What if postcolonial regimes use stories of your past to justify their rule?

The post-independence fates of Zimbabwean student activists who fought the Rhodesian regime.

Heroes Acre, Harare, Zimbabwe. Image credit Gary Bembridge via Flickr (CC).

As student activists in the 1960s and 1970s, many black Zimbabweans agitated and protested against the white nationalism of the Rhodesian Front. Led by Ian Smith, from the early to mid-1960s, the Rhodesian Front, an organization of local reactionary whites, defied Britain’s order that they negotiate a shared future with the black majority. Over the next fifteen years, the RF systematically set about removing black people from virtually all aspects of public life, and Smith declared that he didn’t believe in majority rule—”not in a thousand years.” For black students, their politics of liberation found a shared language and organization in support of the nationalist struggle—a rurally-fought bush war being waged by the armed wings of ZANU(PF) and PF-ZAPU. In 1980, Zimbabwe gained its independence through negotiated settlement. Yet the freedom dreams which inspired these protestor’s activism was a far cry from the narrow instrumental anti-colonialism used by ZANU(PF) to maintain its rule after 2000.

Student activism in Rhodesia

In a recent journal article, Nationalists with No Nation, I explore the stories told by three prominent and committed student activists, whose student politics against the Rhodesian Front led them into careers as nationalist leaders.

The first, Dzingai Mutumbuka had been a science student in the mid-1960s, when he disrupted Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front rallies as the white government prepared for its far-right Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain. His student activism led Mutumbuka to join ZANU in the 1970s and he went on to become Zimbabwe’s highly respected first Minister of Education at independence—responsible for a remarkable set of reforms widely considered to be the party’s biggest success stories. The second, Simba Makoni took a similar path a few years later. Makoni’s protests in the early 1970s led to his arrest and the largest ever pre-independence demonstration in 1973. Fleeing Rhodesia for the UK, Makoni too entered ZANU from where he also ended up as a Minister in Zimbabwe’s cabinet at independence. Finally, Ranga Zinyemba too had to flee the country after leading student demonstrations in 1977 against the proposal to conscript black students into the Rhodesian army. Standing on top of an up-turned bin in the square outside parliament, he rallied black students in a speech against the government: “We will not do this: these are our brothers and our sisters.” After threats from the government, he enlisted the help of sympathetic white Catholic activists and posing as a trainee priest on his way to a Malawian seminary fled to the UK. He too joined ZANU abroad, but instead of pursuing a career in politics, became an educationalist and returned after independence to work at the University of Zimbabwe.

Politics marshaling history

All of these men distanced themselves from Robert Mugabe’s government after 2000. Their anti-colonial activist pasts, however, were a useful resource to the party. By the late 1990s, facing economic decline and widespread civic unrest, the ZANU(PF) government had sought to radically re-orientate its justification to rule. Rather than developmentalism that emphasized education, jobs and healthcare, the party revived an anti-colonial narrative that took the violent seizure of white commercial land, what became known as “Fast Track Land Reform,” as the completion of the bush war. This political strategy meant violently upholding what Robert Muponde called a “virulent, narrowed-down version of Zimbabwean history… [where] to insist on being different is to invite the title of enemy of the state: it is to invite treason charges upon oneself.” Using the communications machinery of the state, the party lionized its leaders’ anti-colonial student activism or war records as the source of authority that was required to rule. Mugabe himself made full use of his own student activist past in this effort. In 2016, he lionized Fort Hare, where he studied in 1950, as “the cradle of African anti-colonial ideology.”

Asserting one’s own story

How do you tell your story of political awakening, when its narrative has already been claimed? These three answered this question in different ways, but all of which rejected ZANU(PF)’s post-2000 narrative. They stitched together alternative nationalist stories, built around different political ideas, that accounted for their much more complicated student experiences at university in Rhodesia and where it sent them in life.

For Mutumbuka, this meant upholding an alternative pragmatic type of ZANU(PF) nationalism that emphasized the benefit he got from his university experiences and which inspired his work in the 1980s transforming a Rhodesian education system into a Zimbabwean one. He said, “Basically the system needed to be rapidly expanded but the quality maintained. That is what is unique about Zimbabwe up to this day… [it] is the only country that rapidly expanded education whilst maintaining quality.” Makoni similarly distanced himself from the authoritarianism that had come to typify ZANU(PF) rule after 2000 by narrating the story of his career as a drive towards political cosmopolitanism. In 2008, Makoni ran for President as an “Independent.” War veterans threatened him with violence and Mugabe called him a prostitute. He finished third behind Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai.

Lastly, Zinyemba deliberately recalled the joy of his student past: learning to love literature, overcoming insecurities about his rural background, meeting girls and getting married. “My life at the University of Rhodesia was perhaps the best experience I’ve ever had,” he told me. Such descriptions formed the basis of Zinyemba’s critique of how the ruling party has run down the higher education system throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

But by affirming an alternative politics of nationalism through telling their stories of student activism against the Rhodesian Front, these men were also reclaiming those much more inscrutable and exciting memories of when one came of age.

Further Reading

Lumumba lives

After his murder in 1961, Patrice Lumumba immediately became a martyr of African independence. What is Lumumba’s “political afterlives” nearly sixty years later?

Everything must fall

Fees Must Fall (#FMF) brought student activism at South Africa’s elite universities into the global media spotlight. A new documentary zooms in on the case of Wits in Johannesburg.