Proof that it wasn’t just white against black!

(Some interesting comments and observations on the theme of this article can also be found here)

I was browsing through the photographs on the Rhodesian Military Facebook page, and noticed a comment attached to a picture of a black Rhodesian soldier manhandling a black guerilla corpse, that this was…‘Proof that it wasn’t just white against black!’

I hope that one of the results of this war will be some arrangement or convention among the nations interested in Central Africa by which the military training of natives in that area will be prevented, as we have prevented it in South Africa. It can well be forseen that armies may well yet be trained there, which under proper leading might prove a danger to civilisation itself... Jan Smuts – 1917

The contribution made by black soldiers, policemen and guard units to the Rhodesian War has indeed often been cited as proof that the conflict was not a civil war, or indeed a race war, but an ideological struggle founded on the broader Cold War divisions of the period. This was certainly the argument that Ian Smith and the Rhodesia Front Government pressed frequently in the aftermath of UDI. It was a popular view that was held by a great many whites, but this many years after the end of the War, can it really be supported?

The Rhodesian War was absolutely a race war. It was a war fought by blacks to wrest power from the hands of whites. Those clear lines might have been smudged  at times by the allegiance of some blacks to the white cause, and indeed some whites – Alec Smith being one, Terence Ranger another and Guy Clutton-Brock another – allying themselves to the black cause, but the overall fact remains.

The time-line of Rhodesian history from the occupation to independence is characterised by the race conundrum. Until WWII it was simply a matter of conscience and social awareness on the part of men such as Albert Grey, 4th Earl Grey, who briefly served as administrator, and indeed Rhodes himself. In later years, as the Imperial Government began to press for greater race inclusion in local colonial legislatures, it evolved into the search for a solution to the complex equation of including blacks in government, allowing them access to the franchise, but at the same time ensuring that they were given no effective power. The rest, as we know, is history.

The iconic land issue – an issue that is also one that whites in general seem to have a bit of a blind spot about – is also one that cut deeply along race lines. The Land Apportionment Act of 1930 was the first key piece of race legislation enacted in Rhodesia. It unequivocally divided the land of the country along race lines. The lion’s share was allocated to white commercial agriculture, a much smaller share to black commercial agriculture, and a qualitatively minute share to black communal and tribal existence.

Two key points about the Land Apportionment Act are worth highlighting. The first is that white commercial agricultural land was without doubt cherry picked. The best land fell along the central watershed, which also incidentally was the land closest to the railway line. This was all white. The second important point is that all the principal urban centres existed outside the Native Reserves, and so within white areas. Thus blacks were legally barred from settling or owning property in any of the cities and industrial areas. In the period prior to the rise of organised and segregated urban townships, and as industrialisation took root in the country, blacks entered the cities in large numbers to live and work, but were forced into degraded urban squatter settlements and slums. This resulted in the iconic industrial actions of the 1940s.

Black political activity during this period, led by such early nationalists as Aaron Jacha, Benjamin Burombo, Joshua Nkomo and Masotsha Ndlovu, focused mostly around such elemental issues as urban housing and working conditions, and of course removals and destocking. And while some easing of the restrictions placed on blacks living and working in the towns and cities was the result, amplified pass laws and the monitoring of black activity outside the reserves also resulted.

The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the beginning of mass removals from land that had been alienated much earlier, but that had remained unclaimed or unoccupied by whites until large scale white immigration began to occur in the aftermath of WWII. Much of the black occupation of white land at that time had been as a result of Rhodes trying to balance the requirements of blacks and whites in the aftermath of the Matabele Rebellion. Blacks had been allowed to remain on the land as squatters, and did so for more than a generation, but where removed en mass when the development requirements of the country demanded it.

This period lingers deep in the heart of black animosity towards whites in Zimbabwe. Very few whites ever really embraced the shocking cultural cataclysm that occurred when a large numbers of blacks were alienated from the land, particularly when no corresponding accommodation was made to include them as a nascent proletariat in the towns and cities of the colony. They were instead placed out of sight and out of mind in the Native Reserves under a system of  parallel government run by a virtually autonomous Native Department.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s black frustration exploded into violence. Much of that violence was internecine, between different nationalist movements, but it nonetheless was indicative of the direction things on the Rhodesian race landscape were heading.

