legitimacy of the Zimbabwe state, and of the Mugabe regime which embodies it, derives from this historic fusion of violence and spirituality. The electorate merely recognizes such legitimacy but cannot confer it. More important than any election are the great annual rituals of the nation, especially the Heroes Day ceremonies. Participation in these rituals inculcates and expresses a national spirit which makes it unnecessary for the revolutionary state to impose its will solely by violence. To absent oneself from the national rituals at Heroes Acre – as Morgan Tsvangarai did recently, playing a round of golf instead – is in Mahoso’s eyes to commit appalling symbolic violence.

Patriotic history, then, is broadcast and enacted. But it is not embodied in a book. It has to be lived, not read. There is no published patriotic history text. But nor has there been any other published single volume history of Zimbabwe. It has often been argued, indeed, that the insistent public proclamation and viagra from canada acting out of patriotic history has undercut academic historians and rendered them irrelevant. The regime needs and possesses intellectuals. But it doesn’t need quibbling, nit-picking and dry as dust professors. 

Yet the absence of a scholarly history of Zimbabwe has been sorely felt by all sort of people – by diplomats, for example; by teachers and students; by intelligent tourists; by the ‘general reader’; and by all those who find the relentless proclamation of public history and its lists of heroes and villains implausible and even repulsive. Of course, it is not as though there is nothing to read about aspects of Zimbabwe’s history. As readers of JSAS know there is a superabundance of published Zimbabwean historiography written by Zimbabweanists and increasingly by Zimbabweans. Much of it is of high quality. A lot of it is exciting. But much of it takes the form of district case studies, of histories of individual towns or histories of great events, like the 1948 general strike or the guerrilla war; of biographies; of denominations. Anyone who wants a book which seeks to put everything together has had until now to depend on L.H.Gann’s A History of SouthernRhodesia (Chatto and Windus, London, 1965) or Ian Phimister’s  An Economic and Social History of Zimbabwe, (Longman, London, 1988). But the first only goes up to 1934 and the second to 1948; neither is now available in Zimbabwe.

Jaroslav Olsa, ambassador to Zimbabwe for the Czech Republic, felt the absence of a general history particularly keenly. He rapidly came to the conclusion that the Czech Republic had no vital economic or commercial interests in Zimbabwe. He might as well concentrate on cultural exchange, which he did very effectively. He read a great deal of Zimbabwean history. After he had left Zimbabwe he combined in 1968 with the Czech Africanist, Otakar Hulec, to produce the general history of which, as Ambassador, he had felt the want – Dejiny Zimbabwe, Zambie A Malawi. The book is lavishly illustrated with maps, photographs and cartoons. But of course it is in Czech. From whom was a general history of Zimbabwe in English going to come?

The obvious answer should have been the University of Zimbabwe. Indeed in the early 2000s an attempt was made to launch a revived Zimbabwe Historical Association, to be based at UZ, whose first project was to have been the writing of a history of Zimbabwe. It came to nothing. Since then the University has endured a sad decline. It has lost nearly two thirds of its faculty, including many historians who now teach in South Africa or North America. Its Halls of Residence have been condemned as unfit for human habitation. Its library has been vandalized. There have been staff strikes and student demonstrations. There is now a combined effort on foot by educational charities to rescue UZ and the other Zimbabwean state universities. South African universities which themselves depend so much on the Zimbabwean faculty they have recruited are being asked to help. UZ is in danger of being defined as a basket case and certainly not as an institution which might have the capacity to counter patriotic history.           

And yet, in its very disintegration, it has now done so. Two UZ stalwarts, Professor Alois Mlambo and Professor Brian Raftopoulos, now work in South Africa.  Mlambo, Zimbabwe’s leading economic historian,   teaches in Pretoria. He has documented the decline of UZ in detail but misses his lively and diligent pupils. (UZ, after all, has the highest entry level standard of any university in Africa and of most in Britain). He has kept in constant contact with his colleagues who still teach in Zimbabwe, several of whom have written chapters in the book he has edited with Brian Raftopoulos.  Raftopoulos, Zimbabwe’s leading labour historian, joined the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town. The Institute gave him facilities and backing. It acted as host to the workshop held in December 2008 to discuss the penultimate drafts of a collective history of Zimbabwe and is sponsor of the book which has resulted, Becoming Zimbabwe.  The Institute supported his application to the Ford Foundation for a grant to support the project and administered the funds. This grant was decisive. It enabled chapter writers to be paid fees; it enabled them to travel to Cape Town for the workshop, which was also attended by Irene Staunton and Murray McCartney of Weaver Press; and it provided a subsidy to support publication. 

