A brief history of Rhodesia

The colony of Rhodesia was born on 13 September 1890 with the arrival in the vicinity of present day Harare, then Fort Salisbury, of some 500 hand-picked volunteers who made up the British South Africa Company Pioneer Column. This represented the culmination of several years of political manoeuvre and capital adventure in the great game known at the time as the Scramble for Africa.

>>Rhodesian Parliament Golden Jubilee

A brief background to the occupation of Mashonaland

In 1885 all the major powers of Europe met in Berlin to discuss, among other issues, how best to partition Africa between them with a minimum of conflict and according to a series of predefined rules. The Berlin Conference decreed, in very simple terms, that effective occupation and administration would represent acceptable proof of annexation. A basic prerequisite for this would be some sort of treaty of friendship or an official appeal for protection on the part of whatever tribal leadership held sway over any particular area.

Very often, in fact almost universally, the initial thrust of occupation was undertaken by a commercial company. The terms of reference of these companies was usually very wide, and defined by a Royal Charter awarded ostensibly by the Crown for the purposes of the administration and exploitation of new territory. The most widely appreciated example of this was the British East India Company that administered and defended India during the colonial period, but there were many others.

The main British power broker in southern Africa during this period was an individual by the name of Cecil John Rhodes. Rhodes was in the first instance a diamond magnate of considerable worth, but also an influential politician in the Cape Assembly and one of the most determined and ambitious of the imperial lobby at the time. A considerable amount of interest in the unclaimed territory north of the Limpopo River had been expressed by all the major European powers influential in Africa at the time – mainly Portugal and Germany – and something of a mini-scramble took place to secure this strategic territory that would open the way north into the vast interior of Africa.

The Rudd Concession

This document was the bedrock upon which white occupation of the territory that would later become Rhodesia was built. In order for Rhodes to secure a Royal Charter that would empower his British South Africa Company to move to occupy Mashonaland it was necessary for him to secure a treaty from the powerful local amaNdebele monarch Lobengula.

A comprehensive history of Lobengula the amaNdebele is featured elsewhere in this blog

Unlike a vast majority of local or tribal groups from which treaties and concessions were extracted during the process of African partition, the amaNdebele represented a powerful, widely influential and centralised monarchy very much akin to their distant cousins, the Zulu. A large swath of territory lay under either direct or indirect amaNdebele control, reinforced by a highly organised, disciplined and effective military structure. It required a great deal of coercion and no small amount of dishonesty to coerce Lobengula into signing what was in effect a limited mining concession within his territory – this known as the Rudd Concession after the chief protagonist in the enterprise,  Charles Dunell Rudd – upon which was framed an application to the British Government for the granting of a Royal Charter. This application, again requiring some very adroit political lobbying in London in the spring of 1889 by Cecil Rhodes – was successful and was granted in October of that year.

The Pioneer Column

Much of Rhodesian history is the stuff of personalities. Rhodes himself, of course, represented the most larger-than-life of them all, but others included the mercurial and unpredictable Leander Starr Jameson, the brawny and rambunctious Frank Johnston and the rather more thoughtful and enlightened Frederick Courtney Selous. These men, in combination with a corps of volunteers, set out in May 1890 from the settlement of Macloutsie in present-day Botswana at the head of a large and well defended column to carve a road through unmapped territory towards Mashonaland, an amaNdebele vassal territory and the heartland of the Mashona language group.

Included in the force compliment of the Pioneer Column were 200 paramilitary volunteers who were known as the British South Africa Company Police. It must be remembered that Lobengula remained at the head of the powerful and irreconciled amaNdebele army, the leadership of which rejected the terms of the Rudd Concession, as did Lobengula himself, once he came realise what it meant in practical terms, and urged the king to wipe out the intruders with military force. Lobengula, however, recognised that such a radical course of action would not ultimately solve the problem of white interest in his territory, and would in fact simply invite a more massive response from the increasingly white dominated south. A decade earlier the Zulu nation, the model upon which the amaNdebele nation had been founded, had been comprehensively defeated at the hands of the British in the Anglo/Zulu War of 1879.

