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Rhodesia's War of Independence

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Paul Moorcraft looks at the struggle to maintain white supremacy in what is now Zimbabwe, a hundred years after Cecil Rhodes' pioneers carved out a British colony there.

Ian SmithIt is exactly one hundred years since Cecil Rhodes' pioneer column trundled into Mashonaland to establish Fort Salisbury and the new colonial state named after its founder: Rhodesia. A decade ago white-ruled Rhodesia became the independent state of Zimbabwe. In the 1890s the first settlers brutally suppressed a series of 'native rebellions' or Chimurenga (the Shona word for 'resistance'), as the indigenous peoples called their defence against alien invaders. Thereafter, white Rhodesians fought a number of wars on behalf of the British Empire and then indulged in a traumatic civil war that lasted fourteen years and took over 30,000 lives. The bitterness remains, not least among the many – often partisan – writers who are struggling to explain and explore the war's many facets, some still shrouded in secrecy.

The very nature of the act of rebellion against the Crown – UDI, the unilateral or, to its critics, the illegal, declaration of independence in 1965 – is still fiercely debated. For the white Rhodesians, it was, in retrospect, a colossal blunder. The self-governing British colony of Southern Rhodesia, to use its correct designation, was practically independent in all but name. That had been the case since 1923 or, arguably, 1911. Provided the right kind of constitutional verbiage could have been conjured up, both Labour and Conservative administrations in London would have been happy to remove that colonial albatross from its neck. If Ian Smith, the Rhodesian prime minister, had been half as cynical as some of the British politicians he dealt with, he could have agreed to any legal wording, secured Rhodesian independence and then torn up the agreement. But his Rhodesian Front Party wanted more than a legalisation of the status quo; it was committed to achieving full sovereignty so as to turn the clock back.

The white supremacists wanted to strip the African majority of the few rights it held in 1965. Many white Rhodesians felt that they had an unquestionable right to the same measure of independence as the other states in the former Central African federation, Zambia (Northern Rhodesia) and Malawi (Nyasaland). The whites in power in Salisbury argued that they had proved their experience and success in governing the country, especially compared with the untried black politicians who took over in the neighbouring states. Smith and his followers reckoned that London would not, in the final analysis, use force against the rebel colony, partly because of its brave war record on behalf of Britain: per head of (white) population Rhodesia had contributed more in both world wars than any other part of the empire, including the United Kingdom. More especially, a large proportion of the white Rhodesian population had served in the British armed forces in the Second World War, and close ties existed with the senior echelons of the British services. Many British ex-servicemen, especially from the Royal Air Force, had settled in the prosperous colony.

Whatever the moral and political arguments, Britain did not use force to crush the rebellion. There is little doubt now that after a few resignations here and there, the army, the Royal Navy and even the Royal Air Force (supposedly the most disaffected service) would have carried out any orders to subdue the first national treason against the Crown since the American War of Independence. On the Rhodesian side, UDI was a military bluff. According to a very senior Rhodesian intelligence officer, 'except for one or two senior members of the British South Africa Police [the Rhodesian police force] and a few South African hotheads in the depleted Rhodesian Light Infantry', white Rhodesians would not have resisted a rapid show of force. The bluff, though, was never called. That master tactician, the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, threw away his best cards by renouncing force at the outset. He opted for sanctions instead. Threatening 'to throw the book' at the Rhodesian Front, he simply flicked a few pages... one at a time. Sanctions were a gesture, never a concerted policy. Until 1974 they boosted rather than undermined the rebel colony.

Sanctions failed to end the war in 'weeks rather than months', as Wilson had promised, for a number of reasons. Above all, they were applied slowly, half-heartedly and cynically. Britain, for one, kept on supplying oil to the rebels. Washington made a point of trading in strategic materials, especially chrome. The Soviet bloc accounted for more than half of Rhodesia's illicit deals, as Ken Flower, the head of Rhodesia's Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), made clear in his recent memoirs. Many of these transactions were arranged through pliant companies in Austria, West Germany, Switzerland and Belgium. Heavy machinery came from the East, usually in shipments brought by Yugoslavs who had no qualms about flying to Salisbury, as long as their passports were not stamped. As one Rhodesian Special Branch officer involved with these deals noted recently: 'Slavs were popular with [Rhodesian] immigration officers because they inevitably 'brought gifts of plum brandy and offered around cigarettes of heavily scented tobacco'.

