Rhodesia: The Post-War Land Removals

This entry is part 15 of 20 in the series History of the amaNdebele

In the post-war period the long delay in implementing the mass removals that had been implicit in the land Apportionment Act, and many unofficial conventions since, had steadily accelerated as the demobilisations that followed peace in Europe saw large numbers of European men and their families flooding into the colonies. Vast tracts of land in the Midlands and Matabeleland were affected with thousands of people who had for long lived on alienated land finding themselves increasingly under pressure to move. The Department of Native Affairs also came under pressure from a government anxious to welcome as many white immigrants as could be enticed to clear land for white settlement.

While the post war reality, reinforced by the strikes, urban unrest and a general movement toward political awareness among blacks, rendered the long treasured notion of racial segregation manifestly unworkable, the land question remained the holy grail of the settler self image. It was the common view at the apex of the white island, the popular euphemism for a small elite of enlightened colonists in a pagan sea of black ignorance, that commercial agriculture was only viable in hands of white men of wit and capital, with the role of the black man being to labour to bring forth the fruit of the white man’s vision. It did not seem to matter how grotesquely outnumbered the whites were – although the immigration drives that followed both wars, and were in fact ongoing from 1890 onwards, and the continuing efforts to unite all the settled colonies of British Africa into one amalgamation, did suggest a sense of isolation – a complacent minority government and a lingering residue of Rhodes’ manifest destiny helped to cement the illusion of white permanence in Africa.

The Minister of Native Affairs promised the House of Assembly in a 1950 speech that within 5 years all blacks living on Crown land would be moved, and he ordered his department to present a plan to give statistical rational to this hugely difficult, and in fact short sighted and wholly impractical undertaking. For those that had for nearly half a century lived in the isolated security of the distant reserves, and who in the interim  had tamed the wilderness and established niche economies to support their communities, their lives were also about to be disrupted in a manner no less traumatic than the many thousands ordered at short notice, and with limited planning and forethought, to move their families, belongings and livestock into the reserves.

A major catalyst for this was a powerful article of sister legislation to the Land Apportionment Act that sought to make scientific sense of the irrational system of native reserves. One of few advantages available to the masses as a consequence of colonialism had been the regulation of life, the rule of law and modern medicine, all of which had set in motion a visible population explosion that was both politically and practically inconvenient for whites. The political ramifications were obvious, and underscored the absolute necessity of denying the black man the vote, but in the context of land it brought to the fore how inadequate and poorly planned the original system of natives reserves had been. An additional complication was the legacy of Imperial protection of the native people that allowed for no discriminatory legislation to be enacted or any tampering whatsoever with the rights of the natives within the reserves to live by tradition values, which at that time still included unregulated usage of the land subscribed to them.

At an earlier time when the native population was able to be reasonably easily absorbed by the amount of land set aside for them pressure and land usage had not presented any particular problem, but by the dawn of the 1950s it had become clear that the reserves were denuded, and that the paternalism of the Native Affairs Department, traditionally a government within a government, answerable not to Salisbury but to Whitehall, was inadequate to enforce competent land practice and disciplined communal growth. Efforts on the part of black activists, most notably at that time Benjamin Burombo, who in this issue found his raison d’être, to point out that vast amounts of land lay under-utilised, or not utilised at all, on land alienated by whites, was no particular solution. In the view of most white advocates for land husbandry legislation in the reserves there was little point in sending good land the way of bad. This was particularly the case bearing in mind the fact that the black population would continue to grow, and that the demand for land among them would follow unless more of them were weaned off the land, and those that remained compelled to manage it in a way that would be sustainable and productive. In many respects this was sound reasoning, and the basis of nothing less than an agrarian revolution, and like most instances of revolutionary change it could not be achieved if preoccupations with humanity, and indeed the natural law of humanity, were to be allowed to intrude.

Thus in 1951 the Land Husbandry Act came into being, which took the powers of land appropriation and management out of the hands of the people, of their chiefs and traditional leaders, and placed it in the hands of the government. The government then set about devising a protocol under this framework by which too little land could be renewed to accommodate too many people at a juncture in history where any solution to ratify white land hunger had to be made to work. The signature weakness of the law was in stressing the necessity for a new generation of blacks to be weaned off an expectation of land as their primary source of support, and yet at the same time that no provision existed within the defining Land Apportionment Act for the legal existence of blacks in the urban areas other than those that could prove employment.

