Writing Revolt – An engagement with African nationalism 1957-1967, by Terence Ranger

Posted: 3 October, 2019 | Category: Book Reviews

Published by James Currey, London: Weaver Press, Harere 2013, 182 pages

Professor Terence Ranger needs no introduction to students of Africa, or to those who helped turn white-ruled southern Rhodesia into black-governed Zimbabwe in April 1980. This Oxford University academic is respected for many things: his work as a writer and historian, his stand against racism in Africa and Europe and now this, his latest book Writing Revolt which is a memoir of a turbulent time – 10 years that shook the African earth.

The short but carefully constructed work asks us to put ears to the ground and listen to the heartbeat of hope in an unborn Zimbabwean child between the birth of Ghana in 1957 and the start of a liberation war against Ian Smith’s Rhodesia ten years later.

It is also partly the story of the people and events which made a committed academic research and write what many believe is his most important work – Revolt in Southern Rhodesia 1896-7 (Heinemann, London 1967) which is Ranger’s interpretation of how the Shona and Ndebele in Zimbabwe came together – albeit briefly – to rage and howl against white occupation of their lands at the end of the 19th century.

Terry Ranger was a child of well-off middle class parents in post-war North London. He was no great success at school. “Except for literature and history I might as well not had a brain at all,” he says.
After compulsory National Service, he won a place at Oxford University and from there went on to earn himself a doctorate and then a job at University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (UCRN) in Salisbury.
In 1957, southern Rhodesia was key to the success or failure of the British-designed Central African Federation (1953-1958), the white man’s last chance of survival in the face of black nationalism storming in from the north and apartheid marching up from the south.

Instead of joining the local white community and absorbing their racial prejudices, Ranger and his wife, Shelagh, linked up with a cross- section of the leading freedom fighters of the day.

Because of that, the couple stood at an odd angle to the rest of the white community in Rhodesia – attempting to embrace black nationalism while fIercely intent on imposing the traditions of Oxford at UCRN.

Writing Revolt draws heavily on the diaries of fellow academic (and dedicated socialist) John Reed who paints fascinating psychological portraits of some of his fellow white compatriots and many of the better known African revolutionaries – Joshua Nkomo, Michael Mawema, George Nyandoro, James Chikerema, Sketchley and Stanlake Samkange, George Silundika Ndabaningi Sithole and (very briefly) Robert Mugabe.

Read this book for that alone. They are miniatures that make the reader smile, as well as weep.
At a Salisbury dinner party in the late 1950s, Reed has Terry Ranger expressing a wish to be black. “Terry, “ writes Reed,” began a debate on what it means to be African by saying how much he wishes he was black, because for the black man every door is still open, everything is still to do – a new state and a new culture to build up. He can become a great vernacular poet and still a great politician – whereas for the European everything has been done, there is nothing left.”

Like so many local and imported liberals Ranger, met the wrath of the European authorities. Later on, he also fell foul of two founder fathers of nationalism, James Chikerema and George Nyandoro for appearing to exchange his commitment from Nkomo’s ZAPU to Sithole’s ZANU after 1963.

Ranger was only a short while in Rhodesia – six years – but his achievements were big.
Not only did he script the land policy of one of the banned nationalist parties. He also edited, with Reed, a magazine called Dissent, which infuriated most whites.

Ranger launched an anti-colour bar campaign in Salisbury which saw a furious white man push the academic into the deep end of the Les Brown swimming pool in Salisbury. The following day, the caption of Ranger standing drenched but undefeated in a once well-tailored suit read – Well bred but dripping.

He was deported in 1963 and went to work as a history lecturer in Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania, in those days a revolutionary African socialist/quasi Marxist “Mecca” in east Africa.

At the end of this absorbing work, Ranger recalls how his early dreams of being black, non-violent and non-racial started to melt, like bright white snow in the sunshine.

In early 1968 (soon after the publication of Revolt in Southern Rhodesia) he sat silent and still at Dar es Salaam University as Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael told black student that they were the ‘new proletariat’ and how they must learn to hate whites.

“A history student sitting next to me was shouting ‘I do hate the whites.I do hate the whites.’ pausing to whisper to me, ‘I don’t mean you, Professor Ranger.‘

Forty-five years later Ranger’s early dream of non-violence and no-racialism in Africa still beats in certain hearts.

Students –and hopefully politicians – will read this book and remember the days when men like Terence Ranger believed that mankind’s wildest dreams might – with a bit of luck and a lot of effort – come true.

Cover of Ranger’s new book which shows from left to right) Terence Ranger, Shelagh Ranger, Maurice Nyagumbo, Joshua Nkomo, James Chikerema, Robert Mugabe and John Reed. Taken at Salisbury Airport at the departure of Ranger and his wife for Tanzania after Terence Ranger’s deportation in 1963.