Rhodesia and the Central African Federation
Rhodesia may or may not have been far from God but it was certainly close to South Africa, the prime source of its troubles for almost a century. The pioneers who trekked north in 1890, sustained by the resources of the British South Africa Company (BSAC), spread racial poison over the rugged plateau between the Limpopo and the Zambesi. Having routed Lobengula in 1893, Cecil Rhodes’s invaders behaved with harshness worthy of the Boers. Dr. Jameson distributed vast tracts of land, favouring especially “Lord this and the Honble that.” Their holdings often ended up in the hands of speculators while the former occupiers were consigned to barren reserves which they regarded “as cemeteries not homes.”1 Under the menace of the Maxim gun, Africans were reduced to the status of helots. They were subjected to a hut tax. They were forced to provide cheap labour, which they found a “galling interference with personal liberty.”2 A “Loot Committee”3 seized most of their cattle, cutting at the root of their communal life and threatening their very existence. Minions of law and order were liable to rape their women on the veldt, while the Chief Native Commissioner got so furious at the sight of “a raw native wearing boots”4 that he had the man flogged. As Milner himself acknowledged, the usage of the blacks was a scandal and “cannot be defended.”5
Like Bengal after Plassey, Rhodesia had become the prey of white harpies. They were encouraged by Jameson, who puffed the “highly payable” land he administered as “a happy combination of Canaan, Ophir and the Black Country.”6 They soon suspected that this promise was illusory, finding little wealth and much expense—whisky, costing half-a-crown a bottle in London, sold for ten shillings a tot in Salisbury, where kittens needed to control a plague of rats fetched five pounds apiece. Still dreaming of “marble palaces and steam yachts,” if not “the roc’s egg of Sinbad or the golden valley of Rasselas,”7 the pioneers did not hide their voraciousness from the Colossus himself. “I would have ye know, Mr. Rhodes,” said a dour Scottish trader, “that we didna come here for posterity.”8 Rhodes duly responded by conjuring up golden visions of Great Zimbabwe, awesome African ruins near Fort Victoria which he identified, by reference to Holy Writ, as an “old Phoenician residence.” He wrote, in his usual slapdash style, that “the word ‘peacocks’ in the bible may be read as parrots and amongst the stone ornaments from Zimbabye are green parrots the common kind of that district for the rest you have gold and ivory also the fact that Zimbabye is built of hewn stone without mortar.”9Rhodes turned antiquarianism to profit, setting up a company, Rhodesia African Ruins Ltd., with exclusive rights to work such sites for treasure.
Although his pioneers might condemn German and Belgian methods, they had no scruples about exploiting the continent for all it was worth. Moreover, they adopted Afrikaner ideas about dealing with Africans. They asserted that colour prejudice was a “wise provision of nature to preserve the superior race.”10 They imposed Roman-Dutch law and tried blacks with white juries. Such was their self-confidence that they even raised, armed and trained an African police force. Many of its recruits deserted in March 1896 when, driven to near-suicidal desperation, the Matabele, and afterwards the Mashona, raised the standard of revolt. The chief administrator, Lord Grey, who rode to work on a solid-tyred red bicycle with a gold coronet engraved on its back mudguard, admired their pluck. He also blamed the Company for employing them in their own districts. “The right principle is that followed by Caesar when he kept England quiet with a legion raised on the Danube and the Danube quiet with a British legion.”11
Fired by a spontaneous explosion of wrath, the rising was ill coordinated. But it did take place at an opportune moment, when the British were weakened and distracted by the Jameson Raid. Moreover, the Iron Age warriors of Lobengula’s spear kingdom had learned lessons from their defeat in 1893. Then their impis, embodiments of the offensive spirit, had charged across open country and put their trust in cold steel—much as Haig’s battalions would do on the Somme. The Matabele had also failed to grasp the use of firepower, raising their rifle sights to give the bullets added force and sometimes shooting at shell-bursts. Now their Martini-Henrys (Rhodes’s gift to Lobengula) were better aimed and their tactics were more adroit. They attacked in small bodies over broken ground, slaughtering nearly 150 people in two months and driving the rest into fortified laagers at Bulawayo, Gwelo and elsewhere. Relief columns from Salisbury and Mafeking were slow to arrive, thanks in part to a devastating outbreak of rinderpest, which killed trek oxen as well as thinning still further the Matabele herds. And the victory of imperial troops was by no means assured once they did engage in what Baden-Powell called “a tussle with the niggers.”12
The Matabele took advantage of the terrain, especially the Matopos Hills south of Bulawayo. These were range upon range of granite kopjes piled with gigantic boulders tilting at crazy angles. Some of the rocks, veined with quartz and sacred to the Matabele, looked like “the ruins of old castles perched on crags unassailable to aught but time.”13 Others resembled fantastic animals or monumental obelisks, and one was eerily reminiscent of Queen Victoria. All were guarded by dense, thorny bush and honeycombed with crevices, caverns and canyons. As a natural stronghold the Matopos were said to be more formidable than the Himalayas. Here British Tommies were mortified to find that, despite their high explosive, machine guns and long-range Lee-Metford rifles, they could only “exact life for life when pitted against a horde of naked savages.”14 However, the Matabele failed to stop the advent of more men and metal. By June 1896 they were on the defensive. One lieutenant complained that his patrol was
always on the point of a fight, but the niggers [were] always disappearing when we got close to them. It was trek, trek, day after day, through bush with no road to go by…We had a few skirmishes with small bodies of the enemy, killing a few and taking some prisoners (who were always shot immediately). We burnt dozens of kraals and captured a lot of cattle and women.15
Then, before the Matabele had been crushed in the south, the Mashona rose in the north, terrorising an enormous area around Salisbury which had been largely denuded of its garrison. Altogether Africans slew more than 370 Europeans, about 10 per cent of the white population—a decimation not achieved by the Indian mutineers let alone by the Mau Mau. But the second phase of the rebellion (chimurenga) was all the more shocking because settlers had protected the supposedly tame Mashona from the martial Matabele. One pioneer, who came from the United States, said that the Mashona tribesman was worse than the “cruel and treacherous American Indian, while massacring the hated Paleface.”16
The mood of mortal dread and homicidal rage that flared up among whites was similar to that provoked by the Indian Mutiny. The merciless butchery of women and children, wrote the famous hunter F. C. Selous, “seems to the colonist not merely a crime, but a sacrilege, and calls forth all the latent ferocity of the more civilised race.” It awoke the “slumbering fiend”17 in the soul of the empire-builder. As one volunteer told his mother, “after those cold-blooded murders you may be sure there will be no quarter and everything black will have to die, for our men’s blood is fairly up.”18 Lord Grey himself, hailed as “a Paladin of Empire,” blazed away with the best of them. “He rides through the veldt seeking whom he may shoot,” wrote his private secretary, “and has to be restrained from committing most inexcusable murders.”19 Even missionaries called for retribution. One Roman Catholic priest thought that the only chance for the future of the diabolical Mashona was “to exterminate the whole people, both male and female, over the age of 14.”20 The most notorious symbol of vengeance and the prime instrument of lynch law was Bulawayo’s hanging tree. Here African suspects were dispatched after summary judicial process, being forced from its branches with ropes tied around their necks. One young tradesman remarked that “it is grand fun potting niggers off, and seeing them fall like nine-pins.” The dead fruit of this fun he considered “quite a nice sight.”21 However, Olive Schreiner printed a photograph of the spectacle, dangling black corpses being viewed by a group of whites, as the frontispiece to her celebrated attack on Rhodes, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897). This assisted Henry Labouchere’s crusade against the rapacity of the BSAC. His journal Truth was bitterly denounced in Rhodesia, not least by Baden-Powell, who justified the “blind fury” of pioneers conducting reprisals and derided the softness of “dear, drowsy, after-lunch Old England.” Fascinated by executions, he even held one of his own, illegally court-martialling and shooting a “fine old savage”22 called Uwini. Baden-Powell also acquired a copy of Olive Schreiner’s photograph to stick in his campaign scrapbook, entitling it “The Christmas Tree.”23
In those parts of the countryside affected by the insurrection, which was far from being universal, British regulars and Company volunteers carried out a scorched-earth policy. They burned kraals and dynamited caves. They scourged the veldt, sometimes exterminating “friendlies” as well as enemies and occasionally collecting trophy ears or patches of black skin for making tobacco pouches. They shot “non-combatant women and had no qualms about killing children.”24 They destroyed crops and grain stores. They commandeered livestock and prevented harvesting. In fact, the BSAC created famine. By August 1896 the rebels were reduced to eating monkeys, roots, berries, the pith of palm trees and the pounded-up hides of plague-dead cattle. Over the next few months a large number died of starvation and disease. The survivors fought each other for food and surrendered in droves. Bulawayo, linked to South Africa by rail in 1897, filled with skeletal black refugees. “Look at my body, my arms, my legs,” said one. “I am just like a rugged koppie, am all corners.”25 Rhodes organised and financed a dole of mealies, though for many it came too late. Anxious about the heavy drain on the BSAC’s exchequer caused by a prolongation of guerrilla warfare, he also squared the Matabele.