Interestingly, and during all this time, law and order had been effectively maintained by black militias, police and Native Affairs personnel. A Native Police formation had been established soon after the occupation of Matabeleland as an addition to the fledgling Native Affairs Department. The amaNdebele at that time lived under a rigid and multi-layered class system, at the top of which were the Nguni survivors of the original Khumalo group, and at the bottom of which were recently captured Mashona recruits and slaves known as amaHoli. It is thought that many of the Native Police details were amaHoli, and as such made use of a God given opportunity to kick back at the once proud nation that had so brutally subjugated them in the past.

This, anyway, is the theory. The result was a deep resentment felt by the amaNdebele hierarchy against the whites for imposing such a humiliating regime upon them. The Native Police were cited as one of the principal reasons for the subsequent Rebellion.

The Native Police were disbanded, or more accurately the unit disintegrated upon the Rebellion, with most members joining the rebels. However the BSAP continued to recruit black details, and in due course the reliance on black members for law enforcement and general public order duties became total.

The first native militia as such was the Rhodesia Native Regiment, formed in response to the manpower requirements of the East Africa Campaign. In the aftermath of the War the Native Regiment was reformed as the Rhodesia African Rifles, and became the first regular battalion of the Rhodesian armed forces. The Rhodesia African Rifles saw active service in Burma during the closing stages of the War in the East from which much of the mythology of the unit was drawn.

The Rhodesia African Rifles was naturally drawn into the various crisis that attended the Rhodesian journey to UDI, and in due course became one of the principal fighting units in the much celebrated Rhodesian Army. Likewise the august British South Africa Police, the somewhat less august Guard Force and the Internal Affairs Department, all relied heavily on armed and trained blacks…

But does all this in any way dilute the fact that the Rhodesian War was a race war? I don’t think so. I think part of the process of burying the past is seeing the past for what it was, and reconciling it with the present and the future. The Imperial view of race was benign. It was paternal and it was protective. Black people in the period between 1900 and 1940 were not deemed sufficiently sophisticated to take over the administration of an entity such as Rhodesia, Kenya or South Africa. Old timers like Ian Smith and Roy Welensky were not racists in their own minds, but realists. Their forefathers, for better or worse, had transplanted Anglo/Saxon standards and lifestyles in Africa, in their minds dragging black Africa by the nape of its neck up from the dark recesses of paganism, and into the light. For blacks to expect any kind of political recognition until they had proved themselves capable  of government was simply absurd. Not racist, but just absurd.

There were very few whites at that time who could have been regarded as naked racists. They simply dispensed the medicine as they saw fit, refusing until the very end to hand over the bottle. There are many now who will look at Zimbabwe as vindication of their fears and resistance.

The Rhodesian War was a race war. Why the blacks fought in the numbers that they did for white Rhodesia is as perplexing as why the German Askari Corps fought to the last for the Germans, or why Indian manpower was to be found on the front-line of so many battles during the Great War, or why the West Africans were so well represented in South East Asia during WWII. Why black militias fought against the Mau Mau, or entered the South African army and police in such numbers, certainly was not for love of the white man. I think it is naive to suppose that it was, and I believe that what is going on in Zimbabwe at the moment is testimony to how deeply the majority of blacks of a certain generation hated us…

I would love some response to this.


  • John

    The Rhodesian War was not part of the progression of communism in Africa. No black plutocrat in Africa was or is communist. Mugabe a communist? I ‘ll die laughing…

  • Michael Watson


  • Fascinating perspective from Peter, who obviously knows the continent well. As an outsider looking in, I wonder whether it really is possible to restructure an economy/society founded on colonial principles, without major social/political upheaval. South Africa will make a good case study but I wonder whether the story has a way to run yet?

  • guy

    As the son of a carreer officer who served for 22years in the RAR, I grew up in camps amongst black african families whose fathers’ served in the Rhodesian army. Morale was always extremely high, the soldiers were well fed, led, paid and their families looked after by the regiment. They were excellent soldiers. Many a time I heard my father say he would sooner go into combat with black soldiers than white, as their discipline, training and loyalty were unquestionable.
    These men truly hated ZANLA terrorism and many of them suffered personal loss as their families were butchered as ‘sellouts’ by terror gangs when it was discovered that they were fighting for Smith.
    Whether this translates into your rather broad diagnosis that the war was ‘a race war’ is debatable. It certainly probably did start as a race war, but in the end may have also taken on a ‘good vs evil’ tune to it where the lines between good and evil were vague as atrocities mounted on both sides. Don’t forget, by the end of the war, the greater majority of Selous Scouts were ‘turned terrorists’ who fought and betrayed their former comrades without compunction. If this was a race war, and they were the heroic liberators that Mugabe keeps ranting on about every independence day, surely they would have opted for prison or the gallows instead of joining the ‘skuzapo’?

