Rhodesia: A Failed Attempt to Maintain Racism into the 21st Century

Alex Laverty

6 March 2008

Poli 142L

Rhodesia: A Failed Attempt to Maintain Racism into the 21st Century

            After the conquest of the southern tip of Africa by the British and the Afrikaners in the 19th century, whites began to move into the heart of the continent in search of more fortune and land. Cecil Rhodes, of Kimberly diamond fortune, had dreams of forming the ‘red route’ (of British Imperial Red) through Africa from Cairo to the Cape (Good 29). He obtained a royal charter in 1889 to form the British South Africa Company, which authorized him “to settle and administer an area immediately to the north of the South African republic and west of the Portuguese Dominions” (O’Meara 3). In 1890, pioneers reached the future site of the capital of Rhodesia, Fort Salisbury. This foray into the heart of Africa was to be the beginning of a continuous struggle between white European settlers and native blacks. The ‘conquest’ of what had been known as Zambezia, was quick and nearly absolute due to the Maxim gun, which subdued the local populations and destroyed the previous ruling structure by 1897 (Good 28-31). From the very beginning Britain never assumed real authority, just minimal responsibility, due mostly to the position of power that Rhodes held in the British Empire. The autonomy granted to the settlers would form the foundations of what was to become the Rhodesian government. This governance, or lack of, by the British Crown in the late 19th century in a small and insignificant corner of the world (due to the lack of gold or any precious stones being discovered) would become the most difficult problem to date since World War II for Britain. This is not because the progression of racial problems in Rhodesia, but the evolution of race relations in the rest of the world, as well as Britain’s place in it. The events of Rhodesian history result from three primary characteristics. A small white elite drove occupation and the eventual governance of the country. Rhodesia, since it’s founding, and its citizens were never directly ruled from the Colonial Office in London. Finally, the special relationship that Rhodesia had with South Africa would play a part in shaping the history and downfall of Rhodesia (Good 30,31).

            These three characteristics meant that as time passed, and the Rhodesian government became more structured, a body of laws came into being over the years that generally inhibited Africans from developing their skills or capabilities that would allow them to enter the skilled labor force. These were passed while protecting most, if not all, of white Rhodesian’s interests. The British had a veto over the legislative body but it was never employed, due to the fact that there was no way to back the veto since the Rhodesian Prime Minister would likely not acknowledge the veto. The a main difference between Rhodesia and the rest of the Crown’s holdings was the fact that the area had never been pacified with British troops and as such there was never a British military base in Rhodesia. Thus, any veto that was to be followed through by Britain would require deploying military troops into the country as a show of force. However, the logistics that this would involve even if it were to be contemplated would likely make any kind of intervention on Britain’s part as very remote. Thus, while Britain would campaign for natives’ rights, the fact remains that Rhodesia never had any incentive to comply (Good 33-34).

            The seeds of the Rhodesian Bush War would be planted by two events that would see a rise in African awareness and nationalism at the same time it was sprouting in the rest of Southern Africa. The first was a desire by Godfrey Huggins, Rhodesian Prime Minister in the 1930s, to join Southern Rhodesia with the British Protectorate of Nyasaland, and the British colony of Northern Rhodesia. His arguments for amalgamation rose from an economic standpoint, with big business greatly in favor of the proposed Federation. This was because there were more prospects for commercial enterprise if the three territories were one political and economic unit rather than three separate countries. The desire from Northern Rhodesia for Federation came from the expendable feeling that had developed among their populace in regards to their relationship with Britain after it made the statement that African interests should be paramount in its colonies. However, Huggins did not take into account the desires of Africans in his push for Federation. When Africans in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland realized that Federation would mean an extension of Southern Rhodesia’s racial policies of hatred, they were obviously not so inclined with amalgamation. When Africans in Southern Rhodesia also realized this fact, they campaigned all across the country in rejection of the plans for amalgamation. This national sense of outrage produced the first episode of a sense of power and consciousness. While the effort was uncoordinated, the similar voice that all Africans had spoken with awoke them to the possibilities of future coordination (Vambe 116-117). While the Federation was eventually completed, it was to only last 10 years and ended with the independence of two of the member states, with Northern Rhodesia becoming Zambia and Nyasaland becoming the nation of Malawi.

