All Commentary
Monday, July 1, 1968

Some Lessons of Rhodesia

Mr. Chamberlin is a skilled observer and re­porter of economic and political conditions at home and abroad. In addition to writing a number of books, he has lectured widely and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and numerous magazines.

There is nothing like a visit to a distant and controversial land to give a sense of perspective and realism. I have recently returned from such a visit to Rhodesia, a landlocked country of 150,000 square miles in south central Africa, which has been under economic siege by the United Na­tions — with the participation of the United States — for much of the period of two and a half years since its declaration of indepen­dence in November, 1965.

The basic cause of Britain’s re­fusal to accept Rhodesia’s self-proclaimed independence—a status it has accepted for many former dependencies with less literate and educated electorates — was a difference of opinion with the Rho­desian government, headed by Ian Smith, as to how far and how fast the African population (about 4 million, compared with some 235,­000 whites, mostly of British and South African stock) should be enfranchised. Rhodesia had been practically self-governing for al­most half a century; the British connection had been mainly for­mal, finding expression in such details as the nomination of a gov­ernor-general as representative of the Queen. There had been no Brit­ish interference in Rhodesian do­mestic legislation.

The United Nations Charter does not authorize the imposition of such sanctions and trade re­strictions as have been imposed on Rhodesia because of domestic leg­islation. So the excuse for this declaration of economic war was that Rhodesia, under its present regime, was a threat to the peace of the world — an allegation with­out a shred of serious proof.

It should be noted that Rho­desia, unlike South Africa, is not a country of racial apartheid. There are 13 Africans in the 65-member legislature. There could be more if the two radical African parties, Zapu and Zanu, had not demanded a one-man, one-vote system and urged a boycott of elections until this was estab­lished. Under the present system, the franchise is limited by property and educational qualifications. Fifty members are elected on an A roll, with higher qualifications; fifteen on a B roll, where the quali­fications are lower.

Hotels and higher education in Rhodesia, again in contrast to South Africa, are multiracial. Per­haps of greater significance is that more than half the police force is African and a consider­able part of the small army is com­posed of Africans. Notwithstand­ing the UN’s curious excuse for sanctions, Rhodesia has never sent any military force outside its own borders. There have been two invasions of its territory by ter­rorist guerrillas, mostly refugees from Rhodesia who received train­ing in sabotage and guerrilla war­fare in adjacent Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia) and from communist-ruled countries farther a field: Cuba, the Soviet Union, and Red China. Both incursions failed to achieve anything except virtual wiping out of the guerrilla forces and minor casualties for the Rhodesians. Significantly, an African unit, the Rhodesian Afri­can Rifles, bore the brunt of the second incursion, and with no ap­parent strain on its loyalty.

Since the declaration of inde­pendence, Rhodesia has been un­der double attack, from hostile in­cursions across the Zambezi River on its northern border, and from such forces of African nationalist subversion as may exist within the country. It has also been the object of an economic blockade, first launched by Great Britain, then extended by the United Na­tions.

Signs of Tranquillity

The British Viscount plane used by Rhodesian Airways landed at Salisbury, capital of Rhodesia and named after a famous British Conservative Prime Minister of the late nineteenth century. I should not have been surprised to find here and there signs of ten­sion and unrest. But nothing of the kind appeared on the horizon. Salisbury on a Sunday afternoon in the clear heat of its high prairie altitude was about as peaceful a spot as one could imagine.

There were few police and no soldiers in sight. Many Africans lay stretched out in the city parks, quite at ease. Rhodesian acquaint­ances told me that unscrupulous foreign photographers took pic­tures of these recumbent figures and published them with captions indicating that here were victims of repression. Our acquaintances drove us into the suburban en­virons of the capital, where we enjoyed a typical British tea at the country home of some friends. If those present were sitting on a powder keg, they gave a pretty good impression of being totally unaware of it.

These friends and other Rho­desians I met reported that the state of public order had very much improved since UDI (un­ilateral declaration of indepen­dence). This, so they told me, was because previous governments had been weak on law enforcement. The African political groups, Zapu and Zanu, had taken advantage of this situation to run a fierce com­petition for recruiting new mem­bers at high entrance fees. Euro­peans were not much endangered; but law-abiding Africans who re­fused to pay were apt to have crude bombs hurled through their windows; their thatched huts were set on fire and the occupants beaten and left for dead. Tribal chiefs (most Rhodesian Africanslive under the traditional tribal organization) were stabbed, shot, strangled, and clubbed.

