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Rhodesia: Can the Bishop Win?

Though the electoral process was new (it was the first time there had ever been a nationwide poll among blacks) and doubtless confusing to the many illiterate voters, it is also noteworthy that in areas where Nkomo is most popular, a high proportion of voters did decide to spoil their ballot papers. In Metabeleland South, 9.7 percent of the papers were spoiled. That is just one example of a way by which voters could express dissent from the constitution. In addition, it is rightly pointed out by Boyd and Freedom House that the presence of soldiers even as escorts (condemned by Chitnis) was welcomed by many voters as an “excuse” should guerrillas reprimand them for voting. Similarly, it was more humane to enroll all school-teachers, black and white, as polling booth officers, rather than call for volunteers, who could later have been singled out by guerrillas as “sellouts.”

Of most significance, however, was the extremely high turnout—generally over 80 percent—in the towns. As Freedom House remarks:

With a population unfamiliar with both national politics or modern elections, the degree of participation of the more urbanized and politicized portion of the populace should be especially important in judging the degree to which the results of the elections represented meaningful expression of willingness to accept this constitution’s version of majority rule.

With the polling spread out over five days, there was ample opportunity for anyone in the towns to abstain. Indeed, I met many who had taken the opportunity. Yet the high and obviously willing turnout utterly confounded those, including—I hear—Mugabe and Nkomo themselves, who sincerely believed Muzorewa’s national support had evaporated.

More important, it would be wrong to draw a sharp distinction between town and country attitudes. It is true that the guerrillas have, for military reasons, had to concentrate their appeals upon the rural people. But urban Zimbabweans maintain strong links—through families and property—with the country. It would be false to assume a wide divergence of attitudes between them. It would therefore seem likely that if gunmen had been absent on all sides the rural vote might have been much higher. As it was—depending on whether one accepts figures projected by the World Bank or by Rhodesia’s official statistician—between 50 percent and 64 percent of all Zimbabwe Rhodesians voted. Whatever the exactitude of the figures or the “balance of terror,” it is irrefutable that a very substantial body of blacks voted freely for Muzorewa.

The report of Lord Chitnis, in its political conclusions, plunges into an extraordinary arrogance. The election was a “gigantic confidence trick” played upon an “indoctrinated black electorate. And all that was required of the electorate was a ballot paper with a mark on it—a blank check signed by the bewildered and always patient, still waiting, black majority.” In other words, not only were the blacks bullied into submission, despite the guerrillas’ alleged control over 85 percent of them, but beyond that, the blacks—unlike Lord Chitnis—do not understand what is good for them. In 1972, as Chitnis and others have conveniently forgotten, the black population faced the same barrage of propaganda and government pressure to say Yes to Lord Pearce when he tested the acceptability to the blacks of the Smith-Home Proposals for a settlement. But they said No. This time, however, they have allegedly been “indoctrinated.” What Chitnis and his colleagues really mean is that Muzorewa should not be prime minister. This, in the end, is the point of those who object to the elections. “It is ironic,” as Bayard Rustin indicated on the “MacNeil-Lehrer Report,”5 “that many people who say that this election was unscientific or undemocratic or uncalled for are also the very people that would abolish elections entirely and depend on violence.”

Equally dramatic in its hypocrisy is the advocacy of bodies such as the Commonwealth Secretariat,6 which insisted that “the sending of observers to Zimbabwe tends to lend credibility to what is internationally accepted as being a tragic charade….” Did Lord Pearce lend credibility to the Smith-Home Proposals? Indeed, did Lord Chitnis intend to lend credibility to the April elections? He, at any rate, would not like to think so.

Nevertheless, even if it must be admitted that the elections—by the nature of war—fell short of standards expected in a Western democracy, there remains the overpowering question: what is the alternative? Andrew Young says: “We would preserve the process that would try to involve everybody in the selection of leaders in such a way that peace and stability might come.” Fine words, but time for an accommodation of all the parties has probably run out. It seems better to encourage reconciliation between the de facto power in white hands and a substantial body of black opinion than no reconciliation at all. Dr. David Owen was right to try to juggle the parties into a universal agreement. But he and Andrew Young have been overtaken by events.

