By G. Thomas Burgess
Zanzibar has had the most turbulent postcolonial history of any part of Tanzania, yet few sources explain the reasons why. The political impasse in the islands stems from the Zanzibari Revolution of 1964, in which thousands of islanders, mostly Arab, lost their lives. It is also about whether Zanzibar’s union with the Tanzanian mainland–cemented only a few months after the revolution—should be strengthened, reformed, or dissolved. Defenders of the revolution claim it was necessary to right a century of wrongs. They speak the language of African nationalism, and seek to unify Zanzibaris through the politics of race. Their opponents deplore the revolution, and espouse the language of human rights. They reject the politics of race, and instead regard Islam a source of national unity.
From a series of interviews, G. Thomas Burgess has recorded and composed two highly readable first-person narratives in which two nationalists in Africa describe their conflicts, achievements, failures, and tragedies. Their life stories represent two opposing arguments, for and against the revolution. Both Ali Sultan Issa and Seif Sharif Hamad lived through the revolution, served as powerful ministers in the Zanzibari government, and were later imprisoned. Hamad is currently a leading figure in Tanzania’s largest opposition party.
Both memoirs trace Zanzibar’s post-independence trajectory, and engage our most basic assumptions about social justice and human rights. They shed light on a host of themes that are of universal relevance: the legacies of slavery and colonialism, and the origins of racial violence, poverty, and underdevelopment. They also show how a cosmopolitan island society negotiates influences from Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe.
G. Thomas Burgess is an Assistant Professor at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He teaches African History.
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