Twenty Five Years of the Britain Zimbabwe Society and a
Tribute to its first Chair, Professor Richard Gray

Terence Ranger

New members of the Britain Zimbabwe Society may not realise how long it has been established. It is not a reaction to the current Zimbabwe crisis but was founded as a response to Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. This year in fact marks the Society’s silver jubilee and 25 years of existence.

The Society was set up in 1981 on the model of the Britain Tanzania Society, still happily flourishing today. The BTS was a model ‘friendly’ society, bringing together all those interested in Tanzania’s future, publishing a very informative bulletin, arranging tours for its members and working with a Tanzanian ‘chapter’ to effect development projects. I was myself – as I still am – a member of the BTS and for a brief time editor of its bulletin. But then it became clear that information about Zimbabwe was flooding across my desk rather than information about Tanzania; in 1980 I began a Zimbabwe research project and was able to return to the country for the first time since my deportation in 1963.

I concluded that what was needed was a friendly society able to counter-act the propaganda against Zimbabwe which was spewed out by the British right-wing press and to provide accurate information about the new nation. In those innocent days I went to Prime Minister Robert Mugabe and asked him whether he thought such a society would be a good idea. ‘Yes’, he said – and fixing me with a gimlet eye – ‘but you are not to lead it. It must be led by Guy Clutton-Brock.’

It was of course the ideal choice. Guy enjoyed the confidence of every Zimbabwean, no matter what their party. He had established the famous non-racial cooperatives at St Faith’s, Nyafaru and Cold Comfort Farm; he had been detained and imprisoned with other African National Congress members during the 1959 emergency; in 1970 his citizenship had been taken away from him by Ian Smith in order that he could be deported. So I drove out to North Wales where Guy and Molly were living in their little shepherd’s cottage.

Although he was 74 Guy agreed to become President of the new society and remained so until ill health forced his retirement. It was a very important symbolic office. Guy was a hands-off President, regularly attending the AGM, but otherwise not taking part in planning the Society’s activities. But he was an enormous source of moral authority and advice. I used to go out to see him with this or that knotty problem – and some of them were indeed knotty. Guy’s constant advice was that one couldn’t expect Zimbabwe to be perfect after a hundred years of colonial capitalism. One had to offer support for the long haul and invest in youth.

Some of the Society’s great events hinged on Guy – his 80th birthday party in 1987 and the compilation of a fascinating book of reminiscences by his family and friends; the memorial in 1996 service in St Martin’s in the Fields after which Guy’s ashes were handed over to Robert Mugabe to be carried back to Heroes Acre. In those days it seemed a real reason to celebrate that Guy should have become, and has so far remained, the only white Hero.

Equally important to the success of the Society in its early days was the fact that we managed to persuade Professor Richard Gray to become its first Chair. In 1981 Richard was Professor of African History at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He was the author of the first significant academic study of the Rhodesias, TheTwo Nations, 1960, a book very much before its time. At SOAS he had supervised or advised many Zimbabwean doctoral students, among them Professor Ngwabi Bhebe, today Vice Chancellor of the University of the Midlands, and Dr Stan Mudenge, today Minister for Higher Education. If Guy Clutton-Brock represented a tradition of social activism, Richard Gray represented a tradition of scholarly engagement with Zimbabwe. Gray had a moral authority almost as great as Guy’s, possessing what an obituary last year called ‘a singular quality of gentleness and charm’. Richard was Chair of the Society until 1984, when his research began to focus on the Vatican Archives and took him away from southern Africa.

But it was under his guidance that the Society grappled with the violence in Matabeleland and tried to work out what its position should be. In the end we opted – like almost all NGOs and church bodies – for private representations rather than public condemnations. I wrote to my close friend Maurice Nyagumbo protesting the violence of the 5 Brigade and got back a furious reply. During this time David Caute was a member of the Society’s executive. He had a better idea than most of us what was going on in Matabeleland and insisted that at the least the Society should distance itself from the Zimbabwean regime. It was at this time that the executive passed the resolution which has stood us in good stead ever since, namely that the Society existed to represent the best interests of the people of Zimbabwe as a whole and not of any particular government or party.

In the first years of the Society I was based in Manchester where I remained until my appointment to an Oxford Chair in 1987. Manchester was not the best base from which to run a national Society but when Richard resigned as Chair I took over in 1984. (Ultimately I took over as President from Guy).

When the Society was founded there were not nearly so many Zimbabweans in Britain as there are now. But some senior Zimbabweans – Edgar Moyo, Percy Murombe Chivero, Millius Palawiya – were with the Society from the beginning. Asylum was not then an urgent issue. From the beginning the Society was busy providing news and information and in organising links. To begin with BZS circulated to members the very useful newsletter which the late John Conradie edited for the Zimbabwe Project. When that came to an end I compiled for many years a digest of news from the Zimbabwean press. (Our email news service is a much more recent development). There were regular meetings in London; branch meetings in Manchester.

Gradually the present pattern of BZS activities developed. I organised the first Research Day in London in 1986 bringing together researchers on Zimbabwe for a shared report on what work was going on where. As reports were made I stuck pins in map – it soon became clear that two thirds of research was going on in Manicaland and nothing at all in Matabeleland, a position now happily more balanced. At that first meeting there was no theme, just all researchers of any kind, but since then Research Days (now always held in Oxford) have become much more narrowly defined. In their twentieth year, however, they still fulfil their function of creating a Zimbabwean research community. No other African country, it is fair to say, has enjoyed such an institution.

The sporadic meetings in London gave way to annual day schools organised by a team led by Margaret Ling, focussing on community links, town twinning and wide participation, including children. These covered a wide range of topics and involved many activists interested in Zimbabwe though not members of the Society.

More recently, of course, BZS has worked closely with newer Zimbabweanist organisations, like the Zimbabwe Association. BZS has set up a panel of academic experts on Zimbabwe who can comment in asylum cases. It is seeking to relate much more intensively with the new Zimbabwean diaspora. I like to think that Guy Clutton-Brock and Richard Gray, who died on 7 August 2005, would both be pleased that the Society has survived and renewed itself over 25 years. Our current Chair, Diana Jeater, was recruited to the Society by Richard Gray, a nice emblem of continuity and Molly Clutton-Brock at 94 still receives and reads the Society’s publications.

*The Society’s papers are deposited at Rhodes House in Oxford for anyone who would like to write a longer history.

copyright BZS 2009