The most important sanctions-breakers, however, were the South Africans. This led to the greatest paradox of the Rhodesian war. Rhodesia broke away from Britain to avoid black rule and then, with the onset of the guerrilla war, became completely dependent upon a South African regime which was even more determined than Britain to establish a black leader in Salisbury. Above all, the South African government dreaded the possibility of a victorious Marxist army marching through the streets of Salisbury, a precedent which it feared might be repeated in Pretoria. Rhodesia transformed itself from a self-governing British colony into an occasionally truculent, but inevitably subservient, sector of Afrikaner imperium. Ian Smith became, in effect, the leader of another South African homeland. Pretoria selfishly manipulated its Rhodesian satrapy ('while making a huge profit on sanctions-breaking to the captive rebel market) by providing just enough military support to allow Smith time to reach the elusive 'settlement' with black 'moderates'. This policy totally backfired and merely served to lengthen the savage war.

Until 1973 Britain tried hard to settle with Salisbury. In each settlement proposal London offered more concessions. Wilson was torn by what he termed his four 'constituencies': the Conservatives, the Commonwealth, the United Nations and South Africa. The inevitable compromises that ensued gave Wilson's policies 'that madcap flair', in the words of the American ambassador to Zambia. The end result was an impasse: no force, no confrontation with South Africa and no 'sell-out'. The inherent contradictions meant more leaky sanctions and growing white Rhodesian intransigence. Thus ensued the long diplomatic melodrama punctuated by angry encounters on ships, foolish estimates and silly superlatives. These negotiations gave Smith credibility at home and some respectability abroad. Meanwhile, Pretoria played a subtle game until 1978, when the Prime Minister, P.W. Botha, risked nearly all to back the so-called 'internal settlement', with Bishop Muzorewa playing the role of 'useful idiot', to use a Marxist phrase.

In 1965, few of the key players in the Rhodesian saga foresaw the main elements of the unfolding Greek tragedy. Not only was black rule inevitable, but it was almost inevitable that, once they were allowed to get away with UDI, Rhodesian whites were unlikely to accept that fate without a considerable struggle. That struggle was bound to be prolonged, if, firstly, the black nationalist movement was to become divided, and, secondly, international pressures, especially sanctions, were not comprehensively applied. Black nationalists spent as much time fighting each other as combating Smith's troops, and Pretoria made a political point of circumventing sanctions to show that an even larger possible set of sanctions against apartheid would not work. In the 1970s comprehensive sanctions against South Africa as well as Rhodesia were not on the main political agenda.

And so the Rhodesian saga was to be decided largely on the battlefield. The war can be divided into three stages: from UDI to 1972, the small Rhodesian security forces were engaged in a conflict they could have won decisively in military terms; from 1972 to 1976, it could be described as 'no-win' war; and from 1976 to 1980 the Rhodesians were sucked into a war they were manifestly losing. If the Lancaster House talks had not intervened, military defeat was around the corner for white Rhodesia.

The military reasons for white Rhodesia's long survival were essentially threefold: nationalist divisions, the operational efficiency of the Rhodesian forces and massive South African support, particularly in the last phase of the fighting. The South Africans first intervened in 1967, when they sent approximately 2,000 members of the South African Police (SAP) to help guard the northern border with Zambia. Policemen were sent for two reasons. Salisbury always insisted that it was counteracting a criminal conspiracy by external Communist-inspired agitators, not an internal civil war against racial injustice, and, secondly, Pretoria did not initially contribute army units as this could have been construed as a military intervention in a British colony.

