The Rhodes Professor of Race Relations remembers his inimitable predecessor, Terence Ranger.

The unstoppable Africanist

By William Beinart, Rhodes Professor of Race Relations

Terence Ranger was a wonderful speaker, an unstoppable speaker; I think the best presenter of an academic paper — often without a paper — that I have heard. And he shaped the field of African studies.

Terry, as he was universally called, died on 3 January. He was Rhodes Professor of Race Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St Antony’s College from 1987 to 1997. Born in 1929, he read history at the Queen’s College and continued as a doctoral student in the 1950s, working at St Antony’s on Anglo-Irish history. But he found his identity in a lecturing post at the University College of Rhodesia in 1957. Terry’s sojourn there till 1963 left an indelible impression on him and he became primarily a historian of Zimbabwe.

The unstoppable Africanist

Expelled from Rhodesia for his political activities in sympathy with African nationalists, Terry is pictured above at his deportation at Salisbury Airport (at left with, left to right, Shelagh Ranger, Maurice Nyagumbo, Joshua Nkomo, Robert Chikerema, Robert Mugabe and John Reed). He subsequently worked at the University of Dar es Salaam, the University of California, Los Angeles, and at Manchester, before coming to Oxford. After retirement, he returned frequently to the University of Zimbabwe to teach history. In the early 2000s he continued to attend seminars in Oxford, taught at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, and supervised occasional students on the MSc in African Studies.

Terry brought distinction to all of these institutions. He was an Africanist at heart and consistent in this approach throughout his long career of fifty years. He held firm to his early ideas that we should collectively make the study of African agency central. This was evident in his key early books on political resistance: Revolt in Southern Rhodesia (1967) and The African Voice in Southern Rhodesia (1970). When in Tanzania, he researched a highly original exploration in popular cultural history entitled Dance and Society in Eastern Africa (1975).

As disillusion began to set in about African nationalism, he became absorbed in debates about African peasantries. But here too his analysis focused on political and religious assertions, in Peasant Consciousness and Guerrilla War (1985) and Voices from the Rocks (1999).

Violence and Memory: One Hundred Years in the ‘Dark Forests’ of Matabeleland, Zimbabwe (2000), with Jocelyn Alexander and JoAnn McGregor, was a darker book. A local study, it set the guerilla war and post-colonial conflict in its colonial context. His focus in three books on Matabeleland and Bulawayo was also a vehicle for critique of Mugabe’s political excesses.

The unstoppable Africanist

Yet despite his unease about Zimbabwe’s political direction, Terry remained an optimist about the ordinary people of that country and about Africa more generally. It was from him that I first heard a sustained critique of the Afro-pessimism that was fashionable on the left and right in the 1980s and 1990s.

Terry’s most famous book by far was a collection edited with Eric Hobsbawm, The Invention of Tradition (1983) that included an essay on the Scottish kilt (and other highland habits) by his former Oxford supervisor, Trevor-Roper. On Google Scholar it scores more than 15,000 references. A member of the editorial board of Past and Present, he was at the core of British social history networks and was elected as a member of the British Academy. But he remained devoted primarily to Zimbabwe and served for 15 years as chair of the editorial board of the Journal of Southern African Studies. This became a powerhouse amongst the Area Studies journals.

The unstoppable Africanist

The Rhodes Chair of Race Relations was established at Oxford in 1954 from southern African mining capital anxious about racial polarisation in the region. The memorandum of agreement made it clear that Africa was the major concern. At Oxford, Terry focused largely on Africa, providing outstanding leadership in a wide range of seminars and workshops with his inimitable verve and enthusiasm. He supervised a large number of doctoral students and together with them produced cutting-edge work on African history and society.

Terry had a wonderful capacity to see what was good and interesting in other people’s research, to encourage them, and to place their work in a broader, developing scheme of African history. He was especially effective in sharing ideas with, and giving direction to, young scholars. He himself was constantly learning and reformulating his propositions.

Terry put his ideas forthrightly and enabled you to agree or disagree — he was big man, sharing his tent but quite happy to think about challenges. We will remember him, with gratitude, with fondness, and with some awe.

Photograph of 1963 deportation by David Wiley; photograph of 2013 book signing by Marieke Clarke; both reproduced with permission. Africa map by Gwoeii via Shutterstock; Writing Revolt cover © Weaver Press; The Invention of Tradition cover © Cambridge University Press.


By Paul Landau

Well said, Bill!