The main receptacle for the first waves of displaced people was the Shangani/Lupane Reserves demarcated as early as 1894, and never developed in any meaningful way to accommodate the inevitable influx of people. The affect of this was most acutely felt in the matter of cattle. By this time the amaNdebele had significantly rebuilt their depleted herd, with some individuals, and in particularly those that had settled in north-western reserve a generation earlier, owning significant numbers of cattle. It was decreed on an official level that the previously accepted minimum of 30 acres per head in the reserve could be reduced to 20, in some cases as little as 16, with the number of cattle permitted per household reduced among those established residents of the reserve to 15 head, with those incoming limited to 10 to 12 head. Both groups were compelled to dispose of their surplus, with on average a family being forced to dispose of between 4 to 6 beasts within a year at prices fixed by the Native Commissioner.[i]

Within the reserves the trauma was no less acute. There was already arguably a surplus of cattle on the land, with some 77 000 head grazing in an area officially defined as able to support 60 000, with a predicted influx of 20 000 or so head expected to accompany newcomers, meaning a radical exercise in de-stocking which once again would be guaranteed to cut to the very core of the amaNdebele social economy. Even figures earlier mooted as the limit for the human population were waived for convenience by the Government, and manipulated to accommodate more projected settlers for whom it was acknowledged boreholes and wells would be needed to make the land viable. However in keeping with the pace of movement of any bureaucracy these where not in place in time to receive the waves of newcomers.

All in all the period was catastrophic in the memory of the amaNdebele affected by the massive upheavals that took place in the late 1940s and 1950s. In Matabeleland these evictions were fairly general, with the numbers recorded for 1951 alone to be in excess of 100 000 individuals belonging to just under 2 000 families moved from areas as diverse Matopo, Insiza, Nyamandlovu and Gwanda, with perhaps the best document events occurring as a consequence of the formation of the Matopos National Park out of a vast tract of Crown Land.

     Once again the hero of the moment was Benjamin Burombo. Burombo had once remarked ‘Each time I want to fight for African rights I use only one hand – because the other is busy trying to keep away Africans who are fighting me’. This certainly seemed to have been Burombo’s experience grapping with the issues of workers rights in Bulawayo, and upon the shift of focus from the cities to the rural areas Burombo was relieved to break free of the hubris of nationalist infighting and continue in a direction that allowed him to work to a large degree unencumbered by the petty jealousies, cross purposes and political ambitions of others. Masotsha Ndlovu had also grown weary of this and other difficulties associated with the first phase of the struggle and had entered employment in the Native Department in order to earn a living wage and free himself from the unending threat of harassment at the hands of white officialdom and of course to escape the debilitating internal contradictions that dogged the nationalist movement. As Burombo shifted his focus from urban to rural concerns Masotsha Ndlovu quit his job as a Native Department clerk, acquired a lease on a piece of land, and afterwards devoted himself almost entirely to the work of the Voice.

As a measure of the effectiveness of this phase of the struggle the popularity of the British African National Voice Association ballooned in those vital years of land re-adjustment. During the industrial phase of the organisation’s existence the Voice had enjoyed a membership of some 3000 fee paying members who were mostly concentrated in the industrial centre of Bulawayo. With the expansion of forced removals the focus of this membership shifted radically towards the rural areas where by the early 1950 some 10000 fee paying members were concentrated in the rural areas of Matabeleland and the Midlands, a figure hardly representative of the growing influence of the organisation since rural poverty precluded many involved from active membership, but not advocacy and activism.

What made Burombo’s approach so interesting and effective was his use of the law as a tool to as much as was possible frustrate the process of the removals and de-stocking, the latter of which was probably the principal grievance in a society so emotionally and economically dependent on cattle. Why this tactic worked so well was because the local judiciary at that time maintained a rare degree of independence and impartiality across the race and political divide that allowed it to be effectively used as an equalizing tool. Also true was the fact that some prominent members of the bench at that time were well known political liberals whose influence was obviously in favour of egalitarianism and not white political and economic entrenchment. It could perhaps be argued that this remained the case well into the post UDI period, and indeed the Rhodesian judiciary arrived the crossroads of Zimbabwean independence as a thoroughly independent arm of government, remaining so deep into the initial phase of majority rule.

A particularly influential member of the bar at that time was Robert Clarkson Tredgold, grandson of John Moffat, and Great Grandson of Dr Robert Moffat, and in whose veins flowed the blood of perhaps one of the greatest dynasties of liberal thought and action in Southern Africa. Tredgold would be at the cutting edge of exposing many inequalities through his activities on the bench, and as a government minister protesting the unequal and prohibitive legislation that began to take root in Rhodesian society as the gains of the black struggle because impossible for white government to ignore.

Meanwhile it was this that made Burombo and the Voice so much more effective in their advocacy than the emerging political and civic organizations that were purporting to speak for the masses at this defining time. Another factor was Burombo’s own personality. He was very much a man of the people, and as such was different in style and appearance from many of the other nationalist figures who drew their authority from a combination of education and some level of assimilated sophistication. Most used this to propagate a sense of elitism that might have served the vanity of that first generation of educated blacks but did little to endear ‘clever boys’ and white looking blacks to the struggle of the masses.

