Writing Revolt: An Engagement with African Nationalism

by Duncan Money

Terence Ranger's seminal 'Revolt in Southern Rhodesia' struck a powerful blow to colonial historiography. As his latest book reveals, it grew out of profound political commitments

First published: 30 April, 2013 | Category: Book Review, History, International

Writing Revolt: An Engagement with African Nationalism 1957-1967, by Terence Ranger. James Currey, 2013.

Terence Ranger is best known for co-editing The Invention of Tradition with Eric Hobsbawm, but his first book Revolt in Southern Rhodesia, 1896-97, on the first Chimurenga uprising against British colonial rule, was a landmark work of African history. Revolt was a careful reconstruction of how spirit mediums and other religious figures drew on the shared histories of the Ndebele and Shona peoples to organise one of the most widespread and serious challenges to colonial rule in this period. The book quickly became the seminal text for the nationalist movement which fought white minority rule in Rhodesia in the 1970s, with copies dispatched to leaders incarcerated in Rhodesian prisons and to military camps in Zambia and Mozambique. While its specific arguments that the first Chimurenga was inspired and directed by spirit mediums and that the risings were co-ordinated at all have been challenged and largely discarded by later historians,[1] Ranger's more general claims that African societies had a history that was recoverable and significant, and that they themselves had a sense of that history, proved a fatal blow to existing colonial historiography. 

Writing Revolt is the story of how and why that book was written, and its close connection to the tumultuous political events of this period. It is this last aspect which ensures that this book is of interest to people beyond the field of Africanist historiography. For soon after arriving in Southern Rhodesia in 1957, Ranger and his wife Shelagh became closely involved in the emerging African nationalist movement which later became ZANU-PF, eventually resulting in his expulsion from the country in 1963.

Ranger was too young to have been part of the generation of radical Oxbridge historians and Africanists who had fought in WWII—he also never joined the Communist Party—and he stresses that he became an academic historian before becoming a radical. Perhaps he over-emphasises the last point when describing how he arrived at the new University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (UCRN) as a lecturer in history who was politically naïve and ‘deeply ignorant’ of the country, having previously completed his thesis on 17th century British history and the Earl of Cork at Oxford (where he was supervised by Hugh Trevor-Roper).  There are hints that he knew more than he is letting on now. He briefly mentions the negative reaction he encountered when launching a petition against the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis while at his previous employer: Dartmouth Royal Naval College. I don’t suppose many other lecturers employed by the Royal Navy began petitions against British military action, then or now.

There are also indications that he was aware of the power of nationalism before arriving in Southern Africa. Recalling in a recent interview how he was ‘carried off in triumph’ after giving a talk on the Earl of Cork at Trinity College Dublin in around 1956, Ranger notes:

I remember one of them saying, “It takes an Englishman to show us how vile these invaders were,” and so on. And so I was carried off in triumph and given Gaelic coffee, and I realised the nationalist potential of this stuff.”[2]

Regardless of when he became politically aware and active, however, he remained a serious academic historian. The research for Revolt was completed under very difficult circumstances; at one stage he was placed under a banning order preventing him from travelling more than a mile from his house. Happily, the National Archives were within that mile. He also appears to have been genuinely committed to his students and describes an increasingly precarious balance between his political activism and his position as a lecturer. He notes two separate occasions when he had to leave demonstrations because he had teaching to do at the university!

Ranger’s account of the absurdities of conducting academic research under police restrictions is one of dozens of illuminating observations and anecdotes that fill the book. Anyone with an interest in the events of this period will find plenty of thought-provoking snippets on settler societies and on African nationalism. For instance, Ranger recounts how he and his wife gave shelter to Frene Ginwala, an ANC activist who left South Africa after the Sharpeville massacre on the advice of Walter Sisulu, and then played dumb when the CID paid them a visit to ask about their guest. In return for this generosity, Ginwala offered them a letter of introduction to Oscar Kambona – then a leading figure in the Tanganyika African National Union – in the event of Ranger being deported, which he eventually was. Such links between different African nationalist movements remain under-explored as these movements have generally been treated within the framework of the history of the nation-state.

Ranger also does an excellent job of capturing the general level of chaos, confusion, false-starts, set-backs and sometimes farcical nature of the early anticolonial movement in the country, things that anyone who has been involved in political campaigning will be familiar with. The best example may be the efforts to step-up the campaign against land alienation in 1958, an issue which became crucially important. This ran into problems when the first fact-finding mission into the Native Land Husbandry Act turned up at Seke Reserve to find that, ‘Land Husbandry had not yet been implemented in the area. And everyone was drunk.’ With hindsight, the victory of anticolonial nationalists over empire and white minority governments appears to have been inevitable, but Zimbabwean nationalists were certainly not convinced of victory. The most common emotion they appear to have felt was frustration at their lack of progress and seeming inability to garner popular support even as nationalist parties elsewhere in Africa were winning independence.

