‘Faction Fights’ and Divergences in Zimbabwean Historiography

‘Faction Fights’ and Divergences in Zimbabwean Historiography by Glen Ncube

In his penultimate book, Bulawayo Burning: The Social History of a Southern African City 1893-1960 (2010), the late Terrence Osborn Ranger – well-known internationally as co-editor with Eric Hobsbawm of the critically acclaimed book, The Invention of Tradition, as well as for his clarion call in the 1960s for scholars to pay attention to “African agency” – returned to the unsettled debate about the 1929 urban ethnic violence – popularly known as ‘faction fights’ – which engulfed the emerging colonial Southern Rhodesian (Zimbabwe) city of Bulawayo. Re-emphasizing the ‘moral economy’ approach as the most plausible interpretation of this historically complex incident, Ranger emphatically pushed back against the dominant and long-standing ‘political economy’ narrative advanced by radical historians such as Ian Phimister and Charles van Onselen.

Taking this as one of the latest renderings in a series of robust scholarly debates in Zimbawean historiography, this piece seeks to use these historiographical ‘faction fights’ as a window into issues about historical interpretation, the shelf-life of historical positions, and the role of history and historians in everyday life. The piece also hopes to highlight some unsettled issues in Zimbabwean history, which are worthy paying attention to.

The two giants of Zimbabwean historiography

Terence Osborn Ranger and Ian Robert Phimister are regarded as the “two pioneers in the field of Zimbabwean history”. In an introduction to their book, Becoming Zimbabwe, Brian Raftopoulos and Alois S. Mlambo thanked the two historians for accepting “to act as critical interlocutors throughout the process” of book writing and further stated that “the different legacies of their work can be felt throughout the book” (Raftopoulos & Mlambo 2009, p. xxxiv).

If their given title as pioneers could be moot, their record as historians who have had an recognizable impact on Zimbabwean historiography is not in doubt. A radical, neo-Marxist scholar early on in his career, Phimister has actively produced significant histories of the colonial African labour movement; the imperial dimensions of Southern Rhodesian economic policies; colonial industrialization; and democracy and dictatorship in post-colonial Zimbabwe. This, he has achieved through both individual effort and productive collaborative partnerships. Among other key works, he reputably wrote An Economic and Social History of Zimbabwe (1988), a fascinating book that explores the formation of an exploitative colonial economy and society in Zimbabwe. Of late, Phimister has turned his hand to the vigorous mentorship of an international cast of young historians, including many black Zimbabweans, through his International Studies Group initiative, at the University of the Free State.

On his part, Ranger, who burst into the decolonial Zimbabwean intellectual scene in the late 1950s as historian and activist who aligned himself with nationalist political activity, produced a prodigious amount of both single- and co-authored works on a variety of topics including the peasantry, nationalism, religion, urban history, violence and memory, landscape, and biography, among other local topics. Ranger’s scholarship covers swathes of countryside from the Matopos (on the south-west of the country) to Makoni (on the eastern frontier), and from the bustling, historic streets of Bulawayo, to the “dark” forests of Nkayi and Lupane.

However, one other legacy of these two giants’ works will be their serious disagreements over approaches to aspects of Zimbabwean history. At turns, these bitter scholarly antagonisms seem to have taken almost ad hominem dimensions, if what Ranger said in his last book, a memoir, is anything to go by. In this memoir, entitled Writing Revolt: An Engagement with African Nationalism 1957-1967 (2013), Ranger spoke about his academic visits to the University of Cape Town during the early 1980s, revealing that “In those far off days, I was on good terms with both Ian and Charles van Onselen” – a telling reflection that these relations turned sour with time.

Debates over faction fights

Let me park these personal squabbles for a while – if not forever – and move another leg of my piece. I waded into the Ranger-Phimister debates in 2011, when a journal invited me to review Ranger’s penultimate book, Bulawayo Burning. In chapter 2 of this book, Ranger marshals a combined arsenal of secondary literature and new research that emphatically challenges Phimister and van Onselen’s use of political economy or class struggle as an explanation for the complex Bulawayo faction fights of 1929.

