‘Becoming Zimbabwe’: an interview with Professor Brian Raftopolous

Becoming Zimbabwe. A History from the Pre-colonial Period to 2008

Becoming Zimbabwe. A History from the Pre-colonial Period to 2008

Professor Brian Raftopoulos recently discussed Becoming Zimbabwe, a book he co-edited with Alois Mlambo, in an interview with Chris Kabwato. Brian Raftopoulos is Director of Research and Advocacy at the Solidarity Peace Trust.

Chris Kabwato (CK): You dedicate your book to “the continuing process of ‘Becoming Zimbabwe’”. Thirty years after independence what is that process and what does it entail?

Professor Brian Raftopoulos (BR): This refers to the complex process of nation-building drawing on the different threads of Zimbabwean history, in the context of changing national, regional and international dynamics. The book also places, as one of its central concerns, the importance of challenging the notion that one political party or dominant section of Zimbabwean society has the right to dictate the terms for understanding and narrating the past, to the exclusion of broader social groupings in the society. The authors were thus concerned with pluralizing the understanding of the past and its multiple effects on the politics of the present.

CK: In reading the book I felt it was as much a book about Zimbabwean historiography as it is an account of Zimbabwe from the pre-colonial era to 2008.

BR: This is indeed a correct reading of the book, and we did this for two reasons: Firstly to problematise and interrogate the existing historiography as part of the process of writing an alternative narrative. Secondly to introduce new readers to the rich historiography that now exists on Zimbabwe.

CK: In your book Dr. James Muzondidya argues that “behind the façade of constitutional democracy lay an authoritarian political system characterized by the proscription of democratic space, and serious violation of basic human rights and the rule of law”. Zim Colony

We know this to be true – 30 years on. When you reflect on this what do you think ordinary Zimbabweans could have done in the first years of independence to bring forth a truly democratic state?

BR: Looking at the historical record in the post-colonial period, there is evidence of persistent struggles against the anti-democratic politics of the state. This has taken various forms including trade unions struggles, civic struggles around the constitution, the rule of law and human rights, the interventions of women’s groups, opposition party politics, as well as a range of advocacy efforts by civil society groups at regional and international levels. This has made Zimbabwean civil society one of the most dynamic and active on the continent, and these struggles continue even if in a more attenuated form. This is a fact that is often overlooked by commentators on Zimbabwe who have little sense of the history of such struggles. In short Zimbabweans have fought on many fronts to create a democratic state in the country. The fact that Zanu PF remains in power should not diminish this accomplishment.

CK: Why aren’t people like Elizabeth Musodzi, Charles Mzingeli and Benjamin Burombo remembered by those in civil society? Or is there no linkage between post-independence civic movements and the pre-1980 ones? Mugabe na Tsvangirai.

BR: Unfortunately I think that there are many activists in civil society whose sense of the past is compressed into the developments that have taken place in the last decade, namely the period that has been characterized as the “Zimbabwean Crisis”. At one level this is understandable for activists who are faced with the enormous immediate challenges of an authoritarian state, and the debilitating effects of an economy that has been deconstructed on a daily basis. The result however is that activists often get trapped in the present, so to speak, where the need and the opportunities to understand the past, do not seem immediately relevant. Moreover when the discourse in which the problems of the crisis is constructed is limited to the areas of human rights and governance, important as these are, the longer term complexities of different historical legacies get occluded from the questions that are asked and the types of politics that are engaged in. The tendency then is to concentrate on single issue campaigns which, however strategically useful at particular times, limit the reach of the message of the civics. Additionally this takes place in the face of a state whose political messaging is embedded in a broader, even if distorted, sense of the past.

Turning to the second part of your question, the links between past and present struggles are never connected in a straight line. Indeed a major problem in Zanu PF’s conception of the past has been its attempt to make unproblematic and direct symbolic connections between what it has called the first, second and third Chimurengas, a view of the past that is challenged throughout “Becoming Zimbabwe.” I think it is more important to contextualize and periodise the struggles and problems of the past, and to draw on an understanding of these problems, without assuming that they are simply replicated in the present.

CK: Why has the role of the urban population, especially the trade union, from the 1950s onward not recognized as contributing to the liberation struggle?

BR: The issue of urban and in particular trade union struggles has been an enduring one for the nationalist movement. This is partly because urban struggles have thrown up particular challenges for dominant nationalist politics, revolving around a different idea of autonomy from party politics and sometimes drawing on contested notions of civic belonging. Additionally the trade union movement had its own understandings of internationalism and international connections, which allowed it access to different sources of funding of which nationalist parties were both suspicious and envious. The change of the terrain of the struggle to a dominant rural frame from the 1970’s also marginalized the urban voice in nationalist politics. This long tradition of a certain autonomy from nationalist parties, and their often suffocating notions of unity and political subordination, re-emerged in the different conditions of the post-colonial period, and of course became decisive in the creation of an alternative politics from the 1990’s. MDC Supporters

CK: History, it seems, never seems to learn from itself. What parallels do you see between the Ian Smith regime and Robert Mugabe’s policies and actions in the past 10 years?