Burombo was at core a very simple man. His intelligence may have been bountiful, but it was neither nimble nor expressive, and was perhaps best described as intuitive with a solid foundation of practical experience. Irony and acute observation also gave him a plaintive appeal that was both powerfully attractive and fearfully repellent, depending on the viewers perspective. He for example made the very revealing point on a number of occasions that vast numbers of black Rhodesian had been drawn into both World Wars in order to support their white countrymen in the suppression of Nazism and totalitarianism, contributing, they were told, to a brave new world of liberty and equality. By the late 1940s, when such liberty and equality patently eluded the black man of colonial Africa, white Germans were being made welcome into the country alongside any other white man in order to take up land from which blacks were being forcibly removed to make room. None of this helped endear Burombo to whites, but it rendered him a folk hero among his increasingly dispossessed black audience, for whom this type of observation represented the nexus of their struggle for economic and social survival.

Throughout all this Burombo himself remained a simple and unassuming man at the core. He headed at one time one of the most influential organizations in Rhodesia, but throughout he remained personally impoverished, never succeeding in rising above petty financial frustration, and regularly suffering personal pecuniary reverses in the interests of forwarding the struggle. To a rural majority whose preoccupations were as fundamental as his he was easy to love. Most importantly, and almost uniquely at that time, and at any time before or after, Burombo lived above and aloof from any tribal affiliation or loyalty. The fact that he was a native chiShona speaker, and yet lived and worked primarily among the amaNdebele, was a symbol of extraordinary power at the formative period of the struggle, and again, a fact that has never been replicated by any leader before or since.

Practically Burombo was a self educated advocate of human rights, and although not qualified in any sense, he was extremely adept at examining the actions of individual Native Commissioners and determining where they had over-stepped their authority, transgressed the law or convention, or in even the most minute way failed to adhere to the letter of policy in enacting eviction or removals. Burombo would then use the courts to excellent effect, winning often 9 out of 10 actions brought against the state, and frustrating, if not curtailing, countless instances of forced removal, de-stocking or punitive action against villages and settlements.

Another popular policy effectively applied was passive resistance, which worked very well against the mechanisms of forced removals, those being the arrival of a convoy of trucks and native affairs department officials at any given settlement, empowered, after initial notice, to effect the compulsory relocation of entire villages. Sit downs, lying down in front of trucks or simply refuse to board vehicles frustrated many efforts on the part of the Department to complete removal programs, although in the end of course these were always achieved by one means or another.

On a personal level Burombo was also famously unimpressed by the offices of Native Commissioners, and was willing to, and frequently did, approach these individuals directly as a means of arbitration and generally to mark the boundaries of popular resistance. He also made excellent use out of limited or no command of native language on the part of white Native Affairs Department officials. These men might understand the literal interpretation of idiomatic amaNdebele parables, but could make neither head nor tail of the multi layered meaning which would be used in speeches delivered by Burombo. Burombo was of course a master of their use, as most blacks were, and are, imparting subtle meanings to otherwise bland comments that caused chuckles from attendant native police, but flew over the heads of white officials attempting to establish the rule of law under very difficult circumstances.

Likewise the Voice became the first genuine mass movement to challenge the dominance of either the intellectually aligned congress or the workers oriented labour federations. Branches were formed throughout the country, although the focus of the movement remained strongest in the Matabeleland and Midlands countryside. By May 1949 Burombo was sufficiently confident of his command of a mass movement to call a meeting in Bulawayo for the purpose of establishing an agenda for an African petition to the Governor to protest the many inequities of land removals, de-stocking, the diminishing proscription of African lands and ongoing incidence of forced labour. The meeting was attended by 2000 delegates, most notably chiefs and traditional leader and their appointees and representatives, in a gathering unique not just for its mobilisation of a broad spectrum of traditional and non-traditional leaders, but also because it represented diverse regions and conventionally separate ethnic groups. Perhaps all at this point that separated this from later movements that would function as authentic political parties was the survival of the by now paper thin believe in the possibility of effective change within the constitutional framework of minority rule.

This conference was followed by a petition to the office of the Minister of Native Affair requesting a meeting between he and a Voice delegation. This was arranged for August 2 1949 and was attended by Burombo himself, Masotsha Ndlovu, and, among others, a white Bulawayo city counsellor by the name of Edward Davies. A degree of entente was established, with the minister reported to have commented: ‘If our white farmers and miners understood the the land situation as well as these Africans do, I would have no problems.’ The Voice delegation then retreated to await the outcome of the meeting, expecting ideally an audience with the Prime Minister Godfrey Huggins, but this was not to be, and instead what was handed down was a revised set of rules governing avenues of communications between native lobby groups and the government, proving if nothing else that the behind the scenes response of the white government to organised black concern was not positive.

