Discussion: Terence Ranger in Fact and Fiction*

By White, Luise | The International Journal of African Historical Studies, May 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Discussion: Terence Ranger in Fact and Fiction*


White, Luise, The International Journal of African Historical Studies


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. At best, we have fears and fictions that make Ranger more powerful and menacing than he actually was, fictions that show his linkages not to progressive circles in Britain but to Moscow, and that flesh out fragments found in archives. So, for example, when I read that in 1961 the minister for native affairs announced that Ranger and his wife had been permanently banned from visiting Gokwe, where many detainees had just been transferred, it gives us an idea why.4

But would we need to know why, really? Is it possible to imagine someone researching the history of Southern Rhodesia, or Rhodesia, or Zimbabwe, who might need to be informed of Ranger's importance to the twentieth century history of one or all of those countries? Hardly. The pro-apartheid right wing made a big deal about Ranger before Revolt in Southern Rhodesia was published in 1967. Ranger gets several pages in The Puppeteers, a panic-stricken book about the threats to white rule in Southern Africa that is little more than a list of who's who in liberation support and anti-apartheid movements.5 It wasn't only the right that wrote about Ranger however: he is one of the major figures in the second half on Michael Gelfand's history of the University College of Rhodesia.6 Gelfand's account became the basis for another fictional Ranger, this time as "Hudson" in an unproduced play written by Dambudzo Marechera after his return to Zimbabwe from Britain. The play, The Stimulus of Scholarship. A Drama by Buddy, was serialized in Focus, a student magazine at the University of Zimbabwe, in 1983-84.7

The play begins with Hudson insisting that student residences at UCR should be integrated. It would save the already cash-strapped university much needed funds, and will give African students "the stimulus of scholarship which they lack at the moment" while European students will be able to be with students "as intelligent as themselves." An offstage voice laughs at him, calling him a "commie from Britain." Hudson walks off, muttering, "What a fucking country." In Scene 2, Hudson tries to bring Africans and Asians to swim in a municipal pool. There are arguments and accusations that Hudson is influencing "the poor ignorant bastards to think they're as good as Europeans," and that it's "his kind gets our daughters raped like in the Congo." Finally someone pushes Hudson into the pool, twice, so that a journalist can get a photo for the newspaper. In Scene 3 Hudson brings a group of black and white students to a restaurant- not Shackles- where he has made reservations; they are refused service, but not before a young white woman kisses her black boyfriend. Scene 5 is the longest and most developed of the play, recounting the painful story of where Sarah Chavanduka, the only African woman admitted to UCR in 1957, was to be housed. Shunted between the African men's residence, to rooms in warden's homes, to a separate floor of the European women's residence, Hudson is her only advocate, struggling to protect her, and the reputation of the university.8

So: if everyone knows Ranger's importance as a political activist in the country, how do we write the history that he has made, especially when some of our sources are the historiography he has, if not made, helped to produce? These are messy questions for which I will have messy answers. Let me begin to address them with a reading of Maurice Nyagumbo's memoir, With the People.

The authorship Nyagumbo's memoir is as complicated as anyone might wish. The actual memoir is a third version: earlier drafts were destroyed by various prison authorities, and Nyagumbo firmly believed that he was able to write this version so quickly because of the "practice" he had gained in the first two drafts. (That, and because there were no raids on prisoners' cells in Que Que Prison). This published version may have been smuggled out of Que Que in 1974 by a visitor, or perhaps taken out by Nyagumbo when he was released as part of détente. When Nyagumbo was arrested again in April 1975, a friend took the manuscript to England. In 1980, when the manuscript was being readied for publication, John Conradie, who had met Nyagumbo in Salisbury Prison in 1976, made corrections, clarifications, and elaborations based on his own prison conversations with Nyagumbo and Nyagumbo' s letters to the Rangers. Ranger was tasked with revising Nyagumbo's four-chapter clan history into one chapter of family history, and Conradie wrote an epilogue carrying the story of the Nyagumbo family into the present.9

Is this a problem? Not in the historiography of political lives in African history: authorship has never been our issue. African historians have been working with as-told-to, ghost written, and edited memoirs for years.10 We know but never formally acknowledge that the autobiographies of, say, General China or John Okello were written by someone else.11 But the comparisons between a memoir by a Mau Mau general with a complicated past and Nyagumbo's autobiography don't hold up: such books were ghosted by editors or journalists or young left-leaning hangers on who had no desire to be historians of East African nations. We don't grapple with Clive Sanger or John Nottingham as scholars of the period the books they ghosted are about.12 Nevertheless, in an era- or eras- when historians wanted insiders' histories of African politics, these texts held their ground. The purpose of these texts was to provide political truths, not authorial ones. There was nothing to be gained by worrying if this or that memoir was autobiography or biography.13