Rhodesia's senior commanders were hostile to this initial intercession, but they were firmly told by Smith that the South Africans were needed for political as much as military reasons. Often ill-trained, overconfident and bored, many of these policemen performed abysmally. Until a number of them were killed by the guerrillas, their operations assumed 'a holiday ramp atmosphere', according to Rhodesian observers. Their reluctant allies used to call the SAP contingents 'clumpies' because of their poor bushcraft. Eventually the Rhodesians were issued with explicit orders not to call their allies by disparaging names. (Presumably an order ignored as much as the official instructions to the Rhodesian Special Air Service to desist from referring to their own Combined Operations HQ as the 'Muppet Show'.)

The South Africans rapidly learnt, however, for they were in Rhodesia to improve their own counter-insurgency skills as much as 'to pull their neighbour's chestnuts out of the fire', as their Prime Minister, John Vorster, put it. Vorster used this force as a political lever. In 1975 he recalled the police (but left his pilots and helicopters on loan), as a part of his detente exercise with black nationalist leaders such as Kenneth Kaunda. Then, in 1976, during the American peace initiative led by Henry Kissinger, Vorster played a major role in bringing Smith to heel. Tying Smith down, confessed Vorster, was 'like trying to nail jelly to a wall'. But the Afrikaner did just that when he cut off nearly all military shipments to Smith. Rhodesian troops in the field were sometimes reduced to a few days' supplies of ammunition. In this sense, Vorster did as much as the guerrilla leader Robert Mugabe to break the Rhodesian fighting spirit. Pretoria feared that an escalation of the war would prompt direct Cuban and Russian involvement, just as had happened in the Angolan war.

So Smith was compelled to utter the unsayable and accept majority rule (though he never defined the term). White morale slumped. But the ensuing conference in Geneva collapsed and Vorster resumed military aid. More pilots and equipment were loaned, particularly aircraft such as Alouettes and Canberras which, because they were in both Rhodesian and South African arsenals, could be passed off as Rhodesian weapons. One of the most vital forms of assistance was the loan of army signallers, who formed 'V Troop'. This unit eavesdropped on nearly all the guerrilla and host states' intelligence and military communications. P.W. Botha, as the South African defence minister, had always tried to back Ian Smith to the hilt, but Vorster and particularly his eminence grise, the intelligence chief Hendrik van den Bergh, spiked some of Botha's more adventurous plans to intervene in Rhodesia, as well as in Angola and Mozambique. When Botha became prime minister in September 1978, South African equipment and troops (often in Rhodesian uniform) poured in. Large South African helicopters (the French-supplied Pumas) and the crack Reconnaissance Commandos took part in Rhodesian cross-border raids ('externals' in Rhodesian parlance), especially against guerrilla bases in Mozambique. In raids elsewhere, against Zambia and Angola, South African air force Mirage fighters stood in reserve should Russian- or Cuban-piloted MiGs have intervened. Numerous South African agents also infiltrated Rhodesia, and the local Special Branch was hard-pressed to keep these supposedly allied spies under surveillance. Pretoria also recruited widely to establish an extensive spy network for the time when Zimbabwe became independent.

The stage was now set for a rapid increase in the tempo of the war. The Cubans had indeed prepared a conventional invasion plan for Russia's proteges, Joshua Nkomo's army, based in Zambia. Nkomo's better-trained troops formed, with Mugabe's guerrillas, the Patriotic Front alliance which was dedicated to destroying white minority rule.

By mid-1979, 95 per cent of Rhodesia was under martial law. In effect, the senior generals, led by Lieutenant-General Peter Walls, who had served in the Black Watch, and Ken Flower of the CIO, a Cornishman, were running the country behind the facade of the new prime minister, Bishop Muzorewa. The bishop had emerged victorious from the elections of April 1979, which had been boycotted by the Patriotic Front. Ian Smith, however, was still in the Cabinet, as Minister without Portfolio, or 'Minister with all the Portfolios', as Nkomo dubbed him. Hardliners in the Rhodesian Front still insisted that the war could be won militarily; under Muzorewa the raids on the neighbouring states were intensified, but already large swathes of the country could only he entered by the security forces in strength.

