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versão On-line ISSN 2309-8392
versão impressa ISSN 0018-229X

Historia vol.62 no.2 Durban Nov. 2017 



"Our fathers and grandfathers were born here" Shangaan eviction experiences from the Gonarezhou National Park, 1957-1968



Baxter Tavuyanago*

History lecturer at Great Zimbabwe University




When Gonarezhou was declared a game sanctuary in 1934, there followed concerted efforts to remove all people resident in the park-designated area. This was a process that gained traction from the mid-1950s and was only accomplished in 1968. This study interrogates the various responses of the Shangaan to their displacement from Gonarezhou National Park (GNP), a terrain they called home. Three case studies are used to illustrate the varied reactions. The forced removals are examined in the broader discourse of the history of colonial conquest, land alienation and African resistance to colonially-imposed projects. By interrogating archival sources, oral testimonies and secondary literature, the study contends that the Shangaan of south-eastern Zimbabwe put up stiff resistance to eviction from the land of their ancestors. It also notes that while literature on the history of national parks in Zimbabwe abounds, the subject of Shangaan eviction experiences has attracted limited academic scholarship. This article seeks to augment the knowledge on Shangaan contest for the control of the Gonarezhou terrain during the period from 1957 to 1968.

Keywords: Shangaan; Gonarezhou; co-existence; conservation; ecology; eviction; poaching.


Toe Gonarezhou in 1934 ʼn wildreservaat verklaar is, was daar doelgerigte pogings om alle mense wat in die aangewysde area woonagtig was, te verwyder. Die proses het in die middel-1950's trekkrag begin kry en is eers in 1968 afgehandel. Hierdie studie ondervra die Shangaan se verskeie reaksies op hierdie verplasing uit die Gonarezhou Nasionale Park (GNP), ʼn gebied wat hulle tuis genoem het. Drie gevallestudies word ondersoek om aan te dui hoe reaksies verskil het. Die verwydering van mense word ondersoek in die breër diskoers van die geskiedenis van koloniale verowering, grondonteiening, en Afrika se weerstand teen koloniale projekte. Deur gebruik te maak van argivale bronne, mondelinge getuienis en sekondêre literatuur voer hierdie studie aan hoe die Shangaan van suidoos Zimbabwe sterk weerstand gebied het toe hulle verwyder is van die grond van hul voorvaders. Hierdie studie let verder op die feit dat die Shangaan se ervarings minimale aandag in die akademie geniet ondanks die talrykheid van literatuur oor die geskiedenis van Zimbabwe se nasionale parke. Dit is vir dié rede dat hierdie studie beoog om kennis oor die Shangaan se stryd vir beheer oor die Gonarezhou-gebied van 1957 tot 1968 daar te stel.

Sleutelwoorde: Shangaan; Gonarezhou; saamleef; bewaring; ekologie; uitsetting; stroping.




The GNP is a protected area located in the south-eastern corner of Zimbabwe.1 The park, the second largest in the country after Hwange National Park, covers a surface area of 5 053 km2 of open grasslands and dense woodlands.2 Located around the park are several communal areas: Matibi No. 2, Ndowoyo, Sangwe and Sengwe (shown on Map 1). Residents of Gonarezhou area were evicted from the park in the 1950s and 1960s.3



On the eve of the occupation of the country in 1890, Gonarezhou was the land of the Shangaan people, also known as the Tsonga or Hlengwe.4 Soshangane Manukusa, the founder of the Shangaan (Gaza-Nguni) kingdom entered southern Zimbabwe in about 1821 and conquered and assimilated the local Tsonga, Hlengwe, Ndau, Ronga, Chopi and Tswa clans of the area. The Gaza-Nguni remained the undisputed rulers of south-eastern Zimbabwe until their downfall in 1896.5 While in charge of the land, they evolved a lifestyle based on a mixed economy which took full cognition of the climatic hazards of the area and the challenges arising from attacks by bugs such as tsetse-flies. Adaptation to the environment made them survivors in an area that was climatically hostile. Their forced removal from the land of their ancestors put them at loggerheads with the colonial state as discussed in the case studies under review which are representative of the communities that were most affected by the massive evictions of the period from 1957 to 1968 and so put up the most noticeable resistance to the game park scheme.


