Not as boring as they sound – reading the history of Zimbabwean independence from airline annual reports in the BLDS Legacy Collection

By Danny Millum – BLDS metadata and discovery officer

One of the many strengths of the BLDS Legacy Collection lies in its holdings of annual reports, from both government departments and public and private companies. While obviously vital source material for business and economic historians, these might appear a little dry to others, but on closer perusal the incidental details of their production are in fact often strikingly revealing of wider social, cultural and political developments.

One example of this which struck us during cataloguing were the runs of Air Rhodesia and Air Zimbabwe annual reports which run from 1968 to 1988/89. The fact that Zimbabwe only achieved independence relatively late gives it a unique place within our collection, as while for the majority of African countries our holdings only really begin with independence, here we have material which allows us to compare and contrast pre- and post-independence publications across a wide variety of organisations.

Just dipping our toe in the water with this one example affords us a fascinating visual insight into how the airlines saw themselves. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single black Zimbabwean in any of the images from the 1968 and 1973 issues [image 1, 2 & 3], whereas the 1981 picture is decidedly multi-racial [image 4] and by 1989 the vast majority of the office staff are black [image 5] (interestingly for much of the late 70s photographs have been replaced by cartoon images – this would probably take an entirely separate blog to explore though!)

Besides the pictures, there are also snippets of text in the reports which cast light on international political developments and their local ramifications.

As we can see from the extract below from the 1968 annual report on Traffic and Sales that the tensions between Zambia and Rhodesia following the latter’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 were playing themselves out in the air industry as well, with Zambia banning air services between the two countries (and South Africa commensurately increasing its traffic).

“The new national airline of Rhodesia was born on the 1st September, 1967. Its birth was bedevilled by difficulties but it has come through the first few months of its life, not unscathed, but a great deal stronger than even the most optimistic had hoped for.

The Airline’s strength and resilience, in this important period of its life, stemmed from its predecessor’s proud heritage of service to Central Africa during the period 1946-1967… The difficulties facing the airline, and the country it serves, are by no means over; indeed the extent and degree of pressures from some quarters is increasing; however, Air Rhodesia faces the future with confidence…”

Air Rhodesia annual report 1968 – BLDS Legacy Collection

Post-independence we can see [image 6] that by 1989 routes stretched across Africa, to Europe and even to Australia.

Image of the route network of Air Zimbabwe
(Image 6) Air Zimbabwe route network – annual report 1989 – BLDS Legacy collection

Though Air Zimbabwe is still extant, mounting losses and the grounding of all flights due to the current Covid-19 pandemic mean its future is uncertain. It is unlikely that preserving its archive will be its priority, and therefore the preservation of this material by BLDS demonstrates in microcosm the importance of cataloging and conserving this type of material for histories of all kinds.

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Posted in BLDS (British Library for Development Studies), The Library

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