In short, Mlambo and Raftopoulos found in Cape Town the intellectual, moral, administrative and financial support they could not now have found in Harare. But for the book itself they drew only on the UZ tradition. They themselves wrote the Introduction and a chapter each.  Three of the other contributors – Gerald Mazarire, Joseph Mtisi and Munyaradzo Nyakudya – still teach at UZ. Another, Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, has obtained a UZ doctorate. James Muzondidya has a UZ MA. Teresa Barnes, that honorary Zimbabean, was both a student and a teacher at UZ. Ian Phimister and I, the two ‘Senior Academic Advisors’, have close connections with UZ and the book draws on what Raftopoloulos and Mlambo tactfully call ‘the different legacies’ of our work. Both of us attended the Cape Town workshop. It was a remarkable experience. This come-back by academic historians was anything but nit-picking or dry as dust. The atmosphere was one of exhilaration. After the first day of the workshop, during which chapter writers in turn offered their drafts for discussion, the younger scholars talked in the bar of our pan-African hotel until the small hours of the morning. Upstairs in my septuagenarian bed I could hear snatches of conversation – ‘I understand what you are saying, but what is the evidence for what you are saying?’ Next morning Alois Mlambo asked me: ‘Aren’t you proud of these young men? They were not talking about salaries or jobs or cars or even about girls. They were talking about history’. And indeed one could see that UZ has produced a generation of historians who do not think of themselves as failed businessmen or politicians and whose one ambition is to be respected by their academic peers. The long awaited assertion of a truly Zimbabwean historiography has taken place.

So what kind of Zimbabwean historiography does this book present? It is interesting to recall that T.W.Baxter, then Director of the National Archives, wrote in 1965 in his preface to Gann’s history of Southern Rhodesia:

Few countries in the world have made more progress over the last seventy years than Rhodesia. Its people can look back on considerable achievements, but the country is still in search of a national identity. This in turn must derive from a better knowledge of the past, and Rhodesians have therefore stood in need of a general history which would meet the canons of scholarship while throwing some new light on the creation of our plural society. (p.v)

Patriotic history by contrast assumes that a national identity exists, though it can be betrayed. Becoming Zimbabwe, while certainly not in the business of exalting Rhodesian achievements, in some ways returns to Baxter’s problematic. For these Zimbabwean historians ‘the country is still in search of a national identity’. Patriotic history’s way of asserting it, they maintain, is invalid. Zimbabwe still desperately needs a general history which meets the canons of scholarship while throwing light on the diversities of a complex society. What holds this book together is a common emphasis on the enormous difficulties of becoming a nation; a common agreement that it is essential to abandon false propositions of nationality; and a common determination to reveal the dynamics of complexity. It is certainly not a polemical book nor a party tract, even though it has a photograph of an MDC rally on its front cover and a call from Morgan Tsvangarai for ‘a more open and critical process of writing history in Zimbabwe’ on its back. 



It certainly does meet the canons of scholarship. It is aware of the most recent research and usefully though not over-elaborately foot-noted. Its writers have made great efforts to be lucid and accessible to a general reader. At the Cape Town workshop one could see the necessary concessions being reluctantly made. Gerald Mazarire, whose chapter comes first in the book, covers nothing less than the entire pre-colonial period. He aims to be the most subtle of Zimbabwean historians and has a horror of over-simplifications. He gives little shrift to the over-simplifications of patriotic history. The famous Shona empires – Great Zimbabwe, Mutapa, Torwa, the Rozwi  - were not, he says,  the keys to Zimbabwe’s pre-colonial history. They were not really states but loose systems of over-rule. Much more important were a multitude of smaller units of clan and chieftancy. Nor were they Shona, a term which had no meaning until the twentieth century. He gives little more time to the late David Beach’s ‘Great Crescent’ theories. But the general reader needs more than a confusing multitude of clan and chieftancy names. So an overall interpretation emerges from Mazarire’s chapter.  The smaller societies settled everywhere between the Limpopo and the Zambezi. The major theme of Zimbabwe’s pre-colonial history, he argues, was the way in which a broadly similar political and religious culture, constantly renewed by borrowings and interactions, adapted to many different environments and absorbed many different in-migrations. 

Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni aims to be the most theoretical of Zimbabwean historians. His chapter covers ‘Cultural and Colonial Encounters’ between the 1880s and the 1930s. Early drafts were disfigured by that bane of the theoretician, jargon. But this has almost entirely disappeared from the book chapter. Its main target is the over-simplified dichotomy of patriotic history between resistance and collaboration. Following the lead of Fred Cooper and others, Ndlovu-Gatsheni emphasizes the wide variety of possible responses and interactions between self-proclaimed conquerors and their often un-subjugated subjects. Lists of heroic resisters and traitorous collaborators are beside the point, though Ndlovu-Gatsheni pulls no punches in delineating the oppressive facts of colonial land alienation, labour exploitation and racial prejudice. One might say that the varied physical environment of the pre-colonial period had been overlaid by an equally varied cultural and ideational environment. Africans could make use of the ideas available in Christianity or in Imperial ideology or in trade unionism without a treacherous surrender to the colonial oppressor.