Research methodology

This article is firmly supported by archival material sourced from the National Archives of Zimbabwe and the Masvingo Records Centre. The material housed in these archives includes official correspondence; government/statutory documents; delineation and annual reports generated by colonial officials from the Native, Commerce and Transport, Law and Order and National Parks' Departments. The study profited from the memoirs of Allan Wright who worked as the district commissioner of Nuanetsi during the years under focus; and also from information gleaned in a colonial journal, the Native Affairs Department Annual which was first issued by the Native Affairs Department in 1923.

Furthermore, the research was enriched by information gathered from oral testimonies made by members of the Shangaan community of south-eastern Zimbabwe who lived through the trauma of evictions. These interviews were conducted between 2013 and 2015 when collecting data for my doctoral studies. They captured the emotions and reactions of people who had either experienced the ejections directly or witnessed them from the side-lines of the park. The deliberate interview focus was on recovering the voices of the marginalised Shangaan people. The article also draws heavily on the abundant secondary literature on the colonial empire, national parks and forced removals. Such works include academic texts, theses and journal articles. The qualitative research method was employed to select, present and analyse the material gathered.


Shangaan survival in the forest of Gonarezhou

As background to the Gonarezhou eviction discourse and to situate the discussion in its correct historical context, it is necessary to point out that the Shangaan had developed symbiotic relations with the fauna and flora of their environment before their homeland was turned into a game reserve. The intricate nature of their milieu dictated that they practise a mixed economy that was centred on subsistence cropping, hunting, raising of stock, fishing and gathering of fruits, plants and vegetables. Admittedly, theirs was a dry area that suffered from intermittent droughts but the people had developed ingenious survival tactics which enabled them to adapt in the best possible way to their veld.

Subsistence crop production was without doubt the pillar of the Shangaan economy although early white narratives presented the clan as lackadaisical agriculturalists.6 Their alleged inability to engage in productive agriculture was attributed to the generally dry ecology of the region7 but also on their alleged laziness.8 This view was consistent with the stereotypes generated by colonial administrators that African agricultural production was held back by the indolence and the slovenly methods that were employed.9

However, observations made about the area from as early as 1836 point to an agriculturally industrious community which assiduously cultivated a variety of crops on their rich alluvial soils.10 The Shangaan were reported to have been fervent crop producers who cultivated xifake (maize); muhlate (sweet potatoes); mandunghu (pumpkins); matimba (sweet reeds); timanga (groundnuts); tindluvu (peas); millet grain crops such as mahuvu and mpowo; and sorghum grains such as xibedlani, xitishi and mutode.11 The existence of many ngula (granaries), tshurwi na mutswi (mortar and pestle) and guyo na mbwanyo (grinding stones) throughout the Shangaan landscape was evidence of the people's astute agricultural practices.12

While acknowledging that the region was prone to perennial droughts, it is not entirely true that the inhabitants were bad crop producers. The local people took full advantage of their understanding of the environment and adapted their agricultural practices to the low rainfall of the region by cultivating small grains, conducting irrigated riverbed farming and practising crop rotation on dry lands.13 Their alleged agricultural ineptitude appears to be overstated or perhaps deliberately distorted by colonial authors to fit into the indolence mantra they were propagating. Where conditions allowed, the Shangaan producers excelled in crop production.

The Shangaan of Gonarezhou were also a renowned hunting clan, a fact supported in numerous colonial accounts.14 J. Parker observed that their hunting and tracking skills were comparable to those of modern soldiers.15 Again, the fact that vurha ne paxa (bows and arrows) were found in every Shangaan homestead was testimony to the importance of hunting. The Gonarezhou forest was home to a variety of game, birds and edible reptiles on which the local people depended. The Shangaan people managed these bush resources through the application of indigenous, community-guided conservation methods, a fact acknowledged by Wright, the district commissioner while he was superintending the Nuanetsi district.16 The testimonies of elderly residents of south-eastern Zimbabwe show that the vahloti (hunters) killed just enough game at a time to satisfy their immediate consumption needs.17

Early colonial writings also alleged that the Shangaan were bad stockmen because of perennial attacks by tsetse-fly and other diseases such as rinderpest, foot and mouth and theileriosis.18 On the contrary, early archaeological studies of the area pointed to a community that raised large herds of cattle in the Malipati area of south-eastern Zimbabwe, a zone that lies in the historical tsetse-fly belt.19 In support of this claim, J.K. Rennie contended that the Shangaan economy was oriented more towards the rearing of cattle than to crop production, thereby dismissing the notion that cattle raising was peripheral.20 The Shangaan also kept large numbers of other livestock such as goats and donkeys, animals that were more adaptable to the dry weather conditions of the southern Lowveld.21

