Zambian and Zimbabwean Paths to Liberation

Alex Laverty

2 October 2007


Zambian and Zimbabwean Paths to Liberation

            When European explorers began crossing Southern Africa in the 1600s, most were concerned with finding new trading routes or securing new sources of slaves to export to their coastal fortresses and onto their colonial holdings around the world. As British and South African interests spread deeper into the continent in the late 19th Century from the capital-rich South Africa, formal colonies were established in order to manage the presumed resources of the interior. When these mineral resources were not initially found in abundance like they had in South Africa, settlers were encouraged to move in to inhabit and farm the rich soil of the Rhodesian colonies. White farmers became rich by exploiting the native Africans and the discovery of deep-lying copper veins in the north of the Rhodesias led to more mistreatment of the African population by the white colonizers. Eventually, resistance to the formal structures of the minority-ruled state formed in Northern and Southern Rhodesia. After differing liberation methods were practiced in each country, both achieved majority rule.

            The seeds of nationalism in the African continent sprung from the battlefields of Europe. Africans were employed in great numbers to fight for the Allies in World War II against the Nazi powers. While the promises made to them about better lives after service failed to materialize, the culture and lifestyle they witnessed in Europe would change the whole of Africa. For the first time, Africans saw poor white people, and how the European governments were far from the utopia that Africans had envisioned.  Importance in African self-consciousness arose from the conflict among the African soldiers, which allowed them to perceive the colonial overseers as oppressive and denying Africans their basic rights. Suddenly western culture wasn’t all that it had been made out to be by the missionaries and white governments and Africans saw that western culture as just as fallible as African culture (Mungazi 40).

            Modern political history and African nationalism in Zambia came out of the Copperbelt after the depression of the 1930s. It was in these mining towns that people came together in large numbers and into conflict with Europeans who were only a small percentage of the population. It was here that discontent among the populous found voice and recognized leaders. The migration between the mining towns and the rest of the country caused this new political awareness to spread to the rest of the country (Robert 201).

            In Zambia, the initial struggle to achieve minority rule set off a parallel rise in African nationalism (Rotberg 114). The fears of the colonists were just as important in fueling this rise as were the adverse conditions facing the indigenous population under colonial rule (Rotberg 114). Africans who had been raised in the missionary education first tried to participate in the white government through claims of having a democratic right to contribute in the process. To have a voice in the decisions affecting their daily lives were what most of the majority desired. Africans that had been fully ingrained in western ways formed associations based on job unions, which served as a way to voice their pleas for reform (Rotberg 115). It was these links that came to play the most sizable role in the emergence of nationalism in the 1940s (Rotberg 116). Thus the concept of nationalism that would spring from the desires to have their concerns addressed did not immediately give way to the liberation fighters of the mid 20th Century. Rather, the colonial history of the two nations, African and settler, fostered a continuous development of nationalism (Rotberg 2). In addition the spread of missions and their teachings provided a national outlook on life rather than a provincial one. The missions in fact proved to be a catalyst in the eventual fight for majority rule (Rotberg 9).           

            As Africans came together to express their views, the workers and townsmen formed welfare societies on the Copperbelt. Theses groups were much more effective than the tribal representatives when it came to raising concerns with the mining companies and the government. Eventually these societies spread in the 1940s, and later that decade they formed the Northern Rhodesia Congress. It was this body that was the “forerunner of the nationalist political parties” (Roberts 204).

            Nationalism in Zambia was fostered in the jails as well. While in detention, Zambian freedom fighters learned of those that could be trustworthy and those that could not be trusted. A sense of solidarity among themselves was formed and would serve them well after their release. They would then go and spread the gospel of nationalism to areas that had little contact with the movement (Rotberg 304).

