(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.