BR: It is unfortunately true that successive generations of politicians and citizens rarely learn from the past, or as in the case of Zimbabwe, the ruling party has been obsessively intent on disseminating very selective lessons from the past, that have not contributed to a more fruitful interrogation of history. It is also clear that once Zanu PF came to power in 1980, it set about consolidating state power drawing, when necessary, both on the repressive legacies of the Rhodesian state, and the commandist politics of the liberation movements. Thus the imperatives of Zanu PF’s conception of the monopolization of political power drew it fairly quickly into certain modes of operation characteristic of settler colonial rule.

CK: At independence Zimbabwe inherited a debt of $200 million and also agreed to pay pensions to all Rhodesian civil servants. What is the significance of this in light of later developments relating to the economy?

BR: This was part of the compromise of the Lancaster House agreement, along with the securing of minority rights which was a central part of that agreement, and the politics of reconciliation that ensued in the first decade of independence. The inherited debt, as in other developing countries, constrained the development alternatives available for the new government, and the increasing obligations of debt repayment will continue to constrain any government that is in power. I think the need for a debt audit in Zimbabwe is an urgent one, notwithstanding the real difficulties that confront such process.

CK: Does the split within MDC [into MDC-T and MDC-M] echo the ZAPU-ZANU split of 1963 in terms of motives and the adverse consequences?

BR: There are certainly similarities, in particular some of the ways in which the language of difference becomes ethnicised, the use of violence on dissenting elements, the abuse of the youth in the intra-party struggles, the politics of intolerance, and the perception, though unfounded, that one formation was advocating ‘more radical’ strategies than others. However there are substantive differences in the context, the nature of state power being confronted, and the regional and international dimensions in which the split took place.

CK: Would you agree with the assertion that ZANU (PF) and South Africa’s African National Congress may be both liberation movements but represent different democratic traditions? ZANU has never been democratic as seen in the brutal suppression of dissent over the years (the Nhari Rebellion, imprisonment of the Vashandi Group in the late ‘70s and expulsion of Secretary-General Edgar Tekere in 1988). On the other hand debate and democratic change of leadership are the hallmarks of the ANC. Uhuru

BR: This is a complex and difficult comparison and more research certainly needs to be carried out in this area. Some time back my friend Ian Phimister published an excellent paper comparing the liberation struggles in Zimbabwe and South Africa and I think there is need for more work on such comparisons carrying forward into the post-colonial periods. At this stage what may be said is that there are certainly more organized and different centres of power in the Alliance in South Africa, than in Zanu PF. Moreover, at least for now the war veterans in the ANC have had a less dominant role than in the Zimbabwe context, largely because the forms of struggles which led to the post 1994 dispensation in South Africa, were less dominated by the military struggle than in Zimbabwe. All these and other factors have led to different internal dynamics around succession in the two parties. Certainly it is highly unlikely that Polokwane could have succeeded in Zanu PF. Ask those involved in the Tsholotsho grouping in Zanu PF in 2004.

CK: Finally, an ancient text asks “Can a country be born in a day? Can a nation be brought forth in a moment?” Can a nation ever be fully a nation with a solid identity and a clear concept of citizenship?

BR: The process of creating a national identity is a continuing one in any country, with some having longer traditions of such a process than others. The point is that this is a process of continuing contestation and struggles, with the dynamics of such struggles often led by, but not confined to, the dominant sections of particular societies. It is important that visions of national belonging continue to be open to debate and discussion, and that no party or group of people claim the sole right to set the parameters of a such an ongoing process. For countries such as Zimbabwe the experiences of colonial rule and imperial domination have been key vectors in determining the terms of debate around national identity. Moreover the effectiveness with which Mugabe has deployed the anti-imperialist message demonstrates the continuing resonance of this trope in the historical imaginations and lived experiences of Africans. The continued inequalities in the relations between the West and Africa is a stubborn reminder of the conditions which generate such oppositions. What is important in this context is to fight the tendency of nationalist parties to monopolise the constructions of this past, and to wield it to maintain an authoritarian hold on power. I hope that our book “Becoming Zimbabwe” can make a small contribution to contesting such positions and providing a more plural vision of the nation.