There were no formal liberated areas inside Rhodesia, but government infrastructure – schools, clinics, animal dip-tanks and local government – had been wiped out in the more isolated 'native reserves' or Tribal Trust Lands, where most of the approximately six million Africans lived. Guerrilla commissars, especially in eastern Rhodesia, along the long porous border with Mozambique, were building up rudimentary administrative systems to support Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) party. The Marxist government in Mozambique fully backed Mugabe and sent in at least 500 Mozambican regular troops to assist ZANU inside Rhodesia. White power was being swamped by the sheer numbers of the guerrillas. As one member of the elite Selous Scouts put it, after a major raid into Mozambique in l979: 'We knew then that we could never beat them. They had so much equipment and there were so many of them. They would just keep coming with more and more.'

Short of international recognition and the removal of sanctions, Muzorewa's shaky government, controlled and protected as it was by the Rhodesian security forces, could not have survived for perhaps more than another year. Only massive South African military intervention could have propped it up, but that might have prompted the kind of Eastern bloc conventional assault that so concerned Pretoria. The South African government never recognised the Smith or Muzorewa regimes, nor did any other state. The vital factor was always British recognition. Despite the fact that a Conservative observer group officially acknowledged the fairness of the April 1979 election, the new British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, refused to accord diplomatic recognition to Muzorewa's government. That was the bishop's death knell.

At the ensuing Lancaster House Conference he was persuaded, despite Smith's adamant opposition, to resign. In December 1979 Lord Soames took over as governor: the first time in the long imperial recessional that a colonial official had replaced an African president. Senior security officials such as Walls and Flower had played an important part in persuading the Rhodesian politicians that the war was lost and that only a political compromise could forestall defeat. Behind the scenes they played a vital national and international role in forging a settlement, despite the last-ditch opposition of Rhodesian Front politicians. In this paradoxical sense, military intervention was required to maintain the Clausewitzian paradigm of civilian supremacy.

Walls and Flower, despite their mutual personal antagonism, ensured that the Lancaster House Agreement remained in force throughout the difficult period of the ceasefire and finally Mugabe's overwhelming electoral victory. Smith was shunted aside, while Walls and Flower played at being diplomats in London, South Africa and Mozambique. Then came the final test of their politicking: the prevention of the alleged coup in March 1980. Despite the fact that many bitter Rhodesian soldiers and policemen still believe that an elaborately planned coup was aborted, in fact there was no formal coup de main waiting for the blue touch paper to be lit. There were a number of contingency plans to prevent a pre-emptive assault by Mugabe's men and another one to annihilate the ZANU guerrillas in their ceasefire assembly points should they have refused to accept the verdict of the February 1980 elections. Such plans would have included the active support of the South Africans and the presumed passive assistance of Mugabe's ally and rival, Nkomo, whose guerrillas were not a target. But there does not appear to be any evidence that the Rhodesians deliberately planned to stage a coup to stop Mugabe from winning. The official intelligence line, despite warnings from Special Branch to the contrary, was that Mugabe would not win a majority of seats. Contingency schemes existed for bogus ballot boxes to be stuffed with pro-Muzorewa ballots and there were four semi-official assassination operations planned or activated to kill Mugabe, including one at Lancaster House. But no elaborate coup plot emerged, for the simple reason that nearly every Rhodesian decision-maker firmly believed that Mugabe would not win, and nor would the British let him. They were convinced that London had concocted the ABM plan: 'Anybody But Mugabe'. When he did win, many Rhodesians felt utterly betrayed. They argued that the elections had been fraudulent, mainly because of the massive intimidation. Full details of such charges came a little later. Immediately after the election results, Walls stood very firm against unconstitutional action. He told his staff at the Combined Operations HQ in Salisbury that Rhodesia 'will not copy the rest of Africa'.

