by Dr Sue Onslow, Senior Lecturer in Commonwealth Studies

There is a remarkable public amnesia in the UK that 50 years ago on 11th November, Southern Rhodesia defiantly declared its independence from Britain. In a highly theatrical performance, and under the gaze of a large photograph of the Queen, Ian Smith, the prime minister, and his cabinet signed Rhodesia’s declaration of independence, consciously modeled on the American declaration of independence of 1776. Whilst announcing Southern Rhodesia’s break with the Labour Government, Smith stressed his country’s enduring loyalty to the Crown – yet another example of contradictory thinking in the Rhodesian settler community. The break with Britain had been a long time brewing, and the British public was aware of this – notwithstanding Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s press statement that it was ‘a shock’.

Ian Smith, Rhodesian Prime Minister, in 1975

Ian Smith, Rhodesian Prime Minister, in 1975

Smith and his Cabinet colleagues had planned this rupture carefully, removing dissident elements within the Rhodesian Army and civil service; privately sounding out senior officers in the RAF via their High Commissioner in London, to calculate whether Britain would use force against the rebellious Rhodesia Front government; ensuring this announcement was after sales of the Rhodesian tobacco crop, the country’s primary export earnings; seeking Portugal’s solidarity and support, to ensure trade sanctions would fail; identifying South African finance and credit; smuggling Rhodesian gold out of the country in airline food trays, via Johannesburg, to Switzerland (using South African contacts with key members of the Swiss banking system). The British government only belatedly realized what was going on and certainly their intelligence on South African attitudes and activities was remarkably poor. And the Rhodesian choice of 11th November itself was highly deliberate – Remembrance Day, underlining the Rhodesian white community’s contribution to the British war effort in WWII – and because it was a Friday. Smith confidently believed that this declaration of independence would be a 9-day wonder: that the City of London would rapidly adjust, and the reverberations of Salisbury’s actions would start to settle over the weekend.

Instead of this 9-day wonder, Rhodesia’s illegal declaration of independence developed into a crisis of international dimensions, fracturing Britain’s relations with the modern Commonwealth. Rhodesian UDI starkly demonstrated the limitations of British power – London had used American power to achieve British diplomatic goals of decolonization, and was to try to do so again in the Rhodesia case, particularly in 1977-1978. Interestingly, it was a British led show in 1979 that led to eventual settlement. This 14-year period highlighted the problems of using economic sanctions as effective political leverage; it also witnessed the radicalization and violence of rival African nationalist movements in their shift to armed struggle, from external bases; how winning the propaganda war in the international media acts as a force multiplier for a political movement; and the importance of civil society activity – the Anti Apartheid Movement regarded Rhodesia’s transition to black majority rule as the earlier victory before South Africa in 1994.

Attempts at settlement of this crisis in a small, landlocked country in Southern Africa drew in a multiplicity of international actors, from the region, from unlikely ideological sympathizers and financiers, and from both sides of the Cold War divide – interestingly, unlike many of his political opponents, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did not underestimate Ian Smith, whom he described as acting with ‘dignity and courage’. (In contrast, Lord Carrington was highly critical, describing Smith as a bigoted and stupid man, ‘who could see every tree in the wood, but not the wood.’ As a number of these interviews underline, the Commonwealth became a significant actor in this story of Rhodesia’s decolonization into Zimbabwe, and the country’s achievement of internationally recognized majority rule in April 1980.

Is this 50th anniversary important today? Certainly, for contemporary Zimbabwe, which had again caused considerable headaches for the Commonwealth before President Mugabe’s abrupt departure in 2003. Particular paths taken, in contrast to others deliberately not selected, are always significant in a country’s history, and its current politics, given the particular legacies of its political economy, and this inheritance of the new elites. Access to land is probably the most toxic of all colonial legacies. Smith had been pressed to liberalise land ownership and access before 1965 – in the hope that a compromise could be reached, and a modified form of white-led independence achieved. The RF resolutely refused to do this. The land settlement of the Lancaster House agreement at the end of the UDI era was problematic in that it was a highly conscious political arrangement, which stored up problems for the future. Furthermore, history of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe has been progressively politicized since the election of ZANU-PF in 1980, particularly so since 2000 and the emergence of ‘patriotic history’ as a key way to legitimize ZANU-PF and to present political opponents as counter-revolutionary and de-legitimate.

The Commonwealth is also guilty of amnesia on Rhodesia/Zimbabwe: its repeated public emphasis on the success of its role at the Lusaka heads meeting in 1979 contrasts dramatically with the Commonwealth’s silence – and this includes the Commonwealth Secretariat’s silence – about the violence and killings in Matabeleland between 1982-1985 post-independence. There is public acknowledgement of the sad irony of the Harare Declaration of 1991 as the second key foundational document for the modern Commonwealth, set against growing political authoritarianism and turmoil in the country by the late 90s/early 2000. Like Smith in 1965, Mugabe’s abrupt withdrawal from the Commonwealth in 2003 was in defiance of Commonwealth opinion and confirmed the country’s increasingly pariah status. Given the significance of the 11th November, one is tempted to reflect, ‘plus ca change…’ in terms of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe public gesture political behaviour. Yet, President Mugabe and ZANU-PF as a dominant one-party state might reflect on the eventual fate of Ian Smith and the Rhodesia Front rule. A country cannot stand indefinitely against the forces of the international political economy, regional and international opinion. Cue the Commonwealth as a mediating conduit again, to help ZANU-PF find its way out of its current political/economic cul-de-sac?