Bulky, breathless and prematurely old, his voice increasingly falsetto and his handshake ever more limp, Rhodes showed impressive sang-froid. Perhaps he thought, as a friend surmised, that he was not fated “to be killed by a damned nigger.”26 At any rate he faced the Matabele indunas (officers of state) with only a few companions, to whom he issued a characteristic rebuke for coming armed to the indaba (conference): “You’re all stuffed full of revolvers like partridges.” Rhodes held many informal meetings, riding through the Matopos and discovering the massive granite dome of Malindudzimu, “one of the world’s views,” which he chose as his mausoleum. He also promised to right African wrongs, to abolish the overbearing Native Police, to give the indunas authority, salaries and horses, to provide Matabele with more living space. “You will give us land in our own country!” exclaimed a young chief. “That’s good of you.”27 Rhodes was conciliatory. He induced the hungry warriors to lay down arms and take up ploughshares. He earned the title Umlamulanmkunzi, “the bull who separates the two fighting bulls.”28
Yet Rhodes had no intention of permitting Africa’s first colonial “war of independence”29 to end in a draw, much less in a black victory. In fact, when accused of being “too soft on the Kaffirs,”30 he assured settlers that it was their destiny to govern Rhodesia. His vision was realised between 1898, when the so-called “Chartered libertines”31 of the BSAC dominated the new Legislative Council, and 1923, when the white inhabitants gained virtual self-rule. During that quarter of a century the Britons of Rhodesia twice took up arms for the Empire, during the Boer War and the Great War. They also acted as a bastion against Afrikaner expansion. General Smuts, who became Prime Minister of South Africa in 1919 and tried unsuccessfully to extend the Union to the Zambesi and beyond, called them “little Jingoes.”32 Unquestionably white Rhodesians rejected political assimilation, so much so that King George V (among others) described their country as “the Ulster of South Africa.”33 But they still relied heavily on their powerful southern neighbour, which exercised a considerable influence over their culture. This was dominated by traumatic memories of the 1896 revolt, by heroic myths about pioneer resistance to “hordes of unreasoning barbarians,” and by persistent fears that a future black tidal wave might drown the tiny islands of white.
During the conflict, after all, Africans had proved their capacity; and later, in Lord Grey’s view, they showed their educability by learning to sing “God Save the Queen.” So the Boer mantra was constantly repeated north of the Limpopo, that the natives must be kept in their place. They must be cherished and chastised like “grown-up children.” They must be taught habits of industry, perhaps by serving “an apprenticeship in bondage.”34 Certainly they must not be spoilt. “The way boys are treated now, what with monkey nuts and lard, is enough to break the heart and pocket of an employer,” wrote one white citizen. “They will be wanting feather beds next.”35 There was just no liberal way of dealing with the “dirty, greasy, woolly-headed, naked, flat-footed and thick-lipped, raw Mashona.” En masse Africans were a menace. Whites must adopt a steadfast policy of “divide et impera.”36
In truth, the Mashona and the Matabele had already been hounded and starved into submission. Their patriarchal system had disintegrated, indunas becoming junior officials who could be dismissed at will. Their people were reduced to an abject state under the shadow of the sjambok—to win prompt compliance from black workers, accompanied by “a sickly grin,” whites had only to mention the standard number of lashes: “Twenty-five.”37 African miners endured especially brutal conditions, suffering mortality rates similar to those of an army in time of war. African farmers, who had sustained the country during the decade after the rising, were crushed by a battery of rents, dues, fees and other imposts. There was even a five-shilling Dog Tax, which impaired their efforts to keep down vermin. It prompted complaints that landowners “will be taking money from the flies in our kraals next; better be dead than pay such demands.” Worse still was the white erosion of increasingly congested black reserves, which were not only reduced in size but in quality. Europeans laid hold of “rich red chocolate soil,” consigning its occupiers to inhospitable regions infested by baboons, mosquitoes and tsetse flies. The settlers aspired to pursue a “white agricultural policy” that would, while retaining migrant black labour, entirely banish from their own areas what they called “Kaffir farming.”38
Africans were so dispirited that some lost faith in their own spirits, adopting the creed of the conquerors. The early missionaries had made little impression, their endeavours hardly being assisted by the first Bishop of Mashonaland, a habitual absentee who regarded Africans as a “repulsive degradation of humanity.”39 Lobengula’s warriors had used pages of the gospel, recently translated, to embellish their ostrich-feather headdresses. But after 1896 the seed fell on less stony ground. Indeed, churchmen often found it easier to proselytise black heathens than white Christians. The latter, when not making a fetish of sport—bicycling, shooting, horse-racing, hunting jackals, playing billiards, cricket, rugby and so forth—tended to worship Bacchus. Lucky prospectors bathed in champagne and after one race meeting, when all its citizens got dead drunk, Umtali resembled a morgue. By the 1920s, though, nearly a tenth of Rhodesia’s million Africans had been converted to Christianity. Some had attended mission schools, the only form of education open to them until 1920. As usual, the proliferation of “mission boys” exacerbated ethnic tensions. A typical settler complained that missionaries
laid too much emphasis on the “man-and-brother” theory, and overlooked the necessity for starting at the bottom and gradually inculcating ideas of discipline, hygiene and thrift, with the result that the black man was led to regard himself as the equal of the white and became uppish and troublesome.40
Such settlers particularly objected to language teaching. They themselves addressed Africans in Kitchen Kaffir or Fanagolo, a profane mixture of Afrikaans, Zulu and English expressed in the imperative voice. And they considered it “a sign of disrespect for Kaffirs to speak to them in English.”41 Alarmed by the advent of the “educated native,”42 who knew about his own civilisation and complained of living under “a veiled form of slavery,”43 Rhodesia’s rulers sought to entrench white supremacy through racial segregation.
In theory, after the introduction of internal self-rule in 1923, the imperial government remained the guardian of Rhodesia’s black majority. It paid lip service to Britain’s special responsibility for African interests, as directly exercised in the protected territories of Basutoland, Bechuanaland and Swaziland. Indeed, the Colonial Office would probably have agreed with the BSAC’s last chief administrator, who said that “the local whites were no more fit to govern the natives than the Bolsheviks were fit to rule Russians.”44So London restricted the powers of Salisbury’s new legislative assembly in order to protect African rights. In practice, though, the British government never intervened positively and seldom invoked its veto. The Dominions Office took charge of Rhodesia and treated it as a dominion. Few Africans had the vote and settlers ran the country in their own interest, later buying out the BSAC’s remaining stake in minerals and railways. White rule included control of the armed forces as well as the civil service, which put Rhodesia’s settlers in a “quite different position”45 from those of Kenya. But while they were stronger they were also poorer—the only true Rhodesian was allegedly one who could not afford to leave. Efforts were made to attract wealthy immigrants and the long-serving Prime Minister, Godfrey Huggins, said that what the country needed was young men who had “fagged at school and had been flogged at school.”46 What the country mostly got was settlers mortgaged to the hilt, accompanied by a distressing number of “bar-loungers and general ‘slackers.’”47 During the 1920s most white farmers were in dire straits. They lived, as the novelist Doris Lessing said, with “karosses as blankets, furniture of petrol boxes, flour sack curtains.”48 Many put their faith in tobacco, only to find that overproduction devalued the “leaf of gold.” The Great Depression pushed them further into debt while encouraging skilled African workers to undercut European artisans. As whites felt the draught, they ensured that blacks bore the brunt of the economic blizzard. “The Native,” as the Chief Native Commissioner wrote, “has always been the shock-absorber—the ‘snubber’—in the State motor car.”49
The most notorious measure, long contemplated and passed in 1930, was the Land Apportionment Act, which became the white “Magna Carta.”50 It divided the country into colour cantons, restricting the million Africans to twenty-eight million acres (including reserves) and assigning forty-eight million acres (including municipalities) to the fifty thousand Europeans. The Act was presented as a way of securing native rights to land that might have been purchased by richer immigrants, a means of protection via segregation. As such it gained wide acceptance in Britain as well as Rhodesia. Yet it was plainly designed to entrench white supremacy on the South African model of separate but unequal development. It put intolerable pressure on the soil in black rural areas, to which some 425,000 people were eventually removed. By denying Africans permanent residence, it encircled towns and cities with a fringe of squalid locations and turned peasants into proletarians. The territorial carve-up was a prelude to further repression. In 1931 a Maize Control Act imposed a complicated marketing system which favoured struggling white farmers at the expense of blacks. In the same year the Public Service Act excluded Africans from all but menial posts in the civil service—the “native clerk” was designated a “messenger interpreter.”51 In 1934 an Industrial Conciliation Act stopped them from competing with Europeans for skilled jobs elsewhere. Two years later a Native Registration Act tightened up the pass laws, placing particular “restrictions on African women’s mobility.”52 Some took advantage of new opportunities but many had little alternative to prostitution. Salisbury’s so-called “tea parties” became notorious: long queues formed for prostitutes and “intercourse apparently took place within sight of the next on the line.” A few of these women became shebeen queens. They profited hugely from the ban on black consumption of white liquor by selling an illegal brew called skokiaan, which consisted of yeast, sugar and maize meal fortified with such ingredients as tobacco, methylated spirits and boot polish.
