A response to Phyllis Johnson

AS a young academic and an aspiring historian, I have always looked up to veteran historians like David Martin and Phyllis Johnson among many authors who have contributed immensely to the writing of the country’s liberation struggle. These historians gave us the foundation to the liberation war narrative and we are forever grateful.

However, while these historians gave us the foundation and while we will forever be grateful for their pioneering work, this doesn’t mean their work is immune to critical analysis. Unfortunately, Ms Johnson seems to think their work is untouchable and in the process she gets mixed up, viewing anyone who critically looks at their work, as attacking the authors. You can imagine my disappointment when I received Ms Johnson’s opinion piece where she is making all sorts of emotional accusations against me.

Ms Johnson threw all manner of accusations against me following the article entitled; “Do Revolutionaries Exist?” that I wrote a few weeks ago. This respected historian was angered by the following statement which formed part of my argument. Quoting Sabelo Gatsheni-Ndlovu in his 2009 book entitled; “Do Zimbabweans Exist? Trajectories of Nationalism, National Identity Formation and Crisis in a Post-Colonial State”, I wrote:

“It’s very possible that all along we could have been believing the dummy considering that soon after independence, these nationalists who were stationed in Lusaka and Maputo, seized the liberation war discourse, silencing the real fighting forces. As a result, the liberation war account has so far been constructed as if this was a war without the fighting comrades.

“According to Ndlovu-Gatsheni, the situation was made worse by historians who wrote seminal works on nationalism soon after the attainment of independence. These historians includes the likes of Terence Ranger, David Martin and Phyllis Johnson, David Lun and Ngwabi Bhebe, whom Ndlovu-Gatsheni said were ‘too close’ to the cause of nationalism to the extent that they produced what Steven Robins termed ‘praise-texts’ in service of official nationalism.”

I agree totally with the views of Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Steven Robins that these early historians produced “praise texts in the service of official nationalism.” There is no need for Ms Johnson to feel ashamed about this. The political environment prevailing at the time that they wrote their works, made it inevitable for them to produce “praise texts.” This was a time to rebuild Zimbabwe after 14 years of a destructive war. In addition, I am fully aware of the close relations that existed between liberation war stalwarts like Cde Josiah Tongogara and David Martin. This made praise texts inevitable.

Ms Jojnson tries to give the impression that I questioned the role that Cde Hebert Chitepo played during the liberation struggle, but there is nowhere in my article that I got anywhere near doing that. From the onset, Ms Johnson tries to whip up people’s emotions by presenting me as someone against the liberation struggle. So, so sad, but fortunately my article speaks for itself.

She accuses me of attacking pioneering historians but I never did that and would never do that. What I did and what I will continue to do is to critically look at the writings of these pioneering historians so as to add a new body of knowledge to the liberation war account.

Ms Johnson says she “will speak” in defence of young men and women who died painfully during the liberation struggle, but shockingly all these years she has never bothered to talk to the young men and women who were at the war front during the war. Yes, some of them died, but there are many of them still around and guess what Munyaradzi Huni without bragging, has been at the forefront giving these silenced fighting forces a voice.

Ms Johnson accuses me of being “one of those appointed by a former minister in the previous regime for the specific purpose of trashing the liberation struggle and thus the approach may be deliberate.” This is disappointing, especially coming from a veteran historian who all these years gave the country a one-sided and narrow account of the liberation struggle.

Reading Ms Johnson’s work with regards to the liberation struggle, one is tempted to think that nationalists who were stationed in air-conditioned offices in Lusaka and Maputo are the only ones who fought the war. Her narrative silences and ignores the fighting forces.

I need to make myself clear here – this is still not an attack on Ms Johnson. This is just a critical view of her works and any academic and historian worth his or her salt knows that if one’s research is not critiqued, then it’s not worth it.

Ms Johnson can’t accuse me of trashing the liberation struggle when I spend long and energy-draining days in the remote parts of the country recording history from the fighting forces that she has ignored all these years. The column, Chronicles from the Second Chimurenga is very popular, not because Huni is trashing the liberation struggle but because Huni is giving a voice to the fighting forces that historians like Ms Johnson have “Othered” to the periphery of discourse.

Ms Johnson asks me: “Mr Huni, have you ever looked at the images of the mass graves at Nyadzonya or Chimoio?” I have not only looked at those images as Ms Johnson wants me to do. To me that is not enough. I have sought answers from those who were in charge at Chimoio and Nyadzonya. Those images are not enough, Ms Johnson. Zimbabweans need answers and the people to provide the answers are still alive. I have spoken to them and many more to get the full liberation story – not a narrow and one-sided story.

Shoddy journalism is when husband and wife go around interviewing their friends from the liberation struggle and go on to produce a book that lacks the critical eye. This by no means does not mean the book is useless, but it’s a fact that it has short-comings.

Maybe Ms Johnson wants me to borrow from her style. She accuses me of “attacking war veterans in my interviews,” just because in her view, the interviews are supposed to produce “praise texts” like she produced. No, Ms Johnson that is not the intention of Chronicles from the Second Chimurenga.

