Terence Ranger …the tragedy of white liberalism


THE death of Professor Terence Ranger in England last Friday evokes an assortment of feelings, some of them conflicting.
But to many of us, his memory is steeped in his well researched historical account of the Ndebele and Shona uprisings: Revolt in Southern Rhodesia 1896-7.
And even here, in the seemingly innocent title, lies the problem that some of us have with white liberalism.
The word ‘revolt’ in the title legitimises white occupation of our land; it reduces the uprising to an illegal action against a lawfully established authority.
The truth is white occupation of our land was illegal and the African response was legitimate.
And yet during the war at Chimoio, I met a student from Mt St Mary’s Secondary School in Hwedza who said he was inspired to come and fight by Professor Ranger’s book.
The book was published in 1967 and Ian Smith’s government immediately banned it. Professor Ranger had already been deported from Rhodesia in 1963.
Before its publication, the First Chimurenga had not been consolidated into a researched and written account.
Its narrative had existed in whispered oral form, or in periodic biased handouts that appeared in the Native Affairs Department Annual journal (NADA) by colonial native commissioners who were regarded as experts on African culture and affairs.
The whispered story was handed down from generation to generation and because of the fear that surrounded it, it got increasingly distorted.
We mourn the death of an eminent historian, someone who attempted to tell our story the way we would.
He was a great man.
And yet there was a problem, especially towards the end of his life when, interestingly, his attention drifted towards Matabeleland and the Ndebele people.
That was how he turned less historian and more political activist.
And to some extent, it was inevitable.
When liberals feel threatened, they unconsciously retreat into the collective white laager.
The strongest point about Professor Ranger’s research and account of the First Chimurenga was its objectivity because it was based on information supplied mostly by participants of the uprising.
In his report to the board of directors of the British South Africa Company (BSAC) on the uprisings in 1897, the administrator of Rhodesia, Earl Grey gave ridiculous reasons as the causes of the uprising.
He cited the incompleteness to subdue the entire Matabele nation as the major reason.
He also cited the incapacity of a backward race to give up their old habits and become part of a civilised, settled industrial community as another major cause.
Professor Ranger debunked this fallacy and described in detail why the Shona and the Ndebele took up arms to fight the invasion and occupation of their land and their subsequent subjugation as a people.
Professor Ranger described the complex organisation of the uprising against the lies peddled by the settlers that they were spontaneous raids by people hiding in caves.
He explained the role the spirit mediums played in the fighting.
He profiled the lives of the spiritual leaders like Mukwati and Mbuya Nehanda and in conclusion, he wondered ominously whether there would not be another ‘ChiMurenga’ fought for the same reasons and organised and fought along the same lines.
It was the Land Reform Programme that pushed Professor Ranger to the limit. Suddenly, he felt the collective fear of the white man over Robert Mugabe and ZANU PF’s brand of nationalism and he responded angrily by turning his sharp eyes on Matabeleland.
Ordinarily, there would be nothing wrong with anyone choosing what they wanted for research, but there was something suspicious about his selection of Matabeleland and the Ndebele people as his area of choice.
And in the process, he began to champion the Ndebele people’s alleged plight, how their rights were being trampled on by the government.
That was how he got embroiled in the dark side of Zimbabwe’s internal politics. Matabeleland has been the easiest entry point by forces that want to destabilise Zimbabwe.
In his book, I Write What I Want, Steve Biko, that iconic South African black consciousness writer described white liberals as:
“People who claim that they too feel the oppression just as acutely as the blacks and should therefore be jointly involved in the black man’s struggle.
“And because they identify with the black man’s cause, they move in their white circles feeling a lighter load, feeling less guilty, feeling that they are not like the rest.
“And because of their inferiority complex, blacks have tended to listen seriously to what the liberals had to say, even allowing them to set the pattern and pace for the realisation of the black man’s aspiration.
“The truth is the liberals in the black man’s struggle have been mostly responsible for the arrest of progress.”
From a black nationalist’s point of view, that was the tragedy of Professor Terence Ranger.


  1. Editor, Kanengoni,

    This article/critical eulogy of Professor Ranger makes for painful reading, especially for one who in the western academy looked to his works as a protective blanket under which unorthodox positions could be advanced and defended when it came to modern African political reality and the desire to have wealth redistributed to Africans (think:peasants, agro-proletariat, urban workers, unemployed, underemployed and the assortment of unpropertied citizens of modern Africa. Ranger’s work along with that of several others (think: John Saul) afforded one that defence.

    Reading the following is humbling to say the least for I like many others accepted the oppositional intentions of its framing as legitimate and correct. This correction advanced by you in the above article is another certainty shredded in the name of scientific analysis.

    Your correction will not inhibit one from reading Ranger and suggesting others read him for he delivers the factual details of Zimbabwe’s colonial beginnings and for that I am very grateful. But below is certainly worthy of serious thought and inspiring of deep rethink on Ranger’s masterwork.

    On the bye and bye, what would you have titled the work if you were asked to title it for publication given your criticism of his title and from the perspective of the assumptions of your criticism?

    The word ‘revolt’ in the title legitimises white occupation of our land; it reduces the uprising to an illegal action against a lawfully established authority.
    The truth is white occupation of our land was illegal and the African response was legitimate.

    Charles Simon-Aaron

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