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History written by victors

LAST week in this column I apparently touched a raw nerve and gave hostage to fortune by arguing suspended Zanu PF spokesman Rugare Gumbo’s interview in 1980 rerun last week gave insight into President Robert Mugabe’s personality and politics.

Editor’s Memo with Dumisani Muleya

My use of the term “unassailable” — implying unquestionable — on Gumbo’s liberation struggle credentials drew a swift reaction from Zanu PF factional spin-doctors who got him purged as part of the raging succession battles. Perhaps not unassailable but controversial (his rivals would now insist soiled) is the word.

One of those reactions came from shadowy state-controlled Herald columnist Nathaniel Manheru who pontificated about the issue in a rather pompous and dogmatic tone even though he was civil, and the other from some sloppy features writer in the same paper.

While I would have liked to engage Manheru on this debate,it’s not worthwhile given Zanu PF’s cutthroat factional politics at play and latest events over succession. A debate about the narrative discourse and historical representation of the liberation struggle — its historiography — in that context won’t help anything at this juncture.

Suffice to say, though, the modes and tropes of history are complex, especially given the taxonomy of the sorts of narrative games historians always play.

As Hayden White and Keith Jenkins would say, everything a historian writes is emplotted in a narrative; the narrative matters the most as it shapes the content.

A historian takes past events and makes a story out of them — arranging them in a certain chronology, dealing with what we call 5Ws1H (who, what, where, when, why, how?) in journalism, analysing and placing emphasis on certain dimensions using emplotment, argument and ideological construal. Of course, there is also context and the space-time continuum, among other aspects.

As White says there is “an inexpungible relativity in every historical phenomena” — that is the narrative of one historian differs from that of another sometimes simply because they are telling different stories as opposed to one being less accurate as it corresponds to, or better yet coheres with, the “facts”.

And so, to some history is all but rhetoric, all discourse, all language, narrative, and in fact autobiography. It is nothing but historiography, ancient texts, not ancient pasts, phenomenalism rather than critical realism.

Scholars today often speak of linguistic turn in historiography, a post-modernist intervention which has radically reshaped the discipline. That is why our own history badly needs revisiting —not rewriting — for new perspectives and narratives.

There are criticisms of how our history has been told by Western and even African scholars. Take for instance the different narratives on the history of the arrival of Ndebeles in Zimbabwe, the role of the Ndebele State and Lobengula’s rule as well as his dynamic interface with local ethnic groups and clashes with colonialists.

The way Mzilikazi is remembered in South Africa and Zimbabwe in terms of his historical role and lived experiences is very different, depending on whom you ask. In fact, consider our whole recorded history, including liberation struggles — there are different and even conflicting narratives.

The question of narrative in contemporary historical theory applies to our entire past, including the 1970s liberation struggle which had its own contending dynamic forces, gradations, plots and subplots.

The liberation movement had its own internal dynamics. So Zapu and Zanu offer different albeit overlapping perspectives. Even within Zapu and Zanu there are diverse accounts. You just have to read Edgar Tekere’s memoir, A Lifetime of Struggle, and its reviews to see that.

Indeed, Zimbabwe-Rhodesia internal settlement leaders and Rhodesians themselves would have written different versions (some actually did) given a chance. But as Churchill said, “history is written by the victors”.

Gumbo et al inevitably can’t escape that reality. Yesterday’s eve-nts proved that and Mugabe’s manipulative and ruthless politics.

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