            Northern Rhodesian nationalist movements, like the African National Freedom Movement under Barry Banda, called for self-government immediately but stressed that this would be achieved through the channels of the constitution rather than at the end of an AK-47. This contrasts greatly with the movements in Rhodesia as the nationalist movements there had concluded early on that the Smith government would not permit a peaceful change over like what was desired in Zambia (Rotberg 306). Instead an American-style civil rights protest was begun in Zambia, with sit-ins and attempts to pierce whites-only facilities. While these were patently unsuccessful when compared to their American counterparts, it did start the ball rolling on integration of the country, but in a political sense it brought them no closer to theirs goals (Rotberg 306-307).

            In 1953 growth in the nationalist movement came to an end. This was due to the movement in the Rhodesias and Nyasaland to form a Federation that was introduced despite African protests. The decline in growth stems from the failed ‘national prayer’ in opposition to the federation that nationalist leaders had called. This is partly because of the fact that workers on the mines could be dismissed instantaneously, but also because the unions that represented the miners likely realized that Federation was unavoidable and thus they would suffer greatly if they aligned themselves with the Congress that vehemently opposed the Federation in vain (Roberts 211).

            In 1958 the Congress was revived in response to economic stress. The price of copper had fallen on the world market, and job loss was prevalent throughout the country. Additionally, a new generation of young nationalism leaders was emerging from university with the goals of establishing an African independent state. However, a major split occurred within the main nationalist movement when the suffrage was granted to 25,000 Africans by the new constitution of Northern Rhodesia in 1958. Harry Nkumbula led the group based primarily in the south that engaged the white government in these elections. Kenneth Kuanda headed the radical wing that refused to partake in the new elections, and though he was jailed for a short period of time, he emerged from this period as the leader of the United National Independence Party (UNIP), and a national hero (Roberts 220). 

            Challenges to the nationalist movement during the run up to full independence included the Lumpa Church in the northeast of the country. This area had always defied outside rule, colonial or otherwise. However, with UNIP coming to power through the initial elections and thus running the country in 1964, to be against the party was to be against the new Zambian nation. This powder keg eventually exploded, leaving 700 people dead and the leaders of the church in custody or in exile across the border in the Congo. The government subsequently banned the Lumpa Church (Robert 221).

            The last roadblock to full economic and political independence was the British South Africa Company (BSAC) that owned the mineral rights and thus the royalties that had made the company rich. The previous Northern Rhodesia government had enjoyed a 50% cut in the royalties, which amounted to 6 million pounds in net income for the government in 1963. By devising a skillful and persuasive ad campaign, the government set out to prove that the BSAC had no legal right to the mines in the first place. Negotiations eventually took place between the BSAC and the new Zambian government, resulting in the BSAC surrendering all of its mineral royalties. Thus the Zambian government had fixed a leak that had let over 70 million pounds escape the country. Taking control of its greatest national resource, Zambia began to enter its period of independence economically sound (Robert 222).

            The Northern Rhodesia ‘fight’ for independence thus culminated in the formation of the Republic of Zambia on 24 October 1964. In terms of comparison between liberation movements this is undoubtedly one of the biggest differences between the two Rhodesian movements. Through a complicated election scheme devised by the British and Northern Rhodesian governments, power was successfully and peacefully transferred to the majority of Zambians. The eventual prime minister, Kenneth Kaunda, persuaded the white electorate in the run up to the election that bringing black rule to the country would not result in the collapse of the nation as had occurred in other places on the continent. After the election was held, Kaunda successfully put together a coalition government with the other African party, Nkumbula’s party that held a significant number of seats. In the end, after another election of the African majority with greater non-African support, it was a straightforward change towards universal suffrage and single-member constituencies that brought about majority rule in Zambia, an important difference when compared to the end results in Zimbabwe (Rotberg 314-316 & Hall 69).           

