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.

Terence Ranger argues that the Emergency in Kenya revealed a fierce class struggle within the Kikuyu, whereas the ‘land and freedom’ armies of Zimbabwe merely pursued a radical nationalism. He contrasts the wealth and social status of the ‘loyalists’ who served in the Kikuyu Home Guard with the impoverished, dispossessed and uneducated Mau Mau forest fighters. According to Ranger, the split between collaborators and freedom fighters in Zimbabwe did not follow such clear-cut class lines. Neither Zanu nor Zapu were lacking in BAs and PhDs and the occasional BSc or MD. Sixth-form pupils at mission schools like St Augustine’s and St Barbara’s tore up their certificates and crossed the border to join ‘the boys’. Rather more of the élite, however, fought the war from England; the ‘revolutionary intelligentsia’ generally preferred to criticise the petty-bourgeois compromises of ‘the leadership’ from such vantage-points as the LSE or the Royal Commonwealth Society Library. And this surely is where the real class division lay.

A friend who teaches in Highfield High School (Salisbury’s largest black township, or ‘high-density suburb’) played my radio documentary The Zimbabwe Tapes to her ‘M’ level English class on two occasions. One of the issues that most aroused her predominantly working-class pupils is raised at the end of the play by the guerrilla commander: ‘When I left St Augustine’s school at Penhalonga I could have taken up a place at the University of London. No doubt I would have become secretary of the local branch of Zanu ... and then, when I had my degree, my qualifications, I could have returned to Zimbabwe to collect my due: a plum job in the Ministry of Education.’ Most of the young people who crossed the border had no such option. Many of those who survived still enjoy no option beyond unemployment and anomie. As Professor Adrian Hastings recently put it in the Catholic magazine Moto, ‘it is true that many former freedom fighters feel left out in the cold, if not betrayed, but for the time being at least they have almost ceased to matter.’ A former guerrilla told the same magazine: ‘Most of us only had maybe Grade 7 before we went into the bush. Now we are being scolded and denied jobs because we didn’t have O-level certificates.’

David Lan describes Guns and Rain as a study ‘of the interaction of the ideology of the peasants of Dande with that of the guerrillas who lived among them between 1971 and 1979’. Dande lies in the far north-east of Zimbabwe, in the Zambezi Valley:

a remorseless 90 or 100 degrees in summer before the rains come, if they come ... The soils are poor. Tsetse fly make it impossible to keep cattle to pull ploughs. There are few shops, few schools, no beer halls, no jobs, no markets.

From October 1980 to May 1982 David Lan lived in a village at the foot of the escarpment, learned the Korekore dialect of Shona, and prepared this brilliant work.

For the Shona peoples the most important ancestral spirits are the ‘lion spirits’ (mhondoro) of dead chiefs. In derivative literature the medium is often confused with the spirit that possesses him, just as the name Frankenstein is commonly applied to the monster rather than the doctor who created him. Thus the most sacred of all Zimbabwean mhondoro of war and rain, Mbuya (Grandmother) Nehanda, is confused with the old women who, in 1896 and 1972-3 respectively, acted as her mediums. Notice that even Mayor Urimbo, the guerrilla commander who first made contact with the medium Kunzaruwa, calls her ‘Nehanda’ when interviewed by Lan:

We were taken to Nehanda. She was very old. She never bathed and ate only once or twice a week ... She hated all European things ... She knew very much about war and the regulation of war ... She told us what kind of food to eat, which routes to take.

Zanla named two of its operational zones after the two great Shona mhondoro of the late 19th century, Nehanda (female) and Chaminuka (male). The Rhodesians, perhaps lacking parallel ancestral spirits despite Rhodes’s grave in the Matopos, named their own operational zones Repulse, Hurricane, Thrasher and Tangent.

The European administration made free and cynical use of what it regarded as the natives’ superstitions, warning the population that if mediums assisted ‘terrorists’ then their mhondoros would ‘remain dormant for all times’. Ranger confirms that the regime offered a subsidy to mediums who were prepared to speak out against ‘trouble-makers’ entering the reserves and to report them to the district commissioner. In December 1975 the DC warned Chief Chiduku’s people: ‘You have decided no longer to follow custom and it is quite apparent that your spirits are not satisfied with things ... You have failed to put the spirits in appeasement ... If no rain comes I will not be surprised.’ Many mediums did collaborate. Ranger reports that some were killed in guerrilla reprisals in the Weya TTL. Muchetera, since 1934 a Makoni claimant to the crucial legacy of ‘Chaminuka’ – and exposed by Ranger as a brilliant charlatan – was killed in January 1977 by Zanla as a ‘sell-out’. They even claimed he’d dropped Rhodesian propaganda leaflets from helicopters.