Finally, a Sedition Act (1936) tried to prevent the spread of subversive literature, much of it attacking racial discrimination. The colour bar operated in schools, hospitals, pubs and so on but there were further galling regulations—for example, Africans were long prohibited from walking on city pavements. Meanwhile, the black urban ghettoes, built of grass, tin, sacking and dagga (mud and cow dung mixed with ox blood), were incubators of disease. Rates of tuberculosis, pneumonia, bilharzia, hookworm and malnutrition increased especially fast in the stinking, smoke-blackened shantytown outside Bulawayo’s industrial area, which was terrorised by gangs in short coats and wide trousers and had some claim to be “the worst slum in the world.”53 Yet whites asserted that they kept Africans at bay for the sake of health and hygiene. The Prime Minister expressed the common view: “You cannot expect the European to form up in a queue with dirty people, possible an old umfazi [African woman] with an infant on her back mewling and puking.”54 Huggins was a convinced segregationist who once advocated sending all “advanced natives”55across the Zambesi, an idea quashed in London. Africans would later describe their Prime Minister as the “Rhodesian Doctor Malan.”56 The maverick Labour MP Tom Driberg said that talking to Huggins about blacks was like talking to Streicher about Jews.
This was an outrageous slur. Huggins was an Edwardian medical man whose prescriptions were out of date. He advocated a partnership between black and white, the kind of partnership that existed between horse and rider. Although literally as well as metaphorically deaf to the African voice, he was an old-fashioned paternalist. He even set up free health clinics for blacks (justified as prophylactics for whites) whereas one British Governor apparently dismissed proposals for an African hospital on the grounds that “there are too many natives in the country already.”57Nevetheless Huggins did try to abort the birth of a nation, to stifle what a leading missionary had called “the dawning of Bantu race consciousness.” This “profound psychological revolution,”58 inspired by memories of the 1896 uprising, was a reaction against white dominion. Huggins’s policies provoked fresh African hostility towards the colonial state. Sometimes it took millenarian forms, with prophecies that American aeroplanes flown by Negroes would smash “European control” or that Armageddon would blast “the works of Caesar.”59 Often black resistance was local and individual, ranging from violence to non-cooperation. As a female legislator remarked, Africans evolved ways of boycotting a bad employer, “who soon finds that the privilege of walloping his own nigger is too expensive.”60
Frequently, too, there were general protests. Several hundred people in one reserve challenged Huggins’s agricultural decrees: “Even the white farmers’ dogs can ride in motor cars and are better treated by the Government than we are.”61 As well as holding mass meetings, Africans organised petitions, sent delegations, issued propaganda and chanted slogans, such as “Africa for Africans.”62 They also formed trade unions, notably the militant Industrial and Commercial Union (ICU), which had nearly five thousand members by 1932. The Sedition Act suppressed the ICU but it revived as unions proliferated after the war. By that time the high hopes stemming from the Atlantic Charter had been dashed by horrid consequences of the conflict. Among them were forced labour, cramped locations, exhausted land in the reserves, and stronger links with South Africa—Huggins and Smuts were close imperial allies. In October 1945 black railwaymen went on strike in Rhodesia, sparking off a series of labour troubles. The railwaymen won a partial victory, prompting a journalist to proclaim the end of white exploitation and black tribalism. “The railway strike has proved that Africans have been born.”63
The claim was premature. African leadership, smashed after the chimurenga of 1896, remained fragmented. In fact, it had to follow its more militant rank and file. Ordinary Africans were bitterly disappointed to receive no reward for their wartime sacrifices other than rude remarks about “Kaffirs” in uniform. They were incensed by stricter controls on the population of their bursting urban ghettoes, which reached 100,000 in 1946 and doubled over the next decade. They resented the post-war influx of white immigrants, particularly unskilled workers from Britain who adopted Rhodesia’s master-race doctrine, “simply wallowing in its full intoxicating glory, indeed almost to the point of open hatred of the African.”64 They suffered from sharp increases in the cost of living: wages stayed pitifully low but between July and December 1947 food prices rose by more than 20 per cent. Moreover, they were inspired by moves towards colonial independence from India to the Gold Coast. Thus pressure from below forced hesitant trade union bosses to endorse a general strike in 1948, the climax of the current labour unrest. But their trumpet gave an uncertain sound. They were divided by tribal rivalry, personal ambition and mutual jealousy. Acutely conscious of the limitations of black power, they sought to work “within the existing system.”65 Joshua Nkomo, secretary of the railwaymen’s union and aspirant nationalist leader, was typical in hankering for compromise. Fat, genial and self-indulgent, he tried to be all things to all men. More, he endeavoured to appease God as well as mammon, successively embracing Congregationalism, Methodism and Roman Catholicism, while continuing to worship the deity of his ancestors under the sacred trees of the shrine at Dula. Nkomo means bull, but he had the horns of a snail. So, even though Rhodesia’s only general strike was supported by black domestic servants who jeered at their employers as they emptied their own dustbins, it fizzled out like a damp squib. White troops suppressed violence and Huggins talked peace. Finally he threw a sop to his demoralised adversaries, changing the hated name of Salisbury’s “Native Location” to the “Harare African Township.”
Northern Rhodesia offered Huggins a more substantial means of shoring up white supremacy in Southern Rhodesia.*17 Stretching from the Zambesi to Lake Tanganyika, this butterfly-shaped protectorate, where the Colonial Office supposedly ensured that African interests were paramount, contained rich deposits of copper and a thin sprinkling of Europeans. Huggins, who aimed to exploit its mineral wealth and to repel black nationalism, had long been in favour of amalgamating the two Rhodesias. So had Roy Welensky, though the settlers’ leader in Lusaka, that “Koh-i-Noor of rough diamonds,”66 could hardly have differed more starkly from the polished Prime Minister in Salisbury. The thirteenth child of an Afrikaner woman and a drunken Polish-Jewish doss-house keeper, Welensky went barefoot to primary school, never slept between sheets before he was sixteen and, as he famously said, swam “bare-arsed in the Makabusi with many picannins.” Subsequently he became a heavyweight boxing champion, an engine driver and an outstanding trade unionist. Describing himself as “a socialist conservative,”67 he wanted to create a broad British dominion in the heart of Africa where for the next century or so the black man would play his “part as a junior partner.” Such schemes had long been resisted in London. For the Colonial Office reckoned that the segregationist policies of Southern Rhodesia would spread to the north, where even progressive whites favoured a certain amount of “slave-driving.”68 But after Dr. Malan’s victory in 1948 Attlee’s government feared that Huggins might form a union with South Africa’s apartheid regime. At a time when Britain was harassed by other colonial problems, this would give the lie to its liberal professions, which were transmitted throughout the region by a vernacular radio service in Lusaka and picked up on cheap receivers known as “Saucepan Specials.” A Huggins–Malan marriage would subject millions of Africans to oppression, a cabinet paper noted. “Terrible wars might even be fought between a white-ruled Eastern Africa and a black-ruled Western Africa.”69
In 1953, therefore, after protracted negotiations and five full-dress conferences, the two Rhodesias and (at British insistence) Nyasaland formed the Central African Federation (CAF). It was fatally flawed from the start. Variously intended to safeguard minority white privileges and majority black interests, the CAF was an administrative shambles. It divided power between no fewer than five governments—two in Salisbury (federal and territorial) and the others in Lusaka, Zomba and Westminster. Huggins himself, wrote a British official, “never had the faintest intention whatsoever of making the federation a success,”70 regarding it simply as a means of absorbing Northern Rhodesia. Worse still, Africans had barely been consulted. Having warned that blacks who refused to cooperate would “meet the fate of the Red Indians in the USA,” Welensky said that they could not understand the issues involved. In fact they understood all too well, assisted by a European civil servant who checked out of his Victoria Falls hotel when black delegates arrived, saying that “it did not suit his ideas to live with Africans.”71 They declared that the CAF would be a “garden of flowers for the European settlers and a deep grave for the natives.”72 They condemned Joshua Nkomo for not opposing the scheme root and branch. They also accused Britain of “cold, calculated, callous and cynical betrayal.”73 It had, in Huggins’s words, handed over “6,000,000 primitive people to a Parliament dominated by local Europeans.”74 In front of a large crowd in Lusaka the President of the new Northern Rhodesian National Congress solemnly burned the British White Papers on federation. The struggle against it, at a time when Nkrumah was leading the Gold Coast towards independence, inspired mass nationalism in all three territories. Before long Africans, who noted that the first federal budget took half-a-crown off a bottle of whisky and put five shillings on a bag of maize, were once again singing the patriotic songs of the chimurenga.