Perhaps I should give a bit of detail about these fights before talking at length about the bitter scholarly debates over these fights.

The notion of “faction fights” has been used by historians of Zimbabwe to refer to the African urban violence that engulfed the colonial city of Bulawayo from the Christmas Eve of 1929 and continued over the last few days of that eventful year. Although complex in their outlook, the violence was recognisably ethnic in that a belligerent alliance led by the Ndebele-speaking ringleaders in the city was determined to rid Bulawayo of what they considered insolent Shona elements of, mostly, Manyika origin.

According to historical accounts, there were violent attacks on the Shona by the Ndebele alliance, who used all sorts of available weapons. Moreover, the belongings of about 300-400 Shona-speaking people, which included clothes, bedding, sewing machines, bicycles and other personal effects, were confiscated, placed in huge piles and set on fire.

When confronted by colonial officials, the Ndebele faction said that they did all this as a defense strategy against Shona immigrants who had gone to the extent of forming gangs that were terrorizing the local Ndebele, who regarded themselves as the rightful owners of the city. Colonial officials who feared the destabilisation of colonial and city life eventually suppressed the violence.

The first historians to attempt a robust examination and explanation of this ethnic violence were Ian Phimister and Charles van Onselen who, in 1979, published an article with the title “The Political Economy of Tribal Violence” through the Journal of Southern African Studies. These two Marxist scholars, who were at that time busy documenting the development of the mining industry and the African labour movement in Southern Rhodesia, wanted to situate this violence within the “wide context of Southern Rhodesia’s political economy”. In addition to suggesting the emergence of nascent classes, they further observed two phases through which the violence unfolded: firstly, from 24-27 December when the violence took the form of gang assaults and robberies carried out by recent immigrants to the city. The second phase was when this violence mutated after 27 December and started to involve long-established workers – mainly Ndebele speakers – attacking recent migrants, who were mainly of Shona ethnic origin.

According to Phimister and van Onselen, the influx of Shona immigrants was caused by the agricultural crisis of the 1920s, which drove a number of people to the emerging urban centres in search for jobs. These recent migrants were desperate for any job they could find, and so they accepted any wages offered by employers.

These developments were resented by long-established Ndebele workers who felt squeezed out of the labour market because of this cheap labour. The violence was therefore an attempt by Ndebele city dwellers to drive out their Shona competitors.

This position was first challenged by Stephen Thornton in the early 1980s. Thornton felt that Phimister and van Onselen had invented a “contrived” situation of a transforming political economy and labour market conditions. Thornton did not find any large cohort of recent immigrants to Bulawayo to warrant historicizing them as a troublesome category. He also found that the Shona made up a very small cohort of recent immigrants to the city. His conclusion was, therefore, that the violence was part of a wider occurrence of periodic skirmishes among ethnic groups in the city.

However, a much emphatic revision Phimister and van Onselen’s position came in 2006 when the Cambridge trained Zimbabwean historian, Enocent Msindo, and Terrence Ranger mounted separate revisions of the political economy approach. In line with Thornton’s findings, Msindo considered the Phimister-van Onselen conclusions as being unsupported by evidence; and rejected the class-struggle approach of the 1970s historiography.

In contrast, he suggested an alternative interpretation that Ranger later refined as the moral economy approach. The essence of Msindo’s newer interpretation was that the violence was a result of Ndebele determination to “regain lost moral authority over Bulawayo”. The Ndebeles considered Bulawayo as their citadel, but were being confronted by the fact that it was being gradually dominated and overrun by outsiders in many respects. This domination sometimes reflected itself through insolence.

Ranger concurred with the essence of Msindo’s view that the violence was about the struggle among black Bulawayo residents over “who was to determine its culture and character”. In addition, he gave this approach a name: the moral economy approach. However, the similarities in their approaches ended there.

Ranger differed with Msindo on the sequencing and significance of the causal events leading up to the violence. He also argued that the violence was fueled by “rumours and myth[s]”of phantom gangs and the rapidly modernizing Shona cohort with loft aspirations. These modernizing Shona men were attractive to Ndebele women, and that some of them seemed to possess superpowers – known in their language as mangoromera – during the township boxing matches. In fashion, and in style, these strongly modernizing Shona men were beginning to become trendsetters in Bulawayo – a development that was bitterly resented by mostly aristocratic Ndebele men.