In April 1980 Zimbabwe became in- dependent. A right-wing Conservative prime minister had caused, probably by accident, the first electoral triumph of a Marxist in Africa. White Rhodesians had hated Wilson in the 1960s, now their loathing was focused on Thatcher's foreign secretary, the peer who had stage-managed the Lancaster House marathon: Peter Carrington. To many Rhodesians, Lancaster House and the following elections had been a stab in the back, another Munich. They had not been defeated, but cheated. Carrington was a second Chamberlain. According to the Rhodesian Assistant Secretary of Defence, Carrington had separately and definitively promised both Mugabe and Muzorewa that London unofficially supported each man. 'In Carrington's view,' the defence official said, 'the only way to stop the fighting was to hand over to Mugabe. It was a convenient way of getting rid of the problem. It was dishonest, immoral ... but effective,'

With hindsight, however, it could be argued that Carrington's diplomacy was astute: the main contenders in the election acquiesced in the British- supervised programme only because each man was convinced he could win. Nevertheless, it was ironic that a namesake, Major-General Sir Frederick Carrington, had presided over the consolidation of white power in Rhodesia in 1896, after the first Chimurenga. (The guerrillas referred to the fighting in the 1970s as the second, or continuing, Chimurenga.) Symbolically, what one Carrington gave, another took away. Or such was the judgement of white Conservatives in Rhodesia. In another perspective, Lancaster House had ended the war and perhaps saved white Rhodesians from the worst excesses of their own folly.

White Rhodesia had been a suburb masquerading as a country. The whites had numbered, at their peak, just 275,000. They had spat into the winds of change and the rebellion was terminated after much bloodshed. But the Rhodesians were not defeated militarily, although they would have been, despite their operational ingenuity. The history of the Rhodesian armed forces is one of tactical brilliance and strategic ineptitude. Rarely in military chronicles have such thinly-stretched troops, hampered by chronic manpower, training, equipment and financial constraints achieved such consistent successes against enemy forces which enjoyed the tactical and strategic initiative for most of the war, and often reached numerical parity in the field. But the Rhodesian obsession with successful operational techniques created a fatal blindness to the strategic and political imperatives required to counter a protracted insurgency. The initial aim of the war was to prevent the passing of power to any black government, no matter how moderate. An admission of racism, if only within the high command and Cabinet, might have produced a more coherent grand strategy, but no clear political progranme – beyond a vague preservation of the status quo – was ever articulated. Rhodesian grand strategy, such as it was, was shot through with a fatal negativism. There was little faith in far-reaching reform as a war-winner. Such a recognition, of course, would have undermined the very reasons for the war ever being fought at all. White Rhodesians struggled long and hard against the only thing which could have avoided war – African participation in national politics. To change horses in mid-stream was extremely difficult, but the Rhodesians did try it: the war shifted from a confrontation with the principle of black majority rule to a war for the sort of black government white Rhodesians were prepared to live under. But once the principle of having any kind of majority rule at all was conceded, the Rhodesians' war aims became increasingly confused and their strategy consistently weaker.

Faced with the inner weaknesses of their strategies, the Rhodesians resorted to more and more desperate measures. The policy of winning 'hearts and minds' was largely abandoned in the field just as the first moves towards a political strategy of a moderate black government were coming to fruition. Perversely, it was considered that black participation to the political process would permit tougher, war-winning operations. Martial law was extended, the punitive destruction of villages and livestock of those who were accused of aiding the guerrillas became routine and a more aggressive external strategy was adopted. As one senior officer at Combined Operations admitted: 'We relied 90 per cent on force and 10 per cent on psychology and half of that went off half-cock, The guerrillas relied 90 per cent on psychology and only 10 per cent on force.' The insurgents had a clear vision of their purpose: to break the back of white supremacy and establish a black majority government. This gave the guerrillas remarkable stamina and their cause the strength to weather numerous political crises and almost consistent military defeat in the field. The apparent simplicity of the guerrilla objectives did, however, mask enormous confusion and conflict as to how to achieve those objectives. At times, dissension among the nationalists was far more potent than the fire power of the Rhodesians in delaying majority rule. Nevertheless, despite being clothed in the ferocious Asian garb of a people's war, the guerrillas accomplished what Marxists would term a 'bourgeois nationalist revolution'.

