White Mischief: Central Africa and Civil War 1953-79

Dr Robert Carr

Arguably, Britain's least successful episode of decolonization occurred in Central Africa - in modern day Zimbabwe and its neighbouring territories. Not only was a white, racist, republican regime established, 15-years of bloody war ensued to boot.

To reduce post-war commitments and costs in Central and Southern Africa, Britain conspired to turn three territorial commitments into one catch-all colonial constitution. In July 1953, Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia were squeezed together into the Central African Federation (CAF). This newly forged colonial entity was designed to advance Africans' political rights and was regarded as a stepping stone to independence. If the idea of CAF was to dilute the white population's dominance however, it failed from the start.

Africa from 1914
CAF's constitution served to provide white-dominated Southern Rhodesia with a half share of seats in the new federal parliament; moreover, the federation's capital was located in the colonial (Southern) city of Salisbury. The free trade that the northern territories had enjoyed through the Congo Basin Treaty was abolished by the introduction of federation customs which served to protect Southern Rhodesian industries.

In 1957, Federal Prime Minister (and former boxing champion) Roy Welensky introduced voting reforms across CAF which served to segregate African and white electorates (thus protecting the latter). Furthermore, citizens had to meet certain educational and economic criteria before securing the vote i.e. another means of discriminating against black Africans. An interesting demographic development saw tens of thousands of Britons migrate to Southern Rhodesia, favouring a 'place in the sun' over austerity England.

CAF Prime Minister Welensky
Such electoral shenanigans ensured a conservative colonial trend in Southern Rhodesia. The installation of a hard-line Dominion Party government rang alarm bells throughout CAF territories. Black political activists in Southern Rhodesia's ANC (African National Congress) were imprisoned in great number. Similarly, following Nyasaland's demands for self-government, the British authorities clamped down on the ANC throughout CAF and imprisoned its leaders, Hastings Banda and Kenneth Kaunda. Britain's Conservative government was criticized for enabling such overt white dominance: locking up African activists was neither a practical nor moral solution. Such repression was both undesirable and unsustainable; it jeopardised Britain's avowed strategy of controlled African decolonization. Further to this, Prime Minister MacMillan sought to restore British diplomatic prestige after 1956's Suez fiasco. Certainly there was a need to move away from the type of repression exercised by the South African government in 1960's Sharpeville Massacre. In that year, MacMillan toured the African colonies and recognized 'a wind of change' (in terms of educational and industrial developments) was blowing through the continent which suggested a readiness for widespread self-government.

The British-instigated Monckton Commission was initiated to report on CAF's political progress (or otherwise) and Banda was released from a Nyasaland jail. The Monckton Report advised reforms and the three member territories' right to reconsider CAF membership and, as such, marked a climb down in British colonial policy. In short, as a consequence, Nyasaland withdrew and became independent Malawi while Northern Rhodesia secured an African voting majority and, in 1963, became independent Zambia.

The white population maintained political sway in Southern Rhodesia, not least because Joshua Nkomo's ZAPU boycotted 1962's elections. The ultra-conservative Rhodesian Front won enough seats to form Southern Rhodesia's new government. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Rhodesian Front government agreed to the dissolution of CAF in 1963. It doing so, however, it inherited CAF's military hardware and Salisbury-based industries. Arguably, such an inheritance gave the Rhodesian Front prime minister, Ian Smith, the confidence to assert the slogan 'No majority rule in my lifetime'. In 1964 the government banned both Nkomo's ZAPU and Ndabaningi Sithole's ZANU nationalist parties and declared a unilateral declaration of independence (from Britain) in November 1965.

Interestingly, Britain's Labour Prime Minister, Wilson, (gauging public opinion) refused the use of force to overturn the breakaway white Rhodesian government. Instead, Britain imposed economic sanctions. Four years later, in 1969, Ian Smith re-branded Southern Rhodesia as simply 'Rhodesia' and as a republic too, thus further distancing itself from any notions of being regarded as a British crown colony. Smith's government also introduced constitutional reforms blocking the possibility of majority (i.e. black African) rule.

Rhodesia's declaration of independence and suppression of its African population dragged the country into a 15-year civil war. The exiled nationalist movements, ZANU and ZAPU, engaged in a guerrilla war against the government from their bases in Zambia and Mozambique. Such fractured opposition diluted the threat to Rhodesia: indeed, ZANU had become a Shona organization while Nkomo's ZAPU was largely Ndebele. More reassuring was support from, and relations with, the Portuguese government of Mozambique and from South Africa. The latter, in particular, provided Rhodesia with crucial military supplies.

By the late 1970s, however, the tide turned against Smith's government. With the collapse of Portuguese control in Mozambique, Rhodesia lost a restraining influence on guerrilla forces but also lost trade and sea access through its eastern neighbour's ports. There was also a shift in South African policy (i.e. reduction in support) as Prime Minister John Vorster sought to open up wider African relations and trade. The on-going bush war with nationalist movements proved costly for a recession-hit Rhodesia suffering with international sanctions. There was also increasing British and American pressure on Smith's government as the Soviet Union had enjoyed success on the continent supporting black liberation movements and, in particular, with its influence in newly independent Angola.

In a last ditch attempt to bypass its nationalist adversaries, Smith's government attempted a deal with Bishop Muzorewa of the moderate United African National Union (UANU). Such a plan was hijacked by Britain's new leader, Margaret Thatcher, who wanted to avoid British entanglement or supervision of constitutional transition in Rhodesia. Instead, Thatcher and the Commonwealth Conference pressured for immediate, all-party democratic elections in the Lancaster House Agreement. Smith saw the futility of holding back the inevitable and, in 1980's elections, a certain Robert Mugabe led ZANU to victory and Rhodesia to independence as the new republic of Zimbabwe. The territory acquired in the Nineteenth Century's 'Scramble' by the entrepreneur and dreamer Cecil Rhodes had, a century later, reverted to local rule. Arguably, it was Britain's reluctance to get drawn into African affairs that ensured civil war. Then, with Cold War pressures at play, Britain belatedly saw fit to ensure majority rule in Zimbabwe. In doing so, the apartheid regime of its neighbour, South Africa, came into sharper focus as an imperial and racist anachronism.

Further Reading
R F Holland
European Decolonization 1918-81
M Meredith
The State of Africa

Dr Robert Carr is the author of a study guide on the History of 20th Century India that includes activities and tasks. It is available from: Waterstones

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