Celebrating Black History Month: Citizenship, Belonging and the Political Imagination of Women in Rhodesia, by Shepherd Mutswiri

I was struck by the imposing Irish symbols and their historical meaning. The Irish Defence Forces marched on stage holding the Irish flag which had been chosen as the national flag during the Irish War of Independence in 1919.  As I sat there, I heard the national anthem and I looked up with a great sense of belonging and pride. Then we all stood up and pledged our fidelity to the Irish State. The Army Band under the command of Captain Carroll provided the music that day. The carefully choreographed ceremony was celebratory, and the mood was jovial, but it was the simple but poignant display of patriotism that was immensely moving. It left an indelible impression on me. Since then, my identity and belonging were intricately interwoven with the past and future of the Irish State, while being immensely proud to be Zimbabwean. When I look back at this internalization of symbols and images on the day of my Irish citizenship ceremony, I realise that identity is not static.

I had been a bit fraught wondering how long my application would take, but it turned out not to be an arduous wait. Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice (2011-2014) cleared a backlog of over 20,000 citizenship applications and in 2011 introduced the first-ever citizenship ceremonies in Ireland. Shatter was born to a Jewish family in Dublin. He remarked on the day of my citizenship ceremony how immigrants had contributed positively to Irish society.  Sadly, his reputation went up in flames in 2014 after a report by a barrister raised concerns about whether Minister Shatter had properly investigated complaints by a whistle-blower concerning Garda (national police force) misconduct. He would later write in his book that, ‘After my resignation from government all of the allegations that led to my political downfall would be discredited and established to be entirely untrue by two different independent statutory Judicial Commissions of Investigation’. He observed that ‘truth and justice matter but they do not inevitably win out’.[1]

Often tied to the idea of citizenship is the question: what underlies a sense of community and how is it constructed? Anderson (2006) suggested that communities are imagined through print culture.[2] Allman (2013) suggested that it is time to go beyond imagined communities that were formed through a shared print culture and explore how community was constructed through forms of culture such as song and dance to excavate claims of nationalism in performance.[3] This idea tests the limits of Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities.

Belonging is an ongoing process that involves membership in, or exclusion from a community. In this regard, when people negotiate identities, it is done so with other people’s consent.  Newcomers to a community may not be imagined to be part of that community and shared identity might not necessarily be extended to them. Furthermore, others may choose not to seek belonging or reciprocal obligations that come with certain social identities. The concept of belonging is central to our understanding of how people ascribe meaning to their lives. The ascription of ethnic identities is a common subject in African studies. Ethnic naming and how people were categorised into distinct groups during the colonial period is also essential in researching belonging. Worby (1994) observed that the power to name others, and the authority to create maps and boundaries to categorise ethnic identities and culture formed an important part of colonisation.[4] These divisions had the potential to undermine or marginalise certain groups. A similar concern with the interaction between inventions and imaginings has been central in Terence Ranger’s writing on Zimbabwean history. His early work situated this dialectic in the form of contestation between collaboration and primary forms of resistance to modern political nationalism.[5] His complementary perspective on resistance and imaginings provided a more dynamic counterpoint in the face of any repression and oppression.

I would like to go back to the point Alan Shatter made about truth and justice. It resonates with what Cornel West, a scholar of African American studies perceives to be important in any discussion about gender, race, or equality. He states that ‘The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak’.[6] In analysing the transition from the imperial system to nation-states, some voices have been misrepresented or ignored. Oppressed peoples have often used religion and culture to express their freedom. In the 1940s and 1950s, Africans were driven off their land by the colonial state and put into Reserves which led to crippling overcrowding in Makoni, Manyikaland in Zimbabwe. In 1965, the then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson sought to decolonize Southern Rhodesia and bring majority rule, but the Rhodesian Front (RF) led by Ian Smith’s minority government resisted the ‘winds of change’. To avoid majority rule, RF illegally declared independence from Britain. Although Britain was still legally responsible for Southern Rhodesia, it had great difficulty asserting power to end Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from 1965-1979. In the 1950s and 1960s, people in Makoni were desperate to align with anyone who would help them fight land alienation as a result of RF’s policies. Unfortunately, the revolutionary nationalists did not have it easy either. Nationalist parties were banned, and their revolutionary leaders were put into detention in 1964 and for 8 years there was no formal organisation of African opposition in Makoni. The banned political parties formed African National Council (ANC) and pinned their hopes on a Bishop of the American Methodist Church, Abel Muzorewa to lead the party in their absence.[7]

