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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

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. 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.

  5. 5

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

  6. 6

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

  7. 7

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

  8. 8

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

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