A challenge to the celebration of Marxified political heroes began in the late 1980s- not because theses texts were co-authored, but because they were too male, too much in the tradition of great men.14 Well into the 1990s life histories, most especially women's life histories, were to be a corrective to the statist emphasis in African history; they would bring individuals to bear witness to social history. There was a body of literature that argued that the situation of an interview, or the relationship of the researcher to the informant, would influence the resulting text- the better the relationship, the better the text.15 But if women's life histories are now the stuff of nostalgia, the question of relationship remains central to this essay. Ranger's relationship to Nyagumbo, as comrade and friend and scholarly authority, is the basis for the letters I will write about. In Nyagumbo's memoir, however, the relationship and the correspondence it produced are naturalized, a fact of life in the straggle, so obvious that no explanation or discussion is necessary. In this way, for all its corrections and emendations, With the People is a throwback to those heady and un-interrogated days of the late 1960s: political autobiographies should reveal political truths. And of course this gets me back to where I started, albeit with a deeper context: if the political truths come from corrections and recollections from a comrade who was an historian, what kind of history are we talking about?

We're talking, to be blunt, about a history that is deeply embrocated with its historiography, which is messy, but not always a bad thing. Thus, With the People offers a far richer portrait of Nyagumbo than an un-amended autobiography or a ghost-written one would have been. The reason is not Conradie's additions or Ranger's elaborations, but because of the inclusion of non-autobiographical writings by Nyagumbo. His letters to one or both Rangers (and John Reed) provide a new mode of the presentation of his self (not, mind you, himself) in the letters than we get in the memoir. It's not that the letters are more reliable or accurate than his published memoir, but that they are so different from it. African historians have only recently begun to look at genres of writing in Africa.16 Some scholars have begun to explore the kind of spaces letters occupy: letters were central to both private writing and public reading- a self "launched" across space and time for the scrutiny of others.17 Letters are thus a special kind of imaginary; letter writers know their intended authence, and craft documents that described their experiences and asserted the rights that accrued from those experiences.18 Perhaps as important, letters were easier- a relative term, to be sure- to get out of prison than other kinds of documents.19 Overall, the reading and writing of letters was a collaborative effort,20 and political prisoners, especially one as experienced as Nyagumbo, might expect their letters to be widely circulated.

If Nyagumbo wrote letters to various ministries about prison conditions, they are not included in his memoir. Indeed, they might not have been available to Conradie. Instead what makes these letters so interesting is that they are personal, in that they are about Nyagumbo himself. His letters only occasionally condemn the conditions of detention; more often they convey things about him that are not stressed in the memoir; the inclusion of the letters in With the People makes the text, and the person of Nyagumbo, much richer than the memoir alone does. His letter to Shelagh Ranger from Dar es Salaam in May 1963 communicates just how on edge being out of Southern Rhodesia made him. Two months later, he wrote to Ranger asking him to help pressure George Nyandoro to defect from Nkomo's leadership. But it is the selected letters- selected "to give a fuller account of Nyagumbo's life"- that Nyagumbo wrote to the Rangers from prison that flesh out Nyagumbo. Read in sequence or as a single body these letters are remarkable. They present families, passports for families, education- his own and Mugabe's- and the remodeling of Que Que into a panopticon. When eight guerrillas were brought to Que Que in 1973, Nyagumbo learns that the freedom fighters "are being guided by the 'Mwari cult,' just as you mention in Revolt. This raised our spirits very high."21

This overlap of Ranger the comrade and Ranger the scholar gives pause, however; these letters complicate both Ranger and Nyagumbo. On the one hand, it appears that Ranger the scholar) nailed it, the Mwari cult has shaped armed struggle for almost eighty years. On the other, there's that nagging feeling, why did Nyagumbo learn about the Mwari cult from Revolt and not his own experience in the struggle?

