Rhodesia, the white man and the land

It is on the land that the African lives and it means everything to him. The African cannot depend for his livelihood on profits made through trading. We cannot depend on wages. We must go back every time to the only social security we have – the piece of land. The land stolen must be restored, because without the land the future of the African people is doomed. God will hear us because that is the thing he gave us – Eliud Mathu, the first African to sit on Kenya’s Legislative Council

One of the most interesting things about getting behind a desk and starting the process of writing Rhodesia, Last Outpost of the British Empire, was the timing. I started the serious reading late in 1998, just as things were starting to slide in Zimbabwe. It was then that all the bellicose talk was beginning to surface as well as discussion on the constitution that was then under debate.

In 2000, as everyone will remember, the land invasions started

This in turn set in motion the political and economic spiral that has put us where we all are today. The catchphrase at the time was ‘correcting historical imbalances’, and although Robert Mugabe and his inner circle have made extremely cynical use of that phrase and all of its corollaries, one thing that I did learn in researching the history of colonialism in the territory was that Mugabe had at least not lied about the facts of the situation.

I heard many pleas emerging from the white population of Zimbabwe at the time that the black interpretation of recent history was flawed. The white takeover of land in Rhodesia was less predatory than Mugabe and his support group were attempting to portray. Whites had entered Mashonaland and found it largely empty. The Matabele had destroyed the backbone of Mashona culture and the population was reduced and dispersed. In terms of the Matabele themselves, conquest and counter conquest surely would have resonated with them?

Things, however, are never that black and white

Rhodes and his British South Africa Company at the beginning were not interested in the land. The commercial interest was in mining primarily, while Rhodes personally pursued the project of creating Rhodesia (it was not named Rhodesia until the Rhodesia Herald began circulation) for a wider geopolitical purpose pertaining to the general partition of Africa that took place in the second half of the 19th century. This was Rhodes’ Cape to Cairo vision.

Rhodes, however, had much to do, and little time to do it in. One of his early mistakes was to place a great deal of trust, and concentrate a great deal of power, in the hands of his confederate Leander Starr Jameson. Jameson, some might say, had a typical small man’s attitude. He was short of stature, but built like a terrier, and as cock-sure, self opinionated and unrelenting as any of that breed. It was he who divided up the spoils of Matabeleland after the conquest and he who distributed the looted cattle among the volunteer units and the Honorable & Military who made up so much of the investor base of the British South Africa Company.

The Matabele and Mashona rebelled in 1896

The crushing of these rebellions removed any question of British South Africa Company control of the assets of what was then Rhodesia. By the time that mining had ceased to be the main capital hope of the territory the railway had been introduced, white immigration was steady, and more and more speculators where staking a claim to the land.

For the blacks the matter, particularly in Matabeleland, did not reach a head in that generation. Most of the land that had been distributed by the British South Africa Company or had in one way or another been alienated from the general population remained unutilised and unoccupied. Thus large numbers of blacks remained as squatters on their traditional lands with no particular intrusion by the Native Affairs Department of the time.

Matter changed significantly in the aftermath of World War II

This happened thanks to large scale post-war immigration into the colonies by ex-servicemen of the Empire searching for opportunity abroad. The War had introduced a tobacco and general agricultural boom in Rhodesia and so most of those arriving had an interest in the land. Forced removals began in order to make room for these new arrivals. Blacks were being removed from productive land and increasingly compacted into the Native Reserves, later the Tribal Trust Lands; which had been introduced as a temporary expedient, but which had by dint of necessity become permanent.

The Land Apportionment Act, gazetted in the early 1930s, was the first piece of restrictive legislation in the new race landscape of Rhodesia, and indeed the blueprint for the division of land on race lines.

The Land Apportionment Act provided for the 75 million acres of land outside the native reserves to be divided with a little over 48 million being made available for purchase by Europeans only, with just under 7 million reserved for purchase by blacks only. The remaining 17 or so million would theoretically be available for allocation to either race. State and crown land made up the balance.

Seven million acres was at that time more than enough to accommodate those few blacks in a position to buy land, so this in itself was not where the problem lay. The problem was that white farming areas included almost the entire central watershed region that was not only made up of good, well watered and well drained soils, but also gave easy access to the railway. Maps of land delineations from the period strikingly illustrate this fact.

