The biographies of Zimbabwe’s pre-independence nationalists are presented here and read as if time stopped in 1983 when the final book in the series of Who’s Who was produced. Many Nationalists in these biographies espouse a naive optimism and altruism, the last of the original biographies are almost almost rhapsodical in tenor. These were written on the eve of, or shortly after independence when the near miraculous peaceful transfer of power occurred and the war-weary people of Zimbabwe found freedom within their grasp. The biographies produced at this time may even be considered “praise-texts”. As Former Sunday Mail editor Munyaradzi Huni says about similar literature of the period in his Sunday Mail opinion piece “Do revolutionaries really exist” (18th March 2018):
“…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.””
Given the authors’ close proximity to the nationalist’s struggle and their personal friendship with many of the protagonists, we may understand the boundless optimism that grows within the pages of the various Who’s Whos as independence dawns.
While Robert Cary did not live to see the new the Zimbabwe, by 1984 Diana Mitchell had become a vocal government critic, notably in her weekly “Mwana Wevhu” column for the Financial Gazette. In her recently published memoirs (2021), Diana chronicles the rapid corruption of the new Zimbabwean government in a most personal way; She witnessed those she considered friends turning away from serving the people to become the debased creatures of a cruel and shameful regime. As Diana wrote in her memoirs:
“There are precious few of the subjects of the three books of biographies who did not succumb to the temptations of power and its accompanying opportunities for greed and corruption. When the curtain came down in 1987 on outright murder, those who escaped the blight on their heroic reputations were mainly men who were already dead.”
Josiah Chinamano and Ex-Chief Justice Enoch Dumbutshena were among the few who remained exemplary to the end. In her memoirs, Diana Mitchell published reviews of a good number of the Nationalists from the Whos Whos. It is instructive to compare these with the original biographies. They are therefore appended to the biographies and clearly marked as additions to distinguish them from the original works.
Zimbabweans and others researching the country’s history can still discover here the forgotten heroes from the early years of the struggle for independence and the very honorable and clear-eyed goals these stalwarts had for their country. Men like Charles Mizingeli and his determination to stamp out tribalism, Benjamin Burombo who mounted the first challenges to colonial law, Amon Jirira a technocrat and a strong believer in unity who pursued a vision of Zimbabwe where 20 million people of all backgrounds would live in prosperity.
At one time Zimbabwe was on course to transform into the country Amon Jirira struggled for, but sadly it has fallen from the path of progress. Today Zimbabwe is a place where mere survival is a daily battle for millions of its people. Ruled by a distant, self-interested elite, riddled with corruption and cronyism, Zimbabwe languishes among the pariah states of the world. Reading the lives of its twentieth century patriots, it is clear that the change from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe began with great hope and potential but this legacy has been betrayed. These evil times may pass however, within the country and scattered to the diaspora and beyond, many Zimbabweans remember the true purpose of their revolution. These pages will remind Zimbabwe’s current rulers of how short they have fallen and a new generation will discover the struggles of the revolution’s original heroes and the new Zimbabwe they aspired to build.