Yet at first the CAF’s prospects looked bright, as though it would live up to the motto on its coat of arms: “Magnum Esse Mereamur” (Let us deserve to be great). Copper boomed and Rhodesia’s Virginia tobacco rivalled that of America. Investment poured in, financing metalled roads and ambitious projects such as the Kariba Dam, which provided not only cheap electricity but what Welensky called the concrete wedding band uniting the two Rhodesias. (Actually the “biggest man-made lake in the world” displaced thirty thousand Africans on the north bank of the Zambesi, while the power station was built on the south bank, “symbolising the predominance of Southern Rhodesian interests.”)75 There was also a flood of white settlers, among them expatriates from independent India—the “Bengal Chancers” supposedly transformed Umtali into “Poonafontein.” Garden suburbs sprouted around the office blocks of Salisbury, the federal capital which Africans from the north nicknamed Bamba Zonke—Take All. Skyscrapers sprang up along the geometric, switchback boulevards of Bulawayo, which had been made wide enough to turn an ox wagon. Africans gained a modest share in the rising prosperity, though they still got less than a tenth of white incomes. In the hope of creating a tame black middle class, Garfield Todd, the charismatic missionary who had followed Huggins as Southern Rhodesia’s Prime Minister, even began to relax the colour bar. Africans, after protesting, obtained entry to some Salisbury hotels. After picketing, they got equal treatment in Lusaka’s shops, notably butchers, where white customers had unashamedly rejected meat for their dogs as “it was fit for Kaffirs only.”76 They were permitted to drink European beer and wine (but not spirits). They were officially called “Mr.” instead of being habitually “described as ‘It.’”77 There seemed to be a real hope of what Welensky called “partnership between the African and his European master.”78 In fact, the first few years of the CAF were a “golden age of participation.”79
The gold turned to dross after 1956, when the bottom dropped out of the copper market. Many Africans lost their jobs and with them their houses. As real wages fell and living costs rose, strikes and disturbances multiplied, the authorities taking emergency powers and carrying out mass arrests. At a time when African workers spent a third of their incomes on transport, higher bus fares in Salisbury provoked boycott and violence—young women who defied the boycott were raped. Grievances were still more acute in the countryside, where compulsory conservation measures such as cattle culling caused “a significant number of richer peasants…to embrace nationalist politics.”80 Simultaneously urban Africans were embittered when changes in land tenure deprived them of communal rights in the reserves. Garfield Todd never shrank from coercion. He had not only put down labour troubles by force but, in his preaching and teaching days, when he recommended Christianity to blacks both for its own sake and “because it made people more amenable to being ruled,”81 he had caned refractory girl pupils on the buttocks. Nevertheless he now tried to take the sting out of African resentment by a slight widening of the franchise. Britain approved this and other liberal initiatives, such as improving black education. But they were mistrusted by white Rhodesians, who ousted Todd in 1958, preferring Sir Edgar Whitehead, a lonely, boozy eccentric, clever but almost blind and nearly deaf, who was rumoured (wrongly) to invite his prize bull into his parlour. However, Welensky, the federal Prime Minister, tried to induce the Tory government in London to grant the CAF dominion status on the basis of its increased black representation, though the Labour opposition was now committed to NIBMAR, “No Independence before Majority Rule.”82
North and south of the Zambesi, nationalist opposition crystallised around that democratic principle. It was led by Joshua Nkomo in Salisbury, Kenneth Kaunda in Lusaka and Hastings Banda in Nyasaland, who returned home in 1958 after having practised as a doctor in England for so long that he had almost forgotten his native tongue. But he was greeted as “our Mahatma, our Messiah, our Saviour.”83 And his translated speeches, extravagant displays of mob oratory directed against the “stupid and hellish Federation,”84 which he delivered wearing a Homburg hat and a three-piece suit, aroused wild enthusiasm. Disorder spread like a veldt fire. Resistance to the CAF had always been fiercer in the two northern territories and now Nyasaland, in particular, seemed on the brink of revolt. There were rumours, moreover, that Banda planned to poison the country’s eight thousand whites with forty tons of arsenic, while Kaunda’s organisation was said to resemble the Chicago gang known as “Murder Incorporated.” Early in 1959 all three territories declared states of emergency. Black leaders were arrested, including Kaunda and Banda (who was hustled off to Southern Rhodesia in his pyjamas) but not Nkomo (who was, as usual, abroad), along with hundreds of their supporters. Nationalist parties were banned. Troops helped to quell the subsequent riots—fifty demonstrators were killed after the detention of Banda and his lieutenants, which was code-named “Operation Sunrise” as a riposte to his promised dawn (kwacha) of freedom. As whites in the south threatened to “go it alone,”85 Whitehead passed a battery of measures giving his government dictatorial powers and drastically curtailing freedom of expression and association. Eventually Sir Robert Tredgold, the Federal Chief Justice, resigned in protest, asserting that despite his good brain Whitehead suffered from “mental myopia.” His legislation had “scrubbed out” the clauses in the Declaration of Human Rights one by one and created “a police state.”86 At least one white newspaper agreed, saying that the new laws signified “Totalitarian Rhodesia.”87 An Anglican archbishop detected in them an “echo of the Hitler regime.”
Although Whitehead could thus hold down black nationalists in the south, resistance to white rule stiffened in the northern territories. When the Governor of Nyasaland, Sir Robert Armitage, hoped that Banda’s incarceration in Gwelo would provide a two-year political lull, the Guardian retorted, “One might as well ask for a two-year lull in the flow of the Zambesi.”88 There was also turmoil in London, where Lennox-Boyd maintained that the crackdown in Nyasaland had foiled a conspiracy to massacre whites. In a vain attempt to calm the storm, the British government appointed a commission of inquiry into the emergency led by Lord Devlin. Macmillan later questioned the choice of this high court judge, asking whether he was not “Irish, lapsed Catholic and deformed?”89 Certainly Devlin produced a report that, while approving action instead of abdication in Nyasaland, made unpleasant reading for the Prime Minister. It dismissed the “murder plot” as the convenient “frontispiece” of a story designed to justify repression. It confirmed that the security services had habitually bullied, beaten and otherwise maltreated Africans. It dismissed house burnings and other collective punishments, imposed for good administrative reasons according to the colonial government, as straightforward breaches of the law. And it came to the devastating conclusion that “Nyasaland is—no doubt temporarily—a police state where it is not safe for anyone to express approval of the policies of the Congress Party.”90
During the summer of 1959 British ministers held urgent discussions about how “events in Nyasaland might be likened to Mau Mau or—astonishingly—to the Indian Mutiny.”91 In the end they rejected Devlin’s report, Macmillan congratulating his “manly cabinet”92 while Aneurin Bevan derided the “squalid” parliament. Welensky also rejected Devlin, accusing him of profound hostility to the Central African Federation. One journalist compared Welensky to the Roman Governor Paulinus Suetonius, who refused to accept the verdict of Nero’s commission of inquiry which found that Britain had suffered enough punishment after Boadicea’s rebellion. Doubtless Devlin summoned up Welensky’s fighting spirit but, more important, he inclined Macmillan to appeasement in Africa. Macmillan appreciated the weight of black hostility towards the CAF. He feared that the northern territories could become a bloody British Algeria. And he recognised that the southern settlers were contemplating a Salisbury Tea Party involving separation rather than copulation.
