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Rhodesia: The Coming Chaos

Here is a guess at the denouement of the Rhodesian saga. Sometime next year, after a scrappy general election with a 10 percent turnout, formal power will fall officially into the hands of Bishop Abel Muzorewa. He will “inherit” what was once Ian Smith’s army, replete with the Selous Scouts, the mixed-race tracker elite upon whom the bishop was once happy to lay automatic blame for any atrocity perpetrated, in battle. But the bishop will fall to control the war. Young white servicemen will begin to leave en bloc. It will be politically impossible for the bishop to rely on whites serving in the armed forces or the new black government while plans to conscripts blacks will be met with widespread resistance.

More damaging for Muzorewa: senior white officers will begin to leave: a weakening command structure will compound the problem of the white manpower shortage. The single black regiment, the Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR), will be unable to remain a coherent force in the absence of the old white command. The guerrillas, whose success has hitherto been strictly limited to the domination of the black civilian population but whose attempts to confront the Rhodesian army militarily have been remarkably ineffective, will begin at last to fill the power vaccum.

The next stage of the hypothesis is perhaps more alarming. There is no certainty that the two guerrilla armies that make up the Patriotic Front will agree to share power or to carve up territory. The two forces—ZANLA, the armed wing of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU, which has it’s haven in Mozambique, to the east; and Joshua Nkomo’s ZIPRA, the military branch of ZAPU, which infiltrates from camps in Zambia in the north and sometimes cuts down through Botswana in the west—are totally separate. The guerrilla armies may well fight each other, Muzoreqa and his RAR can try to hold the ring around the, two main towns but will probably find it more sensible to arrange an accommodation—because ethnic considerations outweigh ideology—with Mugabe. Some of the RAR will go to Nkomo, but most will join Mugabe.

The nature of the war could the alter sharply and Nkomo prove far better equipped to prosecute a conventional campaign. While Mugabe’s estimated 6,000 troops inside Rhodesia—the number could be as high as 9,000—were exhausted. Nkomo, who committed a mere 1,000 to the guerrilla war against fresh fighters into the battle—following the mass departure of whites. It is true that Nkomo represents a distinct minority so far as his ethnic ties, the territory he controls, and his personal popularity are concerned—although his national executive and central committee have a broad multiregional base. But, more to the point, the training of his forces has differed sharply from that or Mugabe’s. The Nkomo men are less committed ideologically than Mugabe’s, but more skillful and aggressive millitarily. Above all, they are far better equipped for a conventional, more mobile form of war. If, between January and March 1979, there is a rapid breakdown of law and order, Nkomo will probably make a push for the two main towns, Salisbury and Bulawayo.

It is worth recalling that in Angola none of the three movements—which had more or less developed their skills in guerrilla war—was well equipped for the small-scale conventional conflict which characterized the post-independence quarrel after the Portuguese army disappeared. But Agostinho Neto’s MPLA, largely urban-based, and a clear minority ethnically, with its rural support confined mainly to the Kimbundu people in the hinterland east of the capital of Luanda, had Cuban armored vehicles and tanks. Once the South Africans—whose small but highly mobile armored columns proved very effective—had turned tall. MPLA sensibly went for the towns, which, once taken, rapidly earned the movement OAU, UN, and general international recognition.

If Nkomo—with his stronger economic and diplomatic connections with the Western powers—holds the towns, it might not matter that Mugabe’s men control the majority in the countryside (who are, unlike most of Nkomo’s supporters, Shona-speaking people). In Angola, Savimbi’s UNITA, after all, seems to have retained the support of much of the largest tribal bloc, the Ovimbundu. But Angola’s neighbors Zaire and Namibia, along with Zambia, are ditching Savimbi by denying him supplies and a safe haven. Certainly Zambia’s Kaunda and possibly Mozambique’s Machel could do the same to Mugabe. The British and Americans, having wrong their hands during the Zimbabwean civil war, would probably recognize Nkomo’s government. His own entrepreneurial penchant and his links with such multinational operators as Tiny Rowland of the powerful Lonrho conglomerate would be emphasized. There would be a great influx of aid to “woo him away from his Soviet armorers.” The patrician Nkomo would magnanimously invite whites to return “to help rebuild Zimbabwe.”

All that, of course, is conjecture—though I believe it could turn out to be fact. The outside world may prevent Mugabe and Muzorewa from being suffocated. Perhaps the Patriotic Front will stick together—though Nkomo’s secret meeting with Smith in August drove an even sharper wedge between the PF allies. But one thing is clear. The chief issue in Zimbabwe will not be the problem of removing Ian Smith. It will be how to reconcile the blacks. As a political force—if not yet as a military one—the whites will probably slide inexorably out of the picture. At least four main black movements would be left behind—five if you count Smith’s friend Chief Chirau and probably nine if you include factions, some of which have been isolated or purged, within the parties of Muzorewa, Nkomo, and Mugabe.