And speaking of experience, how (and where) should one draw the line between Ranger the comrade and Ranger the scholar? Ranger the comrade carried letters from Lusaka to Dar es Salaam. These letters hastened the unraveling of ZAPU and Nyerere's rejection of Nkomo, events that blindsided ZAPU dissidents who had hoped to replace Nkomo while he was in Eastern Europe raising funds. How did Ranger know all this? He had gone to Lusaka for an academic conference, and in Dar he was the guest of Herbert Chitepo, formerly Nkomo's lawyer and in 1963 director of public prosecutions in Tanzania, and thus privy to a range of conversations about the future of ZAPU. Ranger first wrote an account of these events as a "present recollection" privately circulated in 1978; they were reprinted in Nyagumbo's memoir, in part to flesh out Nyagumbo's account of the period.22

Where does this leave us? How do we understand a text like Nyagumbo's in which Ranger figures in so many ways, and in which Nyagumbo's letters to Ranger become a source that can be used to elaborate and clarify Nyagumbo's own third draft of his autobiography? There are two ways to think about this. First, it's unlikely that a singleauthored memoir could do justice to a liberation straggle in which no one stays put. Comrades go in and out of parties, factions within parties, jails, and countries. A single voice, or even a single subject position of narration, cannot do justice to the history. Second (and what I recommend), is to read the memoir for its additions and letters and emendations. With the People is at times an assemblage precisely because the liberation struggle was more often than not sutured together. It's not just that a political life from 1960s and 1970s Zimbabwean nationalism requires several authors- or several selves from different points in a life- but that the disruptions to the narrative of nationalist straggle tell a different, possibly more accurate story, than the narrative does.

But do the letters and interventions tell a story because they are letters and interventions, or because of the quality of the relationship behind the letters? The letters and interventions in and of themselves may provide more nuance than their use as primary sources. In 1995 Ranger published a biography of an African family with which he had close and unwavering ties. This time, however, he problematized the intimacies of his past and present. Ranger the activist had been guided through the maze of African politics and opinion in Rhodesia in the early 1960s by Stanlake Samkange; years later he had access to research materials because of that friendship. Indeed, Ranger researched the Samkange family in the Samkange house, with its boxes of private papers, letters, and the trunks that had been stored in the laundry room. He only needed a collection of missionary letters from the National Archives and his own archive of letters from Sketchly Samkange, a founder of the National Democratic Party, to finish the project.23 Here the messy questions have a simple answer: the intimacy of the relationship produced the archive and the history. But in this history, with its attention to the different voices and inflections of generations of Samkanges, the sutures and the scars aren't there for all to see, and it is somehow flatter, a more linear history than Nyagumbo's account of the same era.

* An earlier version of this paper was presented at "Making History: Terrence Ranger and African Studies," held at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, October 14-15, 2010. 1 am grateful to the organizers and participants for their comments and suggestions, especially Teresa Barnes, James Brennan, Terrence Ranger, and Tim Scarnecchia. Steve Davis, Laura Fair, and AIioune Sow commented on later drafts.

1 For very different readings of this body of fiction, see Anthony Chennells, "Rhodesian Discourse, Rhodesian Novels, and the Zimbabwe Liberation War," in N. Bhebe and T. Ranger, eds., Society in Zimbabwe's Liberation War, vol. 2 (Harare: University Press of Zimbabwe, 1995), 102-29; and David Copyright ©2011 by the Board of Trustees of Boston University.

McDermott Hughes, Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

2 My guess is that "Shackles" is a play on "shekels" and not the chains of bondage.

3 Merna Wilson, Explosion (London: Robert Hale, 1966), 28-30, 73-74. Ellipses in original.

4 Cabinet Minutes, 23 May and 18 July 1961. Ian Smith Deposit, Cory Library, Rhodes University, Grahamstown (CL)/Box 13. The same minister recalled that he could have deported Ranger on several occasions, but "I didn't think that he should have the satisfaction." H..J. Quinton interview, Salisbury, May 1977, and May 1978, National Archives of Zimbabwe (NAZ)/ORAL/QU 2.

5 Harold Soref and Ian Greig, The Puppeteers: An Examination of Those Organizations and Bodies Concerned with the Elimination of the White Man in Africa (London: Tandem, 1965), 35-39, 70.

6 Michael Gelfand, A Non-Racial Island of Learning: A History of the University College of Rhodesia from Its Inception to 1966 (Gwelo: Mambo Press, 1978), 217-22, 233-39.

7 Flora Veit-Wild, "Words as Bullets: The Writing of Dambudzo Marechera," Zambezia 14, 2 (1987), 121.

8 "The Stimulus of Scholarship: A Drama by Buddy (alias: D. Marechera)," in Flora Veit-Wild, Dambudzo Marechera: A Sourcebook of His Life and Work (London: Hans Zell, 1992), 98-107.

9 Maurice Nyagumbo, With the People: An Autobiography from the Zimbabwe Struggle (London: Allison and Busby, 1980), 7-11. John Conradie's papers in Rhodes House, Oxford, contain all the notes on his editorial decisions regarding Nyagumbo's memoir, decisions that are beyond the scope of this essay.