Keeping the Peace

The Smith regime put a stop to these disorders, using some meth­ods that would not be approved by the American Civil Liberties Union, notably detention and re­striction of residence without trial. The leaders of the two parties, Nkomo and Sithole, and some other agitators were placed in detention. According to Minis­ter of the Interior Nicolle, some 20 to 30 persons are held in in­definite detention. A larger num­ber, perhaps three or four hun­dred, are subjected to residence restriction and forbidden to move out of their own districts until the authorities are convinced they are bent on no mischief.

Practically all the Europeans in Rhodesia and probably a consider­able number of Africans (although here the only testimony has been the marked absence of unrest since UDI) believe that restraints on the liberty of a few hundred in­dividuals, reaching the rigor of detention for perhaps thirty of them, is a price worth paying for domestic order.

Of two factors that might have shaken the stability of the Rho­desia Front regime — internal sub­version and harassment by guerrilla bands from abroad — both have so far proved nonstarters. Rhodesia is an open country, which welcomes a quarter of a million tourists every year and in­cidentally offers some scenes of great natural beauty such as Vic­toria Falls and some fine preserves of African wild life. Had there been serious trouble from domes­tic insurrection or foreign inva­sion, it could not have been con­cealed. There was no such trouble; and this might suggest to an in­quiring mind that African as well as European Rhodesians wel­comed the measures taken to stop arson, assaults, and thug­gery. As a result of these meas­ures, residents of Salisbury, Bulowayo, and other Rhodesian towns could sleep a good deal more soundly in early April than could those of Washington, Chi­cago, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and other American cities plagued or threatened by hoodlumism and vandalism.

Sanctions No Problem

What of the economic war de­clared on Rhodesia, first by Great Britain, then by the United Na­tions? This interference with the normal course of the country’s import and export trade has in­flicted some damage on Rhodesia’s economy, but not nearly enough to induce any talk of running up the white flag of surrender. To­bacco, formerly a principal export and fairly easy to identify, has been hard hit and has caused some shifting to other crops and to a different type of tobacco which the Rhodesians hope will be easier to market abroad. Sugar exports also have been affected; and the inflow of foreign capital, while it has not stopped altogether, has slowed down. Ironically enough, this slowing down of the economic growth rate has injured less the Europeans than the Africans, for whose welfare the British Labor Party and the United Nations profess so much concern. It is the Africans, with their high birth rate, who are most in need of new job openings.

Rhodesia is self-sufficient in food and cannot be starved, or even inconvenienced, into surren­der. The United Nations could have struck a harder blow if it had been able to make its oil sanc­tions effective, because Rhodesia has no domestic source of this fuel. But oil sanctions have be­come a joke. In the beginning, their effect was blunted by im­provised shipments from Rho­desia’s friendly southern neigh­bor, South Africa, which rushed supplies by train and truck. Sym­pathetic students at the Univer­sity of Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, rolled a big drum of oil to Salisbury as a gesture of solidarity.

Now, the need for these emer­gency shipments is over. Rhode­sian oil supplies come in regularly through the port of Laurenco Marques, in Portuguese Mozam­bique. Thence, they are shipped through South Africa to Rhodesia. The price has gone up a little; but no Rhodesian motorist is seriously inconvenienced.

The sanctions have also speeded up considerably the development of Rhodesia’s home industries, notably in the field of clothing. Rhodesian manufacturers not only have begun to supply many home needs; they also have pushed energetically into the nearest available export market, South Africa, and so vigorously that South African firms are asking for protection.

British Meddling

British-Rhodesian relations, which at one time had seemed close to a settlement following a conference of Prime Minister Ian Smith with British Prime Minis­ter Harold Wilson, took a turn for the worse in March when Wilson invoked an authority never before claimed for the British Privy Council and also pushed Queen Elizabeth into the situation by having her reprieve three convict­ed African murderers whose sen­tences of death were about to be executed.

The Rhodesian government went ahead with these executions, then with two more of Africans who had committed murder under espe­cially heinous circumstances. The left-wing press in England and some Afro-Asian circles at the UN had a field day denouncing “Hang­man Smith.” There was no reflec­tion of this sentiment in Rhodesia, where it was felt that some shabby common criminals had been given an utterly undeserved status as martyrs in an atmosphere of ig­norant emotionalism. It was felt, however, that the government had made its point with five execu­tions, decisively rejecting British interference with the course of Rhodesian justice. So, there was no protest when some thirty other Africans held in cells reserved for those condemned to death were given commutations of sentence.

