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Review of Violence and Memory: One Hundred Years in the 'Dark Forests' of Matabeleland


By David Simon

VIOLENCE AND MEMORY; ONE HUNDRED YEARS IN THE ‘DARK FORESTS’ OF MATABELELANDBy Jocelyn Alexander, JoAnn McGregor and Terence Ranger. Oxford, Portsmouth NH, Cape Town and Harare: James Currey, Heinemann, David Philip, and Weaver, 2000, pp. xxvi + 291, £16.95 and £40.00


As I read this excellent book, the crisis in Zimbabwe was deepening daily as the presidential elections approached. The land seizures and political violence, in particular, provide ample evidence that the burden of the past – which forms the principal subject of the book – remains a divisive and politically loaded legacy. That the authors’ rich and carefully textured account of more than a century of displacement and violence in the densely forested former Shangani reserve (now Lupani and Nkayi districts) of Matabeleland was an unfinished tale, is explicitly recognised in their closing paragraph. Yet the depths now being plumbed in Zimbabwe underscore that the politics of violence and how it is remembered by different groups of people and in different localities will be a central concern for years to come.

Indeed, the objective of the book is not merely to document the hitherto largely forgotten and marginalised history of this historically pivotal part of Zimbabwe through local eyes. Crucially, it is also to explore how the principal episodes are remembered and explained by the survivors and their descendants. The ways in which Matabeleland and its inhabitants – not to mention the role of ZAPU and ZIPRA – have been written out of postcolonial discourses of the liberation struggle and nationhood – have, as the author’s document so vividly – engendered a profound sense of exclusion there. In a very powerful way, therefore, the memories of colonial violence and displacement do not simply belong in the past, able to become the stuff of memory and healing. Rather, they form but a series of episodes in a continuing history of suppression, marginality and exclusion. Indeed, so brutal was the military campaign of the Zimbabwean National Army’s notorious Fifth Brigade during the 1980s, and so substantial has been the perceived discrimination by the government against Matabeleland in terms of development resource allocation since the Unity Agreement of 1987, that some of the authors’ informants actually compare the very recent past unfavourably with substantial periods of colonial rule. Such sentiments are actually far less the nostalgic ruminations of failing elderly memories than a disturbing testimony to the sense of betrayal of the dream of independence and an inclusive nationhood.

Drawing on an exceptional range of sources, including hitherto inaccessible archival material and extensive interviews with many survivors of colonial displacements and the ZAPU/ZIPRA liberation struggle, as well as a range of officials, Joss Alexander, JoAnn McGregor and Terry Ranger have produced a memorable and eminently readable volume. This is not only a carefully nuanced historical account that will surely greatly enhance the historiography of Zimbabwe and southern Africa, but simultaneously also a powerful indictment of the present through a longer historical lens. Contemporary debates within history and African Studies are addressed explicitly, as are issues of development policy and their relationship to senses of collective identity and (the lack of) empowerment. The chapter on the politics of post-1987 development explores the examples of renewed modernist land-use planning, contested notions of communal versus state and individual natural resource ownership through the CAMPFIRE programme, and attitudes towards the states’ biomedical services in the context of a malaria epidemic in the mid-1990s. This would not be out of place in a development studies book, but is here seamlessly woven into the longer durée.

The authors’ introductory claims about the contribution of the book are not modest. However, this is no modest book and the claims are fully justified! Moreover, despite – or, more accurately, because of – the very small font size that will drive some readers to the optician post haste, the book’s affordable paperback price should help to procure it the wide audience it deserves.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 64 (2001), pp. 108-109]

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