Those who lived or served in East Africa or the territories of the Federation of
Rhodesia and Nyasaland in the 1950s and '60s may remember the Capricorn Africa
Society. Richard Hughes' book reminds us that had its ideas been adopted there might
have been a very different future for the region.
In Capricorn the author gives us some fascinating and highly detailed insights into an
organisation set up in 1949 by the visionary and idealist Col David Stirling. With his war
record in the Western Desert, as a founder of the SAS, and with his charm, energy and
contacts, Stirling was well qualified to influence and lead in a situation calling for
courage and imagination. Working with like-minded people in Southern and Northern
Rhodesia and Nyasaland, all due to be part of the Federation, as well as in Kenya and
Tanganyika, he foresaw a future where Africans, Europeans and Asians would live
together and fulfil themselves without consideration of background or race.
The Capricorn ideal was timely because the Federation, essentially involving
partnership between the races, was being set up. In Kenya too there was the prospect of a
fresh start following the traumas of Mau Mau.
The problem in the Federation was that though the almost exclusively white electorate
in Southern Rhodesia had voted for it in 1952, whites in that country had well entrenched
privileges, which it soon became apparent they were not going to relinquish
lightly. Apart from the franchise, there were whites-only trade unions, many of whose
members were recent British immigrants. Together they blocked the very African
advancement which had to be achieved if partnership was to become a reality. On top of
this, entrenched racism in that country included blanket discrimination against Africans
in shops, restaurants, hotels and public places, and what was worse, the routine
denigration of blacks for instance by white shop girls. Even the term 'African' or the title
'Mr' was regarded by many whites as too liberal. Not surprisingly, perhaps, in Northern
Rhodesia and Nyasaland blacks were adamant in their opposition to a future that
involved a leading role for Southern Rhodesian whites.
To my family, ex-India and supportive of Federation and of the idea of partnership,
many white attitudes and practices seemed almost suicidally short sighted. To us
therefore, Capricorn's ideas seemed totally appropriate. The Society's problem was to get
them accepted by the almost exclusively white electorate whose bona fides would need to
be apparent to the black majority. Gaining the support of white politicians would have
helped but Capricorn had set its face against a political role. Even Garfield Todd who
would have had much in common with the Capricorners had minimal contact with them.
Huggins and Welensky barely get a mention in the book! A sympathetic press and a well
directed publicity campaign might have made a difference but this was not forthcoming.
All I remember is a display featuring Capricorn in a Salisbury shop window in 1955.
Stirling and his colleagues relied mainly on influencing like-minded, influential people
with the implication that their ideas were destined to win the day in the end.
The book tells the sometimes tortuous story of the struggles within the organisation
both to determine what it stood for and the strategy needed to gain support. Many blacks
saw Capricorn as a device to maintain white privilege. Nyerere in particular, who only
saw a future for Black Nationalism, would have none of it. The Citizenship College in
Kenya and Ranche House in Southern Rhodesia, though imaginative, were hardly likely
to fit the bill. They fulfilled other educative and political roles however and became
Capricorn's legacy in Africa. Meanwhile as time passed and white attitudes and
practices failed to change, it must have been clear to most Capricorners that any chance
of their ideas taking root were slipping away irrevocably.
The book has some poignant insights into the Society's high point, the Salima conference
in 1956. For many delegates this was their first ever-real contact across the racial divide.
The conference, which captured public imagination and media attention, provided a unique
opportunity to take advantage and move ahead. However the chance was squandered and it
was downhill all the way after that. It becomes increasingly clear that David Stirling's
sometimes overbearing style and reliance on high-level contacts with people of doubtful
commitment to a continuing British role in Africa were getting nowhere. The reader is left
wondering what might have been had white settlers shown more imagination and foresight
or successive British governments a greater sense of purpose.
Readers who remember the issues of the day and have followed the fortunes of the
region will appreciate both the honesty of Richard Hughes' approach and the detailed
account of this important period in colonial history.