I had an opportunity for a per­sonal talk with Mr. Ian Smith, head of the independence move­ment and Prime Minister of the existing government. (Incidental­ly, Mr. Smith was recently refused permission to visit the United States to accept a speaking invita­tion at the University of Virginia. Mr. Smith had fought on the al­lied side during World War II as an aviator and suffered serious facial injuries, requiring considerable reconstruction surgery. With what may be considered a rather strange scale of comparative val­ues, the same State Department that barred Mr. Smith as a pre­sumably undesirable alien was willing to spread out the red car­pet for Mr. Oginga Odinga of Kenya, who has been strongly linked by rumor with Chinese communist activities in Kenya. Mr. Odinga, notorious for his hos­tility to what he calls neo-colonial­ism, i.e., Western economic and financial aid, was only prevented from coming at the time because his own government withheld his passport.)

Mr. Smith conveyed the impres­sion of being a straightforward, outdoor type of man, a good rep­resentative of his countrymen and as frankly outspoken as might be expected of the Governor of Kan­sas or Nebraska.

Willing and Able Leader

Had all prospect of agreement with Britain disappeared with the executions?

Mr. Smith made it clear that he did not believe this was necessar­ily the case. The executions were a matter of internal Rhodesian jur­isdiction, with which Britain had never claimed the right to inter­fere in the past. If, however, the British government was inclined to press the situation to the point of a final breach, Rhodesia was prepared to go it alone as an in­dependent republic. “We are inde­pendent now,” Mr. Smith empha­sized. “But we still consider our­selves in the Commonwealth and recognize the sovereignty of the Queen.”

The Prime Minister dismissed as quite unrealistic a question about the possibility of black rule in Rhodesia. He declared that Rho­desia’s military and police secur­ity forces could easily handle the problem of guerrilla infiltration across the border from Zambia. To a question whether some form of federation with South Africa might follow a complete dissolu­tion of the tie with Great Britain he remarked that this subject had not come up for consideration, al­though the possibility could not be ruled out. A number of South Af­ricans came up with the first pio­neer settlers with Cecil Rhodes (who gave his name to the coun­try) and Rhodesia’s ties with South Africa have always been closer than with any other coun­try.

Reason for Optimism and Lessons to be Learned

Mr. Smith expressed confidence that the African population sup­ports the present regime. Most of them live, he said, in a tribal form of organization, where the chief sets forth the sense of the tribal group after consultation with vil­lage headmen. Discussing the sub­ject further, he said: “So far as the educated African is concerned, he can be consulted and he can ex­press his opinion. These people are the minority. The majority don’t even understand what a constitu­tion is. So it is difficult to ask them to express an opinion on a particu­lar type of constitution.”

Expressing gratitude to Ameri­cans who had shown understand­ing of the situation in Rhodesia, Mr. Smith topped the interview with the following statement of confidence in the future of his country: “We are winning the economic war without any ques­tion; sanctions have advanced the output of our domestic economy by five or ten years, or even more. As far as security is concerned, I think the record shows that we have less trouble now than we had before our independence. I think we have less trouble than most other countries in the world, and with a lower ratio of police than in your own country and Britain, and a lower ratio of armed servicemen, also. We are a happy, peaceful, prosperous, and expanding econ­omy. I would say all these things give us just cause to be optimistic.”

I left Rhodesia with the feeling that several lessons may be learned from its recent experience.

First, a politically conscious, well-educated group of people, con­vinced that their civilization and way of life are at stake, can main­tain a predominant political posi­tion, provided there is no strong movement of rebellion. So far, there are no signs of any such movement in Rhodesia.

Second, sanctions applied against such a group are much less effective than is commonly supposed. There are always loop­holes in the machinery, and the energy and skill of the Rhodesians in evading economic boycotts con­siderably exceed the will and abil­ity of the outside world in enforc­ing them.

Third, while it is always diffi­cult to predict the longevity of ad­ministrations, I think it is quite likely that Mr. Smith, with the support of the great majority of his countrymen, will outlast more than one head of a contemporary African state, and also his princi­pal opponent, Mr. Harold Wilson. Britain’s Labor Party is in a de­cline and Rhodesians are confident that an alternative Conservative administration would leap at the chance to find some face-saving means of burying the dismal fiasco of sanctions.

  • William Henry Chamberlin (1897-1969) was an American historian and journalist. He was the author of several books about the Cold War, Communism, and US foreign policy, including The Russian Revolution 1917-1921 (1935) which was written in Russia between 1922-34 when he was the Moscow correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor.