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Rhodesia: Can the Bishop Win?

To have lived in Rhodesia is to have experienced a feeling of helplessness. Sensible men gloomily surrender to the inevitability of increasing disharmony and bloodshed. A sterile desire to allocate moral blame gives way to an empty sadness that the two conflicting cultures—of Europe and of black southern Africa—seem unable to mix happily, however much people of good will may wish it.

The white man neurotically attempts to instill order and discipline into the unyielding and wayward African bush, where timetables, straight lines, and supposed European logic are defied. The white man remains reluctant, nonetheless, to submit to the broken telephone system, to the potholes and wild driving, to the apparent yearning for ramshackle, easygoing consensus government and windy rhetoric that tend to characterize emergent black Africa. Meanwhile, the black man, itching to be free of the colonial boss, however paternalistically benevolent or brutally oppressive he may be, resents the assumption that the norms of Europe—Western-style democracy and liberalism—are what he ought to want.

Now, fifteen years after Ian Smith came to power to keep Rhodesia white, his constituents are groping toward the once-mocked policy of racial “partnership,” which many blacks have long since rejected as an inadequate substitute for naked power. Abel Muzorewa, often seemingly more a muddled pawn than a Methodist bishop, now plays the awkward role of conciliator of the illmatched cultures. No dazzler, he frequently appears to be outshone by his rivals: Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole, erudite, cunning, but irrational; Robert Mugabe, incontestably clever, his professed Marxism tinged with a bitterness that sets him uneasily in authority over a guerrilla army whose leaders have proved more effective at killing nationalist rivals than white soldiers; and Joshua Nkomo, avuncular, experienced, the veteran of Zimbabwean nationalism, friend of multinationals and Moscow alike. Through no special fault of his own Nkomo has been reduced now to the leadership of a minority tribal bloc and a tribal army as implacably opposed to Mugabe as it is to Muzorewa, despite the recent hatching of urgent plans for military unity between the two distinct guerrilla forces.

Democracy as defined in the West (and as it was betrayed by Ian Smith) means little to any of the competing nationalist leaders. Among them there is a preference for the traditional consensus hammered out—often conspiratorially—within a one-party structure. But a wider tolerance of dissent is bound to be promptly sacrificed on the altar of brute political expediency.

The bishop, it is true, is probably the gentlest of the leading four. He is by nature reformist, not revolutionary. He is keenest to keep white people on Zimbabwean soil, to redirect Rhodesia’s resilient and efficient institutions, so that, rather than collapse, they may benefit principally the black majority, under the tutelage of the growing black bourgeoisie and those whites who can adapt to black Africa.

But the bishop is aware that in black Africa there are no consolation prizes or second chances for the runner-up and that he is often accused of fumbling and weakness. He is already acquiring the authoritarian style that is said to befit a new chief. Along with his rough but increasingly effective auxiliary troops, known as Pfumo reVanhu or Spear of the People, he is now building up his Ziso reVanhu (Eyes of the People), a fledgling spy service.

His one-time and supposed allies in the internal camp—Sithole, the federalist Ndebele Chief Kayisa Ndiweni, his rival within his party, James Chikerema—are all showing signs of truculence, proving that their proclaimed devotion to “multiracial moderation” was inspired merely by power rather than principle. It is highly possible that the bishop will summarily muzzle them. Already he tends to confuse disagreement within the party with disloyalty. In the last year and a half, most of his party intellectuals have abandoned him or been demoted, while his closest aides are being drawn increasingly from his own Shona-speaking tribe, the Manyika.

The next six months to a year will reveal whether his detractors are right. They say that the bishop’s base is already too narrow, and that the economy will grind to a halt, that the war will intensify, that the promised benefits of the bishop’s black rule will fail to accrue. The whites—especially those who are young and perhaps newly married yet are still compelled to spend at least seven months a year fighting guerrillas in the bush—will lose confidence in the new regime and will scurry abroad. The white-officered military machine will then break down. The guerrillas will roll into power, only to start slugging it out between themselves.

It can also be hotly denied that the April elections showed that the bishop was the people’s choice. Ian Smith’s argument, somewhat blandly accepted by the Conservative Party observer, Lord Boyd of Merton,1 is that the guerrilla-backed Patriotic Front (PF), consisting of Mugabe’s ZANU and Nkomo’s ZAPU, was “invited to participate” in the elections. But that argument misses an important point.

The major flaw in the election was that people were unable to say Yes to the bishop and No to the new constitution. There are several grounds for criticizing the constitution, upon which the elections were based. Indeed, does the new constitution represent genuine black rule? No fewer than 123 of the 170 clauses are “entrenched”: that is to say, they can be altered only by a nod of approval from a number of Smith’s own white MPs elected by a purely white constituency. Key sections of the constitution also ensure that promotion of blacks into the top positions of the civil service, judiciary, and security forces is by statute almost impossible for ten years. By participating in the April election, the Patriotic Front would—as Professor Claire Palley puts it in her study preceding the election—“legitimate an election which they regard as illegitimate.”2

Another report on the election, issued by the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group in the guise of Lord Chitnis,3 notes numerous cases which appear to show that Rhodesian soldiers and administrators severely threatened villagers with retribution unless they voted. According to the report, thirty-seven villagers were shot shortly before the elections for helping guerrillas in one region. In another village, fifteen were slaughtered for refusing to vote. The auxiliaries of both the bishop and Sithole were particularly singled out for using bullying tactics. Palley gives a wealth of legal detail, much of it incontrovertible, showing that numerous electoral laws still theoretically in operation were flouted, especially the laws that prevent civil servants from political activity and declare that a citizen’s right to abstain should be as highly valued and protected as his or her right to vote. This proviso was clearly ignored. The entire weight of the political and civil service machinery was harnessed to insist that abstention was a sin. By Western standards, that alone rules the election unacceptable.

There, however, the carping should subside. To a wide extent, a vote for Muzorewa was indeed a vote for the constitution. It was clearly a vote for peace, and any observer could detect an overwhelming mood among blacks that—whatever its manifest imperfections—the constitution should be given a chance to prove that the black majority could legislate without obstruction from the white parliamentary bloc.

By purist standards, the disproportionate representation of whites (28 seats out of 100, for a quarter of a million whites against at least six and a half million blacks) is clearly undemocratic. But the principle of disproportionate white representation, actually enshrined in the September 1977 Owen-Vance Anglo-American Proposals (which envisaged 20 white seats out of 120 in a transitional parliament), was not in itself rejected even by the Patriotic Front. For most Zimbabweans accept that whites are sorely needed. The key reason for the economic shambles in neighboring Mozambique, for instance, is that all but around 10,000 of the quarter of a million whites have left during the few years since independence as a result of President Samora Machel’s energetic Marxism, leaving a dearth even of car-drivers.

Overrepresentation for whites, it also might be noted, was a ploy used in many emergent black countries to encourage whites to stay and to help organize an orderly and effective Africanization of government and economy. The Zambian legislature, for example, was fully half white during its transitional phase. In its post-independence constitution, twelve seats were reserved for the country’s tiny white minority, out of 100.

That is not, however, to endorse the constitutional blocking power of Zimbabwe Rhodesia’s white minority. The qualifications for the commissions that control advancement in the civil service are also equally obnoxious to many blacks. But to many black reformers the concept of eroding white privileges gently, in order to keep white skills, also makes sense. It would be wrong to assume, moreover, that white civil service domination means white power will dilute black power behind the scenes. But it is to be hoped that, just as senior British civil servants and military men who voted overwhelmingly Tory in 1924 nonetheless served loyally under Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government, so Zimbabwe Rhodesia’s civil service and army will obligingly implement the decisions taken by the new black legislature. All the same, some mechanism must be found for rapid black advancement, without frightening away white expertise.

Whatever the imperfections of the constitution, the shortcomings of the election itself have come under even greater attack. Of course it is impossible accurately to gauge the point at which “enthusiastic persuasion” or “pressure” becomes coercion” or “intimidation.” Undoubtedly—as Chitnis and Palley assert—there were cases of intimidation by government forces; there were also undue pressure on voters by some employers, widespread detentions of politicians advocating opposition to the election, and rank flouting of the electoral law.

What is astonishing, however, is that neither report makes any but the most cursory reference to guerrilla pressures against people who did want to vote, or attempts in any way to annotate such incidents with the same rigor applied to the government’s misdeeds. It is hardly mentioned that the PF, which claims control of 85 percent of the people, had—through radio beamed from Mozambique and Zambia and through word of the guerrillas themselves—castigated anyone who cooperated with the bishop as “traitors and criminals” and had promised to disrupt the elections, viewing polling stations as “military targets.”

It should be clear that from a purely military angle the holding of elections was a dramatic setback for the PF and showed an extraordinary degree of military incompetence. Yet it is equally remarkable that Lord Chitnis, through his unexplained assumption that people would not and should not vote for what he sees as a fraudulent constitution, declares:

The only thing we feel can be said with any certainty about these elections is that one side was more effective in intimidating the population than the other.

Notwithstanding cases of intimidation by soldiers and auxiliaries, there are strong reasons for supposing that the elections were, in fact, as relatively free and fair as they may ever be in Zimbabwe and—as Freedom House contends—“fairer than in most developing countries.”4

  1. 1

    A report to the prime minister on the elections held in Zimbabwe Rhodesia in April 1979. Compiled by Lord Boyd of Merton and the Conservative Party delegation. Issued by the Foreign Office, London SW1.

  2. 2

    Memorandum on the Rhodesian election campaign, on whether elections were fair and free, and whether principles required for Rhodesian independence had been satisfied,” published by the Catholic Institute for International Relations, London, April 19, 1979. Professor Palley, Master of Darwin College, the University of Kent at Canterbury, did not stay for the elections themselves.

  3. 3

    Free and fair? The 1979 Rhodesian Election: A report by observers on behalf of the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group,” published by the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, House of Commons, London SW1.

  4. 4

    Report of the Freedom House Mission to Observe the Common Roll Elections in Zimbabwe Rhodesia,” April 1979.

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