To compound his difficulties, Macmillan was committed both to sustaining the CAF as a multi-racial partnership and to moving “towards self-government in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland as soon as possible.”93 There were also external complications, such as the Hola scandal. To escape from this labyrinth, the Prime Minister conjured up another commission. It was led by the suave courtier Lord Monckton, known as “the Oilcan,” and its task was to advise about the future of the Federation. Deeply suspicious, Welensky fought the Commission tooth and nail. So did the settlers, who christened it the “Monkey Commission” and told it to “go to Hell.”94 They were anxious about Macmillan’s “wind of change” speech and angry about Iain Macleod’s resolve to achieve “constitutional advance” in Nyasaland. His resolve was strengthened when he opened a Commonwealth Exhibition in Leeds where demonstrators waved placards saying “Stand up to Welensky,” “No prison without trial” and “Keep faith with Africa.”95 Progress in Nyasaland could only occur, the Colonial Secretary decided, after the release of Banda, whom he called “the White hope of the Blacks and the bête noire of the Whites.”96 In the face of Welensky’s opposition and Macmillan’s hesitation, Macleod had to threaten resignation to get his way. So on 1 April 1960, ten days after the Sharpeville bloodbath, Banda was freed. Saying that he was not embittered by his imprisonment since Nkrumah, de Valera, Gandhi and Nehru had suffered the same fate, Banda flew home determined to bring independence to his country. Zomba greeted him calmly, confounding critics who had forecast a riotous assembly. But at Government House the jubilant Colonial Secretary, down there on a visit, did go on the rampage. He hurled “cushions across the room, in the style of a rugby scrum-half, while the hapless Governor retrieved them.”97
By the middle of that traumatic year, which saw civil strife in Algeria and white refugees from the shattered Congo arriving in Salisbury as well as increasingly violent protests in Southern Rhodesia, a new constitution was devised for Nyasaland. It provided for an African majority and pointed the way to self-rule. The Monckton Commission, which published its conclusions in October 1960, permitted Northern Rhodesia to follow the same course. The Report, as Welensky had feared, was “a terrible piece of high explosive” calculated to blow the Federation to smithereens. It sanctioned national secession and recommended democratic reform. Wafted hither and thither by winds of change, Macmillan’s government first proposed majority rule. Then it gave way to Welensky. Finally, it submitted to Kaunda, who had told Macleod that if he (Kaunda) adopted non-violence “he might well be committing political suicide.”98 Now out of gaol, Kaunda organised a campaign of civil disobedience, extending to sabotage, arson and murder. It would soon, he warned, make the Mau Mau insurgency look like “a child’s picnic.”99 Under a revised constitution, therefore, Kaunda won an election in 1962 and two years later, sustained by another poll, based on universal suffrage, he led Northern Rhodesia to full independence as Zambia. Well before Kaunda’s first victory, though, it had become clear that Britain would abandon the Federation. The Marquess of Salisbury, reactionary grandson of the Prime Minister who had given his name to the Rhodesian capital, deplored the cynical handover of power to Africans who could only be described as “irresponsible, malicious children.”100 He thought Macleod “a complacent defeatist.”101 In parliament Salisbury famously stigmatised him as “too clever by half,” adding that he used his bridge-playing skills to outwit his white “opponents” on behalf of his black “partners.” If this was “gutter oratory,” as one Labour peer charged, it was not confined to Westminster.102
Welensky said that an attack by Macleod was “like being bitten by a sheep.”103 He identified Duncan Sandys as the “white man in the woodpile (one mustn’t use the term nigger now).”104 He refused to shake hands with R. A. Butler, a gutless, spineless “feather pillow.”105 He declined an invitation to have lunch with Macmillan, whose disastrous policy was “to liquidate what is left of the British Empire as quickly as possible,”106 saying that the food would choke him. The old prizefighter was on the ropes but he did not pull his punches. He raged against feckless and perfidious Albion. It was abandoning the Commonwealth for the European Community. It was selling out, rotting from within, heading for “a hellfire dust-up.”107 It had lost the “will to govern,”108 which Welensky attributed to American pressure and blamed for giving him a bad migraine.
The British Government have ratted on us. They have gone back on the most solemn understandings and intentions. They have wrecked the foundations upon which they themselves built the Federation…Britain is utterly reckless of the fate of the inhabitants, including those of our own kith and kin.109
Embittered by what they saw as the mother country’s treachery, the kith and kin did wish to govern.
Whitehead made liberal overtures, such as desegregating post offices and promising land reform, in order to conciliate middle-class Africans and to convince London that Rhodesia was becoming a multi-racial state fit for autonomy. The ploy nearly worked. Britain granted a new constitution, relinquishing its right to veto discriminatory laws in return for an extension of the franchise which fell far short of majority rule. Furthermore, Nkomo at first accepted the deal, only to disavow it when assailed by more militant nationalists. Among them was his incipient rival Robert Mugabe, the Lenin of Rhodesia, who shared Kaunda’s contempt for such “chicken-in-the-basket warriors.”110 Meanwhile, a new party emerged in Salisbury, the Rhodesian Front. In 1962 it comprehensively defeated Whitehead, who had by now, Welensky observed, “as much chance of being elected as a snowball in Beira.”111 Implacable for white supremacy, the Front was backed by tobacco magnates and beef barons such as “Boss” Lilford, a hatchet-faced millionaire who liked to “take his house guests hunting for African game poachers with Land Rovers, searchlights and shotguns.”112 Huggins had once hoped that Rhodesia would not have to use its defence force as “the North American colonies had to use theirs, because we are dealing with a stupid government in the United Kingdom.”113 Now the Rhodesian Front was prepared to risk internal violence and external hostility in order to achieve the goal of independence.
It was gall and wormwood to the Front, which consistently retained the support of most whites, that Rhodesia was still tied to Britain while black countries were gaining their freedom. Thus in 1961 the Colonial Office, fearing a Congo-style insurrection, handed power in Tanganyika to its pre-eminent nationalist, Julius Nyerere. The following year the British pulled out of Uganda, harassed by local difficulties ranging from King “Freddie” Mutesa’s penchant for one “blonde popsy”114 after another to the unruliness of what a Governor called “these bumptious, beer-swilling, bible-punching, bullying, braggart Baganda.”115 After the formal dissolution of the CAF in 1964 Nyasaland, now Malawi, became self-governing along with Zambia. Less viable states would also be groomed for independence, Basutoland (Lesotho, 1966), Bechuanaland (Botswana, 1966) and Swaziland (1968). More irksome still for the Rhodesian Front was the fact that the growing number of black countries in the Commonwealth, from which South Africa withdrew in 1961, pressed London to take a hard line with Salisbury. In fact they acted rather like the United Nations. And that body increasingly regarded the British as being friends with Welensky, Salazar and Verwoerd, and “accomplices in a policy of repression in Southern Rhodesia.” Indeed Sir Hugh Foot, a British envoy to the UN, resigned in 1962 because he thought his country was taking the “wrong side in a losing battle” between black “nationalism and white domination in Africa.”116 In this climate of opinion Britain could not simply hand over Rhodesia to a white minority. But ministers intimated that they would connive with the Rhodesian Front if they could do so without incurring international opprobrium. Lord Home, who as Sir Alec Douglas-Home succeeded Macmillan at 10 Downing Street in 1963 though he lacked a chin as well as a moustache, suggested that the status quo could be maintained if it were disguised by an electoral façade. R. A. Butler “implied that it would be embarrassing for Britain to give Rhodesia independence, but if Rhodesia took it herself, it might get Britain off the hook.”117 Ian Smith, who became leader of the Rhodesian Front and the country in 1964, took the hint. As he later wrote, “the time for shilly-shallying had come to an end.”118
Few saw in Smith the makings of a white knight. Home dismissed him as a peasant. Huggins (now Lord Malvern) said that he was “a farm boy from Selukwe, devious, parochial and suspicious.”119 Welensky reckoned that he could talk about nothing but cattle and daylight saving—“He’s no more a strong man than I’m King of Siam.”120 At the age of forty-five, Smith seemed about as prosaic as his name. His personality was dull and subfusc, like his baggy, grey double-breasted suits. He was an indifferent speaker with a nasal twang and a precise but inaccurate vocabulary—he would say, for example, “the factual situation” when he meant “the actual situation.”121 Smith had a callow sense of humour and few interests apart from sport. He had little political experience and less technical aptitude. As the Front’s Finance Minister he was once seen looking blankly at columns of official figures, as though they would have made as much sense “if he had held the pages upside down.”122 Nevertheless, Ian Douglas Smith, the son of a Scottish butcher and the first Prime Minister of Rhodesia to be born in the country, proved to be a canny, dogged and popular leader. He had a fine war record as a fighter pilot and bore the stamp of valour on his face. After being badly injured in a crash Smith had had a skin graft on his right cheek, which left his eye drooping and his nose crooked and gave an apt but disconcerting rigidity to his appearance. He was adamant about nothing so much as the impossibility of black rule in his lifetime, or that of his children. Moreover, he quickly gave an earnest of his intentions, detaining African leaders such as Mugabe and smashing their organisations. With his “cowboy cabinet,”123 Smith invoked the spirit of 1896. The embodiment of the laager mentality, he entrenched white privilege. He drew inspiration as well as aid and comfort from South Africa. As a black nationalist said, “Smith is a racist. He is an apartheid man. He is no better than Verwoerd.”124 At one political meeting, where he was heckled by African students, Smith sang an Afrikaans song: “Bobbejaan, klim die berg” (“Baboon, climb the hill”).125
