The Road to Independence

David Caute

  • Peasant Consciousness and Guerrilla War in Zimbabwe by Terence Ranger
    James Currey, 377 pp, £25.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 85255 000 6
  • Guns and Rain: Guerrillas and Spirit Mediums in Zimbabwe by David Lan
    James Currey, 244 pp, £19.50, October 1985, ISBN 0 85255 200 9

Terence Ranger’s major new exploration of Zimbabwean peasant politics spans the ninety years from the early colonial period to the 1980s. While drawing heavily on his own intensive research in the Makoni district of Manicaland – virtually a scholarly fief of his – Ranger constantly illuminates Rhodesia’s tortuous passage to majority rule by comparison with two contrasting ‘models’ of decolonisation: Kenya (conservative) and Mozambique (a luta continua).

Ranger asks why the ruthless mass-expulsion of blacks from Rhodesia’s ‘European’ lands in the late Forties did not produce an armed insurrection comparable to Mau Mau among the Kikuyu of Kenya: some 425,000 peasants were evicted from white-designated lands in Rhodesia as against 100,000 in Kenya. Comparing the Kikuyu with the Ndebele, Ranger argues that the Kikuyu élite were in process of becoming a land-owning capitalist class ready to collaborate with the colonial power and join the Home Guard, thus sharpening African resistance to British rule on the whetstone of class struggle; whereas Ndebele protests were articulated by compromised chiefs and soft men of substance incapable of leading an armed insurrection.

Nevertheless, Ranger finds the roots of Zimbabwe’s war of liberation of the Seventies in the tragic evictions of the late Forties, when a European population swollen by refugees from the British welfare state demanded that the provisions of the Land Apportionment Act of 1930 be callously enforced. Those of us who harbour illusions about the Labour Party’s ability to transplant its professed anti-colonialism from opposition to office may note that the Colonial Secretary who signed the Land Apportionment Act was the noted Fabian, Sidney Webb, Lord Passfield, who soon thereafter set out with Beatrice to admire the USSR; while the worst uprooting of Rhodesia’s black peasantry (as well as the run-up to Mau Mau in Kenya) took place under another noted Fabian Colonial Secretary, Arthur Creech Jones.

Ranger is at pains to insist that Zimbabwe’s road to independence has been neither a carbon copy of Kenyan capitalism nor, as John Saul and Basil Davidson inferred in the late Seventies, an inferior version of Frelimo-style socialism in neighbouring Mozambique. According to Ranger, the disparaging depictions of Zanu and its military wing Zanla were based on unavoidable ignorance: ‘While the war was on, no commentator knew what were the relations of guerrillas to peasants ... how far a “traditional peasantry” had been mobilised into a “conscious political force”.’ It is certainly a remarkable fact that no foreign observer was able to accompany either Zanla or Zipra guerrilla sections from base camp in Mozambique and Zambia into the operational areas. At the other end the Rhodesian authorities barred the tribal trust lands to journalists, reinforcing the prohibition with threats under the Law and Order Maintenance Act. But there was no shortage of windows into the bush war inside Zimbabwe. White farmers living under siege were a valuable (if biased) source of information; so were rural missionaries, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, the black squatters who fled from the war, and the half-million peasants who were herded by district commissioners into ‘protected villages’ (though here it was difficult to gain access). In addition, there were the revealing testimonies of Rhodesian farmers, forestry workers, and travellers unlucky enough to be ambushed by Zanla and force-marched into Mozambique. Tom Wigglesworth’s remarkable testimony, Perhaps Tomorrow (1981), deserves to have been included in Ranger’s bibliography as well as David Lan’s. Our post-Independence historiography obviously runs some risk of an inverted snobbery towards non-kosher white Rhodesian sources (though Ranger has elsewhere drawn extensively on the records of district commissioners).

Ranger has concluded from evidence gathered since the war that Zanla guerrillas offered their peasant clients land reform but not the promise of collectivisation – despite the Marxist rhetoric of Zanu’s central committee in exile. This was fairly clear at the time. Glancing towards Nkomo’s guerrilla force, Ranger adds that ‘things were much the same with Zipra guerrillas in the west’: yet the operational emphasis of Zipra’s platoons was strikingly different from Zanla’s. Zipra’s cadres, trained in the Soviet Union, behaved in the tradition of ‘partisans’ on the Second World War model – that is to say, irregular patriot soldiers operating among their own population behind enemy lines. More radical was the class-conscious, revolutionary tradition which Zanla inherited from the Chinese and Cuban models of guerrilla warfare. The Zipra ‘boys’ held no ideological meetings or pungwes in the villages and they were far less inclined to consult the local population before closing a school or executing a ‘sell-out’. Zanla referred to them as machuwachuwa – unimaginative automatons.

In May 1979 I was put in contact with a Zipra section of 38 men engaged in ambushing vehicles and attacking white farmers west of Shabani. Did the section commander, who claimed in front of his heavily armed and noticeably watchful colleagues to have been trained in the Soviet Union, talk to the people about land reform or socialism? He shook his head. I murmured that Zanla’s reported practice was to promise the povo that the big white farms would be divided up after the defeat of the Smith-Muzorewa regime. His response was contemptuous: ‘All that will be decided when we are in power.’ Zanla, he said, were not proper soldiers. The pungwes they held simply put the local people in danger.

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