The rivers in the GNP such as the Save, Runde and Mwenezi, and pools like Chasuku, Tembohata and Chivhileni were home to a variety of fish that residents depended upon.22 The veld also had an abundance of trees and wooden poles were used to build fences and to construct huts, granaries and cattle kraals. Fruits like khuhluru, saraji and nyii and indigenous vegetables such as nyapape and mowa complemented the people's diet. Then too, the nkanyi (marula) and kwangwali palm fruits were harvested and processed to make the intoxicating wine favoured by many in the community. The bark of certain trees and a variety of plants were used to make antibiotics that treated various ailments.23

It is therefore evident that living in Gonarezhou, the Shangaan cultivated a special relationship with their ecology. The place supplied them with basic daily needs: meat, fish, pastures, fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, the Gonarezhou forest provided them with firewood and was also home to the graves of their ancestors. It became a site of supplication. It is clear that the land could not be taken from the people without dire consequences. Unquestionably, its transformation into a game reserve was destined to demarcate lines of confrontation between the community and the authorities.


The people must move: Colonial displacements

The forced removal of communities from areas earmarked for game reserves was a world-wide phenomenon. The argument advanced was that animals and humans could not co-exist. Areas designated for wildlife had to be protected from the local people; to keep the animals in and the people out, barriers such as fences had to be erected.24 The first national park to be established in the United States of America in 1872, the Yellowstone National Park, was thus founded on the principle of excluding human beings from the park-designated area.25 Such was also the case with early game reserves in Australia, New Zealand and Sweden.26 Similar parks were established in colonial Tanganyika, Kenya and Uganda.27 The founding of national parks in their modern form thus became a feature of colonial Africa, with Yellowstone Park being used as the model.28 Cernea and Schmidt-Soltau discuss the negative effects of evictions when parks were created. They contend that such displacements trigger at least eight impoverishment risks, namely landlessness, joblessness, homelessness, marginalisation, food insecurity, increased morbidity and mortality, loss of access to common property and social disarticulation.29

Displacements in Africa were tainted by an added racial dimension whereby indigenous blacks were accused of having limited appreciation of nature and of being "first-class poachers". They had to be removed from parks if the ecosystems of such areas were to be preserved.30 Jane Carruthers contends that the establishment of the Kruger National Park in South Africa was followed by massive evictions of indigenous communities from the park area.31 Similarly, the creation of the Wankie Game Reserve in 1927 and the Matopos Game Reserve in 1930 in Rhodesia was followed by concerted efforts to evict the resident populations from the areas.32 Similarly, the declaration of the Gonarezhou land as a game reserve in 1934 triggered a process of removing indigenous Shangaan communities from the game-designated area.

Rhodesian imperial rulers maintained that parks such as the Gonarezhou were potential revenue generators through tourism and would create jobs for the affected communities, thus alleviating their poverty.33 The colonial government then conveniently appointed itself the custodian of the country's wildlife by dictating how it should be managed. In so doing it imposed a Western aesthetic appreciation of nature on black Rhodesian communities.34 Parks were thereby transformed into symbols of racial identity and white political hegemony when scores of indigenous communities were simply kicked out of Wankie and Matopos park-designated areas in a show of state power.35 These displacements should be understood in the context of the enforcement of racially-guided land alignment that followed the promulgation of the discriminatory 1930 Land Apportionment Act.36

In a statement issued by the acting secretary of commerce in 1934, the GNP residents were bluntly informed of the plans to remove them from the area:

Primarily, before even considering the possibility of making a game reserve, it will be necessary to remove the native population and transfer them elsewhere. These natives are of a most undesirable type, they do not work in Rhodesia and are not properly looked after, being apparently too far away from a Native Commissioner to be visited in person. Also they are in, or claim to be, a perpetual state of semi-starvation as the country has too little rainfall to support crops. Finally it is virtually impossible to have a game sanctuary and a native population in the same area.37

The emphasis was on removing the people because in practical terms it was "impossible" for them to co-exist with the wildlife. This was an opinion supported by the divisional road engineer and the assistant native commissioner of Nuanetsi.38 It was a viewpoint couched in the new paradigm prototype called fortress conservation that contended that Western wildlife protection management systems were superior to th