“They Promised that the Game Fences Would Be Torn Down”: Nationalist Politics and Contested Control of Natural Resources in Southeastern Zimbabwe, 1960s–1970s

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Abstract: In using largely untapped oral testimonies and colonial records, this essay argues that Joshua Nkomo, a prominent nationalist leader of Zimbabwe’s anti-colonial struggle, gained widespread support in Chilotlela, Sengwe, a remote corner of southeastern Zimbabwe, by courting local support and by paying respect to religious institutions. Despite the vast research on nationalism in Zimbabwe, little is known about the intersection between nationalism, land, and natural resources, especially in Southeastern Zimbabwe. Scholars have traditionally attributed support for Nkomo to the appeal of nationalism or ethnic solidarity. Rather than stressing national independence, however, Nkomo emphasized regional issues involving land and environment. By moving people to make way for colonial settlement and game reserves, the Southern Rhodesian authorities had curtailed people’s access to key natural resources, thereby increasing tensions within communities. Consequently, the majority of the villagers backed Nkomo and the subsequent armed struggle that broke out in the mid-1970s because they saw their support as an opportunity to eliminate the constraints that local colonial functionaries had imposed on their access to vital livelihood practices. By interpreting the anti-colonialist struggle mainly from the perspective of those from whom nationalists sought assistance, this essay advances our understanding of the nationalist struggle in Zimbabwe.