            The second event to give Africans a sense to push for power was World War II. Like most colonies in Africa, Rhodesia sent both white and black troops to the front lines in support of the colonial powers. When Africans saw how whites could brutally kill each other in such primal and indiscriminate ways, any respect or subordination Africans felt for European culture was quickly destroyed. Bringing these stories back helped sow the desires for self-determination. With Africans also seeing service in Asia, the fight for self-determination in that part of the world would also be mirrored on the African continent (Good 34).

            These seeds of discontent and a desire for self-governance resulted in strikes in the economic sector. In July of 1960 the first blood spilled in racial conflict since 1897 occurred during a strike in the industrial city of Bulawayo in the southern part of Rhodesia. Little progress was made in the political realm in the next few years, and eventually the moderation of both sides declined as politics and race became increasingly polarized. This is seen most prominently in the coming to power of the Rhodesian Front Party in 1963. This is the same year in which the Central African Federation broke up, and Rhodesia’s neighbors were gaining independence. The leadership of the party soon came under the helm of Ian Smith. The first Rhodesian-born Prime Minister, he played off the white public’s fears of a black uprising to bolster support for his party and its racist policies (O’Meara 19). Smith was part of the group that was pushing for independence without fulfilling the British conditions for independence, the NIMBAR Principles. NIMBAR Principles, No Independence Before Majority African Rule, was to become the major debate between the British and the Rhodesian Front for the entire term of Smith’s regime. The Principles spoke of the progression towards majority rule and guarantees of no retrogressive actions by the white government. They also called for the end of racial discrimination. The Rhodesian Front was not prepared to meet any of the principles laid down under NIMBAR, and a strong support began to gather for a Unilaterally Declaration of Independence (UDI) (O’Meara 18). After the threat of UDI by Smith’s government, negotiations between London and Salisbury were frequent, but ultimately led to nothing and on the 11th of November 1965 Rhodesia declared itself unilaterally independent.

            The African nationalist movement in Rhodesia began like most others in colonial Africa. After attempting to use the constitutional procedures and institutions of the Europeans, they eventually were forced to resort to strikes by the labor force and finally guerilla tactics against the government. The National Democratic Party (NDP) was one of the first major organizations that channeled African nationalism into a voice against the government. After it was subsequently banned, the Zimbabwe Africa People’s Union (ZAPU) emerged in 1961 with the same hierarchy of the NDP. It was ZAPU who was the first major group to withdraw from the election of 1962. Up until this time ZAPU had acted and organized like any modern day political party. There was an executive, a party leader, and party followers who all contributed dues to the cause. With the move out of the constitutional frameworks of political parties, the organization stayed the same, however with the added branch of a military wing. This decision to withdraw from the election is seen as the defining moment in the move to anti-system politics and eventually extra-system politics. This shift towards policies of violence and sabotage was all part of a concentrated effort to internationalize the struggle of black Africans. Up until 1962, African nationalism had refrained from proceeding outside the constitutional framework of the country to bring about change. ZAPU was soon banned, and took up a government-in-exile stance as it relocated to Dar-es-Salaam. However, there were divisions starting to form within the party and this move outside the country caused a split to occur. The exiled members of the party created what would become the ruling party when independence came about: the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). Among these exiled former ZAPU members were Ndabaningi Sithole and Robert Mugabe. This split occurred down ethnic lines with Joshua Nkomo the leader of ZAPU from the Ndebele tribe and many ZANU supporters were Shona. However, the split was not due to ethnic divisions, and Nkomo and Sithole attempted to see past these differences, as members of both the parties had been part of earlier movements (O’Meara 109-114).

            Organization of both parties was set up in a simple club structure, with members paying dues and attending meetings and rallies. While ZAPU had the support of a larger part of the population, and thus more funds, neither party was able to launch any large attacks against the Rhodesian Front government until late in 1967. Even then, any attacks or kidnappings by either party was met with swift and strong action by the Rhodesian police and military, which were being supported by the South African anti-insurgency forces. Thus overall, both parties were relatively ineffective in the 1960s in all areas: violence, international pressure, and civil disobedience. Reasons for this ineffectiveness include the lack of rural support for African nationalism. Both parties had strong bases of support in the urban centers, but sustained support from the rural population had not yet been achieved. This is explained by the reaction of most rural Africans in Rhodesia as ambiguous towards the white-dominated power structure (O’Meara 125).