Some of the book's more entertaining passages concern Ranger's active involvement in the campaign to desegregate whites-only public facilities through the formation of Citizens Against the Colour Bar Association (CACBA). On paper, Southern Rhodesia, and the Central African Federation of which it was a part, was a ‘partnership’ between black and white. Though this was transparently false, exploiting the official ideology appeared to Ranger to offer a chance to push for multi-racialism in the public sphere.

Although the political struggles CACBA engaged in now seem remote—it seems astonishing that people thought white minority rule was viable and justifiable throughout most of the 20th century—the tactics it adopted are very familiar. Reading about activists directing groups of volunteers who turn up on the day to embarrass a pre-arranged target like the famous Meikles Hotel with attention-grabbing publicity stunts, it’s hard not to think of parallels with contemporary non-violent direct action movements like UK Uncut. Risky as this might have been, it was also an entertaining and easy way to get their point across, and seems to have provoked in response nothing more serious than Ranger being thrown into a pool while attempting to get swimming baths desegregated.

Yet, during this time, white Rhodesian society was moving in the opposite direction, towards UDI and a more open affirmation of white supremacy. Ranger offers no retrospective assessment on whether tackling racial segregation in this way was a viable strategy. He notes in several places how his determination to break the colour bar made him universally unpopular among the white population, while other accounts from this period also stress the attachment of the white population to racial segregation. The novelist Doris Lessing recounts in her 1956 book about her travels in Southern Rhodesia—which Ranger recalls reading before taking up his position at UCRN—that the white population was obsessed with the colour bar: they talk, she complained, of little else. What I felt was missing here, then, was some reflection from Ranger on what if anything the CACBA campaign could have achieved.

That is not, however, the sort of book Ranger set out to write. He treats Writing Revolt very much as a work of history, rather than autobiography. It is about what he thought and did at the time, with little room for hindsight. His own work from the 1950s and 60s is used as source material to support the historical narrative—large chunks of the text are taken from his own letters and the diaries of John Reed, a colleague at UCRN and close political ally who sadly died earlier this year before the book was published—rather than as an opportunity for reflection. This is often frustrating for the reader, if, like me, they want to more about Robert Mugabe and how Ranger saw him and assessed his role, beyond the fact that he once cracked the following joke in a chicken restaurant:

[Mugabe] lent over and tapped Leopold Takawira on the shoulder. ‘I am surprised at you, Leopold,’ he said. ‘As a good Catholic you are eating meat on Friday.’ Much upset, Leopold protested that Mugabe had done the same. ‘Ah’, said Mugabe, ‘but I am not a good Catholic.’

The exception to this lack of critical analysis comes in the brief conclusion in which Ranger defends the role he played during this period and argues that he was a ‘natural dissident’ who railed against the authoritarian tendencies within nationalist movements. This may have been the case, but it would be more accurate to say that his role during this time was that of an active participant in the Zimbabwean nationalist movement in the struggle against colonialism and white minority rule. This is what makes the book so valuable: it is an insider account of the early years of the nationalist movement by someone who was heavily involved in it. Ranger wrote the land policy for the first nationalist political party in Zimbabwe, the Southern Rhodesian African National Congress. He was one first name terms with most of the leading African nationalists of the day including Herbert Chitepo, Leopold Takawira, Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. Nkomo even requested that Ranger take part in forming a Zimbabwean government in exile in Dar es Salaam in the event that the Rhodesian government prevented the ZAPU executive from leaving the country.

The trajectory of the Zimbabwean nationalist movement since the 1960s, particularly its leadership's ruthless crushing of political opposition in the early 1980s and again in the 2000s, would seem to demand from former participants some reflection on how this came to be, and what their own role in it was. Sadly, most nationalists active in the 1950s and 60s are now dead—and one of the few surviving figures is Robert Mugabe himself—so the opportunity for that reflection is steadily diminishing. Its failure to take up this challenge makes Writing Revolt somewhat disappointing. Nevertheless, as history, it is a remarkable work and one I would urge anyone with an interest in this period to read.

Duncan Money is a PhD student at Oxford University working on the history of empire.



[1] These criticisms are collated in D. N. Beach, War and Politics in Zimbabwe 1840 – 1900 (Gweru, 1986) and J. Cobbing, ‘The Absent Priesthood: Another Look at the Rhodesian Risings of 1896–1897’, Journal of African History, 18 (1977), pp. 61-84. 

[2] History Workshop Online, ‘Terence Ranger: Life as Historiography’. Available at: http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/terence-ranger-life-as-historiography [Accessed on 8 April 2013]

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