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Coltart: (Hi)story and our story as Africans

07 May 2016 at 19:11hrs | Views
As I sit down to write this piece, it is February 18, 1978, and David Coltart has just taken off for South Africa, to start his university studies at UCT, the University of Cape Town. He leaves behind Rhodesia, still burning, his Ngundu post — the last he commanded before being cashiered from the BSAP, the British South Africa Police as the Rhodesian police force is called — still feeling surrounded, embattled. We have been together from a very long way off, on a long journey which he decided should start in 1957, his birth year, and in his home.

It is also the birth year of my brother Fanuel, the one who survived to become the first born of our family, after a series of mortalities of infants in our family. The repeated deaths of my mother's infants were a very sad occurrence that earned her a nickname, Mai Chibhodyange — one who bears for the grave. Except the nickname said a lot more than the tragedy that befell the family infants. It suggested some measure of inexcusable recklessness on the part of my mother.

How that was so, I have never understood, although I want to believe this was the verdict of aggressive masculinity on a hapless woman after whom tragedy had stalked repeatedly, against the expected duty of extending the line of the Manherus. After all, was she not married precisely for that, namely to grow the line of the family? Had papa not paid bride price, right up to the last kobiri, the last penny? She had come in as a second wife, a good time after baba's first wife, who by then had borne him four children, two of them sons. To start a cemetery for a family that knew no tears? No. Mai Chibhodyange she had to be called, deservedly.

The one who bears for the grave
Fanuel sprouted God knows from where. To survive beyond the fifth year, itself the impassable year for his early siblings. It marked the beginning of more children, with just one — another son — born to soil. His name was Obednico, lifted from the Bible as a statement of my mother's hope for the longevity of her children. He died. Unbowed, mama bore another, a son who, in an act of stubborn will to life, was given his immediate late brother's name. So another Obednico.

This one lived, born in 1960, and after him came myself, a child of 1962 but one fated, as most African children of my generation and before were, to be registered as born a year later. So 1963 is my official year of birth. But this is not about me. It is about Coltart, my brother's peer, had it not been for Coltart's paleness, or my brother's ebony colour in a racially truncated Rhodesian society. And of course for the contrasting fortunes of parentage.

Hung for stealing a sheep
Fanuel was born to an African peasant family; Coltart to a white middle class family. From "The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe", Coltart's father reads like he had a very stable, successful banking career, firstly and for quite a while with Grindlays Bank, and after at retirement, with Finscor. Not many of my young readers will know these two Rhodesian financial institutions, they having been born well after Independence.

Such a career made Coltart a child born biting a golden spoon. Not by allegation, but by his own proud admission in the book. The only slur on his family's escutcheon related to an occurrence way back in the misty past when one from his line, thinking such a successful family could not fail to prove some consanguineous fastening to British (or is it Scottish) royalty, sought to trace back the family tree. Only to be stopped abruptly by some rude, irreverent 15th century church entry that spoke of a Coltart who had been "hung by the neck until dead for stealing sheep". Of course that was rather harsh. I wonder what the sentence would have been for the Rhodes, the Jamesons and, much later, the Coltarts again, for stealing a country.

Contrasting peers
My father died an unknown man, hardly remembered for anything great by his small African village. That created yet another great chasm between Coltart's family and Fanuel, although their parents may have been peers. It was Fanuel's father's elder brother who had fought in the Second World War, Babamukuru vaSimbi. I wrote about him once in this column. Another difference between Fanuel and David. In the early nineties, Fanuel disappeared from the Chipinga white estates to go, we presume, to South Africa.

It is not clear whether he took the route through Mozambique, then at war, or went down through Beitbridge. We never heard from him again, and are content to reconstruct his naughty face through a son he left behind, one of his two children. Of course David lives, born alone to a death-free family by way of infants, and then to go forth and multiply to . . . oh his book has not yet told me the size of his brood.

Coltart on history
Quite neatly, The Struggle Continues' first seven chapters constitute a unit: by time, by era, by colour, and by ethos. A friend was late in bringing me a copy of this book, which only reached my eager hands late Thursday evening, after so much waiting, after so many tantalising but decidedly misleading excerpts selectively ran by our hardly literate journalists. You not only take what they publish with a pinch of salt.

