Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

The Political Lives of Rhodesian Detainees during Zimbabwe's Liberation Struggle

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

The Political Lives of Rhodesian Detainees during Zimbabwe's Liberation Struggle

Article excerpt

This article explores the experiences of African political activists confined by Rhodesian authorities to remote and specially designated detention centers across Rhodesia, from the early 1960s to 1979. Unlike the prisons that held African political offenders convicted of political crimes in Rhodesian courts of law and sentenced to serve time in jail, detention centers held those Africans not charged with any crime or tried in a court of law. In the wake of increasing African political activism in Rhodesia, newly amended and legislated laws in the 1960s allowed Rhodesian authorities to impose detention orders on any persons who, in their opinion, posed a threat to the maintenance of law and order. Africans actively involved in nationalist political organizations or those suspected of actively supporting the struggle for liberation, but did not commit any prosecutable crime, risked being detained as "saboteurs," "agitators," or "provocateurs." In essence, therefore, African detainees were not "criminals" but were detained nonetheless for holding political opinions that were contrary to the Rhodesian regime. Detention was thus an especially repressive form of confinement that Rhodesian authorities deployed to confine their political opponents whom they could not prosecute in courts of law.

The objective [of detention] was to cut us off from the world, to make it forget us and us forget it. (Joshua Nkomo, The Story of My Life London: Methuen. 1984, p. 130.)

Indeed, Rhodesian authorities used both detention and imprisonment to remove political activists from their communities and to suppress African political opposition to Rhodesian white minority rule. However, whereas some political prisoners could hope to serve out their imprisonment terms and re-gain their freedom, the majority of political offenders served with "Detention Orders" and sent to detention under Rhodesia's repressive Law and Order Maintenance Act's (LOMA) faced indefinite confinement in remote detention centers across Rhodesia.4 From the Rhodesian authorities' perspective, the intended purpose of detention went beyond merely removing political activists from their communities. Detention was also meant to isolate these political activists to remote and inaccessible parts of the country and thereby render political activists and supporters of the struggle for liberation politically, intellectually, and socially dead. Cut off from the outside political world by lack of basic means of information such as radios and newspapers, and lack of communication and limited visitations, Rhodesian authorities hoped that detention would short-circuit the circulation of anti-colonial politics and ideas. Out of sight, African political activists and their active supporters would no longer foment anti-colonial activities that had led to urban political unrest and rural peasant opposition. As Joshua Nkomo-one of Rhodesia's long-time detainees-noted, "The objective [of detention] was to cut us off from the world, to make it forget us and us forget it."5 Michael Mawema, another political activist who spent a decade-and-a-half in detention, noted that "[By placing us in detention], I think the government thought we would lose complete contact with society."6

This article argues that far from being centers of isolation, detention spaces failed in their objective to completely isolate and cut off these political activists from the political world of Rhodesia. Despite Rhodesian authorities' concerted attempts to physically isolate African political activists to remote spaces of detention, detention centers were spaces in which detainees actively negotiated their incarceration and challenged rules of detention. First, I suggest that through re-organizing the detention spaces themselves and through practices designed to take control of these spaces, detainees creatively negotiated significant say over the routines of their daily lives. For example, instead of conforming to the dreary and disempowering monotony of detention life, African detainees took advantage of their captivity to empower themselves through academic and political education, political debate, and also developed powerful critiques of colonial rule through writings that were smuggled out of detention. …

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