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Africa Today 50.3 (2004) 150-152



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West, Michael O. 2002. The Rise of an African Middle Class: Colonial Zimbabwe, 1898-1965. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 324 pp. $49.95 (cloth); $22.95 (paper).

The "rise" of the African middle class portrayed in this book was not so much heroic as it was foreseeable, given the inherently conservative ethos of middle-class politics and values in what has always been a rather conformist society. The more subversive subtext of the story presents the fascinating odyssey of the pan-Africanist Garveyite idea as it weaves between and against the strands of middle-class dominance in much of the public and private social spheres. In this sense, it was the power and will of individuals to attempt to keep this idea alive, no matter how briefly their attempts were allowed to survive, that provides the spirit of the narrative. The dialectic between West's main subject (the middle class) and the subtext of radical pan-Africanism gives the book a much more interesting argument and tension than the title might suggest. The book is structured in two parts. The first covers an impressively wide scope of ideological, social, economic, educational, and gender relations that came to define the African middle class by the 1940s and 1950s. The second part, and for me the most original section, presents an intellectual history of middle-class (and pan-Africanist) politics.

The main proponents of a pan-African politics were representatives of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (ICU) who brought their message of defiance to Southern Rhodesia during the 1920s and 1930s. Other pan-Africanists included radical evangelists who started up churches to advance the Garveyite and ICU political message. These radical trade unionists and evangelists were rarely given a chance at sustained organizing or preaching, as the Rhodesian state acted quickly to limit their activities through deportations or constant harassment. The only legitimate avenues left open for political activity remained the more established churches and European-controlled welfare organizations populated by a more educated and more Anglophile group of men, a group West calls the "preacher politicians." West describes the achievements of these men in establishing educational initiatives in conjunction with an elite African movement found throughout Africa and the Diaspora. At the same time, West also keeps the more radical pan-Africanist strand of thought alive in the narrative through his discussion of trade-union and civic leaders in the 1940s. Here, he portrays one of the more complex characters in the political history of the African middle class, Charles Mzingeli, a former ICU representative based in Salisbury (Harare). Mzingeli is shown to be a capable and tireless [End Page 150] leader, but one whose prickly personality obstructed attempts at a more unified nationalist political coalition for most of the 1940s and 1950s. West's frustration with Mzingeli, particularly over his involvement in interracial politics at the beginning and end of his career, tends to overshadow Mzingeli's positive contribution to township community politics. All the same, West's respect for Mzingeli's wit and critical pen is clearly evident, demonstrating perhaps that Mzingeli's ability to keep the radical pan-African message alive in public discourse is of greater historical relevance than his less radical political career.

The Federation period and its policy of "racial partnership" gave the more educated elite an escape route from the sticky and uncomfortable relationship they had taken on in the late 1940s as the representatives of all Africans. Many elites could now reinvest in the notion of economic and social advancement through an interracial cooperation that rewarded their own separation from the African workers and peasants. West holds no punches in his treatment of these men and their propensity to "drink tea" with whites in the nonracial associations such as the Capricorn Africa Society. The mid-1950s brought a generational change in the story, which follows a path similar to stories elsewhere in the world. Young men who had witnessed the anticolonial movements in the British and French colonies, and the civil...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1978
Print ISSN
0001-9887
Pages
pp. 150-152
Launched on MUSE
2004-04-23
Open Access
No
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