The Occupation of Mashonaland by the BSA Co.

 Lobengula was successful in restraining his belligerent army, and the British South Africa Company Pioneer Column successfully entered Mashonaland and established the capital of the new colony, Fort Salisbury. Fort Charter and Fort Victoria had also been established.

The public subscription that had underwritten the British South Africa Company, and which had largely bankrolled the expedition, had been based on the expectation that large reserves of gold lay within the country. Most of the pioneers and other sundry individuals who followed were primarily interested in the acquisition of quick wealth from mining with few among them entertaining any particular interest in long term settlement. Gold, however, was not found, and as many early pioneers left the territory in poverty as newcomers arrived with fresh capital and enthusiasm. Despite this the settler community increased steadily, and the roots of a permanent white population began to spread into the further reaches of Mashonaland. It is worth noting that the name Rhodesia became de facto upon the publication of the first substantive newspaper, the Rhodesia Herald.

The Matabele War

A comprehensive analysis of the Matabele War can be found here

The first substantive administrator of the new colony was Leander State Jameson. During the process of securing the Rudd Concession, and ratifying its terms, Jameson had developed a personal rapport with Lobengula. It was this diplomatic relationship that helped retain peace between the territory of the British South Africa Company – in effect Mashonaland – and the territory under the direct control and occupation of the amaNdebele – today largely defined by the borders of Matabeleland.

The difficulty in this situation lay in the fact that the amaNdebele continued to exist as a highly mobile and effective, and dangerous, military culture that adhered to rules of diplomacy and military deployment that were at the very least incompatible with the current political reality of white southern Africa. It was inevitable that the amaNdebele would have to be neutralised by one means or another, and bearing in mind the nature of the amaNdebele as a people, this would certainly come in the form of a clash of arms.

The pretext for this came as a consequence of continued efforts by the amaNdebele, not always adhering to the will of the king, to retain its traditional control over the Mashona people, now increasingly seeking, and beginning to take for granted, the protection of the white man.

Continued punitive amaNdebele raids into Mashonaland presented the BSA Company administration with a difficult problem, but also, it must be said, and ideal pretext for war. Matabeleland, in the context of all this, was there for the taking. Who would take it was all that remained to be decided. If Matabeleland was pacified by imperial forces – those paid for and armed by the British Government – then Matabeleland would become, in one form or another, a Crown territory, probably a protectorate, but certainly not an addition to the territory controlled by the British South Africa Company.

In order for Cecil Rhodes and the BSA Company to claim Matabeleland as an addition to Rhodesia, it was essential that the military defeat of Matabeleland be undertaken by Company forces under Company command. It must be remembered that Mashonaland, with its lack of gold, had not provided the anticipated profits. BSA Company shares were plummeting and considerable concern was being expressed among investors. Some new and potentially lucrative addition to the company portfolio was urgently required, and between Jameson and Rhodes, Matabeleland was identified as this.

War began in November 1893. A series of actions were fought by company volunteer units which resulted in the rapid defeat of the amaNdebele impis and the occupation of the amaNdebele capital of Bulawayo. Lobengula fled northwards with a considerable portion of his army. Imperial forces arrived on the scene in the aftermath of this, which effectively allowed Rhodes and Jameson to declare victory.

Lobengula, however, had not capitulated and terms of peace had not been agreed upon. This was no more than a loose end. Matabeleland had been effectively occupied and the amaNdebele dispersed. However Lobengula was at large and as such remained a rallying point. It was necessary to bring him in.

Thus began the iconic Shangani Patrol incident.