What did the guerrillas get out of the mediums? First, local acceptance by the region or the clan. It was guerrilla strategy never to send a young man to operate in his home area, where he might succumb to family authority or ties of kinship. The ‘boys’ (vakomana) therefore arrived as strangers. Secondly, the mediums incarnated the tradition of resistance to alien rule and to the great rape of the land by Cecil Rhodes’s followers. The chiefs, though leaders of the Shona uprising of 1896, had subsequently been crushed and emasculated and were now no more than minor functionaries and tax collectors for the native commissioners. (Hence Ian Smith’s insistence that the chiefs were the ‘true’ leaders and spokesmen of their people.)

The guerrillas also got advice from the mediums about bushcraft. David Lan quotes three former Zanla guerrillas:

The spirit mediums gave us many good ideas. The chipungu (eagle) was a very important sign. If we saw them we would take off our shoes and our hats ... If you saw two eagles fighting in the sky that meant that the bomber planes were coming ... If you see a tortoise in your path you will have a good journey for at least two or three days. But if you find a snake, that is bad. Turn back. The enemy is near.

The anti-modern impulses of the mediums ran in parallel with the more pragmatic nihilism of the guerrillas, who frequently closed down schools, clinics and cattle dip tanks in order to demonstrate the powerlessness of the colonial regime and its local agents.

Lan draws heavily on interviews with former guerrillas, some of whom appear to have offered him a familiar, rather Falstaffian diet of fact and fiction, claiming outright military victory in the war. They also told him that ‘there were rules which the comrades were following in the war. They were not allowed to sleep with a girl, to shake hands with girls ... If a man and a woman fell in love they could tell each other but then they had to tell the Commander of the Platoon and he would write it down so they would live up to their promise to marry.’ Although Lan had suspicions about the observance of these strict sexual taboos, he seems unaware that the young guerrillas often impregnated everyone in sight, showing respect only for girls who were themselves fully-trained freedom fighters. The strategy was to take local girls as hostages in order to guarantee that the older generation did not run off at night to alert the security forces, but the girls themselves were not inclined to impose the proprieties on young heroes carrying AK 47s, the outcome being misery and humiliation for parents worrying about the young woman’s future bride price.

Terence Ranger devotes a valuable section of his book to the rural ‘squatter’ phenomenon of 1980-83: a tidal surge of people spilling out of the dustbowl reserves to reclaim white farms (not always unoccupied) and ‘ancestral’ lands. As Ranger points out, that tide contained its share of opportunists, ‘squatter kings’ and would-be rentiers: but fundamentally it was a spontaneous movement of the very poor at a moment of political euphoria, not unlike the occupation of common land on St George’s Hill in Surrey in 1649 by Winstanley’s Diggers. Zimbabwean land reform programmes have been qualitatively impressive but quantitatively inadequate. In five years not more than forty thousand families have been resettled: the need extends to five or ten times that number. Nevertheless, Ranger preserves a cautious optimism.

Grandiloquent though it may sound to talk of the ‘betrayal’ of the socialist revolution in Zimbabwe, it is undeniable that Mugabe’s Marxist rhetoric projected from Maputo during the war years has not been fulfilled. Today, five years after Independence, the rhetoric has not altered much, yet private enterprise under predominantly white senior management continues to dominate all spheres of the economy: agriculture, industry, commerce, mining. Only the civil service has undergone radical Africanisation. As a former guerrilla, Joseph Mwakudza, put it to Moto, ‘we told people they would have land and many things. But people still have nothing. It is only people who were prospering with their businesses before and during the war, who are still prospering now.’

Even more contentious than the social question is the matter of tribal conflict. Both Zanla and Zipra had remarkably little success in ‘converting’ the ethnically alien areas they penetrated during the guerrilla war. In ‘Social, Ethnic and Regional Factors in the Development of Zimbabwean Nationalist Movements, 1963-80’, a PhD thesis which deserves publication, Tony Rich has shown how Zipra’s penetration of Shona-speaking areas south of the Zambezi (Kariba, the Urungwe tribal trust land, and south to Karoi and Sinoia, where Zanla had barely established a toehold when the war ended in December 1979) did not yield any dividends when the corresponding electoral district, Mashonaland West, went to the polls in February 1980. Zapu gained only 13 per cent of the vote compared to Zanu PF’s 72 per cent. A Zanu-PF political commissar, Ganyanhehwe Masanga, told Rich that Zipra had failed to accommodate to local traditions, had not dealt properly with the spirit mediums in the Urungwe TTL, and on occasion even killed mediums to demonstrate their power.

Similarly, as Joshua Mpofu demonstrated in a paper cited by Ranger and Rich, Zanla made little headway in converting southern Matabeleland, even though their forces achieved an estimated 90 per cent ascendancy in the Filabusi area and 55 per cent at Essexvale, on the eastern approaches to Bulawayo. In the ensuing election 86 per cent in Matabeleland South voted for Zapu, only 7 per cent for Zanu. Clearly Zanla had not propitiated the local spirits.