10 Writings about Rhodesian counter-insurgency have long specialized in this. See Lt. Col. Ron ReidDaIy as told to Peter Stiff, Selous Scouts Top Secret War (AIberton, South Africa: Galago, 1982), and Peter Stiff, See You in November: Rhodesia's No-Holds-Barred Intelligence War (AIberton, South Africa: Galago, 1985), which narrates a life so secret that it cannot be named as a co-author. There is another genre of Rhodesian war memoirs, in which anything the author did not see can be filled in with secondary sources. See, for example, Jim Parker, Assignment Selous Scouts: Inside Story of a Rhodesian Special Branch Officer (AIberton: Galago, 2006), for whom I am an authoritative source, 292.

11 Waruhiu Itote (General China), "Mau Mau" General (Nairobi: East Africa Publishing House, 1967); John Okello, Revolution in Zanzibar (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1967).

12 The exception isn't even an exception. Ruth First ghost wrote Oginga Odinga's Not Yet Uhuru: The Autobiography of Oginga Odinga (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), but never wrote about Kenya.

13 See, for example, Luise White, "Separating the Men from the Boys: Constructions of Sexuality, Gender, and Terrorism in Central Kenya, 1939-59," International Journal of African Historical Studies 23, 1 (1990), 1-25, and Marshall S. Clough, Mau Mau Memoirs: History, Memory, and Politics (Boulder, CO: Lynn Reiner, 1998).

14 See Susan Geiger, "Tanganyikan Nationalism as Women's Work: Life Histories, Collective Biographies, and Changing Historiography," Journal of African History 37, 3 (1996), 465-78.

15 I'm oversimplifying here, but only slightly. See Susan Geiger, "Women's Life Histories: Content and Method," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 11, 2 (1986), 334-51; Marjorie Mbilinyi, "Td Have Been a Man': Politics and the Labor Process in Producing Personal Narratives," in Personal Narratives Group, eds., Interpreting Women's Lives (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 204-27.

16 The association of Africa with orality had as much to do with the professionalization of African studies as an academic concern as it did with practices on the twentieth century ground. See David William Cohen, Stephan F. Miescher, and Luise White, "Introduction: Voices, Words, and African History," in Luise White, Stephan F. Miescher, and David William Cohen, eds., African Words, African Voices: Critical Practices in Oral History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 1-27; Karin Barber, "Introduction: Hidden Innovators in Africa," in Karin Barber, ed., Africa's Hidden Histories: Everyday Literacy and the Making of the Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 1-24; Derek Peterson and Giacomo Macólo, "Introduction: "Homespun Historiography and the Academic Profession," in Peterson and Macólo, eds., Recasting the Past: History Writing and Political Work in Modern Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009), 1-28.

17 Barber, "Hidden Innovators," 17-18; Keith Breckenridge, "Love Letters and Amanuenses: Beginning the Cultural History of the Working Class Public Sphere in Southern Africa, 1900-1933," Journal of Southern African Studies 26, 3 (2000), 337-48.

18 Megan Vaughan, "Mr. Mdala Writes to the Governor: Negotiating Colonial Rule in Nyasaland," History Workshop Journal 60 (2005), 171-88; Catherine Burns, "The Letters of Louisa Mvemve"; Vukili Khumalo, "Ekukhanyeni Letter Writers: A Historical Inquiry into Epistolary Network(s) and Political Imagination in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa," and Lynn M. Thomas, "Schoolgirl Pregnancies, LetterWriting, and 'Modern' Persons in Late Colonial Kenya," in Barber, Hidden Histories, 78-112; 213-42, and 190-207; Derek R. Peterson, "The Intellectual Lives of Mau Mau Detainees," Journal of African History 49 (2008), 73-91.

19 See especially Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, "Mau Mau" Detainee (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964).

20 I take this term from Breckenridge, "Love Letters," 347.

21 Nyagumbo, With the People, 170-71, 181, 207-12.

22 Nyagumbo, With the People, 173-75.

23 Terence Ranger, Are We Not Also Men? The Samkange Family and African Politics in Zimbabwe, 1920-64 (London: James Currey, 1995), vii-x.

[Author Affiliation]

By Luise White

University of Florida (lswhite@ufl.edu)

[Author Affiliation]

Luise White is professor of history at the University of Florida. Her most recent book is The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo: Texts and Politics in Zimbabwe (Indiana University Press, 2003). She is currently working on a history of the Rhodesian state.

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