Between them these two opening chapters cover all the ground of Gann’s general history and much of the ground of Phimister’s. The subsequent chapters cover ‘from the Second World War to UDI, 1940 to 1965’ (Mlambo); ‘social and economic developments during the UDI period’ (Mtisi, Nyakudya and Barnes); war in Rhodesia, 1965-1980 (by the same trio); ‘from buoyancy to crisis, 1980 – 1997’ (Muzondidya) and a final chapter covering the ten years, 1998 to 2008, by Raftopoulos. These chapters pay adequate attention to capitalist and industrial development and to the experience of the towns. They reveal the destructive consequences of plans for agrarian ‘reform’ applied inflexibly to all of Zimbabwe’s different environments, both under Rhodesian rule and after it.  They reveal the diverse character of African nationalism, with its successive urban manifestations, its different rural social base, and its varying emphasis on different ideas taken from the complex ideational environment. They show the difficulty of moving to violence against the Rhodesian state in a situation where Africans had been totally disarmed, and the difficulty of achieving an effective guerrilla strategy once arms had been obtained. They show the continued relevance of political initiatives side by side with military ones. They bring back into Zimbabwean history the characters excluded by the patriotic narrative – trade union leaders, political leaders who lost out – and the possibilities foreclosed by the movement towards the authoritarian one-party state. They show how the twin nationalist objectives of sovereignty and human rights became separated, so that a regime intellectual like Mahoso can castigate demands for human rights as thinly disguised assaults on sovereignty. Above all they show that what has happened in Zimbabwe, politically, intellectually and economically has not been inevitable. There were – and are - other possible ways to ‘become’ Zimbabwe.           

One might have expected that a book which stressed complexity would not have an enthusiastic public reception. But in fact Becoming Zimbabwe has made quite a stir because of its complexity. At its launch in Cape Town at the District Six Museum there were demands that South African historians follow its example. At its launch on November 17 2008 at the Book Café in Harare there were compliments to the power of academic historiography. ‘Ngomakurira’, writing in The Zimbabwean on 20 November, declared that the launch had persuaded him that academics rather than politicians controlled the future. The historians’

task, and they are doing it, is to ponder the whole story reaching

back to pre-colonial times. They set themselves to examine not just the obvious land-mark events of the past but all the evidence of how people lived and thought and celebrated. As time goes on people will ‘own’ the whole social and political fabric as it will represent and reflect each one’s sense of who he/she is and who we are as a society … We are moving towards a society which represents the hopes of all people [and] change will come if the academics get it right.

The Mail and Guardian’s literary editor, Percy Zvomuya, reviewed a batch of Zimbabwean novels together with Becoming Zimbabwe on 4 December 2009. He found the novels disappointing. ‘Sadly, for this reader with an evident bias for fiction, it is the historians who are at the forefont of disrupting the norm, questioning the narratives of the past as it has been given to us – and intimating other versions of events.’ On 24 December Zvomuya chose his ten best books of the year. Becoming Zimbabwe was one of them. ‘Novel approaches to history continue to fascinate me in books coming out of Zimbabwe’, he wrote. Becoming Zimbabwe ‘is immensely readable, quite rigorous and expansive, and one wishes that it had been longer than its 260 pages’ – not a compliment often paid to history books!  

200 copies of the book have been distributed free to history students at UZ. Miles Tendi, whose own book on the reception of patriotic history is at the press, has produced a report on history teaching in Zimbabwean schools since independence and on possible ways of getting Becoming Zimbabwe into schools. MDC’s David Coltart, Minister of Education, is enthusiastic but has no funds; ZANU/PF’s Minister for High Education, the distinguished historian Dr Stan Mudenge has made no comment. Mudenge, author of an excellent book on the Mutapa Empire, is said to be completing another on the Rozwi. He may not be very enthusiastic at pre-colonial empires being played down.