Above all, it is inconceivable that the PF would ever consent to elections anything like as “free and fair.” We should remember that the Anglo-American Proposals of Owen and Vance were roundly rejected by the PF leaders because they were refused what they demanded: a dominant role for the guerrillas and their political cadres in any interim government holding elections.

Nor do recent guerrilla tactics enhance confidence in future guerrilla “fairness.” Since the elections, the execution of “sellouts” appears to have become still more arbitrary. People are being more heavily taxed by the PF forces. Some groups do retain a high degree of discipline, but many—demoralized by the much superior skills of the black and white Zimbabwe Rhodesian forces in conventional military action—have become preoccupied with beer drinking, womanizing, taking food from the mouths of the increasingly hungry rural populace, battered by all sides. Other groups, partially to counter the bishop’s boast that he will reopen schools and churches abandoned in the war, are becoming stridently anti-Christian and are closing down even more mission stations. Many people who still believe Mugabe is the best leader for Zimbabwe have nevertheless lost faith in the guerrillas upon whom he must depend.

Furthermore, while the bishop can be expected to become increasingly authoritarian, the PF leaders, in view of the propensities of the guerrilla chiefs for repression within their own forces and the swelling influence of the USSR not only upon the ZAPU guerrillas but on Mugabe’s ZANU too, would, if they came to power, be likely to rule over a totalitarian as well as a poverty-stricken state.

Mugabe himself is by many accounts an idealistic and humane man. I long believed myself that Nkomo had personal qualities of judgment and flexibility that would make him the most suitable national leader. If it were a matter of preference, neither would want to base his movement mainly on tribal loyalties. But it is increasingly unlikely that either leader would be able to control his armies, which have each developed wholeheartedly tribal identities.7 Their advent to power would produce a huge white exodus on the pattern of Mozambique. Mugabe’s ZANU army would eventually carry the day.

There is little likelihood that ZANU guerrilla chief Josiah Tongogara would ever countenance any dissent whatever. It is worth remembering, too, that more ZANU guerrillas have died as a result of internal party feuds, purges, and assassinations than have white soldiers in the entire war. A ZANU victory would mean goodbye to elections, except perhaps of the type favored in Mozambique,8 where choice is meaningless, and whose ideology ZANU largely shares.

Imperfect elections of the kind that have taken place must surely be preferable to none at all. It would also be preferable to maintain efficient national institutions, although they are currently dominated by whites, if they can be geared to the advancement and needs of blacks. Surely this would be better than seeing them disintegrate, as would inevitably occur under Mugabe, however hard he may try to preserve them.

All that is not to say that the bishop will succeed. The guerrillas will chip away at white morale. If there is no diminution of the war within a year or so, whites will leave en masse. The bishop has not more than a year to prove his ability to rule. Otherwise, the often repeated claim that “the guerrillas are sitting on the fence, waiting to come home in peace” will remain hollow. Black Africa and the OAU will continue to deride the bishop as a puppet. A guerrilla victory still seems to many the right romantic ending, with Smith and the whites punished. Moreover, if the bishop remains internationally isolated, his dependence upon South Africa will be increasingly striking and embarrassing. As for the West, it will be loath to back a loser, thereby gaining the contempt as well as the anger of Africa (including Nigeria, the second largest supplier of crude oil to the US and the annual importer of over $2 billion in goods from the UK).

The bishop’s prime needs for survival and success are economic. Formal international recognition can wait. The flaws in the constitution can be temporarily offset if the ordinary Africans clearly begin to benefit from the new deal. The bishop can already claim credit for eradicating all formal types of racial discrimination. Now he has to funnel money into the Tribal Trust Lands, the reserves contested by the guerrillas. He must increase wages and employment. He can redistribute land—about 20 percent of the total is immediately available. He can ensure that all primary schooling is completely free.