For Ranger, therefore, the violence was about “style Bulawayo” and the incidents of arson could be regarded as the “bon fires of the vanities” – an evocation of Tom Wolfe’s satirical 1987 novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. To my knowledge, Phimister has thus far not offered a rejoinder in defence of his and van Onselen’s position. Van Onselen is, of course, now pursuing other rewarding research interests in South Africa and ceased to be a Zimbabweanist a while ago.

The faction fights story is – from a reviewer’s point of view – still very much unfinished business.

In my review of Ranger’s Bulawayo Burning, I found it strange that specifically the Shona residents of Bulawayo seemed to be doing so well at a time when the city, the colony and the international economy were all beginning to feel the negative effects of the unfolding Great Depression. If the violence was about “style Bulawayo” and the  “bonfire of the vanities”, why did it coincide with the Great Depression?  Moreover, why should moral economy be necessarily a substitute for political economy and not a complement?

On the other hand, the political economy, class-struggle approach is a product of its time, not having engaged with the idea of the moral economy which was then emerging, but would subsequently become influential in Zimbabwean historiography. I totally understand Phimister and van Onselen’s attempt to give materialist meaning to this violence than see it as vacuous action. However, the toolkit of the historical sociologist, which did not make up part of the arsenal of 1970s historians, might be helpful in illuminating this complex case of urban ethnicity and violence for contemporary historians.

Indeed, scholars such as E. P. Thompson (social history) and James C. Scott (anthropology) have used the concept of moral economy in different contexts to illustrate the influential role of non-capitalist cultural mentalities in emerging capitalist market economies have used the moral economy approach fruitfully. To be sure, although these works both appeared in the 1970s, they could not have been as influential in Zimbabwean radical historiography whose main pre-occupation at the time was the revision of W. J. Barber’s wholesale adoption of W. Arthur Lewis’ dual sector model of “economic development with unlimited labour supplies”.

Alternating sites of debate

Although Ranger selected the 1929 “faction fights” as his last blow, on his part Phimister has focused on Ranger’s other vulnerabilities as the “godfather” of the now maligned nationalist historiography. Not only did Ranger pioneer Zimbabwean nationalist historiography, but he also actively participated in nationalist political activity until he was deported by the reactionary Smith regime in 1963.

As postcolonial Zimbabwe degenerated into chaos and crisis under the former nationalist liberation movement-turned-ruling party, ZANU PF, and a veritably authoritarian version of patriotic history emerged, Terence Ranger was personally blamed for providing the symbolic and the seminal intellectual resources to this new version of regime history through his earlier nationalist histories such as Revolt in Southern Rhodesia (1967) and The African Voice (1970). Ranger disavowed the current “patriotic history” discourse and tried to distinguish this newer version from the older nationalist historiography, which, in his view, “celebrated aspiration and modernization as well as resistance”.

However, Phimister is not convinced that that was enough, and in an article published in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies in 2012, indicted:

“Those who now piously enjoin us to distinguish between nationalist historians (‘bad’) and historians of nationalism (‘good’), are themselves guilty of special pleading (Ranger 2004, 2005). They pass too lightly over political and intellectual sympathies manifest in the 1960s and 1970s and which endured until very recently. Although the behaviour of the child long since grown to adulthood is now an embarrassment to be shunned, the long-term responsibility of the parent should be acknowledged, particularly when parent and offspring have so much in common.”

Phimister continued his indictment of Ranger by noting how “His books and articles have exercised a generally pernicious nationalist influence for over a generation”. He further argued that,

“From the fanciful extrapolations and factual misrepresentations in Revolt in Southern Rhodesia (Ranger 1967b); through the gloss applied in Peasant Consciousness and Guerrilla War (Ranger 1985), to the vicious excesses of the second Chimurenga waged by ZANLA; by way of the tin ear first displayed in The African Voice (Ranger 1970) and again evidenced by Voices from the Rocks (Ranger 1999); to the celebration of the silence of the grave in ‘Matabeleland Today’ (Ranger 1989), these invariably provided usable pasts for an authoritarian nationalism under construction from the mid-1950s onwards.”