That is an understatement. It has to be with a shovel of s**t. I am not so sure of what needs to be done to make our journalism any closer to readable decency. By late afternoon yesterday, I had gone through half the book, certainly past the seven chapters that introduce it. It tells you how eminently readable David is. Or how gripping his story is. Or how determinedly sinister I am in looking at his book for this week. Take your pick.

Beyond modesty
Quite a book by way of style like I have already said. Indeed quite something by the time span it seeks to encompass — 50 eventful years that only delete seven from his life to now, deletes the seven as the time of the unconscious, of his childhood. Coltart makes a humble claim for this startling, sturdy efforts. He calls it "an autobiographical political history". Thus far I agree.

Beyond this claim, he becomes presumptuous, offensively so: "autobiographical political history of the last six decades of Zimbabwean history", he says, cockily. Substitute "of" with "in" after "decades"; remove the ownership suffix on "Zimbabwe" before history, and I am fine with his claims. Retain these and you trigger my adrenalin to tempestuous levels that make me want to write — comment — midstream as an angry African. A self-respecting African not wont to grovelling before any race.

The Struggle Continues is a great book about Coltart, his middle-class white family and class, his ever evolving politics and his place in anti-Zanu-PF opposition politics in the past, now and in future. Let the book not attempt to encompass, to make lofty claims about its author, please. One gets a little weary of this class of Rhodesian-white do-gooders — in their own inflated self-estimate — who think they enjoy a commanding vantage point from where they can give the world a representative slice of "Zimbabwean history". And there is a growing army of such cocky ex-Rhodies, including Ian Smith himself.

A second colonialism
The list of such is long. Some were historians of the Rhodesian establishment, myth-makers and apologists who believed they could re-narrativise the occupier into owning this country. Others were curators of various sites of our African history who followed in the footsteps of the McIvers, all to steal our civilisation, give it away to the Phoenicians or some such strange races, or simply to devalue its and our worth, by making that civilisation anonymous, by making it an ownerless, unbreakable enigma. The if-it-does-not-belong-to-the-white-or-other-non-African-race-let-it-belong-to-no-one type.

That breed which thinks the Great Zimbabwe was the mythical god-from-a-machine, never the painful handiwork and footprint of a great civilisation that struggled to make itself and that has inheritors. Still others simply lived the age, all the better still as offshoots of lineages of great colonial names, an attribute which they think entitles them to narrativising this country's history with a sense of proud proprietorship, without being gainsaid.

Their forbears made that history, thereby bequeathing them with all-time authorship rights. And then you have Rhodesia's soldiers and servicemen who think time has washed away their bloody hands, salved their conscience enough to reposition them as today's story-tellers from 'inside', with all of us mutely sitting around them, eyes fixed, ears preened to see and hear ourselves in their stories. They forget they were insiders of the white citadel, contemptuous outsiders of an occupied people in continual resistance, in continual making of opposed history, itself part of overall national history. That our histories conflict, contest, parallel, with any contacts or intersections igniting sharp sparks of grave controversies. That their narratives are a second attempt at genocide, a second occupation of a people who have confused decolonisation with decoloniality, to quote a UNISA-based Zimbabwean historian. I don't need to give you names. Or to remind Coltart that he belongs to this category.

Forcible conscription
A key feature of Coltart's great political autobiography comes by way the three pages of praise that assail the reader, that seek to pre-possess the reader before he wades into it. You meet the Kennedys, the Obornes, the Rogers, the Howards and their imperial titles, the Russells, the Haysom and their books or linkages with Mandela, the Seerys and their flatulent statuses, the Lambs and their associational fame with Mujuru and Malala, ex-British high commissioners and their undisclosed failed subversive missions here, the David Blairs who gained notoriety here as journalists for rekindled second British empires. I don't care much about whites singing praises to one of their own.

I care much when they seek to make claims that encompass and imprison me and my kind in that narrow, partisan narrative. You meet extravagant phrases like "a brilliantly engaging deep dive into Zimbabwe's political history"; "a history of Zimbabwe itself"; an understanding of "the complexities and multiple truths of Zimbabwe and its people"; "a masterful account of Zimbabwe's unfinished struggle for freedom"; "the history of Zimbabwe"; "the tragedy of Zimbabwe"; "an unsparing . . . depiction of the discrimination and brutality of the colonial era"; 'the dramatic history of his country, Zimbabwe".