The Colony of Southern Rhodesia and the distribution of land

The end of the Matabele War marked the point at which Southern Rhodesia (named specifically Southern Rhodesia thanks to the fact that the British South Africa Company had extended northwards into present day Zambia, a territory then known as Northern Rhodesia) settled into existence as an established British colony under company administration. Leander Starr Jameson retained the role of administrator. It was that this point that a key series of events took place that would ramificate deep into the future of the region.

Under the rules of conquest Jameson  assumed the right to distribute the wealth of the amaNdebele nation. This in essence existed as land and livestock. It must also be remembered that Rhodes, on behalf of the British South Africa Company, was beholden to a number of powerful and influential people for what had been achieved thus far, all of whom expected in one way or another to be rewarded from the acquired wealth of the new colony. That land was distributed to the ‘Honourable & Military’ in lavish quantities while the amaNdebele were given limited reserve space in areas not traditional favoured. At the same time the ‘national herd’, many thousands of head of cattle held in trust for the nation by the monarchy, were seized as war booty and distributed with equal generosity to the settler volunteers and the new beneficiaries of the land.

This was a heavy handed and ill-considered action on the part of Jameson. It preceded a general sense on the part of those whites now spreading out in Matabeleland that the amaNdebele had been comprehensively defeated and would in future be supplicant to white authority. The same was believed of the Mashona, the traditional enemies of the amaNdebele. However, neither group welcomed the white man, both resented deeply the alienation of the land and both sought an opportunity to reverse the calamity that had overtaken them.

The Matabele and Mashona Rebellions of 1896

After three years of occupation the amaNdebele rose up in rebellion, quickly followed by the by Mashona. There was, however, no meaningful coordination between these two uprisings although a Mashona prelate is generally regarded as being the instigator of at least the Matabele Rebellion.

Action in Matabeleland began with the overrunning of many isolated white settlements throughout Matabeleland that preceded a general slaughter. The initial response by the citizens of Bulawayo was to form armed groups from what manpower was available to enter the countryside in an effort to rescue the few white settlers who had survived the initial attacks. Thereafter Bulawayo was besieged and something of a stalemate ensued. The amaNdebele impis reformed under their old leadership structure, but were handicapped somewhat by the lack of an overall command to coordinate their response.

The Mashona Rebellion, known locally as the first Chimurenga, erupted a few weeks later in June 1896 with attacks against the mining communities of Mazoe north of Salisbury. These attacks were coordinated by two religious figures, Kaguvi and Mbuya Nehanda, both of whom would in later generations emerge as powerful figures of Mashona religion and mythology.

Attention tended, however, to be focused in Matabeleland where matters were much more serious. Militarily the situation resolved itself reasonably quickly with the arrival in Bulawayo of imperial forces under the command of General Sir Frederick Carrington. Politically, however, Rhodes was once again at risk of losing his charter and seeing the territory of Southern Rhodesia revert to imperial administration, which would have represented a catastrophic financial loss for the shareholders of the British South Africa Company and a personal disaster for Rhodes.

With the arrival of such overwhelming reinforcements the amaNdebele fighting units had retreated to the safety of the Matopos where they would be able to remain under siege indefinitely. Carrington’s solution was to effect a siege and starve the remnants out. This would have spilled over into another year at a cost that the British South Africa Company could manifestly not support. Another solution was required.

Here some of the brilliance of Cecil John Rhodes was revealed. He initiated overtures to the amaNdebele leadership, and in a series of meetings, or indabas, negotiate a peace that saw the end of hostilities and the acceptance by the amaNdebele of the inevitable.

No such offer was made to the Mashona, Regarded as an inferior people, and undeserving of diplomatic relief, the hold-outs were dealt with by fire and dynamite and forced into unwilling submission. The cars of this would remain deep and unhealed, and would return in later generations to haunt the heirs of the British South Africa Company.

A Self Governing Colony

The twin rebellions of 1896 sparked a furious debate over the governance of Southern Rhodesia. Blame for the bloodshed of the Rebellions was placed squarely on the shoulders of Leander Starr Jameson who had initiated the harsh treatment of the Matabele, and moreover had sought to use the armed force of the territory in a maverick and self-serving attack on the Transvaal in an effort to ferment a popular uprising against Boer Government. This episode, known as simply The Raid, had depleted the colony of manpower which, it was revealed in later analysis, had been the trigger for the Matabele Rebellion.