            Joshua Nkomo led the early substantial nationalist movement, the National Democratic Party (NDP), in Zimbabwe beginning in 1957. This resistance movement was united and primarily run from its headquarters in Salisbury. However, in 1963 disagreements over ideology, tactics, and leadership personality led to a split within the movement. This created two different liberation camps, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) under the initial guidance of Ndabaningi Sithole while Nkomo led the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), formed out of the defunct NDP. ZAPU had originally pinned its hopes for majority rule on British intervention like had occurred in Zambia and Malawi. However, the Rhodesians were much more entrenched in the political structures and armed forces than any of British colony in Africa. The next year showed Nkomo that constitutional negotiation, as had occurred in Zambia, would not be possible in the Rhodesian state and thus armed conflict was going to be the only alternative to remaining under colonial control. However as the struggle intensified, the cooperation between ZANU and ZAPU became increasingly fractured and contentious, most likely spurred on by the Rhodesian intelligence services. The fact that these two groups had split over ethnic lines did not help in terms of coordination and cooperation. ZAPU was generally Ndebele and ZANU primarily made up of the Shona. This ethnic division in itself caused a major set back against the settlers, as the movement lost those Africans that wished to only participate in a passive fashion. Thus the movement, being drawn along ethnic lines, required a full commitment (Gann 44). These two organizations also drew in support from different international bodies. The Soviet bloc supported ZAPU, while China supported ZANU. The OAU was unsure over which side to back and in the end backed both of the moments but their contributions were not as significant because of the financial capability they lacked when compared to the socialist states (Rotberg 10).

            At this time in the late 1950s Black Nationalism “never presented a military threat to the federal establishment” that had united Nyasaland, and the two Rhodesias (Gann 19). However, the political impact was immense. In Zambia the opposition was strong, and by 1963 the federation had collapsed and Malawi and the Republic of Zambia emerged. The white government in Rhodesia also expected to gain independence from the United Kingdom at this time. However, the colony continued under a self-rule policy from Britain that followed the 1961 constitution that was theoretically color-blind. Property and educational qualifications were put in place to vote for the ‘A’ role of 50 parliamentarians, while most of the African population voted for the ‘B’ role of 15 seats. The qualifications allowed for an increasing number of blacks to vote for the ‘A’ role positions, though only very slowly. While Rhodesia could effectively govern how it saw fit, there was a fear that the new Labor Government in the United Kingdom would force a change in the constitution to allow more African say in the election of parliament. Thus in 1965 the new Prime Minister, Ian Smith, issued his Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). Britain at first did nothing, thinking that Rhodesia would eventually come back to the crown or float towards disaster (Gann 18-20).

            Resistance towards the government continued to grow after the UDI as a greater number of Africans became educated but still faced unemployment. Social constraints still faced the majority of the black population even when they had reached a financial level on par with some of the whites. Additionally, white farmers were reluctant to give up any of the land on their farms. Thus this unemployed constituency turned to the liberation movement (Gann 24-25). Though for a time after the UDI the Rhodesian police was more than capable of dealing with the unrest that had begun under Federation in the late 1950s (Gann 41). This slow start to a liberation movement when compared to that in Zambia is because of the harsh reactionary steps taken by the Rhodesian government, but also because the NDP made a mistake in assuming that the tactics that proved successful in Zambia would also be successful in Rhodesia. The change over in Zambia had much to do with British intervention and pressure on the white colonial government. In reality Britain had little control over Rhodesia, and the 1961 constitution that was negotiated between Britain, Rhodesia, and black leaders fell far short of the NDP’s desires and they renounced it. Faced with a growing insurgency, the settlers also did away with the 1961 constitution, bringing the Rhodesian Front into political power (Gann 42-43).

            Armed struggle seemed to pose a stumbling bloc for the duel movements because of a lack of boisterous support from the local population. Before the parties were banned by the state, crowds swelled the rallies held in major population centers. However, the population’s eagerness to support a guerilla campaign were quite tempered in comparison, perhaps because of Prime Minister Ian Smith’s campaign to bribe, harass, and intimidate the population into not offering their support. Smith’s success caused the movements and their backers to question their own methods in confronting the state. Calls for unity eventually came from all outside forces, and reluctantly ZANU and ZAPU came to an understanding that would allow them to concentrate their resources on the Rhodesian government rather than each other (Mubako 8-9).