During the eighteen months before he issued the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) Smith pursued a dual strategy of preparation and negotiation. He consolidated support in the judiciary, police, armed forces and civil service, promoting his own men where necessary. He tried to mould public opinion, holding rallies, censoring newspapers, controlling radio and television, and issuing what his own intelligence chief called “Goebbels-type propaganda.”126 He bribed, threatened, gaoled and expelled recalcitrant journalists, employing as his press officer an avowed fascist who had once supported Sir Oswald Mosley. Smith intimidated other opponents, white liberals as well as black militants. One settler told Duncan Sandys, “The opposition to Smith is very considerable but this is a small place and every so-called intelligent person is scared stiff of honestly pronouncing themselves against him for fear of restriction or business reprisals.”127 Smith also campaigned hard at the polls, claiming to stand for national unity but really promoting the cause of UDI. When Welensky fought against this proposal at a by-election he was not only trounced but reviled as “a bloody Jew, a Communist, a traitor and a coward.”128 Meanwhile Smith tried to persuade a sympathetic but sceptical Douglas-Home that Rhodesians of all hues would support independence in order to preserve civilisation in a primitive country. To prove this contention he canvassed the opinions of tribal chiefs, who were supposed to speak for their people. But since the indaba was held under conditions of strict secrecy and sealed off by troops, it was no surprise that the headmen, in reality bucolic stooges of the government, gave Smith the answer that he wanted. Lord Malvern rightly dismissed the whole exercise as “a swindle.”129
Harold Wilson, who became Prime Minister after narrowly defeating Douglas-Home in the general election of October 1964, was not duped. He at once warned Smith of the disastrous economic and political consequences that would flow from illegally cutting Rhodesia’s ties with Britain. But in power Wilson gave ground. Abandoning NIBMAR for a time, he sanctioned independence with guarantees of “unimpeded progress to majority rule” provided that this was “acceptable to the people of Rhodesia as a whole.” Sustained by his own voters, Smith rejected these terms. Further negotiations proved fruitless, especially during Wilson’s eleventh-hour descent on Salisbury, which one member of his cabinet, Richard Crossman, compared to Chamberlain’s flight to Munich. Wilson was so incensed by the casual maltreatment of Nkomo and other detained black leaders, who were held in a stifling police van without food or water for hours before meeting him, that he literally saw “red flashes before my eyes.” At Smith’s house, moreover, Wilson showed his disgust when one Rhodesian minister, the Duke of Montrose, mimicked the obscene antics of an American dancer “trained in the art of displaying her charms”130 by cavorting around the dinner table with a coin clenched between his buttocks. Wilson did not allow these manifestations of colonial culture to goad him into conflict. On the contrary, anxious to avert a Tory attack in Westminster, he renounced the use of force against Rhodesia. There would be no “thunderbolt hurtling through the sky,” he said, “in the shape of the Royal Air Force.”131
Wilson thus disappointed not only the UN and the Commonwealth but the many British enemies of racism. Among them were the left-wing fire-brand Barbara Castle and the shaggy, saintly figure of Dr. Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, who shocked white Rhodesians by his belligerence—they threatened to send him the ashes of their burned Bibles and proposed that the Anglican Church should sing a new hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers, shoot your kith and kin.”132 However, Wilson’s public refusal to fight gave Smith the final confidence to take emergency powers and implement his plans. Back in London, Wilson pleaded with him in vain over the telephone, finding him evasive but “astonishingly calm—almost friendly—the calm of a madman.”133 So, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1965, Smith read the proclamation, wreathed in red, green and gold scrolls, announcing that Rhodesia was independent. The date was heavy with irrelevant symbolism and the language echoed that of the last rebellious British colonists to issue a Declaration of Independence. Unlike Thomas Jefferson, though, Ian Smith continued to profess atavistic loyalty to the Crown. He concluded his broadcast with a ringing “God save the Queen.”134 As the national anthem played, white Rhodesians in shops, offices and workplaces stood stiffly to attention.
In fact, the Queen’s representative in Salisbury, Sir Humphrey Gibbs, had already dismissed Smith. When the Prime Minister called at Government House, an attractive bungalow mansion with white Dutch gables and long pillared stoep, set in secluded gardens containing an aviary and fishponds, the Governor said that the declaration deprived him and his ministers of all legal authority. But the rogue regime possessed what mattered more, power. Smith isolated Gibbs, cutting off his telephone and his salary, taking away his official car and his police guard. The Governor became a virtual prisoner, a mere simulacrum of royal supremacy. He was a stuffed dress shirt, a bemedalled, white-uniformed dummy, a feathered and topeed totem of Britain’s lost imperial might. Meanwhile, Harold Wilson faced a division of opinion at home best summed up by rival car stickers, “Support Rhodesia” and “Rhodesia: One Man, One Vote.” Under pressure, he turned out to be the antithesis of Lord Palmerston. He took all actions against Smith short of those that would have any effect, aggravating complaints from the Front’s opponents that they had received not “even the smallest crumb of assistance from London.”135 Wilson imposed economic sanctions on Rhodesia, freezing its reserves, interdicting its trade and eventually banning its importation of oil. But just as Smith had wrongly forecast that UDI would be “a three-day wonder,”136 Wilson erroneously predicted that his measures might end the rebellion within “weeks rather than months.”137Actually Rhodesia flourished for at least seven years, attracting tourists and thousands more white immigrants. The worst hardship they had to endure was a shortage of Scotch whisky. Also, for the first time since its foundation in 1893, the Salisbury Club ran out of port.
Although not a single country recognised Smith’s government, it got help from Portuguese Mozambique and the Republic of South Africa. They constituted two gaping holes in the blockade, which Wilson was unable and unwilling to fill. South Africa was especially problematic. It was the West’s anti-Communist ally in the Cold War, a source of gold and uranium, and a vital trading partner. Barbara Castle herself acknowledged that a suspension of British exports to the Cape, worth £265 million in 1965 (nearly eight times more than those to Rhodesia), “would almost certainly wreck sterling.”138 Smith thus tried to keep his uneasy friendship with Verwoerd and his successor, John Vorster, in good repair. He strengthened social and commercial bonds between Salisbury and Pretoria. He tightened sporting relations—it was said that for cricket and rugby “Rhodesia and South Africa become one and the same.”139 In 1967 he accepted military aid from Vorster. Many liberal Rhodesians disliked “the politics of our neighbour to the south” as much as they disliked the “repressive legislation” that had turned their own country into a “fascist state.”140 But even they opposed the speedy advent of African rule, and Smith retained the backing of about 80 per cent of whites. His supporters believed that the alternative to the Rhodesian Front was a black dictatorship. They dwelt obsessively on the murders and rapes that would follow the enfranchisement of “the African…No matter what education he has, what degree he rises to, he will always remain a savage and a barbarian.”141 In fact the nationalist movement was hopelessly divided and demoralised, and Rhodesian forces easily contained the small-scale guerrilla activity. But the menace remained real enough, particularly to an illegal regime. As the eighty-two-year-old Lord Malvern said after UDI, even Smith’s totalitarian government should realise that “what a revolting minority can do, a revolting majority can do so much better.”142 Thus white Rhodesians closed ranks in response to internal terrors and external threats. As the trade embargo faltered, Britain proved increasingly impotent.
Wilson therefore reneged on his pledge not to negotiate with treason. In 1966 he met Smith aboard the warship Tiger, off Gibraltar. Appropriately enough, Smith and others were seasick while the cruiser went round in circles. Wilson himself back-pedalled. In return for an extension of African rights he agreed that majority rule could be postponed until the next millennium. On returning home Smith decided that he could afford to decline the offer. Rhodesia was enjoying a boom. The economy was becoming more diverse and self-sufficient. Despite UN endorsement, sanctions were evaded on an international scale. Rhodesia received assistance from Greece and Japan, from the Vatican and the Kremlin, from German printing firms and from British oil companies—with the complicity of Wilson’s own government. Zambia, landlocked and impoverished, could hardly avoid trading with (and through) Rhodesia. De Gaulle’s France served its own interests. So did embattled Israel. Others contravened sanctions for racist motives. The virulently segregationist Senator for Mississippi, Jim Eastland, visited Salisbury with businessmen from the Deep South who wanted to help Smith “put the niggers right back where they belonged.”143 Later, embroiled in Vietnam, the United States openly flouted the embargo by lifting its ban on imports of Rhodesian chrome, nickel and other strategic materials. Meanwhile, Wilson insisted that sanctions were biting—to which Kaunda retorted that “even a flea bites.”144 Accordingly, Wilson initiated a further round of talks in 1968. They were again held in the Mediterranean, this time on board HMS Fearless, and they were equally futile. Wilson was, as a Labour minister wrote, “absolutely determined to settle with Ian Smith.”145 But Smith remained stubborn, despite Britain’s definitive abandonment of NIBMAR. Indeed, the following year he introduced a new constitution for Rhodesia, approved by a referendum, which established a white republic for the foreseeable future. Sir Humphrey Gibbs, the apparition of majesty, was glad to fade away.