After the war some Rhodesians insisted that the war had been winnable. They asserted that detente in the mid- 1970s had been mere appeasement, that the nationalists released from detention should have been indefinitely imprisoned or shot, and that the guerrilla bases in the frontline states should have been obliterated in the early 1970s. 'War is war,' argued the die-hards, 'so why didn't we bomb Lusaka or do a "dam-buster" on the massive Cahora Bassa dam and knock out Mozambique in one single blow?' Such an escalation, as we have seen, depended upon the wholehearted support of Pretoria which was never forthcoming. Any successful long-term containment of the guerrillas would have been dependent upon diplomatic recognition and military aid from the West. Yet that would never have been given to a white-dominated government. If a plausible political solution – perhaps an assertive Muzorewa administration in 1976 – had been gracefully conceded by the Rhodesian Front, then Anglo-American military backing might have led to a defeat of the Patriotic Front, if the guerrillas had chosen to fight on. But, in the pattern of all colonial wars, the Rhodesians always gave too little, far too late.

Sanctions, too, played a part in the rebels' defeat, albeit a secondary one to the pressure of the guerrilla war. Initially, economic constraints were merely a nuisance: shortages of razor blades, ladies' stockings and good whisky resulted; and, as Flower points out in his memoirs, the Salisbury Club ran out of port for the first time since 1896. By the late 1970s sanctions were undoubtedly biting. They did contribute to winding down the morale of the whites and prompting emigration, thus draining the life-blood of white military manpower.

Most of the consequences of sanctions were unintended. While privileged whites suffered a loss of perhaps ten Rhodesian dollars per capita per annum, most of the hardsliips were shifted on to the poorest blacks, particularly in the Tribal Trust Lands and the neighbouring black states. Sanctions polarised the political spectrum: whites became more intransigent; but, similarly, black peasants became radicalised as they slipped deeper into poverty and into the propaganda grip of the guerrillas. The incomplete sanctions against Rhodesia generated international credibility and legitimacy for the liberation movements, created a far more radicalised peasantry, and thus, in the longer term, inspired the conditions for the victory of the most revolutionary black contender for power, a far cry from making the whites bend the knee in a few months as Wilson had predicted.

Pretoria, particularly in 1976, was also instrumental in forcing Smith to compromise. War, sanctions, propaganda and Pretoria overwhelmed the rebellion, but its repercussions still reverberate throughout southern Africa. Mugabe's accession to power emphasised the basic tenet of pan-Africanism: that Africa cannot be truly free until the whole continent is purged of white supremacy.

Many questions about the war still remain unanswered, especially concerning the intelligence and dirty-tricks operations. The Rhodesians meddled in many other conflicts, ranging from the Biafran struggle to the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique as well as sponsoring coups, such as in the Comores. They dabbled with chemical warfare and prompted a number of high-level assassinations, although whether the death in 1979 of the senior ZANU military commander, Josiah Tongogara, was murder by Rhodesians or his own men, or the alleged accident, remains an open issue.

Much of the intrigue associated with sanctions' evasion remains undisclosed, although recent events in Eastern Europe may soon open up archives there to researchers. A large amount of the Rhodesian documentation on the war was destroyed just before Mugabe took over, or spirited away to South Africa. Much of that information detailed South African involvement. There, too, a great deal more needs to be said.

As most writers on the Rhodesian war admit, the saga needs a comprehensive, balanced treatment. By general consensus the Rhodesian tragedy awaits the kind of treatment Alistair Horne gave the Algerian war in his masterly A Savage War of Peace, Just possibly, that might avoid another hundred years' war of words between future historians of Rhodesia's futile defiance.

Paul Moorcraft is a freelance writer and film-maker who specialises in military affairs, and is the author of African Nemesis: War and Revolution in Southern Africa 1945-2010.

Further reading: 
  • David Caute, Under the Skin: The Death of White Rhodesia (Allen Lane, 1983)
  • J.K. Cilliers, Counter-Insurgency in Rhodesia (Croom Helm, 1985)
  • Kenneth Fowler, Serving Secretly (John Murray, 1987)
  • Julie Frederikse, None But Ourselves (Ravan, 1983)
  • David Martin and Phyllis Johnson, The Struggle for Zimbabwe (Faber, 1981)
  • Martin Meredith, The Past is Another C ountry: Rhodesia, UDI to Zimbabwe (Pan, 1980)
  • Paul Moorcraft and Peter McLaughlin, Chimurenga: War in Rhodesia (Sygma/Collins, 1982)


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