ARTICLES: BRITAIN AND THE RHODESIAN REBELLION

The Political System and the Conditions of· Intervention

The real difficulty for British and other interpreters was that the Front’s ideology did not seem to constitute a ‘system’ that was likely to be infectious or attractive to leaders or people in other countries, leading to expansion into other states and therefore likely to constitute, in the phraseology of international politics, a “threat to peace”. Zambia, with what might be called a ‘fifth column’ of white miners on her territory, might have seen things differently. But, as with South Africa, the governments whose influence in that part of the world is greatest, while regretting the extent of oppression on racial grounds, were unwilling, as they have always tended to be, to use this as a criterion for intervention in the political system. And this applies even where the territory concerned is a colony and not an independent state. Communism is deemed expansionist and intolerable (incapable of being lived with); racialism or fascism generally not. And the character of the racial oppression is never seen as decisive enough to merit intervention. In those cases in international relations where racial or religious persecution has given rise to intervention the objects of persecution have usually, moreover, been minorities, rather than the majority within the states.

So Rhodesia was not taken a being subject to the criteria which Anglo-Saxon countries have used as a basis for intervention, and which those in Africa and elsewhere completely opposed to the Rhodesian regime might have wished to disregard. The criteria have a long pedigree and are well enunciated by the English philosopher Edmund Burk in his attack on the leaders of the French Revolution: “The faction is not local or territorial. It is a general evil … it is a sect aiming at universal empire … [Thus] I never thought we could make peace with the system; because it was not for the sake of. an object we pursued in rivalry with each other, but with the system itself that we were at war. As I understand the matter, we were at war not with its conduct, but with its existence; convinced that its existence and its hostility were the same.” In other words, one should only declare hostility to and attempt to intervene against a state with a doctrine seen as inherently expansionist, or, in Burke’s phrase, “Universal”. And no Western power, in spite of the fears of the African states, has seen a racial system as expansionist, but rather a “local or territorial”.

The apparent lack of a clear-cut, clearly consistent, ideological system with obvious and immediate international implications, served only to further confuse the British reaction to the new regime’s claim to independence based, among other things, on a restricted franchise; it led to the feeling on the part of successive British governments that the leaders of the Front were, in spite of their racialist philosophy, pragmatic men with whom independence could, in return for certain assurances, be negotiated. It led, at least in public pronouncements, to the conclusion that these men should in no sense be treated as ‘extremists’ who should be controlled, but even to the curious conclusion of Mr. Edward Heath, after the 1966 Commonwealth Conference, that since the Front leaders were “Britishers”, not “ultimatums” should be presented to them; they would only react with “go to hell” or words to that effect.

Diplomatic Problems of the British

With respect to, the actual negotiations between the respective governments, one of the main difficulties for successive British governments has been that it was the Rhodesian government which initiated the negotiations for independence. When the effort to negotiate independence was redoubled and dramatized by Smith, his regime had the advantage vis-a-vis the British Government of being quite sure of the fundamental principles on which their case was based; such in the nature of revolutionaries – they know exactly what they want. Further, since they were fully cognisant of their ideological isolation in relation to most of the rest of the world, the validity of their principles as viewed by the British was, to them, no longer of importance. The question of validity would only he important if it were contested by those governments ideologically aligned to Rhodesia. Also, by the period of the negotiations, the regime had the almost unanimous support of the white population of the country, as reflected by their electoral position, and were by various measures ensuring that the voicing of hostile opinion would be minimised.

British governments as the passive, reacting, partner in the negotiations need not have been surprised either by the claim, the nature of the claim, or the nature of the claimants There had been some warning of this. Lord Alport, then High Commissioner, claims to have warned Duncan Sandys, then Secretary for Commonwealth Relations, when the latter was visiting the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, that the fact of Northern Rhodesian (Zambian) independence would create an inevitable demand for independence by the Southern Rhodesian government. He says, “Although I had warned Duncan Sandys that independence for Southern Rhodesia was one of the inevitable consequences of the decision to reconsider the Northern Rhodesian constitution, following the break-up of the Federation, I did not believe that immediate independence was in the interests of either black or white nor did I see the slightest chance of H.M.G. being prepared to agree to such a proposition in the political conditions prevailing at the time … Southern Rhodesia had a strong case for independence . . . ”

On the likely nature of such claimants, Professor Colin Leys, in a book written in 1959 on the Europeans in Rhodesia, had suggested that in an electoral system such as that which was in existence in Southern Rhodeia, “power tends to gravitate towards those who are least ready for change, having the most to lose”. It follows that the claimants to independence in 1965 were likely to be the most intransigent of the European group.

But perhaps the decisive factor, was what seems to have been a degree of uncertainty on the British side as to the fundamental principles which might constitute the basis of their position. And this in spite of the existence of the famous “five principles”. Initially, this stems from the well-known fact that, whatever the extent of their legal responsibility for Rhodesia, Britain was unable or unwilling to intervene physically in the internal affairs of Rhodesia. Th basis of their position was thus an unstable one: the preservation of the status quo ante negotiations, that is of the 1961 Constitution, already rejected by the main African political organisations, and now contested by the Rhodesian government. This was, in practice, a willingness to agree to continued minority rule at best, even though the 1961 Constitution contained a mechanism for effecting a gradual transition to majority rule. And this for two reasons: first, that the nationalist element (black) had refused to work the constitution; and secondly, that it was plain, even then, that Smith and his colleagues were doing their best to retard any progress, social or political, that the Africans might make.

Constitutions, Colonialism and Independence

The main difficulty about the 1961 Constitution was that it contained no time mechanism for African advance in agreeing to negotiate about independence, while at the same time not formulating any new proposals about the state of the African majority if the negotiations were to fail, the British Government seemed no longer to have a clear commitment to the principle of granting independence to regimes only when they were based on a fully franchised electorate. Mr. Wilson’s statement on October 10, 1965 that “it has been the aim of successive British governments to bring remaining British territories to independence on the basis of democratic government and the principle of universal adult suffrage”, served only to cloak the lack of commitment to the fact of independence based on the existence of majority rule.

The time mechanism (a stated time plus a procedure for arriving at it and a clear procedure for ensuring majority rule at the specific time) which alone can complete the commitment in principle to independence was missing. That it has been the missing factor in much of the history of colonial territories has led to uncertainty on the part of the indigenous peoples about when, if ever, in-dependence would come, and has contributed to the fact that the concept of trusteeship has always seemed rather vague. The uncertainty that this can breed on all sides is implicit in a statement made by Mr Duncan Sandys (in reply) in June 1 to a question on the terms that might be suitable to the British Government for the grant of Southern Rhodesian independence: “Southern Rhodesia has for about 40 years run her own affairs, and it is not for us to decide the franchise, but it is for us to decide whether to grant independence”. The statement was, in its implications, ambiguous, perhaps from a British point of view necessarily so. It fudged the very questions that were to become most important: that of the ultimate responsibility for Rhodesian affairs and of the connection between the state of the franchise and independence. However satisfactory to those in control of Rhodesia for those 40 years, it could obviously never be acceptable to the majority population of the territory. A different ambiguity about the lime mechanism was to appear in. a statement by Mr. Wilson in the House of Commons after his return on November 1, from his hurried visit to Salisbury. Wilson was reporting what he said to the African Nationalist leaders whom he met: “I said that . . . the British Government . . . do not believe … that majority rule should come today, or tomorrow … The time required cannot be measured by clock or calendar, but only by achievement.”