            Efforts were made to unite the two parties and in 1971 FROLIZI (Front for Liberation of Zimbabwe) was created as a uniting organization. However, this was not to be the tipping point of the struggle for independence. While the united front did have some success in the north of the country in early 1973, ZANU had established an alliance with FRELIMO (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique). This combination was to prove the most consistent and dangerous movement against the Rhodesian government. ZANU guerillas came to be trained by commanders who had received training and battlefield experience in Vietnam and China. With the Lisbon coup d’etat in 1974, which led to the eventual handover of power in Mozambique to FRELIMO, ZANU gained a powerful friend in a neighboring nation. The shift from political opposition to an all-out insurgency was complete by this time. It was now evident that the principles of both sides were now incompatible and only one side could emerge victorious (O’Meara 127-129).

            As ZANU and ZAPU began to increase their attacks on the Rhodesian government, their primary objective was to win the support of the rural population. Using a mixture of sycophancy and threats, they co-opted the rural blacks into their struggle. Both parties were able to successfully move into the rural countryside and carry out attacks on military positions and white farmers in near secrecy for the first year of the insurgency. By destroying government property and killing government officials, they sought to show how life would be better without the Rhodesian Front government in power. Guerillas who infiltrated Rhodesia from their bases in neighboring Zambia and Mozambique were directed to disrupt the lines of communication of government forces (Cillers 6). They also attacked and looted the homes of white farmers with racist reputations. While they continued their attacks on the government throughout the insurrection, the goal of winning over the masses was always the predominant goal of the guerillas (Kirk 1).

            After Rhodesian security forces steadily annihilated the initial incursions by guerillas, insurgent forces began to steadily gather in the northeast where the rugged terrain helped shield their presence. At this point they began to engage a political campaign with the local population, much in line with the teachings of Mao Zedong (Cillers 12). The concentration on the rural apparatus of the white-state, while helping ZANU and ZAPU gain popular support, was a tactic of necessity, as they had neither the manpower nor the technology to go up against the Rhodesian military. While they were gathering support in the rural areas, the leaders of the armed wings of ZAPU and ZANU were attempting to convince the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the world community that there were entities inside Rhodesia that were capable of toppling the Smith government. This would lead to greater international support, in terms of aid and supplies, but also in the form of the West putting pressure on the Smith government (Cillers 6-7).

            As the nations bordering Rhodesia gained their independence from their European colonialists, the forces of ZAPU and ZANU strengthened. These states, which became known as the Front Line states, backed a combined force of ZAPU and ZANU military forces known as ZIPA (Zimbabwe People’s Army). However, as the attacks from the Mozambique side intensified, ZANU gained the upper hand in the alliance in terms of international support and recognition as the leading partner. However, ZAPU was not to be outdone so easily, and attacks by both sides intensified as a way of outdoing the other in attempting to be the liberation movement. However, ZANU eventually became the leading faction because they were seen as bearing the greater burden of losses when confronting the Smith government on the battlefield. This is also due to ZANU committing all of their forces to Rhodesia, while much of ZAPU’s forces were training and bidding their time in Angola and Zambia. The retaliations by Rhodesia show that ZANU was the more dangerous force. In 1979, the Rhodesian Front was nearly defeated, yet still had chemical weapons at their disposal. They put anthrax in rivers that eventually led to ZANU camps in Mozambique. While this had little effect on the ZANU soldiers, it killed thousands of civilians as a result. However, dad the war continued into the final stage of mobile warfare, ZAPU might have emerged the ‘winner’ of the two insurgent forces. By 1977 the writing was on the wall for the Smith government, as they admitted that the insurgency had become a full scale onslaught by revolutionaries. (Cillers 34-38).

