Review of Terence Ranger’s ‘Writing revolt’ – By Clayton Peel
An “˜intrepid’ historian, pragmatist, and African nationalist
Archives from an epoch-making era unburdened in a profoundly personal yet pulsating new book
Prof Terence Ranger’s new book, Writing Revolt, was launched to a packed audience at the Friends Meeting House in Oxford on 6 March. The latest literary offering from the accomplished historian, writer and contemporary political analyst, Writing Revolt has been acclaimed as not just an authoritative insider’s account of the goings-on as the British colony of Southern Rhodesia trundled on from being an imperial outpost, to rebellious minority white rule engaged with a home-grown revolt by African nationalists. The book is also, according to Cambridge Emeritus Professor John Lonsdale, an “enthralling account” where “one can watch Terence Ranger facing the self-imposed tests of moral courage when liberal principles confronted the increasingly bitter uncertainties of nationalist struggle in Rhodesia…”.
The 182-page account begins with Ranger’s middle England background: well-read, but not so much exposed to the Africa that would become a central feature of his academic, political, and social life. Going to Oxford did a great many things – including introducing him to his wife-to-be, Shelagh – but, as Ranger himself admits, “Oxford did nothing to educate me about Africa”. What it did was make Ranger “a rigorous archival historian, which I remained throughout my years in Rhodesia”, he says.
Thanks to that rigour, we have a whole era of southern African history that bears the signature of Prof Ranger and his research. This rigour is apparent in the meticulous detail of his recollections of events included in the latest book, helped by his personal experiences and a well-constructed and preserved archive of his personal and academic writings.
Writing Revolt is a tribute to the years of social consciousness enacted; to the relationships with nationalists and nationalism made and sustained; and to a perceptive mind which has documented and interpreted southern Africa and its politics for generations trapped in their preconceptions. That will be Ranger’s enduring contribution to African History and political consciousness.
A self-described “intrepid” son to parents who were themselves politically and socially conscious, albeit in Britain’s domestic and Second World War contexts, Ranger mixes with people like Guy and Molly Clutton-Brock, Sketchley Samkange, John Reed, Eileen and Michael Haddon, Eleanor Glynn-Jones, and others among the enlightened minority of the white population in the Rhodesias and Nyasaland who saw the futility of the minority rule project.
Ranger chronicles the multi-racial “partnership” experiment at the University in Salisbury; the activism of the multi-racial Christian Action Group and later the Campaign Against the Colour Bar, alongside the re-emergence of the Southern Rhodesian African National Congress; the turmoil of the Central African Emergencies which saw the detention and trials of prominent figures; the formation and banning of the NDP, its replacement by ZAPU, and the later emergence of ZANU; and, not least illustrious, Prof Ranger’s celebrated editorship of the journal, Dissent.
In all these activities, Mrs Shelagh Ranger is depicted as far more than Prof Ranger’s “other half”. She is a co-participant in the Congress meetings, a committed lobbyist against the many extremes of the Rhodesian regime, a valiant channel of compassion to detainees and their families, and the prime target of a nocturnal police raid.
Writing Revolt is framed by the Rangers’ personal circumstances, without detracting from the heroism of the African nationalists themselves. The book was toasted at the Oxford launch by Douglas Johnson and Robin Palmer, with songs from the Bethnal Green Zimbabwe Association choir. The Rangers may have retired to Oxford, where they first met. But the events recorded in this book will forever bind them to Zimbabwe. Some day, that country, in an enlightened era devoid of the present rancour of a nationalist project gone sour, will remember and honour those who fought the settler-colonialist project with a vision that was not blinded by prejudice of any sort. The heroes of Writing Revolt must surely benefit from that acclaim.
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This review first appeared in the BZS Review, the quarterly publication of the Britain Zimbabwe Society.
Readers may also be interested in the extended interview with Professor Ranger on the History Workshop Journal blog, www.historyworkshop.org.uk/terence-ranger-life-as-historiography/
Clayton Peel, Dept of Communication, Daystar University, Nairobi.