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James Baldwin in Rhodesia

Article by Percy Zvomuya ‘Johannesburg Review Of Books’:



Percy Zvomuya writes: In the late nineteen-seventies, James Baldwin encountered an ‘extraordinary and illuminating’ Rhodesian book, which influenced his thought around black rage and white fear. Baldwin had seen advance copies of Black Fire! and decided not only to write the blurb and introduction to the book, as well as a review for ‘The Times’ but, on its launch, the American even travelled from his base in the South of France to Hampstead, London. Baldwin told ‘The Guardian’:


James Baldwin interview on ‘Black Fire!’ – The Guardian, UK January 1978

For me it is an extraordinary and illuminating document. It puts over a real feeling about the country, and what seemed from afar to be a simple battle is revealed as something exceedingly complex. I got a sense of the land, and of the spirit which moves the people. In places it is a very depressing book, but it also gives the impression of the energy and the struggle behind the struggle—and it is the energy which emerges that prevents the book from being despairing.”


Percy Zvomuya continued: The publication of Michael Raeburn’s Black Fire! Accounts of the Guerrilla War in Zimbabwe resulted, if for a moment, in a radical departure from the reactionary relationship of old between the USA and Rhodesia. I had been aware for some time of Black Fire!, five atmospheric, fictionalised accounts of historical moments from the armed struggle against Smith’s settler government, by Raeburn, a Zimbabwean writer and filmmaker. (Raeburn was at pains to refer to his sources, including court records, newspaper reports, interviews with the protagonists, and so on, so as to place his work within the ambit of history, but simultaneously deployed fictive techniques to tell the stories as vividly as possible.) Going through the contents, ‘The Crocodile Gang’ tells of a group of guerrillas who made incursions into Rhodesia for the purposes of sabotage and were involved in the killing of a white man—perhaps the first white casualty of the war; ‘Refusal’ is about a guerrilla who turns from believer to agnostic, in some ways anticipating the contradictions of the nationalist struggle; ‘The Spirit’ is about a guerrilla who hibernates in Rhodesia while he grapples with African spirituality and metaphysics and the consequences of war; ‘On the Move’ is, again, about guerrilla incursions into Matabeleland, in southwestern Zimbabwe, where the military wing of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu), Zipra, sometimes partnered with South Africa’s uMkhonto weSizwe resistance soldiers; and finally, ‘Black Fire’, the title story, marks a departure from the random acts of banditry we witness in ‘The Crocodile Gang’, with the protagonists moving towards the adoption of more sophisticated guerrilla warfare tactics.


The Crocodile Gang’, the first piece in Black Fire! fits snugly into the idea of why violence is not celebrated when the machete, the AK-47 or the Molotov cocktail is in black hands. The piece reverberates with screams and death rattles at the same time that it drips with blood—blood shed by Ian Smith and blood spilled by the nationalist guerrillas. Action in the piece begins at Salisbury prison with the execution of three Africans, two of whom had been sentenced under the Law and Order Maintenance Act of 1960—the law that took away whatever political agency black people still had and criminalised just about every political act.