Turning Points in Rhodesian History by Colin Weyer

Might Rhodesia have survived if key points in its history had been decided differently?

by Colin Weyer, Window on Rhodesia – the Jewel of Africa. Editor: Images are added.

Numerous enquiries have been submitted to this site, including a surprising number from Rhodesian born blacks, relating to “Why Rhodesia fell”, and how it might have survived. This is a very interesting topic for today’s students of Rhodesian history.  In part at least, it is necessary to define the approximate time in history at which this question is posed and should be answered. And, of course, an important factor governing the answer is hindsight!

So, here is a short account discussing various turning points in Rhodesian history. A different outcome to any one or more of these issues might have resulted in a different final outcome for Rhodesia.

Rhodesia, as here discussed, was known as Southern Rhodesia until Northern Rhodesia became Zambia in 1964. This account is intended largely for younger and non-Rhodesian readers.

Rhodesia had a proud record.  Apart from creating a modern state from scratch, similar to Australia or New Zealand, there was probably more done for African welfare and advancement than anywhere else in Africa.  Unlike S. Africa, where in general only whites had the vote, Rhodesia was essentially a meritocracy with the vote open to all based on the same standards of education etc.  (It may surprise many to know that, for all its pontificating about Rhodesia, it was not until 1928 that women in Britain got the vote on equal terms with men and it was as recently as 1950 that the first general election in Britain finally took place on the basis of one person one vote!) No country is perfect, and Rhodesia was no exception, but the “colour blind” voters roll existed in Rhodesia from the time of the first elections in the 1890s and black Rhodesians were advancing fairly well although, latterly, they were held back by UN sanctions.   The key objective was to maintain standards – ie. level up, not down.

Via Gab: 5 Myths and 5 Lies about land in southern Africa.

The whites who occupied Rhodesia were just the most recent to do so. The Ndebele had become overlords of the same territory by conquest as recently as the 1830s, only some 50 years before the whites, whilst their vassals, the much more numerous Mashona tribes, had some centuries earlier similarly completely ousted the San / Bushmen.  It is the Bushmen who may arguably be considered the true indigenous inhabitants of the area and of course their rock paintings can still be found all over the country. The Mashona tribes and then the Matabele were in fact conquerors and “settlers” of the land in turn just as the whites were after them.

A huge amount was done from a standing start to improve the education and health of the African population and, as they became more urbanised after WW2, also housing.

Many people also tend not to realise how hard it is to start a new country from scratch.  When the first white people settled in Rhodesia (whether or not they should have done so – but similar has been happening throughout human history including in Britain and the USA!) they naturally sought first to provide for themselves and their families. Yet, even so, resources were provided almost from the beginning to start educating the Africans as well. But just think about the problem for a bit.

In 1890 there were effectively no literate Africans in the country.  Apart from providing schooling for their own families a small number of whites, mostly missionaries in the early years, set up schools for Africans. In the first few decades there was very little interest on the part of the Africans to send their children to school and the main objective of African education was simply to teach the children what we used to call the “Three Rs” – reading, writing and arithmetic.  To give an idea of the vast challenge, let us assume that after 10 years 1000 Africans had completed a primary education.  That is not enough to become a teacher but let us assume as many as 10% might have gone on to a secondary education. Of those 100, maybe as many as 10 might have the ability and wish to become teachers themselves. So it can be seen it will take some long while before the numbers really get going. And the key point is that almost the entire burden of tax to pay for education, not to mention health care etc., had to be paid by the European population. In 1908 there were only a few thousand African school pupils. 20 years later that had grown to nearly 100 000.  On the Rhodesia Statistics page there is similar information for 1968-1977. It can be seen how the figures have grown by 1968 and continue to grow despite UN sanctions trying hard to prevent any economic growth at all! Secondary places more than doubled in 10 years. By this time there were also about 400 Africans in the multi-racial University of Rhodesia.  There is no doubt however that African advancement was held back by the UN.

In reality, the key to improved living standards, even today, is the need for an expanding economy and for the first 50 years or so it can be argued that the number one requirement to expand the economy, in an almost virgin territory, was communications. That meant railways, roads and bridges. It was only as the economy became larger that more money became available for African education and health etc.

It is worth noting that, despite receiving no aid, Rhodesia’s African education (and health as well) out-performed the rest of Africa. By the mid-1970s, 91% of school-age children were at school compared with eg 41% in Nigeria, 29% in Tanzania and just 5% in Ethiopia which were among Rhodesia’s fiercest critics!