This is the reason why under the column Chronicles from the Second Chimurenga, when someone expresses his or her views and there are some people who feel the narrative needs to be corrected, we give them the opportunity to speak out. We want a holistic approach to the liberation war narrative.

For example, last week Cde Bethune expressed his views on former ZIPRA comrades and the ZIPRA comrades were not happy. Below we give the ZIPRA comrades the opportunity to respond and soon we will be interviewing some of these commanders.

The idea is to be all-encompassing and to ensure that different voices are heard. This won’t mean the full liberation war story has been told. The area is just too vast and so when others critically look at the interviews, I won’t think that they are attacking me or that they are trashing the liberation struggle.

Ms Johnson goes even deeper with her accusations. “For example, asking the camp commander at Chimoio why he didn’t stop the Rhodesian attack on the camp or prevent people from being killed, is an incredibly foolish question . . .”

It’s very possible that Ms Johnson because her liberation war account is based on nationalists and not the real fighters, she is not aware that before Chimoio was attacked, spirit mediums at the camp warned the camp commander Cde Norman Bethune about the impending attack. So the question that Ms Johnson completely misunderstood was why Cde Bethune and other leaders at the camp failed to move people from the camp before the attack. Cde Bethune did a fantastic job explaining himself on this issue.

Ms Johnson goes further trying to drag The Sunday Mail editor and whoever she thought of referring to as PS into her emotional article. It seemed like she was trying to play some sympathy cards or reducing her argument to a game of numbers. A me-against-them cheap game.

Sabelo Gatsheni and Wendy Willems in their 2010 article entitled: “Re-invoking the past in the present: changing identities and appropriations of Joshua Nkomo in the Post-Colonial Zimbabwe” assert that:

“It is important that we briefly analyse the evolution of Zimbabwean historiography within which our case study is situated particularly how it reflects the impact of the ‘cultural turn.’ Zimbabwean historiography has undergone a number of turns beginning with increasing deconstruction of older versions that installed ‘praise-texts’ by David Martin and Phyllis Johnson (1981) that set the stage for the official history of the liberation struggle. Martin and Johnson became the earliest willing ‘commissar’ intellectuals who helped to produce official nationalism as they served nationalist power instead of critiquing it (Robins, 1996; Chomsky 1967). These ‘commissar’ intellectuals became ‘willing scribes of a celebratory African nationalist history that profoundly shaped official accounts of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle’ (Robins 1996, p. 76). In this mould of history, one also found the early work of Terence Ranger (1985), David Lan (1985) and the recent work of Ngwabi Bhebe (1999) providing heroic narratives of nationalism at times reducing nationalism to the liberation struggle only.”

Ms Johnson should know that Zimbabwe’s historiography will continue to be “unpacked, deconstructed and demystified” until the full story is told. When this happens it won’t mean that the work of pioneering historians will be thrown away and when this happens it won’t mean that the historians are being attacked.

Writing in his Master of Arts dissertation entitled; “Times of Darknes: Ethnicity and the causes of divisions within the Rhodesian guerilla groups” in June 1981, Nick Warner warns about the dangers of recording history soon after a war. He notes that:

“There are numerous problems associated with writing about a guerrilla war which is still in progress, or which has only recently ended. The extreme emotions engendered by the struggle often colour the reporting of events and much that has been written about the Rhodesian guerrilla groups and the armed struggle has had a propaganda purpose.”

Just for the record, Phyllis Johnson and David Martin’s book; “The Struggle for Zimbabwe” was first published in 1981.

Despite the unfortunate accusations, I still have lots of respect for Ms Johnson and many historians who recorded our country’s history.

They gave us somewhere to start, but their accounts are but just that – somewhere to start and not somewhere to end.

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  • tomorrow11

    Somethings cannot just be coincidence but matter of fact. I just came across the above article at a time I am doing the final touches to my autobiography almost three quarters of which are my experiences in the liberation struggle through to the post independence period up to the Unity Accord between ZAPU and ZANU in 1987 which was signed while I was in Chikurubi serving 15 years for contravention of the Law and Order Maintenance Act inherited from the colonial regime by Robert Mugabe’s government. To cut a long story short, in the book I have raised issues with the manner Phyllis Johnson and David Martin would get their information directly from the CIO and paste it in their books as fact which is the case in Destructive Engagement(Southern Africa at War) and others written after independence. For instance their narrative on the dissident era just tells you whose side they were on especially if you were part of the conflict as I was. To be honest I do not respect these two authors for their works on Zimbabwe because they are so biased that they are not worth commenting about. Information by the CIO has never been credible whatsoever which is why credible judges and magistrates would not accept it in a court of law and I take that as seasoned journalists they should have known better than misleading a whole generation by their blatant lies. No wonder at David Martin’s funeral Robert Mugabe gave an impassioned speech praising him. Actually they say somethings about me in their book that were manufactured by the CIO. So, when I saw the above article I thought I should say something about these so called seasoned journalists.