             Negotiations between all relevant parties soon ensued in 1978 as Smith attempted to negotiate with his preferred black nationalists. The major change, other than the increasing attacks on civilians by both sides, was the withdrawal of the support of South Africa; Rhodesia’s closest ally during the war. South Africa, fearing the war would spread to the rest of the region, namely South Africa itself, pressed for the Rhodesian Front to step aside and let a moderate African government takes its place. South Africa exerted its political influence through the threat of withdrawing its security forces, while at the same time pursuing a policy of détente. This suited many of the Southern African nations whose economies were left in ruins after their liberation struggles. South Africa, with its massive economy, was enticing for many nations who had been adversely affected by the sanctions campaign against Rhodesia, notably Zambia. However, the Rhodesian Front resisted any settlement that resulted in whites losing their privileges. Additionally leaders seeking power over the liberation struggle discredited any leaders prepared to negotiate with Smith. Smith finally gave into mounting public pressure to reach a settlement, sparked by the incident of the Hunyani Disaster. An Air Rhodesia passenger plane had been shot down by Nkomo’s forces and the survivors of the crash had been brutally killed by forces on the ground. This came after an internal settlement was reached between Smith and two African nationalists, though not the leaders of ZAPU and ZANU, Nkomo and by this time Mugabe, respectively. The guerilla leaders had rejected this settlement and continued the war in the bush. This was due to the increasing struggle between the liberation movements over who would have power. It seemed as though the factions of the insurgency would rip Rhodesia apart. Even though Smith had signed away white privilege in 1979 with the creation of universal suffrage and a black Prime Minister, the war did not conclude until the Lancaster House agreement in 1980. 11th hour negotiations held at the Lancaster House in London brought to close a bloody war of independence and resulted in a fairly peaceful transition. The success of Lancaster House has been attributed to the gathering of all the relevant parties, which had not always been the case in previous negotiations, and “British diplomatic heritage” (Tamarkin 254).

            Robert Mugabe won a landslide election and formed a coalition government with ZAPU in 1980. Many of the incentives the liberation movements had promised to their constituencies had to do with property rights. With whites controlling nearly all the arable land, black Africans had no way to subsist. Mugabe had promised radical land reform during the run up to the election. However, under the agreement at the Lancaster House the Zimbabwean government could only acquire land under a willing seller policy. After the expiration of the 10-year period under this policy, the government passed laws allowing compulsory purchases of land. Still no significant land reform occurred. Finally, with war veterans threatening Mugabe and his party in 1997, Mugabe began to authorize the taking of land by blacks using illegal measures. Many white farmers have been killed as a result. Much of the land that was repossessed however, went into the hands of Mugabe’s elite. However, at this point most Zimbabweans do not want to repossess the land of their ancestors. Instead, they want wage jobs in the urban sectors. However, with the crash of the agricultural market due to the stance taken by the government against white farmers, the economy is unable to support the growth of the population. More alarming is possible chance of mass famine as a result of the failing farms. All of these factors have created a faltering economy and government. While Mugabe was able to stay in power in the 2002 elections through voting irregularities and intimidation tactics, challengers have become bolder as the economic crisis worsens. With Mugabe no longer able to satisfy the public with land reform rhetoric, he has instead shifted blame for the economic down turn to Zimbabwe’s colonial power: Great Britain. Mugabe now asserts nearly all of the failings of his country are due to the conspiracies of Great Britain and the West, even claiming that the primary opposition party was started and backed by the West in an effort to topple his on-going ‘revolution’ (Mail and Guardian, Mugabe: Makoni candidacy a UK ploy & BBC, Zimbabwe: The Battle for Land)

            Thus any interaction with Zimbabwe must come through negotiations that remove Mugabe from power. South African President Thabo Mbeki has yet to condemn Mugabe nor reach any sufficient process in the negotiation between ZANU and the opposition party, and he seems content to let Zimbabwe deteriorate rather than soil the legacy of a partner in the liberation of both of their countries. As Mbeki’s father was a top African National Congress member who was based in Zimbabwe after its independence, the ties the two leaders maintain mean that any real change will be lead by a third party with no colonial or imperialist ties to the region. Thus, a country in Southern Europe or Asia, other than China, would be best to lead the talks on the removal of Mugabe. Only after his removal and the resumption of democracy will the United States be able to normalize relations with Zimbabwe that will not be construed as imperialist or self-serving. Thus the United States should seek to involve third party countries in the talks without contaminating the possibly of progress as it might be seen as an imperialist move by the African community.

