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Archive for December, 2018

Editor’s Note: Post by Brooks Marmon. Brooks is a 3rd-year PhD student at the Centre of African Studies (CAS), The University of Edinburgh.


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The author at right with staff of the Bulawayo branch of the National Archives of Zimbabwe

On 10 November 2017, I arrived in Harare, Zimbabwe to begin what I hoped would be roughly a year of historical research in that country. I had not managed to secure the necessary clearance to access the national archives at that time, so was dearly trusting that with my feet on the ground, I could more effectively pursue the process than I had managed remotely.

Less than a week later, however, the country was rocked by a political change that would set a new dynamic for the nation and which loomed large over my entire period of research. This new environment also provided unexpected lessons for my own academic analyses – namely, the array of behaviour that political actors might exhibit during a period of crisis and how this behaviour has been recurrently used (very tenuously) in Zimbabwe to justify political attacks and remake legacies.

Although the process was somewhat protracted, Robert Mugabe, who had led the nation for nearly four decades, effectively lost power on 14 November when the military deployed against elements loyal to him and confined him to a loose house arrest. Months later, a circuitous route found him effectively endorsing the principal opposition party that had laboured against the last two decades or so of his rule.

I was in the country to research the political situation in colonial Zimbabwe in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the ‘winds of change’ blew across Africa. I sought to discover how broader developments across the continent played out in the Zimbabwean context amidst a time of great change and political tension.

Amongst several research pathways, I was particularly eager to learn more about lesser-acknowledged personalities, figures who had often been discarded by history for not being seen to be resolute in their convictions. Concurrent with this research, I was experiencing my own historical moment firsthand with a similar trend marking the end of the Mugabe era.

Mugabe’s fall and the rise of his former vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, engendered a transformation, which witnessed the overt discarding of a carefully cultivated Zimbabwean militancy that emerged during the nationalist struggle of the 1960s and which was renewed by the land reform program of the 2000s. That, in the months after the coup, Mugabe himself tacitly endorsed his erstwhile former opposition, whom he had long derided as servants to neo-colonial interests, confirmed to me the value and need to cast a wide research net to understand all the actors who contribute to and shape transformative periods.

On the afternoon of 14 November, the first sign of an impending coup against Mugabe came with the news that tanks had been sighted heading towards central Harare during the day. Subsequently, the late-night news on the national broadcaster did not air, giving rise to all sorts of predictions. Into the early hours of the morning, I was hostage to my Twitter feed. I recall a number of reports about gunfire and explosions around central Harare – close to where I lodged. I discounted these as a thunderstorm – the only thunderstorm that I can recall taking place during nearly a year of residence in Harare.

Sleep eventually overtook me, and I awoke the next morning to news reports that were vague, but essentially noting that action had indeed been taken which indicated that the game was up for President Mugabe. I had an early interview set with a colonial era civil servant, an immigrant from Britain who had remained in the country. As I traipsed to the bus terminus, passing the street which housed parliament and a number of government buildings, I could see one of the tanks guarding an intersection, occasionally belching out black smoke. All pedestrians stayed well clear to the opposite side of the street.

This was Zimbabwe’s first coup, but by and large, life seemed to continue as usual. Buses were running, most shops were open, and throughout the course of my research in the days before Mugabe officially resigned, I was able to continue to set appointments, none of which were cancelled and where the interview subjects were able to reflect on a much earlier period, without digressing too much to the ongoing developments. The most overt manifestation of the political crisis which had a direct impact on me was when I was not able to access the University of Zimbabwe campus bookstore, following a student demonstration.

This resolve to carry on, but with many also desiring genuine change, echoed the period of my research – where amidst major political developments, inhabitants (and the government) also sought to maintain (or project) a sense of normalcy in spite of widely prevailing uncertainty and during which the desires of many to make sacrifices to bring about a change for a more equitable society were often tempered by actions which mitigated against that goal. For example, several figures from my research, like Noel Mukono, John Chirimbani, James Chikerema, and Ndabaningi Sithole, who had played prominent roles in escalating the armed struggle against the minority government in the 1960s, subsequently entered into an agreement with the same government in the following decade, which preserved strong elements of white privilege.

I eventually obtained the necessary permit to access the Harare branch of the National Archives of Zimbabwe in March, which temporarily endeared me to the self – proclaimed ‘new dispensation’ – vocabulary introduced by the new administration to emphasise its distance from former President Mugabe.

During my period of fieldwork in Zimbabwe, I examined a large number of archival documents and interviewed approximately 40 individuals with memories of my period of study. But perhaps my greatest lessons came from the context around me, which allowed me to get a better grasp of the dynamics of a period sixty years previously, where I have also been struck by the manner in which a surge of activism co-existed with the mundane; a time when political figures often changed allegiances and allies, fell susceptible to accusations of being sell – outs, and rapidly reversed or realigned core beliefs.

Zimbabwe has experienced a number of crises since that time, each leaving an indelible impact. Mugabe’s government battled assiduously against the minority government that it replaced, and his successor had manoeuvred against him, with his supporters now creating distance between the two by referring to Zimbabwe’s ‘second republic.’ Verbal and physical attacks on ‘stooges’, individuals seen as being political sell outs, which came on the scene during my era of research, continue today, although they ring increasingly hollow.

While researchers are interested in the dynamics of conflict and confrontation, I was keenly aware that during my fieldwork, my own (selfish) overriding interest was that stability would prevail, despite the intellectual stimulation and sense of hope for a more open political environment wrought by the unexpected developments. This personal lesson was reinforced when tensions rose again during the national election at the end of July and Mugabe, in a bizarre presser where he lamented the poor state of his opulent home, stunned the world by embracing the opposition party he had once derided.

As I begin to write my thesis, the experience of living in Zimbabwe amidst a time when many political actors abruptly realigned and renounced old allegiances is an asset as I seek to analyse a number of seemingly contradictory and paradoxical moments in the history of colonial Zimbabwe.

Hopefully my personal lessons from Zimbabwe’s first coup, the realisation that was best for my research agenda could clash with the interests of others and witnessing firsthand the convenient discarding of long cherished rhetoric from political leaders like Mugabe who strove to appear unrelentingly unrepentant, will help ensure that my research more fully considers the aspirations and motivations of a range of political actors, including those who defy easy characterisation and whose later actions have been used to justify a retrospective erasure of their earlier militancy.

Zimbabwe’s history, both colonial and modern, denotes that there are no easy answers to complex crises. I trust that as a result of the monumental events during my fieldwork, my thesis is now better situated to acknowledge and interpret the complex dynamics that mark Zimbabwean politics and historiography.

 

 

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