ARTICLES: BRITAIN AND THE RHODESIAN REBELLION

As a result of assessments such as these, Governments seemed unwilling to believe that the gentlemen of the Rhodesian Front, and Smith in particular, would have the ‘nerve’ to go over the brink into UDI. If and when the discussions among the member of the Front government are published, it seems hardly likely that Smith will be shown to have been particularly unhappy about the decision. taken. One should not confuse the ‘final caution’ of the leader of a government at the moment of taking a momentous decision with ‘indecisiveness’, though there can be a relation between the two.

But what should have confirmed, to the interested, the revolutionary character of the regime, was, given its electoral aims the mass support – within the population that was for it important (the white population) gained by the Front in the election that took them to power. There is some coincidence that even the Front were surprised by this. (This might be simply another illustration of the old saying that at decisive moment the ‘masses’ are often ahead of the ‘leaders”) The character of the support – that combination of plantation owners and middle groups (artisans, etc.), was even more significant, for it gave the front the assurance of that ideological rigidity which is necessary for bold,  and reckless, decisions. The middle groups in the Rhodesian complex, in particular, with their racial anxieties, are a well-known component of such situations. They have been well depicted in somewhat similar situation by C. L. R. James, in his classic study of the Haitian Revolution of the 18th century, they are the ‘small whites’ or petits blancs: “the small lawyers, the notaries, the clerks, the artisans, the grocers … adventurers seeking adventure or quick fortunes, men of all crimes and all nationalities … This was the type for whom race prejudice was more important than even the possession of slaves, of which they had few. The distinction between a white man and a man of colour was for them fundamental. It was their all. In defence of it they would bring down the whole world”.

Those in Western liberal democratic countries, fond of the old Aristotelean eulogy of the middle classes as a stabilizing force in the political system, have tended to misconstrue the likely behaviour of the ‘middle ranks’ in the Rhodesian (and South African) political system Further, the two-tier nature of the system – virtually two societies and political systems (the white and the black) within the geographical boundaries of the territory (the larger society) has led to misconceptions ( sometimes wilfully fostered) about the degree of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberalism’ within Rhodesia. In fact, the freedom of the white society (freedom of debate in Parliament, a multiparty system, etc.) has as its concomitant, if not as the condition of its existence, a political autocracy exercised over the black society. Here a dual political system has been created, and in turn, forms the base of the governmental system. There are separate political rules for the two societies; ordained by those in control of the state.
The middle ranks – the “small whites” – of such systems, by the nature of their employment (often self-employment) are led to fierce competition among themselves, and to a fierce individualism, in spite of the fact that the vagaries of the economic and social situation are likely to affect them as a group – and often with disastrous consequences. Such people are not interested in positive ideologies, relating to the development of the political and social system; they are interested only in the protection of their circumstances, based on their political ranking as a superior racial group. Their individualism means that they are often unable to cooperate on any long-term basis as a group for political activity. They seek not so much to be represented as to be protected. In periods of crisis – where their political/racial status is threatened – they seek and give their support to someone ‘like’ themselves, who also possesses the necessary verve and flamboyance: they seek the ‘ordinary demagogue’, in this case, Smith. (Hitler and Mussolini both had this characteristic of ‘ordinariness’ which tended to confuse people’s assessments of them). It is not that such a man is ‘chosen’ by this amorphous group, but he soon begins to look the obvious man for the job. (“Leave it to Smithy”). Yet, with no real group attachment to him, they are as likely to throw him over or simply withdraw their support from if they find a more adequate source of comfort for their anxieties, or if he seeks to compromise their position of superiority in the state. The petits blancs are either comforted until the next crisis, or seek new leadership in a more extreme direction. Herein is the clue to the intransigence or capacity to dodge agreement on the part of Smith which so bemused Wilson.

The individual who becomes leader, is then, the amalgam of his own personality and abilities and a character defined by or corresponding to the social group and situation prevailing. The emphasis is, paradoxically, almost non-ideological. But the paradox is only superficial. For it is the Rhodesian Front which first attempted – without equivocation – to erect the racialist sentiments of the Rhodesian whites into a consistent political platform or positive ideology. Whatever their personal sentiments, Whitehead and Welensky, earlier Rhodesian Prime Ministers, had not done this; and Whitehead, in particular, even as the leader of the government which was the instigator of the infamous Land Apportionment Act, lost his position, when in an attempt to affect a compromise arrangement with the British Government, so that the regime might retain its essentials, he sought a limited repeal of the Act. The Land Apportionment Act was and remain the symbol of the Rhodesian racial/ political system, and its attempted amendment was the occasion on which Smith and others left the United Federal Party to form the Rhodesian Front. (The Act restricts the ownership of land in certain areas to whites). As the Front election platform was summed up: “No forced integration … lowering of standards … abdication of responsible government … No Repeal of the Land Apportionment Act”. The platform was essentially negative, its positive aspects relating to the genera rather than to the particular (“Yes to freedom with responsibility . . . to understanding and co-operation between all peoples . . . to self-help and self-reliance . . . to mutual understanding with neighbouring states”). It contained the kernel of the racialist political philosophy and bore a certain resemblance to the philosophy of apartheid.