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OBITUARY: Bhebe was a historian of superior intellect



Ngwabi Mulunge Bhebe, 1942-2023


I LEARNT with great sadness of the passing of this illustrious man, Professor Ngwabi Mulunge Bhebe, a historian of note, whom I first met as his student in 1998 at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ). 

I was a member of the Master of Arts in African History class which he taught together with the current chair of the Journal of Southern African Studies, Brian Raftopoulos, and his late friend Terry Ranger, as well as David Beach and Marc Epprecht.

Ngwabi had already made an impression on many of his students as a man of superior logic when we encountered him at secondary school through the textbooks he authored on Zimbabwean and southern African history.

 (I was pleasantly surprised to find out during my recent brief sojourn there that these books are still being used in Eswatini secondary schools).

 We all looked forward to seeing the professor in person one day. His loud voice and contagious laughter immediately defined him, often punctuated by animated gesticulation as he paced up and down the lecture room or even in the corridors of the History Department.

He had a charismatic presence. Students loved to mimic him as they filled his lectures to listen to his oratory and share his passion for the discipline of history.

 Ngwabi led us through many functions and seminars, particularly the “Historical Dimensions in Human Rights and Democracy” seminar series that brought all the leading names in Zimbabwe[1]an history to fortnightly talks at the UZ.

Several publications by different scholars emerged out of this platform through his contacts with UZ Press and Mambo Press.

Because Ngwabi was warm, welcoming and humorous, his office (and many would say his home) door was literally open all the time and to everyone.

 He easily became the point man around whom many friendships and networks were built in what became the fraternity of Zimbabweanists that lasts to this day.

Ngwabi generously secured support to assist many young Zimbabwean scholars to write and publish through the Swedish Sida/SAREC support fund that he coordinated. He shared much of his private material and personal archives, helping me and others to shape our careers.

I was privileged to work and travel with him around the country as we did research for the Zimbabwean volume of the Southern African Development Community-funded Liberation Struggles of Southern Africa project which we co-authored.

He was a keen storyteller himself, but what I loved most were his casual yet deep-rooted interviewing skills.

Sitting through his interviews with many liberation struggle icons was one of the major highlights of my training and career as a historian.

These encounters invoked the biographer in Ngwabi, and he published three biographies of political luminaries: Lobengula, Benjamin Burombo and Simon Muzenda. And just before his passing he had completed a biography of Emmerson Mnangagwa.

These all drew controversy at times and identified him as the true nationalist historian of many hues that he was.

 But it was easy to tell, as I saw him in these spaces and occasions, how Ngwabi dealt with representativity as a scholar, and how he indeed valued the “voice” of the subject of his biographies. He was committed to making oral archives and facilitated the creation of many of these through organisations he helped to establish.

 He was a founding member of the Friends of the National Archives of Zimbabwe and the Oral Traditions Association of Zimbabwe in the early 1980s.

 He also founded the Zimbabwe Oral History Trust in 2004 and invited me to serve on its board and to oversee its many projects.

 Over and above his role in establishing the Midlands State University and becoming its founding vice-chancellor, Ngwabi was dedicated to creating a new Department of History there which slowly grew in stature and student enrolment to surpass even the UZ.

 It facilitated the research of and became host to many international scholars. I taught there at his invitation as well, and he frequently shared with me his vision of moving scholarship in Zimbabwe away from its metropolitan and Harare-centred orientation.

 The university must come to the people, he would say. He lived to see this dream, I guess, and even pur sued it further by establishing a campus in the peripheral mining town of Zvishavane, where history was one of the first academic departments of the University to be moved in 2016.

I was also Ngwabi’s assistant in a UNDP project commissioned by the Zimbabwean Government of National Unity’s Organ on National Healing and Reconciliation in 2010.

Through his stewardship, we put together a line-up of scholars to study the legacy of violence in the history of Zimbabwe.

This resulted in many great projects by established and emerging scholars drawn from the country’s institutions that were presented and debated in what can be considered the largest academic gathering of critical thinkers on the subject in Zimbabwe.

Ngwabi had an uncanny ability to manoeuvre between what was often an acrimonious relationship between academics and government in Zimbabwe, as was shown in his coordination of this project.

Through his diplomacy and intercessions, many bridges were mended and milestones achieved. He dignified academia through his scholarly outreach which made him the public intellectual who was revered by all as Zimbabwean’s foremost historian.

This will remain Professor Ngwabi Bhebe’s legacy. May it live on and may his soul rest in eternal peace.

*About the writer: Dr Gerald Chikozho Mazarire is assistant professor of African history at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

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