Empire at Twilight: The Struggle for Rhodesia, 1962-1980

While I struggle through my latest healh crisis, indulge me…

If ever there were an example of failure snatched out of the jaws of success,the struggle over the future of Rhodesia would be the model to emulate. The British government managed, by simply refusing to look for corruption and intimidation, to destroy the sacrifice of a generation of white Africans in favor of the appeasement of the oil sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf.

Rhodesia was always an odd duck.  Though self-governing as a state after 1965 she was not sovereign, and those of European extraction who lived there were not considered “African” by the natives: even Daniel Marston in Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare refers to non-black Rhodesians as some undefinable “others,” while the insurgents were deemed “Africans” because of their skin color.  This is akin to claiming that the whites of 1888 living in the Australian colonies were not really Australians, but Europeans who just were born and spent their entire lives on the other side of the world.

The Chimurenga in Rhodesia–depending on dialect translates into either “insurrection,” “armed struggle” or “revolution”–began when the black nationalists refused to participate in a gradual transfer of power from the predominantly white government in 1962.  Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU was the first of several organizations that began a long campaign of violence, intimidation and propaganda.  Backed by the Soviets, the campaign was fought not just against the white-dominated government, but also against other, rival black nationalist organizations.

The Rhodesian government declared independence from Britain in 1965, but this was recognized by few.  Britain had its hands full elsewhere a the time, and had let Rhodesia govern itself for some time, and for this reason the declaration had little real function.  The Rhodesian army was small, the air force not much larger, but the police and auxiliaries were sizable.  Led by an effective cooperation that bordered on the breathtaking, the Rhodesian government successfully campaigned for nearly two decades, adapting their technological and organizational prowess to hold back the growing number of sophisticated organizations set on dislodging the government.

But the Rhodesian whites always knew that this was a war they were not going to win.  There were too few active supporters of the white government and too many passive supporters of the rebels.  Sophistication vs. numbers was ultimately a losing game.  Through the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s while the Americans were preoccupied by Vietnam and its aftermath and Britain was absorbed with Malaya, Aden and economic challenges at home, the Soviets and Chinese made inroads into the African National Congress (ANC) and all its offshoots.  South Africa and Mozambique were allies with the Rhodesian government but had their own problems with violent groups vying for power.

Ultimately Rhodesia was the victim of simple mathematics.  By 1979 blacks held a legal franchise, and in 1979 duly elected a black African to power, but it was the wrong black African.  Britain, under pressure by the Arab states that controlled the supply of petroleum, denounced the election results and demanded another.  The next election was only locally monitored, and the “right” candidate won.  The insurgents took charge and promptly destroyed the country by essentially disenfranchising white landowners, who fled in droves or waited to be murdered.