It was now clear that government by a private commercial company was incompatible with the aspirations of a large and growing white settler population. Rhodes’ death in March 1902 introduced a debate on the future of the colony. His own preference had always been that Rhodesia enter into a political union with a greater South Africa. South Africa itself achieved union as a British dominion in 1910, but Rhodesia was not included in this. White Rhodesia tended to be suspicious of white South Africa which was thought on the whole to be incompatible with the higher standards of British society that Rhodesia felt it represented.

Three options were presented to the settler community as alternatives to British South Africa Company administration. These were union with South Africa, amalgamation with Northern Rhodesia or self governing status under British imperial supervision. An emotional and divisive debate ensued, with the Company itself pushing for union with South Africa on excellent financial terms. It must be remembered that the enterprise of Rhodesia had to date been a financial disaster, and the Company was desperate to try and recoup some of the massive losses incurred. A referendum was held, however, and the decision returned by a narrow majority to adopt self-governing status. This, on October 1 1923, Rhodesia became a self governing colony under the leadership of first premier Charles Coghlan.

The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland

By the end of the 1920 a new threat to the white settler communities of Africa was emerging. The first generation of educated blacks was emerging from local education systems and foreign universities with a clearer understanding of modern society and a newly felt desire for some degree of self determination. Alongside this one of the main corollaries of colonisation was beginning to be felt: a massive explosion of the black population thanks to the ordering of society and the widespread availability of modern medicine.

The first white response to this was the enactment of the Land Apportionment Act of 1931which established the rules of land occupation very much in favour of the whites. At the same time industrial development within the colony was creating a black working class within the urban settlements of Rhodesia that had no corresponding provision for black occupation of the towns and cities of the colony. Pivotal to the Land Apportionment Act was the fact that urban areas fell under land reserved for whites, meaning that, despite the necessity to do so, blacks were not permitted to permanently reside in any urban area.

In the aftermath of WWII the merging black educated elite were able to harness a great deal of political enlightenment engendered by war service on a great many blacks, coupled with an increasing incidence of urbanisation among blacks, to generate the first wave of black political activity in the country. A series of strikes in the late 1940s tended to alert whites to the evolution of a black political class, which in turn prompted the settler communities to seek safety in numbers through a general amalgamation of British African territories.

It is also worth noting that in the aftermath of WWII a wave of white immigration into Rhodesia prompted an accelerated demand for land which saw the systematic removal of blacks from land earmarked for white occupation and their concentration into native reserves, or Tribal Trust lands as they would later be known.

Much debate and negotiation was expended on the question of a general amalgamation, and in the end much less was achieved than had been hoped for, for by then it was clear that the Imperial Government at the very least had recognised what complexion the future of Africa would wear, and that complexion was black not white. Whitehall had embarked on a course of disengagement from Africa in favour of ultimate self determination by blacks, a direction that ran at total variance to the settler view of the future. Thus compromise between the two always appeared to favour blacks and militate against whites which had the effect of generating a considerable amount of hostility between local white governments and the imperial government in London.

Nonetheless the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was born in 1953 against powerful opposition from black political groups. The leader of much of this opposition was future Malawian president Hastings Banda who achieved, through his spirited campaign of resistance, an amplified local political stature.

The Federation was led by a partnership of Rhodesian and Federal Prime Minister Godfrey Huggins and his successor Sir Roy Welensky. Both men, but most notably Welensky, fought long and hard for the survival of the Federation, but at best it had been a quixotic adventure and at worst a hopelessly deluded effort to circumvent the inevitable rise of black political aspiration.