Parallel histories that don't meet
Nor do I care which politician, which leader the book derides or praises. Let the gored cow collapse or die. But please, no one should conscript us into a narrative that is decidedly white, narrow, self-exculpatory and serving by making it "the Zimbabwean history". Not even "a", but "the Zimbabwean history". Or locate my struggles as a black man within the strange struggles of a white minority class battling to end guilt, struggling to retain colonial-time privileges, or seeking to reposition

themselves politically in post-colonial politics. My humanity can't be cheapened to that degree. Let a white man whose hand itches to write do so from the vantage point of his race and class, without making claims about the life I lived and live, which they will never know or reach. We come from different spheres of life and experience. Conflicting ones even.

This land of histories
I create an impression that Coltart's praises come from white only. Not really. There are blacks, black like me. There is Petina Gappah, a lawyer and award-winning writer with deep connections to Coltart and the opposition. She carries my respect though by her comments which spotlight the introspective value of the book, firmly placing it in the genre of autobiography.

Then there is Alex Magaisa, a Kent law academic and past advisor of Morgan Tsvangirai. Like Gappah, he is careful to situate this effort within the autobiographical, and within many other testimonies which, analysed or put together, help historians reconstruct a national history. Both know there is no history of Zimbabwe; there are histories. You clearly see two contrasting sensibilities: one imperial, another African, the latter so measured and respectful, but acutely aware of the vast chasm between Coltart, his experiences and therefore his pen, and three-quarters of the people of this land. It gives me some modicum of comfort.

A leaf from India
Lest I sound vain and dismissive, just want to make a few points on the contents of the book itself, contents on history since I intend to deal with the contemporary questions it raises in another instalment. In so doing, I am fully conscious of the fact that the indigenous people of this land bear the full responsibility of writing their own history. They are still to do so, and should not begrudge those that fill the vacuum of their silences.

But the boundaries of that history must be guarded jealously so we do not suffer another quarter-century of satisfied silence, thinking there are Terence Rangers out there ready to write for us. They never do. I am happy that black historians and other social scientists are beginning to repudiate Eurocentric narratives, to give the turn of events from their African perspectives.

That way Gatsheni-Sebelo's idea of decoloniality begins to come real, but not without efforts to scuttle such new, liberating narratives from all manner of corners. As far as this is concerned, we have a lot to learn from Indian scholarship, which is why the death of the late Professor Sam Moyo was such a blow. Thankfully, he left behind active acolytes. The Indians traced their civilisation from the ADs to 1947, the year of independence. No one reframes them anymore, to make them something else than what they are, and aspire to be.

Two sins: one expiated, another indictable
I will make just a few, telling points. In essence, Coltart seeks to depict a sense of seamless continuity between Rhodesia and Zimbabwe, which is why he does not see the two as contesting histories, contradictory values and narratives. But he puts both dispensations on the scale of blameworthiness, concluding while the crimes of white Rhodesia and the Rhodesia Front are expiated through introspection and unactionable self-narratives, those of Zimbabwe which he morally equates with those of Rhodesia, are beyond expiation, indeed should be excavated, exhumed, raked, and if possible tried through the ICC.

That is the import of Breaking Silence and its resurrectional sequel, The Struggle Continues. One example suffices. Coltart witnesses the flinging into a disused mine shaft of a mutilated body of a freedom fighter by his peers in Chiredzi in 1977. The matter ends there: a mere paragraph,a mere narration in a book, rather than a call to identify the mine and exhume the combatant for completion of black Zimbabwean struggle history, for decent reburial of the war veteran and his peers.

He knows the disused mine surely? What has he done? By contrast, Coltart investigates and exhumes remains in disused mine shafts in Matabeleland in the late eighties and nineties. He names the atrocities Gukurahundi, indicts Government and builds an eternal case against the present government. What is the moral? Apartheid was no standing as a government. But people were hauled before Truth Commission.

The gun that never shot in hot war
Coltart upholds the idea of struggle between the two dispensations to suggest continuity of resistance. After reading the greater part of the book, you notice both Rhodesia and Zimbabwe are criticised without either being condemned, as if to suggest 1980 was no marker, and that excesses of post-independence deny Zimbabwe moral status that puts it apart from Rhodesia, while his own see-saw struggle with his own conscience as a Rhodesian security functionary, appears to exculpate Rhodesia as a dispensation with a conscience.