Women’s agency has previously been marginalised in political discourse and they were often regarded as passive observers in nationalist discourse. However, in Makoni, Ranger argued that the ANC nationalist party acquired most of its energy from the political participation of Rukwadzano Rwe Wadzimai (RRW), a women’s self-help group within the American Methodist Church.[8] The RRW women played a huge role in nationalist activities by taking part in pro-Muzorewa political protests. This mobilisation added to the fight against the colonial state, engendered by an idea of citizenship and belonging. In 1979, for the first time in the country’s history, citizenship was expanded to incorporate black Africans after Ian Smith conceded to ‘one man one vote’ to Rhodesia’s 6.5 million blacks and 268,000 whites.

Frederick Cooper has challenged historians to investigate the dynamics of citizenship in colonial Africa. Citizenship was not just about rights, but about belonging to a political unit that could make demands on its citizenry.[9] Social movements could also operate within the imperial system and make demands on the colonial state. More importantly, the political imaginations of workers, peasants or women did not always fit neatly into the nationalist framework.[10] We must reflect on the ethical importance of respecting these deeply interwoven narratives. To accommodate various imaginativeness that existed in Rhodesia, we must recapture the political imagination of RRW women through the appropriation of Christian theology and culturally idiosyncratic agency. This will require going beyond Benedict Anderson’s print capitalism’s explanation of imagined communities to looking at how political imagination was performed and articulated.

Recently scholars have looked at music and dance as forms of culture that not only construct but reflect claims of nationalism in performance. The performative art of song and dance had meaning in the lives of RRW women. Perhaps now we can begin to ask questions about how a sense of community can be constructed through songs and dance. This will allow us to get a clearer picture of the important roles played by women in mobilising and performing nationalism.

Shepherd Mutswiri is a PhD Student of History, specialising in nationalism and religion in Zimbabwe between 1960 to 1980.

[1]Alan Shatter, Frenzy and Betrayal: The Anatomy of a Political Assassination, (Dublin, 2019), pp.7-9.

[2] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York, 2006), pp. 9-37.

[3] Jean Allman, ‘Between the Present and History: African Nationalism and Decolonization’ in: John Parker and Richard Reid (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Modern African History (Oxford, 2013), 10-11.

[4] Eric Worby, ‘Maps, Names, and Ethnic Games: The Epistemology and Iconography of Colonial Power in Northwestern Zimbabwe’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 20, no. 3 (1994), pp. 371-92.

[5] Terence Ranger, ‘Connections between “Primary” Resistance Movements and Modern Mass Nationalism in East and Central Africa’, Journal of African History, 9, 3 and 4 (1968); ‘The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa’ in E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983).

[6] Cornel West, There Is Joy in Struggle, Harvard Divinity School. (2019).

[7] Luise White, Unpopular Sovereignty: Rhodesian Independence and African Decolonization (Chicago, 2015). p.214.

[8] Terence Ranger, Religion and Rural Protests: Makoni District, Zimbabwe, 1900 to 1980′, in J. Bak and G. Benecke (eds), Religion and Rural Revolt, papers presented to the Fourth Interdisciplinary Workshop on Peasant Studies, (British Columbia, 1982). p. 329.

[9] Frederick Cooper, Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa (New York, 1996). pp.266-268.

[10] Jean Allman, ‘Between the Present and History, p.10.

 

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