Passion for Research Takes Cadet to Zimbabwe

A students stands with a Zimbabwean man holding two certificates

Cameron McNeil ’20 poses for a photo with Capt. S.M. Mavengere,
who served in the Rhodesian and then the Zimbabwean Army.
—Photo courtesy of Cameron McNeil ’20.

LEXINGTON, Va., Oct. 2, 2019—It’s not unusual for a highly motivated cadet to have a passion for research—or for a cadet to be willing to travel to do that research. But a passion so strong that it involves 44 hours on an airplane? Now that’s unusual.

Cameron McNeil ’20 traveled to Zimbabwe this summer, researching his history honors project, “A Zimbabwean society forged by war.” His work, which was conducted under the auspices of the Summer Undergraduate Research Institute, will culminate this academic year with the writing of an honors thesis on that topic.

For McNeil, the interest in Zimbabwe is both professional and personal, as his father served in the Rhodesian Army in the late 1970s as Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia, went through a civil war in the years before that nation was granted independence from Great Britain in 1980.

McNeil’s family story of involvement in Africa had begun at the dawn of the 20th century, when his great-great-uncle, a British subject, fought in the Boer War in South Africa. Afterward, he and his sister moved to Africa permanently.

Two generations later, in 1952, Cameron McNeil’s father, Andrew McNeil, was born in Rhodesia, then under British rule. By the 1970s, Andrew McNeil had joined the Rhodesian police force, which was a branch of the military, and while serving in rural parts of the country, he learned some of the local languages.

In 1977, he commissioned into the Rhodesian army and served until he emigrated to the United States in 1982. This summer, Andrew McNeil joined his son on the trip to Zimbabwe, a nation that Cameron McNeil had never visited. After 22 hours in the air, they arrived in the capital city of Harare.

Not surprisingly, Andrew McNeil’s familiarity with the local languages and culture opened doors. “When we were over there, my Dad made friends with everyone,” said Cameron McNeil. He explained that everyone in Zimbabwe speaks English, but a few words in Shona, one of the indigenous African languages, makes a dramatic difference in how visitors are regarded.

“They become so much more friendly,” said McNeil. “You become kind of like an insider.”

Insider or not, McNeil didn’t have much luck at first finding the kinds of people he needed to talk to. He explained that after 37 years of rule by dictator Robert Mugabe, who was deposed in a 2017 coup, personal protection is a way of life for most Zimbabweans, and many live behind gates and fences, in homes protected by security systems.

Once past those physical barriers, McNeil ran into more problems. Many of the veterans he’d hoped to interview were out of the country, or away on business, while others would only talk about the events of the 1980s in general terms, for fear of retribution. Before he’d left for Africa, McNeil had decided to focus on the integration of the military in a newly independent Zimbabwe, as little research has been done at that time.

Eventually, though, Andrew McNeil’s connections served them well, and through friends of friends, Cameron McNeil was able to arrange an interview with Capt. M.S. Mavengere, who, like Andrew McNeil, is a veteran of the Rhodesian army.

“We rented a car and drove four hours, partially at night, on a two-lane highway, because we thought he’d be worth it,” McNeil explained.

Their persistence was rewarded. “He was my first breakthrough interview,” said McNeil of Mavengere. “He didn’t hold anything back.”

In his research, McNeil is seeking to understand how the Rhodesian army, which had been racially integrated since World War I, came together with two splinter groups made up of guerrilla fighters, both of which were backed by Communist governments, to form one cohesive military unit fighting for Zimbabwe’s interests.

This integration and cohesion were vital to Zimbabwe’s very survival in the 1980s, McNeil explained, because at that time Mozambique, through which nearly all imports to landlocked Zimbabwe must come, was fighting a civil war, and the Zimbabwean military had to step in to protect their nation’s self-interest.

Their ability to do so had begun, McNeil believes, with the decision to racially integrate the Rhodesian army during World War I.

“When they first formed these African units, the big thing was to break down any ethnic barriers,” said McNeil. The outcome, he explained, was military professionalism based on performance, not tribal or linguistic affiliations.

“The soldiers who were the best were those whose loyalty was to the army, to their unit, because in a sense that became their tribe,” McNeil commented. “From World War I to World War II to the Rhodesian bush war, or the liberation war, the Rhodesian Army had that integration. [The splinter groups] really didn’t have that.”

Helping McNeil with his research and trip planning has been his advisor, Maj. Jochen Arndt, assistant professor of history who specializes in southern African history.

“As his advisor, I can say that Cameron went the extra mile on this SURI project, and it is very rewarding for me as an Africanist … to see VMI cadets and history majors, such as [McNeil], to have similar interests and pursue them with such motivation and determination,” Arndt commented.

Since so many people he’d hoped to interview were away, McNeil is hoping to return to Zimbabwe around Thanksgiving, to find more at home. And he doesn’t plan to let his passion for Zimbabwe lapse after he commissions into the U.S. Army and pursues a career as a military intelligence officer. Down the road, he’d like to get his doctorate and teach African history at West Point.

 - By Mary Price

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