ARTICLES: BRITAIN AND THE RHODESIAN REBELLION

The Negotiations and the Rhodesian Regime

Any estimate of the usefulness of negotiations in the light of differences of principle. must be based in this case, on one’s assessment of the character of the Rhodesian Front government. With respect to this, the first thing that must be recognised (and ought to have been recognised by the British government) is that the Smith regime does have certain characteristics of the phenomenon that it has claimed to represent: a revolutionary regime. I mean by this, that in practical terms, it intended and has succeeded in upsetting the then existing ordered and legitimate system of relations (the constitutional system) between Britain and Rhodesia; and symbolically, it has attempted to upset and displace the prevailing ideology on the Continent: the “ideology of African nationalism” propounded with especial force during the post-war years by African leaders. The basis of the ideology has been the principle of a swift transition to majority rule on the one man-one-vote principle by the indigenous peoples; majority rule then becomes simply a prelude to national independence. This principle was fundamentally accepted – even if not without some resistance – by the major colonial powers on the continent (Britain and France), and reinforced at the beginning of the decade by one of their leaders, Mr. MacMillan in his “wind of change” speech in South Africa. In addition, the Rhodesian regime has done what many such regimes have done in the post-war period – that is, since Hitler and Mussolini introduced the innovation: it has used and adapted some of the techniques of the more familiar revolutionary movements to what may have seemed a ‘reactionary’ cause. It is important that the limited nature of the Rhodesian franchise should not be allowed to obscure its revolutionary character; the regime’s ‘political constituency’ – Its demos – is, as we shall see, a relevant and sufficient base for its own purposes.

A lack of appreciation of this has led, I would contend, to a confusion among British government and other leading circles, about the aims of the regime, and, in particular, about the aims of the Rhodesian Front Party; confusion as to whether the regime was really a reactionary conglomeration in control of an efficient governmental machine, and therefore hideous but transitory, and in the long run, harmless group which could be outwitted; a confusion similar to that which, as Dr. Brigitte Granzow has recently shown in some detail, characterised the estimate of the Nazis made by a large section of educated opinion in Britain between the wars. It may be that the revolutionary regime will be short-lived; this may not be so, and in any case should not affect the definition of it. It may also be that the Rhodesian Front seem aptly fitted to the famous Marxist definition of the “reactionary”; but this only serves to demonstrate that the arrival on the twentieth century scene of certain new political phenomena has tended to blur the sharpness of accepted nineteenth century distinctions.

The Character of the Rhodesian Political System

The decisive transition period within the Rhodesian Front – marking the attempt to give it a revolutionary character – was not simply its accession to governmental power under Winston Field, however important that may have been, but, it would seem, the assumption of the leadership of the Front and the Government by Ian Smith; a fact which serves to highlight the role of the particular personality in the formation and moulding of political groups. It is important not to over-emphasise the ‘character’ of Smith, or to magnify his role in relation to the members of the leadership of the Rhodesian Front – there are obviously, and have been, many as determined as he is within the Front. Nevertheless, as Mr. Wilson was later to remark, “it must not be forgotten that it was Mr. Smith who called the Rhodesian Front into existence”, and he, thought its existence served the triple purpose of political personality, organiser and ideologist, roles which other important figures like “Boss” Lilford were either unable or unwilling to perform.

One of the persistent characteristics of the whole Rhodesian episode seems to me to have been the continued mistaken assessment of the character of Smith himself by successive British governments. In spite of Wilson’s knowledge (assumed from the statement quoted above) of Smith’s role in the organization of the Front, he continued up to the last moments before UDI and in his explanations afterwards to see Smith as a man of “good faith”, as the almost unwilling pawn of his extremist associates, and as a man “confused and unhappy” about the whole affair. We might note also Lord Alport’s (High Commissioner in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland 1961, during the conservative government’s tenure in office) estimate of Smith, on the assumption of power by the Front: “I also called on each of the other new ministers of Field’s Government. I found Ian Smith a quiet-mannered, pleasant person looking somewhat blandly at the columns of figures provided by his Treasury officials and giving the impression that they would have made just as much sense to him if he had held the pages upside down”.