There are many today who, looking at history from a 21st century viewpoint, consider that Britain, and in particular Cecil Rhodes armed with a Royal Charter signed by Queen Victoria,  had no right to occupy and settle what became Rhodesia.  This argument, based as it is on 21st century ideas of morality, is of limited value given that these events occurred in the 19th century when life and ideas were quite simply different. One might just as well argue that the Romans had no right to occupy Britain 2000 years ago! Nevertheless, it is popular in the 21st century to suggest that, but for Cecil Rhodes and his colleagues, what became Rhodesia would have developed into some kind of independent idyll. The primitive and rather brutal 50 year history of this land under Mzilikazi and Lobengula prior to European occupation indicates however that the likelihood of such an African idyll would have been somewhat doubtful.  (See this eyewitness report from 1883) The very low level of development in Ethiopia and Liberia, which were the only parts of Africa to have avoided any significant period of European control, similarly do not provide much evidence that this would have happened.

However, although there are very few certainties in life, had the British not occupied Rhodesia, another, probably less benign, power would definitely have done so!  Among the leading candidates were Portugal which had long controlled the lands of Moçambique and Angola to the east and west, the South African Republic (Transvaal) one of two Boer states was another and, possibly not least, Germany, under Kaiser Wilhelm II, which already ruled what later became Tanzania to the east and Namibia to the west. All three were infuriated that Rhodes had forestalled them.


So, the occupation of the country having occurred, the first major crossroads in Rhodesian history was probably faced in 1923.  Until then Southern Rhodesia was governed by the British South Africa Company under a Royal Charter granted in 1889 by Queen Victoria and as amended by several subsequent Orders in Council.

The South Africa Act, passed by the British parliament in 1910, made provision for the admission of Rhodesia to the Union of South Africa at a later date.  After the Great War (WWI), the British government agreed that Rhodesia could choose by referendum whether to become self-governing or join South Africa as a province.  The Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, favoured the latter course; as did South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts and for similar reasons.  Accordingly a Rhodesian delegation went to Cape Town to discuss the terms of Rhodesia’s admission to the Union. General Smuts was very keen that Rhodesia should join the Union not least because it would moderate the influence of the Afrikaner nationalists.  Smuts offered Rhodesia a very generous 10 seats, in addition to the existing 134 in the Union parliament, rising to 17 as her population increased and promised significant funds for development.  However, concern about Afrikaner nationalist influence proved to be a major factor in fiercely loyal Rhodesians deciding in favour of responsible self-government.  In the final vote the Responsible Government cause won nearly 60% of the vote on a 79% turnout.

It is interesting to speculate what might have happened if Rhodesia had joined the Union in 1923.  Clearly a great South African Dominion had been Rhodes’ own dream and how he might have influenced the decision, had he not died at the early age of 48, is a matter for debate in its own right.  However in 1948 Prime Minister Field Marshal Smuts lost the South African general election by a very narrow margin to the Afrikaner nationalists led by Dr Malan.  In fact Smuts obtained more votes than Malan but fewer seats.  The point of interest is that had Rhodesia been in the Union then Smuts, not Malan, would have won fairly easily and apartheid as promoted by the National Party would most likely never have come about.  Instead a policy and government based on merit, more akin to that followed by Rhodesia, would probably have been adopted in South Africa which no doubt, similar to Australia, would then also have encouraged mass white immigration – unlike the Afrikaner nationalist government which, fearful of losing control, followed a very restricted immigration policy. Clearly the question of Rhodesia having to declare its own independence (UDI) would never have arisen.

It is also worth mentioning that the Rhodesian government itself followed a very selective immigration policy for most of the first 30 years after self-government. In this case it was based on the idea of only admitting British and South Africans who were very well educated.  Had a more liberal policy been adopted, including also the admission of some non-English speakers from elsewhere in Europe, then the outcome for Rhodesia might at least have been a little more promising.


The next tipping point, and a very serious one, occurred 30 years later when in 1953 self-governing Southern Rhodesia joined in a federation with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland  both of which were politically far less developed and directly ruled by the British Colonial Office in London. This was a very significant event and arguably was one of the main reasons leading to the demise of Rhodesia a generation later.