Although by 1970 Britain was preoccupied by fresh troubles in Northern Ireland, another blood-stained legacy of empire, Alec Douglas-Home, Foreign Minister in Edward Heath’s new Conservative government, made a final effort to cut the Rhodesian knot. He admitted that Britain had “very little influence and no power.”146 But he himself was popular with Rhodesian leaders. A charming, if somewhat effete, Old Etonian, Douglas-Home had seemed at school “honourably ineligible for the struggle of life.”147 He had remained engagingly amateurish, facetiously admitting that he worked out financial problems with matchsticks. He enjoyed rural pursuits, keeping Ruff’s Guide to the Turf on his desk at the Foreign Office and sending Welensky presents of salmon he had caught. He was an authentic Scottish aristocrat, the owner of broad acres who plainly saw Rhodesia as a country estate managed by white factors and worked by black crofters. Surely their differences could be reconciled. Having been an ardent appeaser during the late 1930s, so much so that he destroyed the more incriminating evidence when Winston Churchill came to power, Douglas-Home had tried to persuade Iain Macleod that Southern Rhodesia was “the essential nucleus of a nation devoted to the ultimate co-operation between the races.”148 Now he sought a Munichite solution. After long discussions Douglas-Home reached an agreement with Smith that was “little more than a smoke screen”149 to conceal British capitulation.
Many of the terms were ambiguous, as if to confirm the Rhodesian view that Douglas-Home was “honestly dishonest.”150 But the settlement evidently guaranteed white rule for generations. What Douglas-Home felt bound to stipulate, though, was that a majority of all Rhodesians must find it acceptable. Both he and Smith were confident that the commission of inquiry into African opinion, which was led by a retired judge, Lord Pearce, would get the affirmative answer it was encouraged to seek. Smith, indeed, uttered his notorious boast that Rhodesia had “the happiest Africans in the world.”151 But they were altogether unhappy about the Home–Smith compact, deeming it “a vicious and subtle device” to enable Britain to accept UDI. It would set the seal on another apartheid state. A Methodist bishop named Abel Muzorewa led the opposition, requesting and receiving from black Rhodesians “an emphatic ‘No.’” Pearce’s report on their verdict, said Muzorewa, resembled a “flash of lightning and crash of thunder at the finale of a violent summer storm.”152 Britain had shot its imperial bolt. Henceforth others would have to solve what America’s Central Intelligence Agency called its “thorniest decolonisation problem.”153
What eventually forced Smith to negotiate was an irresistible combination of military subversion and political dictation. From 1972 the guerrilla war intensified, becoming a chimurenga more vicious than anything seen in 1896. Admittedly, the insurgents were hampered by murderous infighting between the nationalist factions. And cities such as Salisbury and Bulawayo, where most Europeans lived, were hardly affected by the bloodshed. But guerrillas, some backed by China and others by Russia, crossed the frontier from Mozambique and Zambia to attack remote farmsteads, railways and roads. Rural whites turned their houses into fortresses, protected by sandbags, searchlights, barbed wire and guard dogs. The guerrillas tried to enlist the native population, using terror tactics against anyone who resisted. Chiefs were regularly tortured and murdered. Schoolteachers were raped. Villages were looted and burned. Counter-insurgency measures were no less savage. They included collective punishments, the closure of schools and clinics, the establishment of free-fire zones and protected villages similar to concentration camps. African cattle were seized or deliberately infected with anthrax. Captured combatants were given electric shocks, dragged through the bush by Land Rovers or “hung upside down from a tree and beaten.” One District Commissioner engaged in “stamping on them” said that he had “never had so much fun in my life.”154 The Selous Scouts committed the worst atrocities, especially during cross-border raids and hot pursuits. Sometimes in the guise of guerrillas, they poached ivory and smuggled guns as well as brutalising and slaughtering civilians. Such violence and trickery envenomed race relations. But Smith, who extended segregation, had more faith in coercion than conciliation. Doubtless he subscribed to the white cliché: “Why bother about [winning] the munt’s heart or mind? If you’ve got him by the balls, his heart and mind will follow.”155
By 1974, though, more insurgents were being recruited than killed and Smith’s position was becoming precarious. During the spring an officers’ coup in Lisbon hastened the end of the Portuguese empire and produced an independent Mozambique. Within a matter of months Rhodesia’s eastern border, 764 miles long, was dominated by a hostile state. Moreover its leader, Samora Machel, who felt honour-bound to help his fellow Marxist revolutionary Robert Mugabe, controlled the ports through which 80 per cent of Rhodesia’s exports flowed. Smith was left with only a single friendly neighbour. But South Africa, formerly Rhodesia’s evil genius, now became its nemesis. For the politicians in Pretoria preferred a stable black regime on their northern flank to an unstable white one. So Vorster squeezed Smith, who responded by declaring a cease-fire. He also released Nkomo, Mugabe and other detainees. And he prepared to discuss a compromise constitution. Britain’s role in the Rhodesian imbroglio was typified by the fruitless visit paid to the region by Foreign Secretary James Callaghan in January 1975. One journalist described his remarks as “the winds of flatulence.”156 Callaghan certainly had no influence on Smith, who withdrew after one day from talks with feuding nationalist leaders held in railway carriages on the bridge over the Victoria Falls, an “engineering wonder”157 that spectacularly symbolised the imperial conquest of nature. As the American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger observed, Rhodesia had power without legitimacy whereas Britain had legitimacy without power. In fact, Kissinger wrote, the failure of successive London governments to quell the rebel regime was a painful reminder of their country’s decline. So Britain ceded to the United States its “traditional role of leadership in Southern Africa.”158 The Secretary of State was not renowned for his modesty. But in 1976 he did bring American influence to bear on both Vorster and Smith. At last, it was said, Kissinger “had discovered Africa.”159
The discovery occurred as a result of growing fears that the continent was about to become the new battleground in the Cold War. Previously Kissinger had assumed that whites were there to stay and that blacks could not “gain the political rights they seek through violence.”160 Now, as the old empires collapsed, Russian and Chinese Communists were helping national liberation movements to change the political complexion of Africa. Even more sinister, in Angola Cuban forces with Soviet T-54 tanks and MIG fighters routed the faction backed by South Africa and the United States. The Secretary of State read the writing on the wall. As one of his biographers said, Kissinger was an exponent of Talleyrand’s maxim that “The art of statesmanship is to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence.”161 He therefore reversed his previous policy and tried to win over black countries by opposing minority white regimes. Shuttling to and fro, he met the leaders of the so-called “front-line states,” those directly confronting Rhodesia. Kissinger was impressed. Machel, who had just closed Mozambique to the passage of Rhodesian goods, was bouncy and resilient. Slim, graceful and elegant, despite his Hitlerian moustache, Nyerere was formidably intelligent and displayed an awesome command of English—he had translated Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar into Swahili. With his white hair, flashing eyes and ready smile, Kaunda “exuded authority.”162 Not all the African leaders were equally impressed by Kissinger. Nkomo compared him to a businessman doing a quick deal and felt that he was talking to a robot. Yet in Lusaka, at the end of April 1976, Kissinger made a speech that sounded the death knell of Britain’s last African colony.
