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History is central - Interview with author and researcher Blessing-Miles Tendi
Upenyu Makoni Muchemwa,
February 10, 2011

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Inside/Out with Blessing-Miles Tendi - Read and listen

Blessing-Miles TendiBlessing-Miles Tendi (D.Phil) is a Zimbabwean researcher in African politics. Tendi was educated at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Tendi's research is principally focused on African intellectuals; the uses of history in African politics; the political role of African militaries; power-sharing in Africa; and human rights. He has subsidiary interests in international relations; genocide studies; counterfactuals in historical explanation; and the politics of land reform in Africa.

Tendi is a regular contributor to the Guardian newspaper (UK) and has provided political commentary for the BBC, CNN, Sky News, Press TV, NPR Radio, amongst others. He is the author of Making History in Mugabe's Zimbabwe.


Why did you write the book?
The motivation started in 2000. I was in Zimbabwe at the time, back on vacation from University. There was a parliamentary election going on, and I was struck by the amount of history on TV. I grew up in Zimbabwe, went to school in Zimbabwe, but had never seen that amount of history on TV. Liberation history to be specific. That intrigued me. Why is there so much history? What is it about? In what ways is it being used? Years later a book came out of that.

What did you learn from the process of gathering your interviews for the book?
Zimbabwe is a deeply polarised society so working in that context was extremely polarised. For example I remember meeting one particular ZANU PF official, and I would get a very, obviously ZANU PF view of current events. And then meeting an MDC official in the afternoon and I remember at the end of the day, struggling to balance these two competing perspectives on the country's history and current events. But I have to stress, and I say this in the book, I found it most easy to get access to very high-level ZANU PF officials. I found it most easy to engage ZANU PF figures. Which is ironic because often ZANU PF is presented as this scary violent party, but in reality some of the most, if not the most intelligent political figures present in Zimbabwe today, happen to be in ZANU PF and they were willing to talk. There are sanctions against ZANU PF figures, they cannot go out to Europe or the United States but I write and live from the United Kingdom. My sense was that they wanted some kind of engagement with the west, to give them their view. And me coming from that context they viewed me as a way to do that. MDC quite the opposite. It was hard to gain access to MDC officials. There's a deep suspicion of intellectuals within the MDC. I think it has to do with the leaders. Listen

As an historian, how important do you think history is to the future of this country?
It's very central. As I think history is central to any country, its future [and] present. But more so in Zimbabwe, where you have the nationalist movement be it embodied in ZANU PF that fought a liberation war . . . this is something people forget - its just about three decades from that time when the war ended. It's fresh in our memories. Many of the figures that were involved in that struggle exist today. There's a centrality of the liberation history in terms of how we want to define ourselves in our politics so I think it's very important to our future for that reason, and the fact that history is important for any country or individual. But I'm making that emphasis. I must stress that it must be a pluralistic history, whatever it is. Various perspectives must be allowed to compete and contend in the market of ideas about that past. Listen

How relevant is the history of the liberation war today?
Many of the trappings of the liberation war history period have strong relevance today. One of the things I'm trying to emphasize in the book constantly is that people want to dismiss ZANU PFs interpretation of history as "this is all about preserving political power, legitimising illegitimate ends" and this sort of thing. But no there are actually very real issues as well that they're articulating. It is important to understand this, to be able to filter it to engage with that past. But again I stress in a pluralistic environment. There must be many contending views. Listen

What has been the response to the book?
Outside the country I've been slightly disappointed, in the sense that I didn't go out to write a book that's all about bashing and attacking ZANU PF. There are some real issues that ZANU PF has put across. I'll give you examples. The land question, we can disagree on the methods used to resolve it but there was a real grievance there, there was real land imbalance in 2000. Race relations, racial reconciliation in Zimbabwe was seriously flawed, ZANU PF has a point there. Western double standards, ZANU PF has a point too right now. You cannot accuse ZANU PF of being undemocratic and not say the same thing about Angolan President Dos Santos just because Dos Santos has oil. There's so many of issues. I think in many places where my publicist has tried to have the book reviewed some have found that problematic, that I am going to give some sort of a balanced perspective.

In Zimbabwe I've spoken to many figures in ZANU PF who have gone through the book and I think they've given me credit for at least having recognized the validity of some of their arguments. Interestingly enough, I've encountered a lot of hostility particularly from MDC quarters, for saying that ZANU PF does have a point about certain things, and secondly, it has to do with Chapter 9 of the book, which is devoted specifically to assessing the MDCs engagement with history. It's a very critical chapter. The MDC folks have been unhappy about that. Listen

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