Works Cited

Astrow, Andre. Zimbabwe: A Revolution That Lost Its Way? London; Zed Press, 1983.

Cillers, J.K. Counter-Insurgency in Rhodesia. London; Croom Helm, 1985.

Gann, Lewis & Thomas Henriksen. The Struggle For Zimbabwe: Battle in the Bush. New York; Praeger Publications, 1981.

Good, Robert. UDI: The International Politics of the Rhodesian Rebellion. Great Britain; Princeton University Press, 1973.

Kirk, Tony. “Politics and Violence in Rhodesia” African Affairs Jan 1975: 3-38. JSTOR. UC San Diego Lib. 23 Feb 2007 <http://www.jstor.org/view/00019909/ap020129/02a00010/0&gt;.

Martinez, Ian. “The History of the Use of bacteriological and Chemical Agents during Zimbabwe’s Liberation War of 1965-1980 by Rhodesian Forces” Third World Quarterly Dec 2002: 1159-1179. JSTOR. UC San Diego Lib. 23 Feb 2007 <http://www.jstor.org/view/01436597/ap070103/07a00100/0&gt;.

Mtshali, B. Vulindlela. Rhodesia: Background to Conflcit. New York; Hawthorn Books, 1967.

O’Meara, Patrick. Rhodesia: Racial Conflict of Coexistence? London; Cornell University Press, 1975.

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

Vambe, Lawerence. From Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. Great Britain; University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976.




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Why Africa taking on the West over Mugabe is a Bad Idea

Writing in the South African newspaper Business Day, Thami Mazwai, says that Africans must back up their demands for the West to drop their sanctions against Zimbabwe by detailing what action SADC and the African Union will do if sanctions are not dropped. Mazwai compares the West’s refusal to accept the results to Hamas’ win in Palestine and says that African leaders should unify in the same way they have ‘stood their ground’ on the matter of Omar al-Bashir’s arrest warrant from the ICC.

Fortunately, this view isn’t shared by others at Business Day (above), but it does continue a pan-African narrative that dates to the liberation era which has been co-opted into a pro-dictator narrative in recents times. It builds upon the idea that Africans must unite as a whole in order to fulfill their liberation mission of removing the hold that slavery and colonialism has on the economy and society of the continent. This was an effective communicative technique in the 20th century – Africa was the underdog both before and after colonialism. The need to rally as a cohesive and stronger whole, thus forming a larger bloc of actors at the UN, as part of the Non-Aligned Movement. It also worked in defeating Apartheid South Africa.

But the issues that faced newly liberated African states in the middle of the 20th Century were much simpler than today – climate change, free trade, political development, technological innovation, and health crises don’t have moral imperatives likes slavery and colonialism. These issues are not black and white (the ones that are, such as freedom of expression challenge the domestic govt’s power so those are left to the side).

Mazwai doesn’t recognize this fact in his call to back Mugabe. Africa is not a homogenous nation – while their are theoretical linkages in the societies between similar colonial experiences, a black South African is just as likely to have more in common with a someone from Britain than from Senegal.  Thus, calling for a unified bloc is hard enough but to back a tyrannical leader against punititive sanctions surely would only damage the reputation of African organizations and states further. We must not forget that repercussions still exist from Dictators’ Club of the old OAU and its refusal to condemn auhuman rights abuses.

However,  the narrative in calling for unity behind a fellow African leader resonates for some. This only makes issues worse for Africans on the global stage because of the idea that African states will stand behind each other no matter their transgressions. This damages the moral standing and rhetorical arguments made by African leaders on other issues. If other countries view the African bloc as a unified group that will never condemn one another, Africa’s ability to negotiate and stand firm will be damaged. Similarities abound to how white colonists or slave owners stood together to prevent the end of the system that benefited them.

This is not to say Sub-Sahara Africa countries should not work together – they should. But the issues upon which to form a continental bloc are specific – not the default stance taken by African leaders. To do so would not strengthen Africa’s power in the world, it could set it back even further.

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