Meanwhile at least one contributor to the book has been vigorously publishing. Percy Zvomuya describes Dr Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni as ‘one of the most exciting of Zimbabwe’s new generation of historians’. He is certainly one of the most prolific. During 2009 he published, as well as his chapter in Becoming Zimbabwe, two books of his own – The Ndebele Nation and Do ‘Zimbabweans’ Exist? Both respond to the issues raised in this review. The Ndebele Nation. Hegemony, Memory, Historiography is influenced by studies of the legitimacy of West African states, particularly Tom McCaskie’s analysis of the hegemonic role of the Asante yam festival. Ndlovu-Gatsheni dismisses old-style accounts of the Ndebele state as based solely on violent repression. Violence alone is never an adequate explanation. The Ndebele state ‘pursued peaceful and ideological ways of winning the consent of the governed. This became the impetus for the constant and on-going drive for “democratization” so as to contain and displace the destructive centripetal forces of rebellion and subversion’. (p.v)

Discussing ‘Rituals and religious symbolic power’ Ndlovu-Gatsheni draws on McCaskie and also makes assertions not too different from Professor Mahoso’s view of the functioning of the contemporary Zimbabwean state:

The Ndebele ruling elite tried to establish rapport with their

subjects through non-secular means. Religion was employed effectively for power legitimation … In order for the Khumalos to consolidate their power and dominance they worked very hard to make their ancestors relevant throughout the whole Ndebele domain. One way of achieving this was through ceremony, ritual and myth … Like other pre-colonial peoples such as the Pedi, the Swazi, the Zulu, the Tsonga, and many others the Ndebele devised methods of extending their hegemony over conquered people and their subjects. The common method was the use of annual ceremonies. (p.109)

The annual national religious festival was the inxwala, or great dance. To call this a first fruits festival is simplistic and misleading; crop fertility, while ‘vital to the general equation’ was ‘secondary to more salient determination of knowledge and belief.’ The inxwala was a demonstration of the spiritual and material centrality of the king but it was not just a legitimation of unbridled authority. ‘The Ndebele state was founded on a delicate balance of coercion and consent’. Both were acted out in the inxwala.

Anyone who lays such a great emphasis on the inxwala has to contend with the fact that the ceremony took place only once more after Lobengula’s overthrow in 1893 and that the very words of the Ndebele ‘national song’ are no longer remembered. (Yam festivals go in Asante and other Akan states to this day). But as Ndlovu-Gatsheni shows the effect of this has been paradoxical. When Ndebele kings no longer ruled it was their powers of coercion rather than their skills at evoking consent which were remembered. Even as historians downplay past military ferocity contemporary Ndebele youth picture themselves as invulnerable warriors. Contemporary Ndebele cultural groups attribute uncontested sovereignty to Lobengula and call upon the British to re-instate that sovereignty by renouncing any powers ceded by Lobengula in treaties. Yet what Ndlovu-Gatsheni really shows is that just like Zimbabwean identity today Ndebele nationality in the nineteenth century was a process of ‘becoming’. 

His second book Do ‘Zimbabweans’ Exist? Trajectories of Natoinalism, National Identity Formation and Crisis in a Postcolonial State is an extended meditation on the themes of Becoming Zimbabwe. Fortunately he has recently offered his own summary of the book in an opinion piece in the Zimbabwe Independent of 14 January 2010. This begins with a much more ferocious denunciation of the ZANU PF regime than anything in the published histories. The regime offered merely ‘crony-party

capitalism under the respectable gloss of patriotic nationalism’. The result was ‘an economic, political, social and psychological quagmire of unprecedented  proportions’. The regime denied any responsibility. ‘They even embarrassingly blamed citizens they were expected to govern, polarizing the nation into war veterans, puppets, traitors and sellouts.’ How can all this be redeemed? ‘How can we together forge a common citizenship in a new Zimbabwe ins which tribalism, racism , regionalism and violence become things of the past?’ Sabelo then answers his question by invoking his book:

As I said in my recent book, Do ‘Zimbabweans’ Exist?, there is

a need for our people and our leadership do desist from the simplistic notion of a pre-existing ‘Zimbabwean’ identity. We must strive to continuously build this identity through pursuing inclusionary rather than exclusionary politics ... For how long will we continue to sniff each other out like witch hunters? … Only when a respectable and durable national identity is constructed can we bury the scourge of violence in our midst. To do so we have to have true nation builders, not racists and tribalists masquerading as nation builders.

Sabelo concludes by saying that young Zimbabweans will ‘re-brand’ Zimbabwe, restore law and order, heal wounds, liberate the national economy, re-engage with the world : 

Zimbabwe is at a cross-roads in which the old are dying and the new being born. It is undergoing a generational leap forward. The crisis is only that the old are taking a long time to die and the new are taking a long time to be born. In the interval monsters have come to the centre of politics.

But ‘a generation whose time has come to take the reins of the state cannot be stopped by anyone’.



Sabelo writes this from Johannesburg. He was offered a place in the Prime Minister’s office in Harare but he chose to go on being an academic. Change will come if the academics get it right. It would be nice to think so. 


Terence Ranger