I thought a conference celebrating Terrence Ranger's life and work would be as good a venue as I might find to ask a question that had been nagging at me since I started working on Zimbabwe. 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? How do we write history in which living people are subjects, informants, authors, archives, and actors? How do we understand our sources, and how do we demarcate between them- what's primary, what's secondary, what's fact, what's fiction?
These are important questions for the historiography of liberation movements. After all, we rarely believe every word of a prison memoir or of the confessional narratives of the jailors. Many of these accounts are written years after the events they describe; sometimes they depict events with great acuity and other times they revise events for political and self-serving reasons. Fiction, at least contemporary fiction, has the advantage of contemporary context: not all autobiographies have that, especially when they've been edited or corrected in any way. But what if the editings and emendations are contemporary as well? What if what has been added reveals contemporary relationships and situations that can make up for the years that have passed between the experience of political activism and the writing thereof? This question complicates Ranger even more than the paragraph above indicates, because he was fictionalized before he ever published a book in African history.
Ranger appears in a 1966 novel, Explosion, the first of five novels by the Rhodesian author Mema Wilson. Set in Rhodesia in an amorphous early 1960s, it contains many of the tropes that were even by 1966 becoming commonplace in Rhodesian fiction: the shock and violence of rampaging rebels in the Congo, family dramas in which every son hates his father, and in which some of those sons watch their mothers in sexual acts, consensual and otherwise. Unlike much Rhodesian fiction of the 1960s and 1970s, married couples aren't very happy either, but resolve their differences by the end of the book.1
Explosion takes place at the Polyphemus Mine, some ninety miles from Salisbury. After the obligatory scene of the young, traumatized white couple fleeing Katanga, they settle in the mine where the "Z.U." enforcer runs afoul of Big John Mbale, exemplary boss boy and staunch traditionalist. Big John alone refuses to pay dues so that Chimuzu, Z.U.'s leader, can fly around the world, and assaults the dues collector. To get even, Chimuzu travels to Salisbury to lean on Big John's son, Ben, a university student who has already been propelled in the right direction by "Professor Grainger." "Grainger" organized both African and European students to sit-in "and force a change in the colour-bar rules" at "Shackles" Hotel.2 Ben had not wanted to be part of the sit-in, "but the Professor had an uncomfortable way of ... well ... despising and sneering at those who objected." Besides, Ben feared he would not get a good pass if he "opposed the Professor." Chimuzu praises Ben's participation in the sit-in: "it's a pity we lost Grainger," he says, "he was a Moscow trained man, an excellent man, although his skin was the wrong colour." Z.U. needs someone to collect dues on campus, and if Ben were to take on this task he could get a scholarship to Russia. Ben has no interest in studying in the USSR, but Chimuzu promises to keep the Youth League against harming Ben's father. Ben feels helpless, and agrees, but Chimuzu is not a man of his word: Big John's house is petrol bombed and his wife is killed.3
Why am I bothering with a minor trash novel? After all, how different is Professor Grainger in Wilson's first novel than, say, Jomo Kenyatta appearing in the background of an Ngugi novel? Grainger himself doesn't even appear in the novel; he is recalled, and then only in the first thirty pages of the book. At worst, we have an unflattering and inaccurate portrait of Ranger used to give a text some authority, just as a reference to a Kenyatta might do in a novel of 1950s Kenya. …