The two key architects of the Federation were Sir Godfrey Huggins (later Lord Malvern), long time Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia, and Sir Roy Welensky who had moved North of the Zambezi where he became the leading politician of Northern Rhodesia.  Both actually sought amalgamation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia as an independent Dominion, similar to New Zealand, under the common name of Rhodesia.  Britain rejected amalgamation but agreed to a federal arrangement provided however that the British protectorate of Nyasaland was included. Despite much misgiving on the part of the Rhodesias, and indeed many of Nyasaland’s native population, Britain insisted on her inclusion.

But it was Sir Godfrey Huggins, always a keen proponent of uniting the two Rhodesias, who made the grave error of judgement and finally led Southern Rhodesia into the ill-fated Federation which also embraced Nyasaland.  In doing so he placed the grandiose scheme of Federation ahead of Southern Rhodesia’s strong claim to become an independent Dominion  similar to New Zealand.  There is no doubt that he had hoped that the Federation as a whole would be able to achieve this status. However with hindsight, and arguably even with foresight, like Sir Charles Coghlan over 30 years earlier, he should have been fearful of taking on responsibility for an additional large African population and over which the Federation was not even to have full control. When the British South Africa Company had sought amalgamation in 1917, at a time when Britain would have been minded to acquiesce, Sir Charles felt that this would prejudice Rhodesia’s likely grant of self-government and thus should take second place to self-rule.  With hindsight it must be said that Sir Charles Coghlan showed fine foresight!  In due course Sir Godfrey Huggins took an opposite view and led the country down a blind alley.

In his memoirs (pp 22 & 23), Sir Roy Welensky cites discussions he had in 1948 with the British Colonial Secretary, Arthur Creech-Jones, who stated that there was considerable African opposition to closer union in both Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

Sir Roy, who was the leader of the elected members in Northern Rhodesia, said he sought a constitution for a combined Northern and Southern Rhodesia similar to that already enjoyed by the South. He pointed out the contrast in development between the South, which had gone ahead steadily since self-government, compared with the North, under Colonial Office rule, which, apart from private exploitation of copper, had stagnated and was desperately poor.  Sir Roy then quotes Arthur Creech-Jones’ response: 

“Do you really believe … that any government, either Tory or Socialist, would ever consider … granting [an amalgamated] Northern and Southern Rhodesia a constitution which would place the control of several million black people [in the North] in the hands of a few hundred thousand whites?  No government, irrespective of its political hue, would carry out that kind of action today.  The world wouldn’t put up with it.  If you think that the Conservatives, in power, would do what we won’t do, why don’t you go and see Oliver Stanley [the opposition Tory shadow minister] and put your proposals to him?”

So, later that very day, Sir Roy told Oliver Stanley exactly what Mr Creech-Jones had said.

“That is perfectly accurate” said Oliver Stanley. “No Government of this country – Tory or Socialist – could give you what you ask”

Fully aware of this, in 1953 Sir Godfrey Huggins nevertheless took on the grand mantle of Prime Minister of the new Federation and in 1955 was elevated to the peerage as Viscount Malvern. Despite trying, he failed to achieve any advance in the Federation’s status and finally retired in 1956. He was succeeded by Sir Roy Welensky who was left to fight a valiant rearguard action to defend what had been created.  Following the 1956 Suez debacle, Britain (according to one of her ministers) “lost the will to govern” and set about destroying the Federation.  After that, it had become too late for Southern Rhodesia to obtain any acceptable terms for its own independent dominion status.


Another important event which had a profound effect on Rhodesia’s future was the deceitful nature of Britain’s conduct surrounding the new 1961 constitution.

After nearly 40 years of successful self-government, during which period the British Government never once had the need to exercise its reserve powers, Rhodesia sought to advance her status towards becoming a fully independent Dominion. During a conference in London attended by all parties, Rhodesia agreed to a very significant increase in African representation in parliament. The existing equal non-racial general voters’ roll was retained (and re-named the “A” roll) but a second or “B” roll was created with much lower requirements to qualify. At a stroke, this had the effect of increasing African representation in parliament to 23% and, with the continuation of rapid economic growth, Africans had the prospect of achieving a majority of seats within a few decades – almost certainly before the year 2000.  Mr. Nkomo’s nationalists attended the meeting where they supported what was agreed although they later became more impatient.