Zimbabwean factionalism has been inspired by the mixed-up pressures of ethnicity, ideology, tactics, and personality. Despite the fiercely held convictions of Senator Jesse Helms and others in the West, ideology is the least potent of the four. It is true that at Mugabe’s ZANU Congress, held in Chimnio. Mozambique, last September, the party adopted “Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung Thought” as the official doctrine, Mugabe has publicly expoused the single-party state as the “correct” model for Zimbabwe. There is little doubt, also, that Mugabe’s ZANU does embrace the largest contingent of Marxist supporters—almost all of whom, incidentally, look to China, not to the USSR, both as their material helper and moral guide. (The Sino-Soviet conflict is, however, yet another source of functionalism within the party.) Though Mugabe declares he wishes to preserve white skills in the new state, his emphasis on the radical redistribution of land and wealth and the destruction of existing institutions is hardly compatible with the aspirations of the average white.

But aside from rhetoric neither Mugabe nor any of his black rivals has spelled out even the vaguest sort of blueprint for future policy. Despite Soviet backing that has been far superior to any help Mugabe has won from Russia or from China, Nkomo and his senior men have consistently enjoyed excellent relations with multinationals such as Lonrho. Many of Nkomo’s national executive are conservative by any criterion. Now that they are allies of Smith, Muzorewa and the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole are naturally currying favor with whites inside Rhodesia, because the “internal” black leaders know that maintaining white morale and the readiness of young whites to fight for a “moderate” black government is vital.

Muzorewa’s party has no ideology. It has a sort of decent, plodding churchy flavor but it also manages to embrace members who call themselves Marxists. As with politicians throughout Africa, Muzorewa’s people have little aversion to the USSR for ideological or moral reasons, though the growing Russian presence on the continent may not be welcome. A senior Muzorewa official once told me how much he despised Solzhenitsyn—“because he is a traitor.” If Muzorewa and Sithole currently propagate a multiparty system it is largely for tactical reasons—to enlist the support of whites who have economic and military skills.

Ideological labels have a bizarre habit of switching from one nationalist uniform to another. Two years ago, Nkomo was in white eyes “the black you can talk to, a fat capitalist at heart”; Muzorewa, “the militant bishop,” was “the unwitting tool of Communist expansion”; while Sithole, “the fanatic who tried to assassinate Smith,” was beyond the ideological pale altogether. Now the whites pin those labels in exactly the reverse order. Though Mugabe comes closest to being an ideologue, each group is quite evidently prepared to embrace whatever “ideology” might—at a given tactical moment—help produce the fruits of power.

In the absence of long-term policies and ideologies, the personality of the lender has done much to create the distinctive tone of each party. Nkomo’s closest disciples are characterized by their total loyalty to him, the unquestioned founding father of black nationalism. His imposing size, his mixture of avuncular shrewdness and ruthlessness, his stubbornness tempered with pragmatism (his opponents call it opportunism), mark him as the most adaptable leader, who has conscientiously succeeded in maintaining the widest network of economic and diplomatic contacts, which spans every sort of lobby and ideology in East and West.

His flexibility, along with his undisputed headship of an important ethnic bloc (albeit a minority one), in contrast to the fickle support that the other three leaders have enjoyed among the majority tribes, ensures that Nkomo will remain the man that everybody—from Smith, to Mugnbe, from the US to the USSR—wishes to have as an ally and can have—if the gods are smiling. The shooting down of a civilian Air Rhodesia Viscount and the slaughter of survivors by Nkomo guerrillas have outraged the whites against Nkomo. But it is a fair bet—despite current white fury and the government’s promise of tougher action and lower words—that Smith will make sure his channels of communication with Nkomo are kept open.

But Nkomo’s autocratic style of leadership, his early choice to carry on politics from exile, and his “softness” toward the whites (he almost signed a deal with them in 1961 that not even Chirnu would contemplate today) brought about the first major nationalist split in 1963, when Sithole—accompanied by Mugabe, soon to be secretary-general—broke away and formed ZANU.

The manner in which Mugabe later ousted Sithole from the ZANU leadership in 1970 epltomizes the confused, conspiratorial, personality-conscious nature of Zimbabwean politics. What happened was a coup engineered by a four-strong minority of the ZANU central committee who happened to be incarcerated together with Sithole in a Rhodesian prison. Mugabe and three allies voted against Sithole and one disciple. It took another four years of bitter acrimony among assorted interested parties—the rest of ZANU, the guerrillas, the “front-line presidents” of Zambia and Tanzania—to establish a consensus that Mugabe was the new leader. In essence, Sithole fell because three of his fellow prisoners decided that his personality had lost its cutting edge. Friends say that on his release Sithole was devastated by the discovery that his wife had left him for another man. But his ambition has not been blunted, as his vehement rivalry with Muzorewn within the interim government has shown.

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