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  • Liberal Women in Rhodesia:A Report on the Mitchell Papers, University of Cape Town
  • Kate Law


The Mitchell collection at the Manuscripts and Archives Department of The University of Cape Town (UCT)1 consists of the papers of Diana Mary Mitchell, a leading white Rhodesian liberal in the 1960s and 1970s as well as private papers of some other politically active Rhodesians, such as Morris Hirsch, Pat Bashford and Allan Savory. [End Page 389] This report presents the Mitchell collection as an instrument to investigate issues of agency by liberal White Rhodesian women in the period 1950–1980, thus aiming to counter some dominant trends in the historiography of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe.

Diana Mitchell was born in Salisbury, Rhodesia, in 1932. Her father was a merchant marine officer and her mother was originally from Australia. She attended Eveline High School in Bulawayo and with financial help from her mother she completed a BA in History at Cape Town University in 1953. Before entering formal party politics, Mitchell ran a "backyard school" which provided schooling for African children who otherwise would have had no access to education. After the announcement of the illegal Declaration of Independence (UDI), in 1965 the Rhodesian Front (RF) closed such schools and Mitchell charges this move as being "the key to my activism."2 While Mitchell acknowledges that she "worked voluntarily because I could afford to, my husband was the breadwinner […] so I could afford to be this so called 'liberal' because of my standard of living,"3 she became heavily involved in parliamentary politics and was one of the founding members of the Centre Party (CP). Yet as was often the fortune of talented women in Rhodesia's patriarchal political landscape during this period, Mitchell was frequently relegated to speech writing and office management. She unsuccessfully ran for parliament twice, in 1974 and 1977 respectively. Her papers consist of comprehensive minutes, press releases and party directives for the CP, Rhodesia Party (RP) and National Unifying Force (NUF); consequently Mitchell's papers offer a valuable insight into the spectrum of opposition politics from the mid-1960s through to 1980.

Acquired by UCT in 1990, the Mitchell papers are vast in both size and scope, with material spanning the period 1963–1980. Prior to UCT's attainment of the papers, Mitchell made the material available to interested academic parties, amongst whom Ian Hancock and Martin Meredith are some of the most prominent figures.4 During my [End Page 390] time in Cape Town I was able to work through the collection in its entirety. As my thesis examines political representations of white Rhodesian women from 1950–1980, the material within this archive has proved to be extremely useful. What is particularly striking about the collection, apart from its distinctiveness, is that alongside material relating to opposition politics, it also houses the private papers of important figures such as Morris Hirsch, Pat Bashford and Allan Savory (see below for further details). The transcripts of interviews carried out with prominent African Nationalists—which formed the basis of Mitchell's monograph African Nationalist Leaders in Rhodesia: Who's Who5—also form a large part of the collection. Consequently, from the diverse material within this collection, Mitchell's papers are of interest to researchers of Zimbabwe's liberation struggle, settler nationalisms, opposition politics and the role of women in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe's history more broadly. Considering that the limited historiographical material which examines the position of white Rhodesian women suggests that women had a "lazy existence: playing cards, or tennis, gossiping, drinking tea, shopping, arranging flowers and organising the servants,"6 Mitchell is the antonym to such ideas as she was one of several women who featured prominently in Rhodesia's political landscape. Consequently, examination of the Mitchell papers will help shed light on a historical area which to date has been largely neglected.


From working with the collection, I have identified several key areas in which the papers are particularly strong. Firstly the documents offer an abundant amount of material which contextualises the emergence of opposition groups. Of particular relevance to my study were the various minutes, records and press releases of the Women's Section of...