            In great contrast to the Zambian movement, the guerilla war in Rhodesia was “geared to achieving nationalist goals through the barrel of a gun” (Tamarkin 113). The major strategy of the war was to target the transport system of Rhodesia. As African neighbors were slowly closing off Rhodesia, most of their links became southward looking. These lifelines to South Africa became a primary target for the guerillas. This included disrupting the land communication links around the country through roadside ambushes and mining the roads. This tactic was especially employed in those areas deemed operational zones. Finally, the last goal of the war was to disrupt the agriculture, the country’s primary foreign income earner. This also would achieve the aim of scaring white farmers off their farms. This was seen to be a crucial step in breaking the moral of the whites (Tamarkin 113-114).

            Reading from the Mao Tse-tung play book on peasant revolutions, the Zimbabwe National Liberation Army (ZANLA) concentrated a great deal of energy on winning over the masses in the rural areas. Attacks were planned and carried out on African collaborators, and just like the government, ZANLA used coercive methods to unsure compliance with the nationalist movement. Mao teachings also influenced battle tactics of the Zimbabwean liberation movement. The strategy of fighting first in the countryside in order to surround the cities is a classic Maoist tactic (Tamarkin 114).

            As the war intensified and more encounters with the Rhodesian security forces resulted in the deaths of white soldiers there was an escalating struggle within the nationalist movement. This was due to the transition from a political body to a military one. Nkomo, having failed in his talks with Smith in the 1970s, was thought to be on the immediate decline but those predictions turned out to be false (Tamarkin 115). This eventually led to Nkomo declaring that black Rhodesians would have to decide between ZAPU and ZANU. He claimed that his African National Congress, ZAPU, was the only legitimate liberation movement as it had been recognized by the Organization of African Unity (Tamarkin 118). The uneasy alliance that had been briefly fostered between ZANU, now led by Robert Mugabe, and Nkomo was finally over. While the Second Chimurenga war was under way, by 1976 the nationalist liberation movement was firmly divided both militarily and politically (Tamarkin 119 & Chikwanha-Dzenga 2).

            On the side of the Smith government, the toil of war was beginning to take its toll on the nation. Tourism in 1976 was at an all time low. Income from tourism was important since the UDI, and this loss contributed to the worsening economic situation as more and more young white men were forced into the military and combating the ‘terrorists’ (Tamarkin 121). On the military front, other than the Special Air Service of the Rhodesian special forces, the military was responding on basically a reactionary strategy thus eliminating their superior firepower and air superiority from the equation (Tamarkin 125). Rather the military had to engage in preemptive strikes across international borders attempting to hit the camps that guerillas had established in the independent Zambia and FRELIMO controlled Mozambique. However, these strikes had little impact on the war as a whole, but as the guerilla forces in the country increased, these strikes became essential to the war effort (Tamarkin 126).

            As the end of the 1970s approached it was obvious that neither side had an upper hand in the conflict. Attacking across borders was causing massive casualties to the guerrillas and costing the aide-giving countries hundreds of millions of dollars per year because of the border embargo placed on Rhodesia. Lewis Gann terms these so-called front line states as “front-line trenches in Salisbury’s all-out war on their territory” (59). On the guerilla side, Mugabe’s ZAPU had a well-stocked armory while ZANU continued to bicker among itself for leadership control. When the Conservative Party came to power in 1979 in the United Kingdom, it offered both sides a way to end the war. The Rhodesians realized that no other British government would give them a more favorable deal than the Tories. The guerillas on the other hand were increasingly losing manpower while internal discord and morale problems plagued their backlines. Negotiations took place at the Lancaster House in London in 1979, and after tense and shaky talks, a deal was brokered to allow Rhodesia to temporarily return to the control of the crown while new elections were being arranged.

