David Caute

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Terence Ranger

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624

The publishers of this brilliant book [Under the Skin: The Death of White Rhodesia] tell us that it combines 'a historian's power of analysis with a journalist's eye-witness reporting of events and a novelist's sense of detail'. Of this trinity of virtues analysis is much the least evident. Caute's method of documenting the last days of white Rhodesia is impressionistic, immediate. He reports from within each moment, recording the actions and opinions of people who do not know what the outcome of events is going to be. He does not often make comments that are wise after these events; frequently he makes no comment at all. He matches his reports of white views about black politics with his own much more perceptive and informed contemporary accounts of what was going on in the African rural areas. The reader is largely left to draw the conclusions and this is easy enough to do. We can see for ourselves how ignorant the whites are about the Africans they rule; how fatuous and nasty their statements so often are; we know how the whole business turned out. We hardly need Caute to spell out for us the outlines of the skull beneath the Rhodesian skin….

[The white Rhodesian's] suspicion of overseas journalists was overcome by the sense of solidarity with a fellow white. Unaware of Caute's concealed miniature tape recorder, they expanded before this irresistibly attentive listener with a kind of corrupt innocence….

[They] parade themselves before us, their very intonations caught by Caute's ear or his tape-recorder….

Caute catches perfectly the mixture of discipline and horseplay, hospitality and violence, fine bodies and stunted minds which made up white Rhodesian 'culture'.

And yet Caute does not merely set up these Rhodesians for mockery. He shows them as people with qualities which in other contexts could be admirable. We see the world through their eyes and sometimes the view has a disturbing plausibility. Nor does Caute admire all the critics and enemies of the settlers….

This approach yields many dividends. It is useful to have so faithful a picture of Rhodesian whites before they vanish into obscurity or demonology. It is useful to have so complete a picture of the dilemma of the missionaries; of the awful complexities and ambiguities of the war for African peasant farmers. At a moment when there is a danger of a literature glorifying white courage being replaced by a literature glorifying black heroism, it is useful to be given so clear-eyed a view of the crimes and follies which disfigured the guerrilla movements. (p. 22)

And yet I am left with two criticisms. One relates to the decision to prescind from analysis. The book shows and tells, but it doesn't really explain. That is to say, it explains what white 'false consciousness' was like, but it doesn't really explain either how the Africans succeeded in overthrowing white political power or where lay the sources of white economic power. There is an implicit inevitability in the book—a sense that this sort of white society was bound to be overthrown by its black subjects—which counters a historical explanation. And this relates to my second criticism. Is white Rhodesia really dead? Of course it is in the full sense. But very many of the whites are still there and it seems likely to me that they will not be replaced as rapidly by expatriate 'experts' as has been the case elsewhere in Africa…. Perhaps in ten years' time we shall get a study of the afterlife of white Rhodesia. Meanwhile we should be grateful to have a book as good as this one. (p. 23)

Terence Ranger, "At Rhodesia's Deathbed," in New Statesman (© 1983 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 105, No. 2710, February 25, 1983, pp. 22-3.

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