Ranger is inclined to acquit the Mugabe Government of tribalism. In April 1983, at a time when international opinion was virtually unanimous in its condemnation of the brutal pacification of Matabeleland, he and two colleagues published a letter seeking to redress the balance. ‘Whatever reservations we may have about the conduct of the Zimbabwean army,’ they wrote, the Government had merely responded to persistent dissident violence: ‘There is absolutely no reason to suppose that Mugabe and his ministers would have attempted to deploy force in Matabeleland unless there had been acts of violence.’ Or, indeed, to suppose that Ian Smith would have done so. True, Mugabe’s Government was democratically elected – but not in Matabeleland, where it was totally rejected. Zimbabwe, like other African nation-states, is a colonial creation.

Ranger belongs to that school of progressive historians who on the whole believe that tribalism – if not the notion of ‘tribe’ itself – has been exacerbated and exploited (if not invented) by reactionary whites bent on divide-and-rule. He cites a paper he delivered two years ago subtitled ‘The Invention of Ethnicity in Zimbabwe’, arguing that while the Ndebele sense of nationhood, already strong in Lobengula’s time, as Rhodes acknowledged, grew sharper during the first thirty years of this century, the Shona speakers remained unaware of any shared identity. Yet even before the arrival of the Pioneer Column in 1890, the peoples of western Mashonaland knew themselves as the victims of constant harassment, pillage, rape and murder by Lobengula’s Ndebele raiders, or impis. (John Nkomo, a leading Zapu MP, reflected that same contempt when he told me recently that ‘Shona’ is a word of Ndebele-Zulu derivation meaning ‘those who run away’.) Ranger himself has written about the death of ‘Chaminuka’ – that is to say, of Pasipamire, the Zezuru chief and spirit medium of the great mhondoro Chaminuka. Whereas Mbuya Nehanda’s medium, Charwe, rebelled against the whites in 1896, Pasipamire had become a focus of Shona religious culture in the Chitungwiza district before he was killed by Lobengula’s impis in May 1883. The legend and myth of Chaminuka has remained a powerful Shona-nationalist force until the present day, but the genesis of that myth was resistance to Ndebele – not European – imperialism. The Shonas did not forget; and when the Fifth Brigade went into Matabeleland in 1983 they reminded the peasants of the cattle stolen by Lobengula before he fell, by a sinister alteration of digits, in 1893.

Ranger argues that the attacks on white farms in Matabeleland since Independence can mainly be ascribed to Zipra’s comparative passivity during the war years – which meant that ‘fewer whites abandoned their land and less land became available for voluntary purchase.’ It could just as fairly be argued, however, that the mass squatting in Mashonaland after Independence reflected acute land hunger in the eastern districts. Why didn’t Shona squatters carry their conflict with white landowners to the point of assault and murder? The answer is not obscure. Neither they nor their armed guerrillas were disaffected from the new Zanu-PF Government. During the war against the whites guerrillas attacked schools, clinics and dip tanks not because they disapproved of these facilities but because they were run by a hated regime. No complex socio-economic argument is required to explain why ex-Zipra dissidents have attacked white farmers and Government resettlement schemes in Matabeleland: both targets are associated, however irrationally, with Shona penetration, with a Shona-officered police force and army, and with a new form of internal domination which is fiercely resented.

As I write this review, six out of 15 Zapu MPs elected in July are in detention, as are several Zapu members of Bulawayo municipal council. Many, and possibly most, of the rural councillors elected in Matabeleland last year have been snatched in the night and have ‘disappeared’. Terence Ranger chides ‘the foreign press’ for its ‘obsession’ with ethnic rivalry between Shonas and Ndebeles. He argues that the real, obscured issue in Matabeleland is the class struggle between poor, landless masses, on the one hand, and greedy chiefs and cattle owners, on the other. The Zanu-PF Government, he insists, has attempted to introduce progressive land resettlement schemes but has been thwarted by Ndebele kulaks more interested in cattle than people. Fortunately, he adds, ‘ZANU/PF “men of the people”, like Maurice Nyagumbo, have been campaigning in rural Matabeleland, holding weekend seminars with peasants.’ Nyagumbo is Mugabe’s Minister of Political Affairs and – after the Comrade President-and-Secretary-General – the effective party boss within the Politburo. He is also Ranger’s friend of more than two decades’ standing, which include the years of Nyagumbo’s imprisonment by the Rhodesians. But Nyagumbo is a man of which people? If he (or any minister) were to hold a meeting in Tsholotsho, or the Matopos, or Gwanda, without enlisting the Police, the Army and the Youth Brigade to round up an audience, he would most probably attract a smaller gathering than Ian Smith.

Ranger has recently circulated among members of the Britain-Zimbabwe Society an account of Nyagumbo’s election victory celebrations in the Dzivaresekwa constituency:

the meeting was a showcase of cultural variety in itself ... Maurice Nyagumbo’s speech was appropriate to this cultural diversity. On a Sunday, he said, everyone must be allowed his or her devotion ... It was a relaxed occasion.

But how ‘relaxed’ can one feel about the fact that Nyagumbo’s Zapu opponent in the Dzivaresekwa constituency, Simon Chauruka, had been axed to death in his home on the night of Monday, 8 July during a week of terror for the supporters of opposition parties in Mashonaland?