I have a tendency to oversell the value of a generalist approach to academic work, partly to try and defend my own practices and interests.
I genuinely think that many specialist monographs fail to make a case for their importance, inflate a journal-length analysis to a whole book, or restate something that’s already known in a less comprehensible and accessible manner. In any event, the academic ecosystem seems badly out of whack in its preference for specialized monographs.
It would be a genuine tragedy, however, if highly specialized scholarly books did not continue to be written. I can’t think of a better example of the value and importance of this form than Tsuneo Yoshikuni’s posthumously published book African Urban Experiences in Colonial Zimbabwe. Moreover, it’s the kind of book I would hand to any colleague interested in the history of urbanization or labor history, regardless of their era and place of focus, despite the fact that the book is so minutely focused on such a precise subject (the Zimbabwean city of Harare from 1890 to 1925).
Being directed to Yoshikuni’s unpublished doctoral dissertation (essentially the same manuscript as this book) was something of a rite of passage for historians and anthropologists studying Zimbabwe in the 1990s. It seems to me that many specialized fields have something like this: the brilliant unpublished dissertation, or the stand-alone article that never became part of a later book.
The book is tersely written, which is a part of its virtue. There’s no mucking about here with grand theory or scholarly turf battles. But neither is the book just workmanlike tedium, or what I sometimes dismiss as “fill in the gaps” history.
Essentially, Yoshikuni decided to look very carefully at something that previous historians had assumed they knew about, namely, how urbanization happened after 1890 in the colonial capital, Salisbury, eventually renamed Harare after the creation of Zimbabwe in 1980. What he found was something rather different from the common assumption.
First, he argued that in the earliest years of rule by white settlers in Southern Rhodesia (initially the colony was controlled by the British South Africa Company, until 1923), some Africans took up in peri-urban areas around the new capital city in order to maximize their autonomy from governmental control but also in shrewd pursuit of the opportunities provided by the colonial economy, and in turn managed to reinvest some of the capital they accumulated in their children’s education or in other economic enterprises.
Here Yoshikuni was seeing something that has increasingly become visible to other historians of southern Africa, that the initial response of some Africans to colonial conquest or to partial integration into a global political economy was in fact quite dynamic and inventive. A lot of that response wasn’t squashed at the outset of colonial conquest, but only much later, often because white farmers or businessmen were feeling the pinch of successful competition from Africans, or were trying to find ways to make their own marginal enterprises less marginal through a racial monopoly enforced by the white administration. This is a very different story than the older narrative, “Africans living within their own economic and social systems, then violently wrenched all in one motion from their own systems into a monolithic colonial system that subjugated them at every turn”. At least some of the peri-urban people that Yoshikuni describes were responding with creativity and energy to the changes that came with colonialism, and were brutally cheated or denied later on.
This seems to me also a big part of the social history of African nationalism, not just in Zimbabwe but also elsewhere. The generation of nationalists who became rulers of independent African nations often had to burnish their populist credentials and their ideologies in order to appear as if they were a part of the masses they aspired to lead, but a great many of them seem to me to have instead been successful aspirants who “bought in” to much of the colonial social order but believed that “civilized men” such as themselves would eventually given the respect and position that their accomplishments and skills warranted. As young people, some of them believed in the promises of European liberalism that were in most respects wholly absent from European empire in Africa, and when the fact of unending racial supremacy was shoved into their faces, they then turned sharply towards nationalism of one sort or another.
There’s another aspect of African nationalism that Yoshikuni discovered in the early history of Harare. In Zimbabwe, as in much of colonial Africa, African nationalism became a strong political force when aspirants and elites joined up with some kind of popular or mass political movement after the Second World War. Yoshikuni looks at the early origins of this kind of popular sentiment in Harare and what he finds is that some of the strongest roots were in long-settled households and neighborhoods composed of “migrants” from outside of the borders of Southern Rhodesia, chiefly from present-day Malawi and Zambia.
This part of Yoshikuni’s book helped me make sense of some of my own experiences in Zimbabwe in the early 1990s. I went to a number of soccer games with a small group of men that I met when I went to the main beer hall in Mbare, the oldest township built for African residents during the colonial era. They all spoke chiNyanja, a language spoken primarily north of the Zambezi River, and it turned out in fact that many of them had families living in Malawi. But they were very long-term and well-settled migrants, if that would be the right word for them, as they had lived and worked in Zimbabwe most of their adult lives, had some family members in Harare itself, and in two cases, their fathers and grandfathers had lived in Harare in the same house. That isn’t a history that was well-understood during the colonial era, nor was it a history that most Zimbabwean nationalists were keen to tell. As Yoshikuni lays it out, it was many of these urban residents who moved towards mass protest after 1925, rather than the rural chiShona and Ndebele “sons of the soil” whom later nationalist leaders would exalt.
This is a book that speaks softly and carefully, and so it’s easy to mistake what a thorough revision it is quietly performing on the received history not just of Zimbabwe but of African nationalism, migrant labor, urbanization and much else in southern Africa as a whole. It might sound as if no one besides a specialist should care about that revision, but I think this is a case where enough subsidence in the fine detailed underpinnings of the general synthesis ought to lead to some radically new ways of telling the overall story. If Africans weren’t uniformly subjugated to colonial domination from the first second of its imposition, but in some cases, responded dynamically as entrepreneurs and aspirants, that’s a new story with some important implications. If it turns out that many labor migrants were at first opportunistically responding to urban and peri-urban life rather than responding to compulsion directed at desperate peasantries, that’s a twist.
If some of the popular underpinnings of labor unrest and nationalist organizing came from people who weren’t technically “of the nation”, and moreover, settled urbanites rather than peasantries, that ought to force a rethinking of the nation itself, even down to its deepest conceptional roots. One of the biggest problems with the nation-state in postcolonial Africa isn’t so much the “artificial borders” often decried by outsiders and Africans alike. It’s with a conception of the nation as unified and rooted in the essential character of a native “people”. The real pluralism of circumstance and identity that went into anti-colonial movements really only comes into view with the kind of careful, minute work of a scholar like Yoshikuni.