Phimister has also recalled the debate that Ranger had with David N. Beach and Julian Cobbing over the inspiration and organisation of early colonial African uprisings of the 1890s. Both Cobbing and Beach downplayed the cohesion, charisma, spiritual character, revolutionary aspect and organizational coherence of the uprisings – the very issues that Ranger had emphasized in his works.

However, with the exception of Beach’s 1998 denial of the instrumental role played by Nehanda (who, in his view, was an “innocent woman, unjustly accused”), these revisions of Ranger’s initial work are more than 30 years old, and no further serious archival re-exploration has been undertaken to offer third party insights beyond the Ranger vs Beach/Cobbing dyad.

The Cambridge historian of east Africa, John Iliffe, who has grappled with the issues of strategic planning and group organization in a similar uprising, the Maji Maji of colonial Tanzania, has identified some patterns that can help explain the apparent spontaneity (revolt without central leadership) of African uprisings, a point emphasized by Beach in his use of the chindunduma (ripple effect) concept. Colonial historiography is known for suggesting that African resistance to colonialism lacked cohesion and organization, and that a great deal of it constituted acts of barbarism against the advance of modernity. I am not defending Ranger’s interpretations, but simply questioning the zvindunduma notion, as it also seems to be a factory fault of the colonial archive, which did not capture in full African modes of military organization. Newer works that attend to the formation of the colonial archive while also drawing on comparative insights could help unlock the interpretative logjam.

A re-appraisal of the debates, warts and all.

Indeed, aspects of Ranger’s work have been challenged in various scholarly ways, and rightly so. However, a dismissal of the entire corpus of a well-meaning professional historian impoverishes disciplinary critique and confounds young historical minds. To be sure, Phimister has previously done very beautiful critical appraisals of Ranger’s work, recognizing the potential pitfalls of its liberal inclinations, while also praising its pioneering edge.

In 1979, he authored a well-considered critical appraisal of Zimbabwean social and economic historiography. In the review, which was published by the prestigious African Affairs journal, Ranger’s African Voice (1970) was accorded critical appraisal by Phimister because “It filled a number of important gaps and went on daringly to span some of the more daunting voids in the existing knowledge of black political and social organizations” (p. 260). Phimister continued to say of the book, “As in much of Ranger’s writing, there was an extremely fertile mix of hard fact, analysis and imaginative leaps”. Indeed, Phimister also corralled alternative views that contested Rangers’ wrong “leaps” and helped expose its shortcomings.

However, one did not get the sense that about three decades later, the book would be dismissed as displaying “tin ear” tendencies, even with generous allowance for change in thinking and revision of earlier positions in the interest of deepening debate. How did an “important and influential account … [which] was a mature expression of the Africanist scholarship which then dominated Central African studies”, and which, according to Phimister, partly contributed (together with Giovanni Arrighi’s robust critique of the Barber-Lewis model)to marking the year 1970 as a watershed moment in Zimbabwean historiography, morph into an exemplar of bad historical scholarship?

The Godfathers of Zimbabwean history certainly set up an exciting and active debate around the contours, trajectories and understandings of Zimbabwean history. Their contributions, and the debates arising from them demonstrate that the historical project is never finished, but is always being rethought as historians emerge to better understand the past the and past of the present. Ranger certainly made enormous contributions to Zimbabwean historiography, as did Phimister. What their debate demonstrates is the extent to which “factional fight” (metaphorically speaking) can be quite engaging and enriching. The lesson for newer generations is to not be able to engage, or to disagree, because such interation, with professional courtesy, I crucial.

Glen Ncube

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Glen Ncube (PhD) is a Lecturer in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies at University of Pretoria. His research interests include: Medical humanities with a special focus on medicine in colonial Zimbabwe.

One comment

  1. This is an excellent contribution Glen presented in an elegant writing style. There is an irony in this subject: two leading historians studying the so-called ‘faction fights’ ending up waging ‘faction-like’ critiques of each other work.


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