    I am enjoying your thoroughly researched book “Rhodesia”: it is a must keep for all Zim families who want their children to know the truth.

  • Peter Baxter

    Thanks for the above Guy. It is this type of thoughtful commentary that keep the ball rolling…

  • guy

    Hi Peter: I still live in Zim, based in Kariba. I work in Zambia though as I lost my tobacco farm in Trelwaney in 2002. It has sinced been completely wrecked and abandoned…. doyou have an email address?

  • Peter Baxter

    Thanks Phil, enjoyed your site

  • Nick

    Hi Peter

    I find your comments very interesting, it is such a change to get an objective, balanced view on the whole UDI issue. Most comentators have a strictly partisan stance – either “good old Smithy” or ” the evil Smith regime” – accompanied by the usual one-sided rantings.
    I think the lesson is that if you are prepared to make compromises when you are in a position of strength you will gain a better deal than if you delay things until your position has weakened – but I guess its too late for lessons

    Cheers Nick

  • Peter Baxter

    Nice one Nick. They were interesting times.

  • Bob

    Interesting take on the “race war” issue. Here in the USA, the debate continues still regarding our American civil war. Those who support the Confederacy today argue that the war was fought for States’ rights and not slavery. It assuages their modern day guilt, I suppose, of wanting to honor their ancestry, either through family ties or engaging in Civil War reenacting on the Confederate side. Did the South fight to preserve slavery? Yes, on the surface it did, contrary to those who wish to revise history. But scratch down a layer and the real cause was economic, since slave labor was the engine that drove the southern economy.

    Was the Rhodesian war a race war. Once more, on the surface it appears to be. In my opinion, without seeming overly simplistic or naive, the real cause was power/domination/economics. From the African perspective, it was power and domination and from the European side, it was a combination of economics/power. It only manifested itself through tribalism/nationalism. Africans have had no problem fighting and committing genocide against other Africans on the continent as the world has seen from Liberia to the massacres in Matabeland by Mugabe North Korean trained battalions.

    In my opinion, it is as it has been from the beginning of time, about POWER and not race.

  • Incredible14U

    The Rhodesian war was “NOT” a race war. It was a fear of being ruled by black nationalist who where backed by the USSR, and North Korea, to whom Zimbabwe still pays debt. Ian Smiths plan was to bring black Rhodesians into goverment through use of the tribal chiefs as black representation in parliament, this was from the very outset of Ian Smiths policy when he became prime minister of the country. Tribal chiefs where the true leaders of the black africans in Rhodesia, as was the african historic way. When the communist terrorist started to infiltrate the county in the late 60′ to when the war officialy began 1972, they, as terrorist do historicaly through fear and intimadation, beating, shooting etc wage a conflict of fear on the black population in the TTL’s. Along also at the time the British Goverment did what it does best by isolating the Rhodesian Goverment Internationaly. Hence placing pressure on Ian Smiths policy of black Rhodesian partnership inside politics and eventually majority rule. The British, clever and sly in their ways, had bled out of Rhodesia what they could. From steel coal gold farming and whate ever else the British could get out of the country. With the end of the korean war in stalemate, defeat in vietnam the USA was in no state to stop the advancement of marxist and communist ideology as it swept all before down through Africa. The Rhodesians saw this. The British did too. So as they aptly as in the past elsewhere withdrew, and point the finger at the settlers that the British Goverment, Elites, Bankers or who ever runs Britain had planted their in the past while they milked it dry. A great double cross would you not think. In 1978 when Bishop Muzorewa became prime minister of the country this was not what was intended. Being rushed as through world pressure placed their by the British was doomed to fail. These black Rhodesian men who joined the RAR, Selou Scouts and BSAP and services of the Rhodesian armed services new all to well Ian Smiths plan of placing tribal chiefs into parliament as a way to balance out the inadecacies that the Britsh had left behind when they turned tail and ran. To call this a race war is to not understand much of the facts, i would say.

