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Review of Writing Revolt: An Engagement with African Nationalism 1957-67


By Henning Melber

Writing Revolt. An Engagement with African Nationalism 1957-67. Terence Ranger. James Currey / Weaver Press, Woodbridge & Rochester/ Harare, 2013. Pp. 206. ISBN. 978 1 84701 071 1 (pb). £19.99.

In a discussion article on “Terence Ranger in Fact and Fiction”, published in the International Journal of African Historical Studies (vol. 44, no. 2, 2011, pp. 325-331; included in the book under Select References) Luise White asks: “What are we supposed to do about Ranger’s role in the history of the 1960s, and his role in the broader historiography of the country?” (p. 325; thanks to Ian Phimister for sharing this text). After reading Writing Revolt, I must confess that I am not closer to any answer. What unfolds is, again in the words of Luise White, “a history that is deeply embrocated with its historiography (…) how (and where) should one draw the line between Ranger the comrade and Ranger the scholar?” (p. 329 and p. 330)

According to Ranger, the idea for this book was actually born at the very same workshop at the University of Illinois in September 2010 (on “Making History: Terence Ranger and African Studies”) where Luise White presented the first version of her paper. As Ranger confesses in the Preface, there was nothing else left after he had exhausted his primary material with the publication of Bulawayo Burning the same year - except the ‘Ranger Papers’ he deposited upon retirement in 1997 at Rhodes House. Based to a large extent on his own letters to his parents, which his mother had kept, and the transcript of his friend John Reed’s daily diaries - both sources, which he quotes generously in addition to numerous excerpts from other correspondence - ‘Terry’ Ranger presents with this account “a record of the African awakening” as well as “the process which led me to write that first book” (p. xi), i.e. Revolt in Southern Rhodesia 1896-7, published in 1967. As he concedes (and thereby echoes the earlier observation of Luise White): “This book is therefore intended both as history and as historiography” (p. xi).

But the history remains rather the history by and of Terry Ranger, somewhat also of his wife Shelagh (who remains rather vague in the background, but – though mentioned only in passing - must have been initially at least as much politically committed and practically engaged) and his friend John Reed. The latter’s diaries serve as an important source to document the achievements by the author, given the selection of quotes: “Terry makes an excellent speech” entered John Reed on 23/09/59 (p. 40). On 30 July 1959 he states that Terry had written “another excellent piece of journalism … How well he does this – I can’t write Terry’s sort of journalism” (p. 48). Only to add the next day: “Another day of misery during which Terry writes two more articles in the odd moment he is at home” (John Reed on 31/07/59, p. 48). The latter observations refer to the production of the first issues of the journal Dissent, which received a congratulatory message by Ruth First for being in her view the most perceptive account available on the Southern Rhodesian situation. In retrospective this makes Terry wonder if Ruth First might have regretted the congratulatory message, “when she later found Revolt in Southern Rhodesia to be ‘mere vulgar populism’.” (p. 49) We do not know. What we know is that Ruth First (1925-1982) paid for her commitment with her life. Exiled from South Africa, she was assassinated through a parcel bomb addressed to her in Mozambique.

The local dynamics unfolding in Southern Rhodesia between 1957 and 1963 (when the Rangers were deported) are described through the lenses of Ranger and relate to him personally. The years until 1967 are much less detailed and mainly focus on the subsequent career and the responses to the book finally published in 1967. This brings us back to the question raised by Luise White: how to position Ranger within this story, as the storyteller and/or the actor?  Very different answers seem possible, but might remain a subject of interpretation if not speculation. A precious source of information on many actors of the period is beyond this filtered narrative the Appendix of Names (pp. 183-190) with short biographical notes. It reads like a “Who’s Who” of formative Zimbabwean politics of these days, though oddly enough several among them – most prominently Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe - do not feature, despite being listed with many entries in the Index of Names (pp. 204-206). This in turn omits other names such as Ruth First. The Select References (pp. 191-192) could have done without the author’s own works, which take a good half of the two pages as an unnecessary duplication, since they are all included again in the 11-page Bibliography of Ranger’s work directly following (pp. 193-203).

All in all, the reading was an ambivalent experience. It provided enlightening personal insights into a crucial stage of formation and mobilization towards the “second Chimurenga”. It hence might contribute to a better understanding of this period being a cradle or midwife for the emerging “patriotic history” with its heroic narratives and the particular individual involvement and role of the scholar activist Terence Ranger. At the same time, the personal account lacks for my taste the necessary contextualization and somewhat distancing perspectives through the absence of critical self-reflections and rigorous examination of the interaction with others.

Ranger mentions at the beginning how important for him in the preparations for the realities of Southern Rhodesian society of these days the early novels of Doris Lessing had been prior to his arrival in the country. This invites thoughts on an interesting comparison. Contrasting Writing Revolt with the Nobel Laureate novelist’s later efforts to come to terms with her African encounters through several soul searching, personal robust engagements (not least The Golden Notebook but also the autobiographical works Under My Skin and Walking in the Shade, as well as her four visits to Zimbabwe published as African Laughter and Alfred & Emily on her parents), shows how different historiography can be - and that a historian is not necessarily better equipped to present insightful accounts into contemporary history than a novelist combining beyond fiction her life experiences with prose.

Reviewed by: Henning Melber, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation / University of Pretoria / University of the Free State.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 75 (Winter 2013/14), pp. 105-107]

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