This interview was first published on Zimbabwe In Pictures. Chris Kabwato also reviewed Becoming Zimbabwe:

Becoming Zimbabwe is a book I have been waiting for. I had the privilege of being taught history at the University of Zimbabwe by eminent academics like Professor Chengetai Zvobgo, Professor R.S. Roberts and the late Professor David Beach.  Fascinating people with a fascinating obsession with the history of Zimbabwe.  Over the years I have collected some key history books on Zimbabwe but there was not a single one that attempted to encapsulate the whole history of the country. This is the strength of Becoming Zimbabwe. It is also its weakness.

But first things first. Becoming Zimbabwe was edited by Professors Brian Raftopoulos and Alois Mlambo (both Zimbabwean academics based in South Africa). The book’s aim is clearly spelt out in the introduction:

“This book offers an overview of the history of Zimbabwe from the pre-colonial era to the present day, and tracks the idea of national belonging and citizenship over this period. Within these broad parameters we also set out to explore the nature of state rule, the changing contours of the political economy, and the regional and international dimensions of the country’s history. Thus, a central objective is to analyse the progress, challenges and continuing struggles over “Becoming Zimbabwe.”

Measured against its stated aim the book does achieve its key goals. It offers an overview of pre-colonial Zimbabwe via an interrogation of the writings of historians such as Beach, Terence Ranger, Stan Mudenge and others. By pointing out the pitfalls of nationalistic histories, it tries to warn the reader to the dangers of a history that romanticizes the past by attempting to paint a picture of a unified and homogenous people with a rather uninterrupted history.

From that pre-colonial era the book moves on colonialism and the early resistance movements. Again the approach is one of counterpoising the various arguments such as Julian Cobbing’s disputing of Mbuya Nehanda’s central role in the First Chimurenga Risings (1896-7) and Ranger’s argument of a unified spiritual force in both the Ndebele and Shona risings. By doing this the authors seek to show the difficulties in the historiography of Zimbabwean history.

The other chapters of the book cover the Second World War and the subsequent migration of white people to the then Rhodesia. The impact of this migration coupled with the growth of the urban settlements and the subsequent contestation by black and white people over space and land are explored in detail.

From the Unilateral Declaration of Independence by Ian Smith and the Rhodesian Front in 1965 the book traces the growing militant nationalism and its mutation into guerilla warfare. With independence in 1980 there is hope and euphoria and James Muzondidya traces the remarkable gains in education and health of the welfarist Zimbabwe. He points out the unsustainable nature of this trajectory given the debt-ridden economy, the lack of economic growth, the lack of transformation of ownership of both land and the economy and the inertia in the ruling government.

The last chapter of the book is what readers will rush to. It chronicles the Zimbabwe crisis from 1998 to 2008. The collapse of the economy and increasing repressive nature of the state due to a combination of factors is discussed. The causes and consequences are argued as including the unsustainable welfarism, untransformed economy, payment of war veterans, the war adventure in the Congo, the rejection of the draft constitution in 1999, the violent land occupations, the decimation of the judiciary, the birth of the national Constitutional Assembly, the violent elections of 2000, the change in citizenship laws, the hyperinflation, mass migration etc.

The book is then comprehensive enough to give both the scholar and the casual reader a good overview of Zimbabwean history. The book is well packaged in terms of design and layout and contains useful pictures and maps.  There is also a very useful chronology.

But that same chronology misses out some key events, for example, the battle at Entumbane in 1981 which pitched the Zimbabwe People’s Army (ZIPRA) against the Zimbabwe National Army against each other, the flight of Dr. Joshua Nkomo, leader of Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) into exile in 1983 (and even his death in 1999), the Willowgate Scandal of 1987 in which government ministers bought luxury vehicles at low cost and sold them off at inflated prices and the subsequent Sandura Commission into this Willowgate Scandal (a key turning point in the relationship between the government and the urban population).

The ambition of capturing the full history of a nation in a single slim and accessible volume means that some sacrifices have had to be done. Although pithy and concise most of the chapters tend to mention key events in a rather hurried couple of lines in order to cover all bases. For example, the events leading to the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement are skimmed over. The fact that African leaders Samora Machel (Mozambique) and Julius Nyerere (Tanzania) exerted pressure on Mugabe and Nkomo to negotiate is not recorded nor is the role of Nigeria in pushing for a settlement fully acknowledged. Yet these facts are material in understanding the compromises of Lancaster and how these came back to haunt the nation two decades later.  A crucial chapter that covers the period from 1965 to 1980 is mangled chronologically and thematically as it hurries to cover all themes and events.

Otherwise this is great book for both the student of history and the wider community who would like to understand Zimbabwe in a more nuanced way.

Becoming Zimbabwe is published by Weaver Press. It is available from Exclusive Books (South Africa) and from Amazon.com.

Tue, February 23 2010 » History, Interviews

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