  • DH

    Hello Peter – I find it interesting that Smithy is still remembered by those who fought as a sort of tragic hero. As the generation born at the end of the 1960’s we as kids were completely brainwashed but by the end of our teens had a massive wake up call. I have so many mixed feelings about the war. On the one hand as a student of History it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Smith and the rest of the white leadership in the early 60’s missed the chance to install a proper moderate black government, thus avoiding the need for UDI and presumably a war that was not winnable (and if Flower and Walls ran the country post 1978, surely the same trick was possible in the early 60’s?). But secondly by the time I was old enough to appreciate what was going on during the 1970’s even to a kid (and allowing for a superb Rhodesian propaganda campaign) it was obvious that but for the security forces we whites would soon literally have been history. I will never forget standing with a mate at Dudley Hall primary school when the news of the second viscount plane was given out – his Mum was one of the victims. All of us owe a huge debt to the men and women who fought & died to prevent our fates being decided on the battlefield and we should accept there would almost certainly have been no quarter offered had the situation collapsed. to be honest although it is hard to live with some of the tactics employed it was literally them or us by the late 70’s.

    For literally decades I have avoided this sort of discussion and it is refreshing to find a forum where the truth matters more than misguided nostalgia.

    I just feel for the people to whom fell the fighting and killing.

  • Ian Smith

    Hi are you still in Zimbabwe ?????

  • X-lover

    Hi Peter, I read with great interest your thoughts on the Rhodesian Bush War. It is a strange thing but now at the age of 58 I have become very nostalgic for those days. I left the mean streets of Belfast Northern Ireland as an eighteen year old boy seeking adventure and believe it or not an escape from the sectarian violence which unfortunately continues to this day. that is what led me to Rhodesia. I am not an educated man, I left school at 15 nor am I a politically motivated individual. the thing that has always perplexed me is that Britain (I am a British citizen) demanded that Rhodesia should be governed by majority rule. My home country was denied that right by the same government! they demanded that Northern Ireland be governed by proportional representation. Both Rhodesia and Northern Ireland give proof to the fact that terrorism works. It works because it wears down the resolve of ordinary people. Evidence of that is the amount of people who “took the gap” towards the end of the Bush War. I came to love Rhodesia and her peoples black and white. It was an emotional time for me when it was my turn to “take the gap” and leave Her behind. I have no regrets about my part in The War. I did not fight as a white against black, maybe I was very young and naive but I believed I was fighting for a noble and just cause. To protect ordinary people from the ravages of terrorism. Looking back maybe there were racial undertones, maybe there were Communist undertones but again that is not why I fought there. For me it was simply a war against terrorism, These days I live in a sleepy little town in Americas heartland, I am at peace with myself but on those cold mornings as I sit on my porch smoking the one cigar I allow myself each day, and feeling the effects of those 350′ Para drops in my old knees I am overcome by nostalgia, for those cold mornings sitting in the doorway of an Allouette III cradling an FN FAL on my knees smoking a cigarette or standing in the doorway of a “vomit comet” waiting for the green light. for the Troopies who never knew defeat, for those days when i was considered “a man among men” When we was Rhodesia. “Ek se”

  • chimanimani

    Cheers X-lover. What a nice comment. I assume you were in the RLI?

  • X-lover

    Yes Sir, I am proud to say i was.

  • x-lover

    How is life there these days my friend?

  • andrewmlale

    A couple of points. No mention of the dynamics of the Ndebele vs Shona before the whites arrived. The Ndebele were newly arrived themselves in ‘Rhodesia’ and lived a parasitic existence off the Shona to the north and east. The Ndebele had a warrior culture and the Shona a pastoral one. The Ndebele had actually displaced the Tswana and the Shangaan. So when we talk about the whites taking peoples ancestral lands, who are we talking about? The Ndebele didn’t have any ancestral lands in Rhodesia. Just land which they had themselves occupied by force. The Shona of course do have a much older claim to their land, but within historic time displaced the original inhabitants – the Bushmen/Basarwa. All the Bantu tribes (tall, very dark, bulbous splayed nose) in Southern Africa have migrated south from the equatorial regions. So is it true to call them the proper, rightful owners of the land? Possibly. But the subsequent treatment by the whites, i.e. giving them virtually no rights to the valuable land, really prevents the debate from being worth having. It became a race war because of the attitudes of the whites to those occupying the country when they got there.

  • andrewmlale

    You didn’t read the article, did you…