The Prime Minister meanwhile offered a written response to the concerns aired that was characteristically aloof and unsympathetic. Godfrey Huggins was at the very least an enigmatic figure in regards to native affairs. His biographers have as a rule tended to be sympathetic, and have issued many unsolicited protestations that Huggins was not at his core a racisit, tending to suggest that this is precisely what he was. That his racism was benign was in keeping with his overall character which was humours, lighted hearted and human, and if on an individual level it was noticed that showed remarkable cordiality towards blacks, this was in keeping with the fact that he was cordial with everybody, even his enemies.

Huggins embodied white racism as it existed at an institutional level in Rhodesia at that time. Most upper class whites of the ruling and commercial elite felt no direct threat whatsoever from blacks, and as a consequence adopted a friendly if paternal view that regarded blacks as being in the kindergarten of life, and dependent of whites for a gradual introduction into finer points of deportment, education and government, a process that none within the governing establishment imagined for moment would be complete din their lifetimes or the lifetimes of their children.

Therefore no particular shift in attitude was offered, and nor expected, and the substance of Huggins’ response was that in keeping with the wider world the notion that individual sustenance could depend directly on the soil had passed. The vast majority of natives of the colony ought now to anticipate a gradually accelerating process of removal from the land in order that food production might be placed in the hands of large scale professional farmers, after which the peasantry could expect to buy their food at market prices with wages earned through the labour market. As a consequence, and in spite of the success of the Voice strategy of mass conferences, the flooding of offending departments with memoranda and petitions, and the largely successful appeals to the high court, the inevitability of forced removals, with all their associated hardships continued.

One of the casualties of the success of the Voice Association was the tradition leadership link that had until then existed between the people and their traditional leaders. This came to a head in March 1951 when Burombo convened a conference in Bulawayo to which some 50 chiefs were represented among delegates drawn from all over the country. Among these also were a handful of younger men who would in due course emerge as the first generation of firebrand nationalists to directly challenge white rule in the colony. The by the customary grievances were aired, with the usual statement made that the Voice was a peaceful, patient, loyal and unifying organisation of the African people.[ii] However the comprehensive merger of rural and urban grievance, the growing popularity of these meetings and a generally more aggressive agenda resulted for first time in an official ban on public meetings for a period of thirty days, and more subtly moves were made to undermine a strong element of the voice organisation, the rural chief and traditional leaders.

In may 1951 one of the first of the signature divide and rule tactics that would later be regularly employed by the minority government were put in place. The Government announced higher rates of pay for chiefs as a means of attracting their loyalty, as well as the formation of Chiefs Councils to give the traditional leadership an official forum of authority. These were to be the only future channel of communication between the Voice, and indeed any mass movement or lobby group, and the government. This ostensibly was put in place to limit the sub-division of native groups and the consequent confusion of voices and options. ‘Natives often say that the government speaks with many mouths.’ The Minister of Native Affairs told the Matabeleland Chiefs and Headmen. ‘There are too many natives trying to speak for the native people. That is not good for the people and not good for the chiefs.’

Indeed new regulations were probably even more damaging to the internal black leadership structure, and although a certain isolation of grassroots rural blacks from their chieftainship was achieved, in later years the alienation of the chiefs from the people would do little to serve the government either. This was in fact a defining moment for black politics in the colony. Many of the more conservative elements of the traditional leadership became staunch supporters of government policy, and even this that did not took government pay and became in effect de facto civil servants. The shift was not immediate, but distrust among people for their chiefs was sown, exacerbated in many cases by the removal of recalcitrant chiefs by the government to be replaced by appointed individuals lacking any genuine authenticity. The net result was to broaden further the space available to nationalists and proto-nationalists to assume leadership roles, and in due course any claim to speak with the voice of the people would be lost to the chiefs and claimed by the nationalists, a grip that would be built upon and never relinquished.

The most immediate impact of this to Burombo and others like him was the refusal of the Native Department to meet with black political leaders or discuss any issues unless they were channelled through the Chiefs Councils. This went some way to undermining Burombo’s influence nationally and certainly it weakened the Voice movement at a time when the relevance of the organisation was waning as that particular generation of political leadership began to age. Other factors also played a part in this. Certain key grievances, such as the issuing of origional copy title deeds to black purchase farmers, were addressed by government, and of course the gradual completion of the removals exercise that saw by the early 1950s the almost complete removal of a generation of squatters disenfranchised by the Matabele War and the Matabele Rebellion, and held in limbo for almost half a century as the torturous process of commercial land ownership superseded traditional rights. This was also now the age of a younger crop of intellectual leaders, men who would no longer regard white colonial rule as immutable, and who would usher in the end days of white minority rule, and indeed the closing act of the British Empire itself.


[i] Bhebe, Ngwabe. Benjamin Burombo, (College Press, Harare, 1989) p74

[ii] Bhebe, Ngwabe. Benjamin Burombo, (College Press, Harare, 1989) p96

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