The Federation survived for a decade and crumbled upon the succession of Nyasaland, and its emergence soon afterwards as the independent state of Malawi. Northern Rhodesia quickly followed, and upon waves of black civil unrest Zambia was born under the guidance of its first black president, Kenneth Kaunda.

Unilateral Declaration of Independence

Southern Rhodesia now simply became Rhodesia. It was the dawn of the 1960s and the map of Africa was increasingly being painted black. The anarchy and violence that accompanied this process was unfortunate, and can be blamed largely on colonial governments for making little effort during the early part of the century to prepare blacks for power, but nonetheless painted picture for white Rhodesia of the likely result of a to-hasty handover of power in that territory.

White Rhodesian politics had undergone a significant evolution during the period of the Federation. There were few among Rhodesian whites who did not recognise that some sort of political accommodation with the black majority was now inevitable. Although by then it was far too late, the incremental introduction of blacks into power politics was attempted through the development of a black middle class and the offer of increased local political authority to blacks.

This tactic might have worked a generation earlier, but by the 1960s blacks had begun to demand absolute power immediately, and gone were the days of black moderates attempting within the system to work for greater representation. The nationalist movements were now being led by highly educated and motivated men who could see the dominoes of empire falling across Africa and sensed that the fall of white Rhodesia was imminent.

An initial liberal slant evident among whites in the late 1950s and early 1960s, that saw the election to the office of Southern Rhodesian Prime Minister of notable liberal Garfield Todd, reversed itself in the mid 1960s with the formation of the ultra-right wing white Rhodesian Front political party substantively led by firebrand white nationalist Ian Douglas Smith. Smith let it be known to the Imperial Government that independence under white majority rule was his minimum negotiating position, failing which he was prepared on behalf of white Rhodesia to issue a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI).

What followed was months of acrimonious wrangling between Smith, then the Rhodesian Prime Minister, and his British counterpart, the left leaning academic Harold Wilson. In the meanwhile widespread black political unrest within the country was neutralised by the banning of both major nationalist movements – ZAPU (Zimbabwe African Peoples Union) and ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union) – and the restriction or imprisonment of their leadership. Predictably nothing was achieved, and on November 11 1965 Smith and his cabinet did indeed declare UDI, effectively rendering Rhodesia a rebel republic subject to international sanctions coordinated by the United Nations.

Rhodesia At War

The black nationalist movements of Rhodesia where informed by this action that white Rhodesia was prepared to dig in and defend its right to exists. The usual strategy of civil unrest that had brought freedom to the rest of British Africa would not work this time. It was clear that they had a fight on their hands, and against a highly trained and motivated Rhodesian army, this would be a fight indeed.

A synopsis of the Rhodesian Bush War is available elsewhere on this site

The war initially supported a political process that white Rhodesia felt morally and materially favoured them. The war was being fought on a limited front, sanctions had done little to dent economic activity in the country and the evidence of black political lunacy in the free nations of Africa was mounting daily. White Rhodesia felt itself to the spearhead of a moral crusade supported western, Christian in the face of a creeping communist malaise across the continent, and against a spineless inability of other western nations to support it. Britain, in turn, insisted on a policy of No Independence Before Majority Rule, or NIBMAR, which became its minimum negotiating position.

Two important conferences between the British and Rhodesian Prime Ministers were held on board ship off the coast of Gibraltar. These were the HMS Fearless and the HMS Tiger. In both instances Ian Smith was in a position to report back to his white Rhodesian constituency an agreement with Britain for independence under an agreed process of movement towards majority rule, with NIBMAR being whittled down to a simple commitment of intent. Smith, however, true to his philosophy of Never in a Thousand Years, held out for more or less unconditional minority rule independence, and thus lost the opportunity.

Smith, and others within his cabinet, principally the hard-line Officer Administering the Government, Clifford Dupont, seemed genuinely to believe that British unwillingness to grant carte blanche independence to white Rhodesia was based on duplicity and double standards, and seemed to give very little thought to the wider political landscape of the late 1960s within which such a thing was manifestly impossible. There was either a shocking naiveté on the part of the current Rhodesian Government to imply to its electorate that such a thing was possible or some alternative agenda was being sought. The author is of the opinion that the truth veers towards the former, based on the well documented fact that Smith believed absolutely at this point that the average, man-in-the-street black man of Rhodesia stood firmly behind him and his resistance to violent, black extremism.

The war, in the meanwhile, continued to intensify. Alongside Rhodesia, the Portuguese were also fighting a limited insurgency in the north of Mozambique.  The Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO) was gradually gaining ground, costing the Portuguese many military lives and causing increasing concern to Rhodesia at what the possibly of Portuguese defeat might mean to the military situation in Rhodesia.

The Pearce Commission and Detente

In June 1970 Harold Wilson was defeated in a general election by the leader of the conservative party Edward Heath. Heath was known to have no particular interest in the Rhodesia issue and handed responsibility for it over to his Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home. Douglas-Home and Ian Smith were on excellent personal terms which boded well for a final conclusion to the festering Rhodesian issue. Indeed, by November 1971 the British Prime Minister was able to report an agreement between his and the Rhodesian governments on terms that can only be described as a giveaway. The principal stipulation was that black opinion on the matter would be tested by a royal commission of inquiry headed by former Lord of Appeal, Lord Edward Holroyd Pearce; The Pearce Commission.

The black response to this was immediate. With most of the substantive nationalist leadership imprisoned or restricted, and the second tier leadership operating governments in exile from where the war was being coordinated, a bi-partisan political front was created under the leadership of Methodist Bishop Abel Muzorewa to coordinate black resistance to the proposals under the flag of the African National Council, or ANC. This campaign was highly successful and the Pearce Commission, to the inexpressible surprise and disappointment of Ian Smith, and indeed Alec Douglas-Home, returned a verdict that the terms of the 1971 agreement were not acceptable to the majority of the Rhodesian population.

From that point onwards the British stepped somewhat off the stage which allowed South African Prime Minister John Vorster to fill the vacuum as the main peace-broker over the Rhodesia issue. Vorster took a very surprising direction in this regard – surprising not least to Ian Smith and the Rhodesian Government. On behalf of South Africa he sought to reach out to the emerging plutocracies of Black Africa in the interests of building a united African commonwealth with the comparatively vast economic ballast of South Africa providing the cornerstone. This policy was to be known as Detente.

Vorster first sought to woo the relatively moderate Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, promising in exchange for his support in achieving this objective that South Africa would engineer a solution to the Rhodesian crisis. Kaunda agreed. Smith was thereafter pressured to release the detained nationalists and entertain a series of fruitless negotiations that culminated in a farcical conference held in a rail carriage on the Victoria Falls railway bridge, mid-way between Zambia and Rhodesia, where a delegation of black leader headed by Bishop Abel Muzorewa put forward a series of demands that would have been political suicide for Smith to even ponder, let alone implement. The Detente initiative achieved nothing, and died a natural death with the effect on Rhodesia now being that the most feared of the nationalist leaders were at liberty to plan a massive escalation of the war. Among these was a young and febrile Robert Mugabe.

The Portuguese Coup and an escalation of the war

April 1974 saw an event that would radically change the geopolitical map of southern Africa and would tilt Rhodesia towards a general guerrilla insurgency affecting the entire country. The right-wing fascist government of Marcelo Caetano in Lisbon was overthrown by a military coup. One of the principal motivations for this had been the ongoing and bleeding wars that Portugal was waging against nationalists in both Mozambique and Angola. The new military government promised to end these wars, which in effect meant that Lisbon had recognised the inevitability of granting independence to both Mozambique and Anglo.

