18 April 1980 was the first day of the first government of Robert Mugabe, chair of the revolutionary party, ZANU PF. His reputation among the Zimbabweans, white and black, changed over time and was radically different on his last day in power, 21 November 2017. However, just as they celebrated the end of Mugabe's reign (even in Oxford), the celebrations for its beginning were stronger in April 1980 following their first democratic elections of the country and at the end of a painful period of guerrilla war. The Oxford University Africa Society followed the liberation efforts closely and contributed to them.
The society published one of the first substantial statements regarding the state in Rhodesian in 1972, in the second issue of the society owned magazine, Ujamaa. In the publication, E.S. Athieno Odhiambo, who was a member of the committee of Kenyan descent and student at St. Antony's dissected the origin of the problem. He identified two critical concepts: the fear of the (invading) white minority of the black majority, the race of the two contending parties which prevents the British government from intervening in a substantive way to reject or punish the white minority.
The frustration among the members of the society towards the British Government increased after the settlement reached in November between the UK, represented by the Foreign Affairs Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home and the Rhodesian government, represented by its Prime Minister Ian Smith. The settlement, published in a white paper caused widespread protests in the UK. The rally in Oxford brought together African students in Oxford University, Oxford Polytechnic (later Oxford Brookes), London School of Economics, Birmingham University and others, to South Parks road in front of Rhodes House. This gathering, the first of many protests, were part of a mass protest in Oxford attacking the Tory government and its plan to reform Student Unions which would hamper student activism.
The Rhodesian settlement was met by Atieno Odhiambo's strong rebuttal (the Society has the full article and will publish it) and eventually led to the guerilla wars fought between the freedom fighters and the Smith government in Rhodesia.
The Africa Society was not neutral on this. By November 1971, the Society had produced two plays written by South African authors to support freedom fighters across the continent. The two plays, directed by a member of the society were 'The Rhythm of Violence', a play about Apartheid, and 'Not Now, Sweet Desdemona', a Shakespeare adaptation which centers on the question 'Why is Othello black?'. The Nigerian Anu Ogunlesi, President in 1971, talked about the fundraising in a BBC Radio interview. She said:
[The Freedom fighters] are fighting for basic human rights by attacking the governments in their various countries, who by tactics of terror and recrimination oppress the majority of their people because of the colour of their skin. Since every constitutional channel had been closed, the only option they have is to achieve freedom by fighting. [...] We hope to support their campaign by raising money to support their activities. There are two plays this term produced by the Africa Society and the proceeds will go to support the freedom fighters.
We now know that it would take Zimbabweans 10 more years to achieve freedom and South Africans even more. At the end of the following audio clip, you can hear members of the Africa Society and others asking for freedom and for the end of those social, economic and racial politics strange to us now (missed by some) with the chant: Majority Rule, Now!
This is a snippet of the series of posts on the work of the Africa Society in Oxford over the years and how it has impacted the African Continent. As we approach the 60th Anniversary, The Society will continue to share more from the archives as we confront the future.