Terence Ranger. Voices from the Rocks: Nature, Culture and History in the Matopos Hills of Zimbabwe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. x + 305 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-21288-7; $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-253-33527-2.
Reviewed by Elaine Windrich (Stanford University)
Published on H-Africa (August, 1999)
In his bibliographical essay on "Zimbabwe and the Long Search for Independence" in David Birmingham and Phyllis Martin's History of Central Africa: the Contemporary Years Since 1960 (Longman, 1998), Terence Ranger pointed out that there was then "no account available of the experience of Ndebele-speakers over the last hundred years" (p. 300). Now, with Voices from the Rocks, together with the forthcoming study of Nkayi and Lupane Districts in northern Matabeleland (by Ranger et al.), the modern history of Matabeleland will at last be thoroughly documented. The new book also provides a welcome addition to the author's earlier work, Peasant Consciousness and Guerrilla War (Currey, 1985), an agrarian history of the predominantly Shona-speaking Makoni District in eastern Zimbabwe.
Matobo District, the subject of this volume, did indeed offer the contrast with Makoni District that Ranger was seeking, for it had no towns, little rain, no resettlement schemes and few markets for peasant produce. It also offered a large archival collection in the National Archives of Zimbabwe, to which scholarly research on Matabeleland was limited during the counter-insurgency operations waged by Robert Mugabe's ZANU (PF) government against the "dissidents" from Joshua Nkomo's ZAPU party. However, as soon as the entry restrictions were lifted (with the National Unity Accord in 1988), Ranger was able to proceed from the archives to the field work, including the extensive interviews and oral history, which account for the originality and excellence of this book.
As Ranger found during the course of his research, the real historic unit in southern Matabeleland was not the Matobo District but the Matopos Hills, which include three districts--Gwanda, Mzingwane and Matobo. Over the past hundred years, the Hills have been the scene of symbolic, ideological and political conflict, and the site of the violent confrontations of armed struggle, from the Ndebele regiments in the 1890s to the ZAPU and ZANU guerrillas in the 1960s and 1970s and the ZAPU "dissidents" in the l980s.
For both the black and white population, religion and politics have been central to the history of the Hills. For the whites, they have been the site of the grave of their "founder", Cecil Rhodes (as well as the grave of Boy Scouts founder Baden-Powell) and a recreational, tourism and conservation area preserving "the greatest rock gallery in the world". For the Africans, however, the Hills contain the shrines of their High God, Mwali (whose voice was heard over the years as"from the rocks") and also the burial ground of the nineteenth century Ndebele leader, Mzilikazi. Although the history of Matabeleland under white minority rule has been one of eviction and confiscation (contrary to the security of tenure and property solemnly promised by Rhodes), it has also been a history of the resilience of a conquered people. Voices of resistance from the Hills were among the first to challenge "colonial authoritarianism", not least by establishing "the most effective rural protest association in Zimbabwe" as early as the 1940s (p. 3).
But even under black majority rule, as Ranger points out, "the political, religious and symbolic struggles, the aspirations and the frustrations...have continued in the Matopos and have continued to give them context and meaning" (p. 266). Although the Amnesty of 1988 ushered in a second period of hope for the people of the Hills (the aborted first came with independence in 1980), who were still seeking a resolution of the problems of the National Park, of resettlement in the mapani veld, and even of development, official policy was "all too reminiscent of the colonial days" (p. 245). As with their predecessors, the main considerations for this government were conservation and tourism not resettlement, as illustrated by their decision to construct a dam (the Mtscabezi) which displaced local farmers and destroyed shrines on Dondorio Hill in order to create a recreational park for visitors. As for other development projects in the area, much of the land designated for resettlement by local people who were landless or displaced had instead been "irregularly" occupied by government ministers and party officials for private purposes, despite continuing protest by Matobo District Council. Thus, by the end of the 1990s, as Ranger so rightly concludes, "the Mugabe goverment was as much at loggerheads with the people of the Matopos as the Rhodesians had ever been" (p. 245).
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Elaine Windrich. Review of Ranger, Terence, Voices from the Rocks: Nature, Culture and History in the Matopos Hills of Zimbabwe.
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