To Rhodesia this event was a catastrophe. A brief glance at a map of the region will reveal instantly the effect that a hostile neighbour in the east would have had on the conduct of the war. A 600 mile front opened up within months of independence being granted to Mozambique on June 25 1975. For white Rhodesia 1976 was the turning point. War reached ever corner of the country with the result that the nation became militarised and a commitment to serve affected every able bodied man. The war ceased to be winnable and became a containment mechanism to retain internal security long enough for a political solution to be sought. Unfortunately by then the best chances of this had been squandered. Rhodesia was fighting for her life, and daily the prospects of survival seemed more and more remote.

Owen, Young, Kissinger and Geneva

The British attempted to re-enter the picture through the offices of a young and rather immature Foreign Secretary by the name of David Own. Alongside Own worked ex-US UN Ambassador under Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young. There was a certain poignant symbolism in the close cooperation between these two men, one black and one white, over the question of Rhodesia, but in reality neither fielded any particular political gravitas. The net result of their partnership was to serve as a gadfly to both Smith and Mugabe, leader of ZANU, who had both by then emerged as the main players on either side of the net. ZAPU, incidentally, was at that time led by Joshua Nkomo who was throughout overshadowed and overawed by Mugabe.

Of more importance was an initiative launched by US super-statesman Henry Kissinger. Kissinger was concerned with events in Angola. Here the presence of Cuban troops and Soviet military advisors in support of the MPLA hinted very strongly at efforts by Moscow to gain a solid foothold in the region. Fresh from a bruising defeat in Vietnam, the United States was unwilling to commit troops to the region, but sought to gain friends among black African governments with the promise of a solution to the Rhodesian crisis.

In September 1975 Smith was summoned to Pretoria by Prime Minister Vorster to meet with Kissinger. It must be emphasised here that with the collapse of Portuguese rule in Mozambique Rhodesia was entirely dependent on South Africa for every aspect of her economic and military survival. At this meeting Kissinger laid out a simple road map to majority rule that gave Rhodesia two years to get its house in order before she would be cast adrift. This new process, not that different from others, culminated in the Geneva Conference of September 1976.

Geneva was attended by the Rhodesian Government and the Patriotic Front, a paper alliance of the nationalist parties led in tandem by Mugabe and Nkomo, but substantively dominated by an aggressive and highly militant Mugabe who at that stage felt that the solution lay on the battlefield.

It is worth mentioning here that Nkomo and Mugabe, heading the main anti-Rhodesia warring factions, were as dependent on Zambia and Mozambique, and indeed the Organisation of African Unity, as Rhodesia was on South Africa. The Rhodesians had been attacking both countries intensively over the months preceding and both Kenneth Kaunda and the new Mozambican President Samora Machel, demanded of their proxies that they reach a negotiated settlement.

The Geneva Conference achieved nothing. All parties involved returned home for the Christmas period 1976/7 after which the conference did not reconvene.

Internal Settlement and Zimbabwe/Rhodesia

In the aftermath of the Geneva Conference Smith sought an alternative strategy. He identified what he deemed to me moderate black leaders – Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole, leader of a smaller faction of ZANU, and James Chikerema, ex-vice chairman of ZAPU and something of a political no-hoper – and attempted to forge an internal settlement that excluded the two firebrand leaders of ZANU and ZAPU, Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. This process played out against an increasingly ferocious prosecution of the war and a gathering pace of white emigration from Rhodesia. It was something of a desperate strategy, but it did result in a rather cumbersome interim structure known as Zimbabwe/Rhodesia that paraded Abel Muzorewa as the first black Prime Minister of Rhodesia, but it did nothing to either end the war or gain for the country the international recognition it so badly needed.

Perhaps the most important achievement of the internal settlement was that it removed Ian Smith from the office of Prime Minister, which, in of itself, at that particular juncture, was a positive fact.

Margaret Thatcher and Lancaster House

White Rhodesia detected a thin ray of light on a dark horizon when in May 1979 when British Labour leader James Callaghan was defeated at the polls by Conservative candidate Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher let it be known that she was inclined to accept the internal agreement brokered by Ian Smith, and might perhaps have done so had she not come under immediate and concentrated pressure from the Afro/Asian block to reverse her position on the matter.

