- African Police and Soldiers in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1923–80 by Timothy Stapleton
Timothy Stapleton’s book, African Police and Soldiers in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1923–80, is a book that enhances our understanding of colonial Africa in general, and colonial Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) in particular, albeit from the Rhodesian security forces’ perspective. Abounding with historical and empirical detail, and woven from government documents, newspapers, magazines, and oral histories, the book centers on the lived experiences of the African police and soldiers from 1923 (when the British South Africa Company government was replaced by the settlers’ “responsible” government) to Zimbabwean independence in 1980. Oral histories are particularly important given the fact that the colonized’s experiences and voices hardly exist in the colonial record and also given that the period was highly convoluted with social, economic, and political shifts. The ostensibly narrow topic of the African colonial security forces illuminates a number of wider issues ranging from race relations, African education and aspirations, accommodation, the job market, struggles for dignity and respectability, and the liberation war, among others.
Stapleton begins by exploring the oft-asked question—why did the colonized join the colonizer and allow themselves to be used as instruments of suppression and oppression against their people? The written sources and the oral testimonies that he used suggested that material gain was a paramount motivation for Africans to join the colonial security forces. Better wages and a wide range of benefits (in comparison to other jobs available to Africans) such as the prospects of a respectable post-service job, food rations, soap, paraffin, pension, free uniforms, candles, medicine, and state-provided housing were major attractions. However, Stapleton argues, it was also true that some Africans joined the security forces because of the esteem that the job and the uniform conferred on them while they were doing a “manly job” and for adventure while others joined because serving in the police or the army became a family profession. He also established that Ndebeles were thinly represented in the security services (largely because they preferred working in South Africa) while the Karanga, especially those from Gutu (a drought-susceptible area), dominated the security forces, particularly the military, throughout the colonial period.
The author also addresses perceptions of the African security forces, the underpinning of which was the colonial nature of their duty—as they were recruited as instruments of oppression and suppression (in most cases behaving far worse than their white counterparts) against their own people—the people they were meant to protect. Policemen, for instance, enforced colonial laws in a very racial way which was disrespectful, brutal, and aggressive to Africans—while they did not have a jurisdiction over White people for the most part. While White soldiers often looked down upon African soldiers, those attitudes changed over time especially as the African soldiers proved themselves in the Burma and Malaya operations but most importantly because of their valor in the 1970s Rhodesian counter-insurgency war. Nonetheless, African perceptions of the police and the military changed from fear before the 1950s to downright loathing of “dogs of White men” whose legitimacy—just like the colonial government they represented in the 1950s and 60s nationalist period and the 1970s war—was increasingly questioned. On the other side of the spectrum, the White civilians did not feel that African policemen, by virtue of belonging to the colonized race, had authority over them—the colonizers. In the main, the race/color of the soldier or policeman had impact on relations within the force and with civilians.
African Police and Soldiers in Colonial Zimbabwe illustrates that like the civilians elsewhere in the Rhodesian colony, African police and soldiers had educational ambitions. Education became a tool necessary for upward mobility at work as well as for social status. This ambition happened against the backdrop of a colonial mentality that espoused that educated Africans were “dangerous troublemakers who were alienated from both the European and African worlds” (69) and, therefore, were supposed to be put in their place—a pervasive sentiment among White Rhodesians in the...