The second provision of the Act that militated heavily against blacks was the inclusion in white zones of every important urban center in the country. This effectively meant that, notwithstanding being ushered into the cities to provide labor, blacks would never be able to buy or rent homes or business premises in any urban center.

The forced removals of the 1950s ushered in the problem of overcrowding in the native reserves

This in turn introduced the Land Husbandry Act of the late 1950s that laid down strict guidelines of the use and management of land within the increasingly overcrowded native reserves. De-stocking and various other restrictions placed on land use by blacks generated deep unhappiness, in particular because vast areas of productive land within white areas lay unused.

The fact that the rise of black nationalism in the 1950s ran parallel to all this was less a case of reaction than the fact that the first generation of educated blacks were arriving on the scene to challenge white intellectual and political dominance of society. The land issue was extremely emotive on both sides and was an ideal cassus beli if war was necessary. By then white identification with the land was absolute, and no terms of compromise were offered to blacks clamoring on overcrowded reserves and unsanitary urban townships for some share of the bounty.

The Rhodesian War of the 1970s was fought over the question of land

Many whites were probably unaware of the fact that the wave of politicization that took place in the rural areas during the early 1970s was driven by anger over the land, and promises that the land would be returned once the whites had been driven out. That Mugabe and his inner circle made use of this anger is both true and natural. It is politics after all. In the aftermath of independence he did indeed keep the issue up his sleeve for use on a rainy day, and the rebellion of the people over the issue of the new Zimbabwean constitution was that day.

And moreover, the fact that the land in Zimbabwe is no more the property of the people now than it was under white occupation is besides the point. It is politics after all, and a majority of African politicians are corrupt at the very best, and hideously corrupt at worst…Mugabe is without doubt one of these.

As a race we did bring it upon ourselves

There is no doubt in my mind about this fact. We did take the land, and we did remove the blacks from it. We did impose rule upon them, offering them no part of it. It is my firm belief that if black tribal worthies and promising individuals had been introduced into the lower levels of politics in the 1920s and 1930s, and allowed by natural seepage to rise to the higher levels, we would not have been left with someone like Mugabe. It was, however, because we created a political environment that was so hostile to moderate black political expression – in particular towards the end of white rule – that only the likes of Mugabe and his blood-soaked and engorged inner circle could survive. It would be hard to argue against this I believe, but I would love to hear your opinion.

This perpetuation of so-called ‘historic’ and class grievances is an evil, dishonest and unreal thing. It is something which cannot be described adequately in the customary economic, political and historical cliches. The language that seems far more appropriate is the language of a pathologist describing a cancer, the language of a psychologist describing a deep-seated and obsessional neurosis. For what is Nazism, or the present-day Malanism in this southern Africa of my youth, but the destruction of the whole by an unnatural proliferation of the cells of a part, or the willful autonomous system that would twist the whole to a partial need? – Laurens van de PostVenture to the Interior

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  • Nsadowitz

    my name is nathan sadowitz and served with territorial forces in 1rr,2rr and 9rr.we were just as involved as regular forces.not much written about us.

  • Nick

    I think your article is very well balanced and probably nearer the truth than most ex settlers would care to admit.
    It is worth remembering , however , that right up until the 1950’s the Colonial Development Office was continuing to encourage emigration to Africa, on the basis that the greater the number of European settlers the the greater the benefit to that country.
    As ever you always come back to that old saying “you can’t put today’s morals on yesterday’s deeds”

  • Jbmax

    I think that people that were born in Rhodesia tend to look at the country as a unique African country that could have had a different future if things were handled differently. However what we do not bring into the equation is that the mindset of Rhodesia was founded on the thinking of the rulers of the British Empire. My family were in the Indian Army and Civil Administration. India and the Federation of Rhodesia were governed on the Whitehall model.

    The British were masters at conquering, governing and exploiting foreign territories. There was never a thought in the minds of the Rhodes mining magnets to share the spoils of the conquered territories. This would have lead to a loss of control on land and mineral rights.
    In the 21st century the race for Africa is no longer about colonisation. It is rather concerned with wheeling and dealing to extract as much material wealth from the continent by whatever means are necessary. Airstrips in Zimbabwe, the DRC and Angola are all testimony to this. Foreign military units and orginisations like Executive Outcomes police these operations.

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