If he can succeed in offering a convincing package of economic reforms to the people, and if through good government and courage (which he has in abundance) he can retain the confidence of enough whites, he will be better placed to move back into the international sphere. He will then rename the country Zimbabwe, and ease Smith quietly out of government. He will also be ready to legislate modifications to the constitution. These would be crucial. Qualifications for the top civil service and security force jobs will have to be changed so as not to exclude blacks. Of the twenty-eight white seats in the parliament, at least eight will be subject to new elections by a common (i.e., predominantly black) voters’ roll, so that Smith’s Rhodesian Front will no longer enjoy its blocking power. The whites will have to face up to the old paradox: that only by surrendering real power to blacks will they stand a chance of holding influence and prosperity.

Finally, the PF will be invited to participate in an election under the modified constitution. If it agrees, Muzorewa, with his authority enhanced, should win outright. The PF, however, is almost certain to refuse to participate, preferring to rely upon the already swelling supply of Soviet weapons, which is now beginning to come to Mugabe as much as to Nkomo, for an overall battlefront victory. (Previously, ZANU was supported by China, but Peking appears to have backed away.) If white morale holds up and the bishop wins the confidence of more blacks, I do not think the USSR or Cuba will risk a military response along the lines of Angola or Ethiopia. If the bishop plays his hand well, he can outflank the PF.

The Western powers—in particular Britain—are still faced with an ugly dilemma. Dogged as he is becoming, the bishop can offer no guarantee that he will play his cards with dexterity, or that the Rhodesian whites have understood the accommodations and sacrifices real change must bring. The sequence I have sketched out seems to me a fair outline of the bishop’s strategy; it is not a prediction of its success.

But if sanctions were lifted immediately after the coming Common-wealth Conference (August 1-8), this would make a vast difference to Muzorewa’s chances. It will be tempting to say, “Wait a few more months, until the bishop has proved himself worthy of support.” But, as Freedom House pointed out, that is in itself “tantamount to favoring the PF.”

Carter, in refusing to lift sanctions on June 7, promised to keep the question under review and said he hoped progress can be “made and made rapidly.” What the US finally decides about sanctions will depend considerably on the British; and the choices before the British, starkly, put, are as follows: Only if Britain immediately helps the bishop is he likely to succeed. If the British hold back support, he is likely to fail. But even if Britain does give succor, he may still fail disastrously. The most delicate compromise would be to proffer immediate—and perhaps selective—lifting of sanctions, strictly conditional upon several demands being met. Among these would be a guaranteed attempt to modify the constitution, to put more blacks in top army, police, and civil service jobs, as well as other crucial changes I have already mentioned.

There is another carrot to the West, South Africa has already been trying to seduce the bishop into its newly proclaimed “constellation” of southern African states. Help from the West would obviate the bishop’s risk of being dragged into the Boer embrace. Indeed, a strong reformist Zimbabwe could become the focus of economic independence for those southern states, such as Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, which are already trapped by the need for South African economic help. And a strong Zimbabwe would be an example to South Africa of successful evolutionary change.

That may well be starry-eyed. Many in the West think it unwise to risk the fury of black Africa by backing a fragile-looking black-white Zimbabwe that could easily collapse in disarray. It is cogent to argue that “Zimbabwe does not count as much as Nigeria, so why not keep our fingers clean?”

Cogent—but would that be right?

  1. 5

    The MacNeil-Lehrer Report,” PBS Television, April 25, 1979.

  2. 6

    An analysis of the illegal regime’s “Constitution for Zimbabwe Rhodesia” by the Commonwealth Secretariat, March 1979, Marlborough House, London SW1.

  3. 7

    See my article, “Rhodesia: The Coming Chaos,” The New York Review, October 26, 1978.

  4. 8

    For an analysis of the Mozambique electoral system, see Africa Confidential (London), March 31, 1978, Vol. 19. No.7.

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