Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Scholarly periodical does Zimbabwe feature with no Zimbabwean contributors

Posted by CM on August 23, 2007

Safundi describes itself as “much more than an academic journal. It is an on-line community of scholars, professionals, and students interested in viewing and analyzing the United States and South Africa from an international, transnational, and/or comparative perspective. The centerpiece of this on-line community is the Journal of South African and American Studies, a peer-reviewed quarterly academic journal. The editors of Safundi seek to better understand South Africa and the United States in light of each other.”

Its editorial board is composed mostly of US academics and it is published in that country.

Its April 2007 issue (Volume 8, Number 2) is entirely devoted to “Zimbabwe in Crisis.” It is composed of seven essays. “The struggle for Zimbabwe, then and now” and “The histiography of land in Zimbabwe” are among the titles.

So far so good. I was grateful to the friend who referred the magazine to me and looked forward to being enlightened with some deep, refreshing, scholarly treatises of the troubles in Zimbabwe. But I was so turned off and offended to see that all the articles were written by Western contributors that I could not read it.

The common practice of Westerners “studying” Africans and paying more attention to each others’ “findings” than they listen to the natives has long been a beef with me. You not only see this in scholarly journals, but virtually everyday in the mass media as well. Often, a Western writer based in Johannesburg will phone somebody in Harare, quite frequently a white Zimbabwean, to get his opinion on some event, and then file a widely disseminated story on the “Zimbabwean situation/crisis.” If any natives are involved, it is often simply as props, to support the point that would have been made by the authoritative “expert.”

For me, what Safundi has done is little different and I wrote them to say so. Somewhat to my surprise, I got a courteous response from one of the contributors, who was also responsible for putting the issue together. As courteous and prompt as it was, the explanation for the absence of not just Zimbabwean scholars, but African ones, seemed pathetically weak.

Essentially it was that there were two Zimbabwean contributors lined up, one of whom did not come through with an article and the other of whom had to pull out at the last minute over a copyright issue. I have no reason to doubt the explanation, but to me not having any Zimbabwean contributors for the issue at all is such a weakening shortcoming of the publication that I would say the explanation is simply not good enough. For their won credibility, if not for any other reason, the editors should have worked doubly hard to ensure the participation of Zimbabwean scholars.

Of course they have every right not to, I am not questioning that at all. Nor am I saying that analysis of “the Zimbabwe crisis” should be the exclusive domain of Zimbabwean or African scholars. Far from it. But having a group of western scholars talking to each other and to their western audience about Zimbabwe is hardly the best way to achieve the publication’s stated aim of seeking “to better understand South(ern) Africa and the United States in light of each other.”

Like the Johannesburg-based western journalist who “covers Africa” by phone or email from there, seeking out people like him to “explain” Africa, what this rude, crude and out-dated practice does is not so much to explain Africa to their audiences, but to explain/confirm/entrench their feelings towards the continent. The Africans are selectively the central characters in the perennially favoured drama of dysfunction that is then presented to the world, but they are also considered not quite deep, analytical, objective enough to do the telling and the explaining, even if it is merely of their own feelings, let alone “journalistic/scholarly analysis.” As a result, the only Africans who are quoted authoritatively are generally those who agree with the Western perspective of the narrative being presented, whether in a periodical, movie, documentary or news story.

As much “right” as these organizations have to present things to themselves and their audiences this way, it is incorrect to pretend that this practice helps those audiences understand Africa and the natives any better. But then again, perhaps that is not the principal reason for all the “oh, those natives are such a curious, fascinating object of study” features that we are daily bombarded with.

Apart from un-necessarily raising some doubt about themselves (the publishers) amongst people like myself, the omission also does a dis-service to any of their readers who genuinely want a more complete understanding of why Zimbabwe is at its present pass than they can easily get from the BBC, CNN or the countless other news outlets that are having so much fun with “the Zimbabwe crisis.”

One reason this practice thrives is because the natives don’t do enough to provide their own explanatory or critical narratives, to each other or to the world. With all the inexpensive technical tools that are now available for the previously “exotic-ised” peoples of the world to be heard on their own terms, it is no longer enough for natives to whine about being left out of forums like Safundi.

It is important to not stop at simply feeling “hurt” by exclusion and by being ogled as if we were specimens on display. We need to take the next step and write and say things from our own perspectives, to balance out the unequal equation of how we are seen and often misunderstood.

Progress will have been made when we go beyond enraged whining, to having countless versions of our own Safundis. It will then not matter if a group of American or Western scholars decide to write to themselves and their own audiences about us.

The content? I was so put off I had no desire to delve into it. But I am keeping an open mind and not writing off the contributions on the basis of my offense at what I feel is a major shortcoming for a publication with Safundi’s stated aim. And it is good to read and hear how some scholars who are somewhat removed from the situation see and interpret “the Zimbabwe crisis.”

I have just about put aside my revulsion at an all-too-common slight of Africans; to want to now begin reading the articles to see if they do, after all, contribute anything new or interesting to the discussion of the juicy, delicious “Zimbabwe crisis.”

Chido Makunike

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