He pledged American support for majority rule, equal rights and human dignity for all the peoples of southern Africa. He also promised that Rhodesia would “face our total and unrelenting opposition until a negotiated settlement is achieved.”163 Kissinger followed this up by inducing Vorster to tighten the screw on Smith. South Africa withdrew more of its forces, starved Rhodesia of munitions and strangled its trade. On 19 September, in Pretoria, Kissinger finally met Smith face-to-face. The Secretary of State blew cool and warm. He opened with this admonition: “Your reputation as a devious lying twister is even worse than mine. But let me warn you not to try any funny stuff with me because this time you will have met your match.” Kissinger went on to point out the hopelessness of Rhodesia’s military and economic position. Its only viable option was to accept a settlement, mostly devised by the British, which would provide for majority rule within two years in return for the lifting of sanctions and the ending of the guerrilla war. Smith said, “You want me to sign my own suicide note.”164 Kissinger remained stonily silent. But he mellowed as Smith, after haggling over white safeguards and obliging the Secretary of State to fudge or, as he put it, to engage in “constructive ambiguity,”165 accepted his proposals. In a show of sympathy at their parting, Kissinger shed crocodile tears. When Smith announced the terms of the deal, it seemed as though the Secretary of State had worked another diplomatic miracle. America had apparently lowered the curtain on the final act of Britain’s imperial drama on the African stage. Some Westminster politicians even resented the fact that this was a transatlantic triumph, that their own government had been “inert and supine” over Rhodesia, merely providing a Whitehall official as part of Kissinger’s “baggage train.” White citizens of Salisbury, where the Jacaranda Festival was in full swing, lamented Smith’s surrender. In Cecil Square, on the spot where Rhodes’s pioneers had raised the Union Jack in 1890, they flew a white flag at half-mast.
Actually Smith had by no means exhausted his Gladstonian capacity for prevarication. As he said in a quasi-Churchillian broadcast, this was not the end, or even the beginning of the end, but it was, “perhaps, the end of the beginning.”166 Kissinger’s much-vaunted breakthrough had left Smith ample room for manoeuvre and he emphasised his commitment to responsible majority rule. There was a further bar to progress. The nationalist leaders had not endorsed the deal. Indeed, Mugabe and Nkomo, who formed a troubled alliance called the Patriotic Front in October 1976, refused to order a cease-fire until they gained control of the interim government. Thus the conference held under British auspices in Geneva, which aimed to implement Kissinger’s proposals, ran into the sand. So did further efforts by the new Foreign Secretary, David Owen, who apparently saw himself as ringmaster of a bizarre diplomatic menagerie. He characterised Smith as the jackal, Vorster as the hippopotamus, Nkomo as the elephant and Mugabe as the panther. To complicate the metaphor, the American eagle was circling overhead and Owen was not sure whether the British lion would roar. Mugabe, who believed that nothing could be settled without “a bitter and bloody war,” provided an answer. He told reporters, “Dr Owen has failed to convince us that Britain is in a position to effect the transfer of power to the people of Zimbabwe.”167
Smith was equally dismissive about Britain’s “travelling circus.” He concentrated on dividing the African opposition, reaching agreement with its most pliable representative, Bishop Muzorewa, and creating a black puppet regime. This required some concession and much persuasion. During 1977 Smith’s task became more urgent thanks to the “spread of terrorism throughout the country.”168 Guerrillas in their thousands ravaged the provinces, harassed the cities and even menaced the skies—they eventually shot down two Viscount airliners with SAM-7 missiles. The war was costing £500,000 a day, a quarter of all government spending, and the economy was in ruins. Despite strict emigration and exchange controls, 1,500 whites a month took the “yellow route” or the “chicken run.” So Smith was relieved when, in March 1978, Muzorewa signed the so-called Salisbury Agreement. In theory it ushered in majority rule, opening Rhodesia to what Gibbon had called “the inconveniences of a wild democracy.”169 In practice the whites retained clandestine control. Smith had retreated in order to stay in the same place.
The deception became increasingly obvious during the course of the year. Smith did little to alleviate racial discrimination. As the guerrilla war intensified, he exacerbated mistrust between black leaders by trying (and failing) to detach Nkomo from Mugabe. Finally, Smith approved a new constitution which gave Africans a majority in parliament (though one black got one vote while one white got two) but maintained European power over the judiciary, the police, the civil service and the armed forces. Muzorewa, who fancied himself as an African George Washington, was condemned by his own side for accepting these arrangements. Mugabe called the Bishop “Baa Baa Black Sheep” because he always followed his white master. Yet in a hard-fought general election Muzorewa won two-thirds of the popular vote and fifty-one out of ninety-two parliamentary seats. So, on 1 June 1979, he became Prime Minister of the new state of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia—the Afro-English name was almost universally vilified. When he arrived at his official residence, Smith wrote in his diary, Muzorewa looked
like a colourful rooster, and a bantam at that, sitting on a replica of the ox-wagons used by the Pioneer Column when they occupied the country in 1890. I cringed and closed my eyes. Muzorewa and his ancestors had not even invented the wheel by the time the white man arrived.170
The new British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was a right-wing Tory who instinctively favoured white Rhodesia and might well have sympathised with these sentiments. Certainly she mistrusted black nationalists and their demanding Commonwealth acolytes. In fact, she liked to say that the acronym CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) stood for “Compulsory Hand-outs for Greedy Mendicants.”171
However, Mrs. Thatcher was reluctantly converted by her patrician Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, who aimed to withhold recognition from Muzorewa’s government. It was spurious as well as illegal, he argued, and it guaranteed the continuation of a civil war that had already cost twenty thousand lives. Britain should keep in line with the United States, whose President, Jimmy Carter, was dedicated to achieving racial justice. Yet Carrington offered his Prime Minister a chance of decolonising without American help, of finding her own way out of Africa. Having been branded a racist by the Zambian press, she arrived for the August Commonwealth Conference in Lusaka wearing dark glasses, convinced that acid would be thrown in her face. In fact she was greeted with cheers and her change of front was a triumph. Mrs. Thatcher announced that she was “wholly committed to genuine black majority rule in Rhodesia.”172 She danced with Kaunda, calling him “a dear sweet man.”173 He declared that “the Iron Lady has brought a ray of hope on the dark horizon.” Zambians had witnessed the “apotheosis of the Blessed Margaret,” according to the Daily Telegraph’s reporter. They would not have been surprised, he said, to see her home-bound plane “drawn skywards by cherubim.”174
So, during the autumn of 1979, a final gathering of all interested parties took place at Lancaster House. Mugabe only participated because Machel threatened to shut down his guerrilla bases in Mozambique. But he proved a dominant presence, highly educated, ruthlessly clever and unpleasantly abrasive. “It is we who have liberated Rhodesia,” he told Lord Carrington. “You are simply intervening now to take advantage of our victory.”175 This barb was painfully close to the mark. But Mugabe concluded that he could secure lasting power through the ballot box. Braving placards saying “Hang Carrington,” brandished by Tory loyalists backing a rebel regime, as he ironically observed, the Foreign Secretary devoted many weeks to securing an agreement. He isolated Smith, who felt betrayed by compromisers in his own delegation—he reflected bitterly (but without irony) on Cicero’s maxim that a nation “cannot survive treason from within.”176 Carrington extorted a cease-fire from Nkomo and Mugabe, though it was never wholly respected despite the arrival of British troops. He forced Muzorewa, weakened by a diet of carrots and vichyssoise, the only food he found palatable at his hotel, to give way to a British Governor. “Really?” asked Nkomo. “Will he have plumes and a horse?”177
Actually Lord Soames, Winston Churchill’s son-in-law, who agreed to take up the post, brought to it a rich combination of diplomatic urbanity and military bluffness. His task was to supervise the elections which would decide the fate of Zimbabwe. He acknowledged, in his inimitable manner, that they would hardly occur without violence. Africans, he said, did not behave like the natives of Little Puddleton-on-the-Marsh. “They think nothing of sticking poles up each other’s whatnot, and doing filthy, beastly things to each other.”178 As Smith and Nkomo complained, there was ample evidence of intimidation, even terror. But Soames refused to cancel the elections and Mugabe won so handsomely, with 63 per cent of the national vote, as to put the result beyond doubt. On 17 April 1980, therefore, Africans celebrated what their new leader called the “birthday of great Zimbabwe.” Britain, now out of Africa for good and with less discredit than Portugal in Angola let alone France in Algeria, was palpably relieved.
After ninety years Rhodes’s colonial dream, long a nightmare, had vanished into thin air. For good or ill—and Rhodesia’s whites had hardly set a good democratic example—Rhodesia’s blacks were now masters of their own destiny. South Africa was exposed as the last bastion of apartheid. The world hadn’t got, as the London Times put it (echoing Richard Nixon’s famous valediction), “imperial and racist Britain to kick around any more.”179 Yet many Britons cherished a poignant nostalgia for the fallen Empire and some yearned to restore its glory as Charlemagne had revived the majesty of Rome. A mood of melancholy resentment permeated the Prime Minister’s room in the House of Commons as she and Conservative colleagues gathered around the television to watch the Union Jack come down at Government House in Salisbury and to hear the dying strains of the Last Post. “The poor Queen,” exclaimed Mrs. Thatcher. “Do you realise the number of colonies that have been handed over from the British Empire since she came to the Throne?”180 The Iron Lady wept.