Researchers' Bible on Rhodesian UDI crisis

A review of So Far and No Further! Rhodesia’s Bid for Independence during the Retreat from Empire 1959-1965

Michael Hartnack

Once in a lifetime comes a book which must force a total shift in the thinking person's perception of an epoch, and of all the prominent characters who featured in it.

Such a publication was Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 1973 "Gulag Archipelago" which made liberal commentators such as the BBC's Alistair Cooke abandon their long-cherished view of the West's Second World War ally, Josef Stalin, as a "tough but fair" Soviet ruler. His record was as bad as Hitler's, admitted Cooke.

After decades of meticulous research, Dr Richard Wood of the University of Durban Westville has produced a history of the fateful years 1959-1965 in the long Rhodesia-Zimbabwe crisis.

It is not going to be possible for anyone, ever again, to write anything about the country, or any of the key personalities in the crisis, without detailed reference to it.

Wood, formerly of the University of Rhodesia, has painstakingly combed through British cabinet minutes and Commonwealth Office records, now released for public consumption. His unprecedented access to the papers of the last Rhodesian prime minister, Ian Smith, has not made him unduly subject to bias, though he is justly cynical of the "liberation historians" who have liberally applied whitewash or tried to create an aura of vainglory around the sordid deeds of Robert Mugabe and his associates these past 40 years.

Attempts to equate Smith and Mugabe have been wildly overworked by contemporary writers anxious to appear non-racist and even-handed in their censures. The two men were, in reality, very different in personality, values, styles of rule and the "levers of power" at their political command.

But anyone who has had dealings with Mugabe must be struck by this lament about Smith by former British High Commissioner to Rhodesia Sir Jack Johnston: "It was like banging ones head on a brick wall to try and break through the stubbornness and self righteousness of Smith's parochial arguments . . Smith made these arguments with the ardour of a zealot and met any challenge with a more emphatic assertion."

This is so exactly how Mugabe browbeats anyone who dares to demur about his disastrous current policies.

It is not, alas, an "easy read" either in style, or content, or presentation. The 500 page double-column volume looks like a high level text book, which is exactly what it is. The marvel is that its half-million words got into print at all -- Wood's previous tome, "The Welensky Papers" (1984) required sponsorship by South Africa's Oppenheimer Foundation. He has further volumes 1965-70 and 1970-80 in preparation. They will be immensely welcome.

Again and again Wood demonstrates inaccuracies and distortions in previous sources and memoirs, as well as exposing a wealth of new material.

Space permits just one of innumerable revealing examples from his cross-examination of the British records.

As prime minister, Alex Douglas-Home appalled his Commonwealth Office chiefs by telling Ian Smith, then (Southern) Rhodesian Minister of Finance, at a meeting in London on October 31, 1963, "not only could Southern Rhodesia declare herself independent, but would be within her rights to do so."

The Whitehall mandarins deliberately withheld the minutes from their Rhodesian colonial subjects.

Douglas-Home, like Macmillan before him and Wilson after him, went on to temporise and prevaricate over dominion status for Southern Rhodesia, for fear of causing newly independent African states to walk out of the Commonwealth.

It is clear from Wood's research that the aim of successive British Governments, at the instigation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was to manoeuvre into power a regime acceptable to the Organisation of African Unity, regardless of its character. The respectability of "majority rule" was a figleaf to be abandoned with the first retreat of that regime from constitutional government. Effective power came to be vested in an even smaller minority than the 293 000 Rhodesian whites (of whom less than 30 000 are left in Mugabe's Zimbabwe today). The country's institutions fell into the hands of those who ignored their original social and economic purpose in the quest to make them a source of easy status and profit.

British policy aimed to withhold a "diplomatic free lunch" in Africa from the Russians and the Chinese. More importantly, policy makers were motivated by the new national religion of "Commonwealthism" which was grafted onto the British collective psyche in place of lost pride in empire, said that cynical and sinister genius of British politics in the 1959-65 era, Enoch Powell.

Without "Commonwealthism", the British upper classes would have faced a social revolution infinitely more drastic and menacing to themselves than the one that did take place in the wake of the 1956-57 Suez debacle (and the sudden demise of Britain as a great power). Conscription ended, then came The Pill and The Beatles. The sex scandal surrounding John Profumo, minister for the army, who has recently died aged 91, gave impetus to youth revolt and the birth of "The New Multi-Racial Multi-Cultural Britain".

Having unilaterally dissolved the 1953-63 Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Whitehall and Westminster effectively turned Rhodesia into what it is today under the name of Zimbabwe: a satellite and protectorate of South Africa. In the circumstances -- although they were of their own making -- the British could not trust the Rhodesians to stay out of the evil ambit of apartheid if given full independence, any more than the Rhodesians trusted them not to impose a black nationalist regime that that would reduce them to living in Rhodesia on suffrance. Such had been the lot of racial and religious minorities to the north, from the Ugandan Asians to Zambia's Lumpa sect, Ethiopia's Falasha Jews and Malawi's Jehovah's Witnesses.

The impasse was hopeless.

It was just faintly possible that some supreme feat of statesmanship might have averted the tragedy that has continues to unfold in Zimbabwe.

Perhaps -- just perhaps -- an American-style presidential system might have been introduced, with a black-white pair or triumvirate elected as running mates. Perhaps there might have been a system of proportional representation, favouring parties that had candidates drawn widely from different racial groups. Perhaps Rhodesia's long foretold demographic-ecological crisis might have been delayed enough for a strong civil society to emerge, along with a black lower middle class. Perhaps -- perhaps --

But the balance of probabilities was that with the African population increasing at an inexorable four percent a year, extremism was almost certain to win, as it was likely to do had whites been increasing at four percent a year while African numbers stagnated or declined.

Inspired by "progressive" theoreticians the world over, all African nationalist factions -- not just Mugabe's -- punted the simple line that "bourgeois" white Rhodesians were parasites, an unnecessary evil, and their dispossession would automatically uplift blacks. It had to be demonstrated to ordinary black voters that this was not so before forces of moderation would mobilise, but by then it was too late: Having gained power, an authoritarian nationalism was determined to hang onto it at any cost in human suffering or economic ruin.

But it is not Wood's business to moralise, theorise and ponder what might have been.

His duty as a historian was "to tell us what actually happened".

He has done so. There is going to be no getting out of it by anyone, ever again.

This is the best informed book that has yet been produced on Rhodesia-Zimbabwe.

Michael Hartnack March 2006
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