Her first substantive comments were made on the matter at her first Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, to be held in Lusaka in August 1979. There the popular expectation was that she would do battle with the world in support of Rhodesia, but instead she assured her audience that Britain had every intention of recognising Rhodesian independence, but not under the current Constitution, and not within the terms of the internal settlement as it stood. The power that the white minority enjoyed to block any undesirable amendment to the Constitution, was disproportionate to their demographic representation. This rendered the internal settlement defective in the view of the British Government.

So it was. The last straw that white Rhodesia had grasped to save itself from extinction came away in its hands. Thatcher was urged by other Commonwealth leader to convene a conference where the internal settlement could be reworked. This was agreed to, and in the absence of Ian Smith, Bishop Abel Muzorewa was fairly easily persuaded to comply. The two nationalist leaders, Mugabe and Nkomo, were also ordered to Lancaster House in London where the conference was held with orders to find a solution to the crisis or face the removal of substantive support for their guerrilla bases and their supply of money and arms. Thus the stage was set for a final denouement.

The conference opened in London on 10 September 1979 against a backdrop of blistering military action mounted against Mozambique and Zambia. This reinforced the point that neither country could much longer sustain the kind of punishment they were receiving at the hands of a still deadly Rhodesian army. The Lancaster House Agreement, when it was reached, was a patchwork solution brokered by the brilliant British Foreign Secretary Lord Peter Carrington to achieve a result no matter what the long term ramifications might be. A British Governor was despatched to Salisbury to establish constitutional legality, a ceasefire was put in effect and the warring parties separated and confined either to barracks or to pre-positioned Assembly Points. Thereafter an election was scheduled and all parties set about campaigning.

Needless to say dirty tricks were widespread and general. Massive intimidation was recorded in the rural areas by both guerrilla groups in favour of their political candidates – Mugabe and Nkomo – while rouge elements of the Rhodesian army stages a number of attacks and assassination attempts against Mugabe. Muzorewa very quickly sank beneath the surface never to reappear. The election result returned Mugabe and his ZANU party as the outright winners, and a somewhat overawed and humbled revolutionary became the first substantive black Prime Minister of Zimbabwe. The armed forces of Rhodesia disintegrated and dispersed and for all inents and purposes Rhodesia ceased to exist.

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  • rebecca

    Vow. Great account

  • mitchvanbiljon

    ….and what a total mess it is now. Once the breadbasket of Africa and now a starving nation with 85% unemployment. When will the west learn that Africa cannot govern as the masses are idiots, uneducated, backward and socialistic. Does the experience of all over Africa not give people the message that black Africa is incapable of making a nation prosperous?

  • PETER Tawira

    ZIMBABWE IS STILL GREAT WE HAVE OVER 90%LITERACY RATE

  • R. Eric Swanepoel

    I beg to differ. The current situation is the inevitable result of the brutality and greed of colonialists, combined with their total ignorance and scorning of traditional cultures and values. Theft (most notably that of land which was productively and sustainably farmed by competent black farmers), duplicitousness and divide-and-conquer tactics have had their inevitable consequences. The pillage of Africa continues, with western transnationals and the pathological doctrine of neoliberalism effectively propping up corrupt governments while they extract wealth from Africa, using tax havens set up and condoned by western governments to benefit the handful of super-rich pathological kleptomaniacs who effectively dictate their policies. The continuing racism, hypocrisy and condescension is staggering. I can give you a reading list if you are interested in checking what I say. (By the way, I lived in what was then called Rhodesia from 1969 to 1979, and I am now aware of the utter ignorance in which I was raised and the constant propaganda to which I was subjected.)

  • mitchvanbiljon

    Read Mike Smith’s essays “opening apartheid’s pandoras box”. You will change your thinking.

  • R. Eric Swanepoel

    Thank you, but the site appears to be open to invited readers only.