            It was after these talks that Mugabe shifted his nationalist rhetoric to an election campaign of reconciliation and peace. Plus, the rampant talk of Marxist and socialist expression was curiously suppressed in the run up to elections. Mugabe’s strategy worked brilliantly as most Shona turned out to vote for ZANU, as they were understood to be the only party capable of fulfilling their election promises. Thus support from both the middle and lower classes poured in for Mugabe. The new Zimbabwean government, in contrast to the Zambian, brought in leaders from all of the primary parties. Nkomo received a position in the cabinet as well as two white Members of Parliament. Mugabe seemed to have the country on the course to true national conciliation as he led the nation across the finish line of the path from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe.

             The glaring difference in the liberation movements of Zambia and Zimbabwe is the loss of life incurred on the settlers and the African nationalists. From the onset of Zambian nationalism, a policy of non-violence was implemented. While not always followed precisely, the level of violence never reached even a tenth of what would occur in Rhodesia. Thus UNIP and Kaunda relied on protest and the eventual intervention of the British Colonial Office when it came to achieving their aims of majority rule. ZANU and ZAPU did not have that luxury when confronting the settler state in Rhodesia. Only after a long and bloody struggle did the Smith government give in to international and internal pressure to negotiate their Rhodesian Front party out of power. Thus Mugabe and his government had a major issue of reconciling the scars of a beleaguered nation, while in Zambia the African government got straight to governing. While there was an appeal to court the European vote in the Zambian elections, the overwhelming majority held by UNIP meant that this was not essential. Additionally in Zimbabwe two contentious liberation movements meant that an understanding had to come about between the freedom fighters as well as the settlers. Zambia did not face this challenge, as UNIP had no comparative equal.

            The rise of nationalism in both countries had their similarities. Both originated from more contact with Europeans, which led to disillusionment with settler rule. Zimbabwean nationalism became decidedly more militaristic, but this is difficult to juxtaposition with the Zambian form, as the obstacles faced by ZANU and ZAPU were quite unlike anything in Zambia. Beginning in the centers of commerce, nationalism slowly took each country by storm and led to two very different liberation movements. Both ended with their goals achieved, African rule, and both seemed poised to be the poster child for successful transition after each African government came to power. In Zambia the non-violent change seemed to promise a future culture of non-racialism, while in Zimbabwe the measures taken by Mugabe to integrate the different parties into his government seemed to be an unprecedented and highly enlightened move to make sure that his country would enter the international scene as a beacon of hope for the changeover to majority rule across the continent of Africa.



Bhebe, Ngwabi and Terence Ranger, eds. Soldiers in Zimbabwe’s Liberation War. Harare; University of Zimbabwe Publications, 1995.

Chikwenha-Dzenga, Annie Barbra. “Democracy and National Governance in Zimbabwe: A Country Survey Report” Afrobarometer. Paper 12. JSTOR. UKZN Lib. 26 Sept 2007 <>.

Day, John. International Nationalism. London; Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967.

Gann, Lewis H. and Thomas H. Henriksen. The Struggle for Zimbabwe: Battle in the Bush. New York; Praeger Publishers, 1981.

Hall, Richard. Kaunda: Founder of Zambia. Great Britain; Longmans, 1964.

Mubako, Simbi. “The Quest for Unity in the Zimbabwe Liberation Movement” Issue: A Journal of Opinion Spring, 1975: 5-17. JSTOR. UKZN Lib. 25 Sept 2007 <>.

Mungazi, Dickson A. Colonial Policy and Conflict in Zimbabwe. New York; Crane Russak, 1992.

Roberts, Andrew. A History of Zambia. London; Heinemann, 1976.

Rotberg, Robert I. The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa: The Making of Malawi and Zambia 1873-1964. Cambridge, Massachusetts; Harvard University Press, 1967.

Tamarkin, M. The Making of Zimbabwe: Decolonization in Regional and International Politics. Great Britain; Frank Cass, 1990.



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