Rhodesia: Can the Bishop Win?

Ian Smith and Abel Muzorew
Ian Smith and Abel Muzorew; drawing by David Levine

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…

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