Friday, 6 March 2020

No 98 - A new study of "Rhodesians"

Katherine Withers: Those were the days, my friend: A literary history of Rhodesian discourse in colonial times and beyond.

A number of recent studies have explored various constructions of ‘whiteness’ in Zimbabwe, especially the lingering and modified forms of pre-Independence ‘Rhodesian’ identity. I was raised myself on some of those constructions: arrogant in its very modesty, mythically self-sufficient, self-deceivingly racist. Studies by McDermott Hughes, Rory Pilosoff, Andrew Hartnack and others have tended to focus on the farming community. While an important segment of white society – thrust into the limelight by the post-2000 land reform process – that is only one slice of a broader community that was numerically more urban, artisanal and administrative, and more internally rifted, than Ian Smith-stimulated legends of the archetypal ‘Rhodesian’ imply. Moreover, such conceptions of Rhodesian-ism evolved subtly over the century or so of white occupancy. Imperial ideals of the 1890s, while lingering long beyond their natural demise, are markedly different from the decidedly anti-British sentiments of the Smith period, and different again from the new sense of belonging residual white residents after 1980 were obliged to forge – or tried to fend off.

We should not be surprised to find that, on close examination, even so apparently coherent a community as ‘white Rhodesian’ – like many other ethno-social entities which come to be defined more by a public stereotype than by the more complex reality on the ground – proves to be somewhat fractured and mobile. Still, stereotypes emerge for a reason, and some always find societal comfort and belonging in conforming to that stereotype, providing a centre of gravity for belonging, however fissiparous it might get around the edges. It was not all, or not only, clinging to the 'lifestyle' of the suburban tea-gathering depicted on this book's cover.

So how do actors within such a community actually express their values and sense of belonging? What might constitute a so-called 'Rhodesian discourse'? There are any number of ways, of course: through physical objects and places, aesthetics of architecture and landscaping, and through more cultural artefacts like paintings, novels, memoirs, more or less self-serving histories, and songs. We older folk remember the words and melody of the war-time song that Ian Smith’s son-in-law Clem Tholet sang about fighting through thick and thin and keeping the enemy north of the Zambezi.

Katherine Withers’ study of this unfolding sense of identity concentrates on the literary end of such discursive productions. Her title Those were the days, my friend come from another song, not Rhodesian particularly, but which I remember being popular in the late 60s and ‘70s. It captures the nostalgia that still suffuses segments of ex-‘Rhodies’, especially those that populate some online sites. But Withers' title is laden with irony: the study is far from being a retrospective defence or justification for white rule or supremacism. Nor is it a conventionally left-wing assault on an immoral regime. Withers, being English-born and a trained historian, has the capacity to take a level-headed view of the phenomenon, while being resident in Zimbabwe long enough to have an insider’s understanding.

The back-cover blurb reads:

1890 was not the beginning of white settlement in the land between the two great rivers, the Limpopo and the Zambezi, but it was a defining moment, as the Pioneer Column sent by businessmand politician, Cecil John Rhodes, made its way north from Bechuanaland to Matabeleland. Why did they and their many successors come to the country they called ‘Rhodesia’? What were their attitudes to the land where they settled and its indigenous people? What were the consequences of their perceptions?

Against compact chapters of historical context, then, Withers explores how selected literary works exemplified and amplified overlapping, sometimes conflicting, and evolving senses of Rhodesian identity. These works include memoirs such as those of Ian Smith, Ken Flower and Doris Lessing, Illuminating insights arise from unusual comparisons, such as Terence Ranger’s historical study Bulawayo Burning with Yvonne Vera’s Butterfly Burning. The  crucial themes of Rhodesian-Zimbabwean history – the mythology of the ‘Pioneers’, the land question, the traumas of the war, the ambivalent position of the churches in wartime – are touched on. The examples are selective but provocative, showing ways of integrating historical evidentiality with the less tangible operations of emotion and sentiment that is the stuff of literature – and therefore also the engine of history. Each chapter could, and should, spawn further in-depth studies of this kind. It’s a wide-ranging, lucid, and sometimes unsettling read.

The book is distributed from East London. Contact 
Bridget Egan, <bridgetegan@cybersmart.co.za>.  
Also available on Amazon Kindle.

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