And it is this continuing strand of conscience — which he himself personifies — that defines the struggle which he says continues. It is non-statal, exceeds states, which is how individual moral standing seem to matter than brutalising systems. The struggle does not inhere in the Rhodesia Front; does not inhere in Zanu or Zapu. If anything, these antagonistic sides parallel each other, often mutually recruiting for each other, albeit unintentionally.

Conscience therefore becomes the referent to struggle, personified by him, his father and his liberal friends. His choice to fight for Smith is blamed on youthfulness, peers, call-up or excesses by freedom fighters. Once he discovers excesses of his side, then it's time to leave for UCT. He gives not a single incident which comes close to self-incrimination, leaving one wondering at all whether he ever fired his FN rifle, and at a target. It is a very strange kind of war he fought. Or even if you come close to incriminating him as a reader, you redeem him as the only Rhodesian who confesses!

Reissuing white historiography
Penultimately, Coltart works within the white Rhodesian historiography with all its paradoxes and contradictions. Before 1957, his account of history upholds the settler myth that the whole of Zimbabwe was under Mzikilazi and Lobengula successively, which is why treating with Lobengula was enough to justify white occupation of Zimbabwe. Then he runs into a narrative problem when the settlers occupy Mashonaland, but without seeing the need to treat with Lobengula anew.

It was well "beyond the borders" of Lobengula's Mthwakazi, he says! And Rhodesia from occupation to the end of the Federation was a country in halcyon days! For who? White well-being becomes everyone's well-being. His whole narrative before 1980 draws from Ian Smith, Ken Flower and minimally the Todds. He can't draw from the Shamuyariras, the Sitholes who are covering the same period, or even from fellow liberal whites like Doris Lessing whose 1957 publication, "Going Home", is a key text on white Rhodesia from a white perspective.

Cooks and garden boys as African society
African organisations have no history, no beginning, and drop into the narrative from the blue, with countable references to Joshua Nkomo only. Otherwise the real Africans you meet are a mass character, Vashiko Time Oliver and Peter Muchakagara, his family's Mozambican cook and Shona gardener respectively. And much later constables Sibanda, Murima, Kanyekanye, a San tracker called Maplank and Mangwiro.

These exhaust his African universe, giving him the competence to write about our struggles, you and me! Giving him an authorial voice in the narrative of this country. These few Africans are lauded, a typical Rhodesian disposition from the 1890s. Colonel R.S.S. Baden-Powell writing in 1897 moans the departure of his loyal Cape Boy servant called "Diamond". The entire settlers fighting to consolidate their occupation of Zimbabwe show great gratitude to another Zulu Askari called Jan Grootboom who proves too useful in both the 1893 and 1896 campaign, to be an "ordinary Kaffir". "He is not a proper nigger; his skin is black, but he has a white man's heart. I will shake hands with him", said one white Grey Scout under Baden-Powell. The dilemma of exceptionality is typical to white colonial historiography and Coltart narrative has not outgrown it so many years after 1980. Zimbabwe needed a Martin Luther, a Nelson Mandela and De Klerk, he repeatedly opines, as if all these solved problems of their nations, let alone of humanity.

Facing future politics
Lastly, the whole narrative is self-serving. It lays a groundwork for Coltart's political career after 1980. Much worse, it anticipates his continued career between now and 2018. Some kind of self-manifesto ahead of 2018, but one seeking to reissue or revalorised an otherwise dying narrative, Breaking Silence, but within contemporary politics of Mthwakazi. After all, his entire stay in Kezi and Matabeleland hardly saw any self-incriminating action.

Why wouldn't he be electable in 2018? Above all, even within the narrative of opposition, he is still vigilant enough to notice excesses which might endanger human rights should the opposition ever come to power. This is a healthy stance to assume nowadays when the opposition has long lost its lustre. You condemn institutions, you exceptionalise individuals, like him! Above all, his tentacles of connections in the white world are vast and limitless. Who would not want such a white man near him? Or above him? Whatever his appeal to whomsoever, that is no reason to embrace his story as my story, as our story as blacks of this country. I refuse.


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