In return the British government agreed to relinquish all its reserve powers as existed in the old 1923 constitution. Rhodesia would thus be independent save only for a few technical matters related to stockholders’ rights, the position of the Sovereign and international obligations. The Queen’s representative, His Excellency the Governor, Sir Humphrey Gibbs, in opening parliament in 1962 stated in his speech from the Throne: “My Ministers have received the clearest assurances from Her Majesty’s Government that they cannot revoke or amend the new Constitution”.  The entire new constitution was set out in two White Papers (Cmd. 1399 and Cmd. 1400) and this was put to Rhodesia’s multi-racial electorate in a referendum. The result was 65.8% in favour on a 77% turnout. The mostly white electorate on the original general roll had voted for a transition to an African majority in parliament within just a few decades.

But here’s the rub: When the British Government submitted the new Constitution to the British Parliament it had added an extra clause: Section 111. And this stated that “Full power and authority is hereby reserved to Her Majesty by Order in Council to amend, add to or revoke the provisions in Sections 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 29, 42 and 49 and this Section may vary or revoke any previous order so made.”  The power thus retained included authority to amend, add to or revoke the sections that relate to the Legislature, assent to Bills, power of disallowance and executive powers.

The significance of this extra clause, Section 111, was not simply that the British government had deceived Rhodesia – even it would seem His Excellency the Governor himself – but that it set the scene for Rhodesia’s Declaration of Independence just four years later. Had the British negotiated honourably and adhered to what had been agreed then it is highly unlikely that a UDI would have been made.

Two years later Britain finally wound up the Federation and Rhodesia found that, despite 40 years of self-government, it was the other two non-self-governing federal members which were granted full independence as Malawi and Zambia whilst Rhodesia’s new 1961 constitution now proved to be worth very little – at least in the eyes of the British government.  All this had been taking place under the British Conservative government. The following year things became a lot worse when the Labour Party was elected under Harold Wilson. New conditions started to appear and by November 1965 the Rhodesian government, now with Ian Smith as Prime Minister, decided it had no choice but to follow the example of the United States and many erstwhile Spanish colonies in South America. Independence was declared on 11th November 1965. The 1965 Independence Constitution was essentially identical to the 1961 constitution except that the British reserve powers were finally removed.


Every nation of the world has its thugs and trouble makers and so it was with Rhodesia. The Declaration of Independence was most certainly not the trigger for the start of terrorist activity against Rhodesia. Countries such as the Soviet Union and Communist China had started to train terrorists as far back as 1961. A bomb was found in a Salisbury store in 1963, luckily causing no damage, and in the same year a terrorist accidentally blew himself up. In July 1964 ZANU attacked and killed a white man who was driving near Melsetter.  Besides these cases, although now almost forgotten, there was widespread “conventional” thuggery, intimidation, beatings and murder, of Africans by the Nationalists seeking to dragoon a mostly peaceful and unwilling population to their view of politics.  Following this the government detained known terrorist leaders and the violence more or less ended.  It is worth noting that terrorist activity was thus being planned not only a good four years before independence in 1965 but even while the more liberal United Federal Party government was still in office.

After independence, there were several further attempts by Britain and Rhodesia to settle the dispute between them. Suffice to say that the first two would, if Rhodesia had accepted Harold Wilson’s terms, have amounted to an effective handover to direct rule by a British appointed Governor.  In 1971 the new Conservative government finally came to an agreement with Rhodesia which, however, involved the release of various known troublemakers prior to an assessment of acceptability by the people as a whole. Fairly widespread intimidation resumed and, unsurprisingly, this led to a rejection.  Life then continued much as hitherto until an event occurred which undoubtedly was the immediate cause of Rhodesia having to throw in the towel.


In 1974 a leftist military coup d’état took place in Lisbon, Portugal. Although the Frelimo terrorist group was still confined to the north of Moçambique, the new Portuguese government was anxious to hand over control as quickly as possible and this was achieved in June 1975.  From Rhodesia’s viewpoint this was a major setback as it transformed its eastern neighbour from a friendly country to an aggressive enemy run by an avowedly Marxist-Leninist government. Frelimo invited ZANU to set up bases in Moçambique from which to attack Rhodesia. Up to 1975 Rhodesia’s only hostile border had been with Zambia and this was the relatively easily defended Zambezi River.  From late 1975 onwards the very lengthy eastern land border became open to attack.  Rhodesian forces, of which the majority were African volunteers, put up a very good performance and were never defeated in the field.  Overall they achieved a remarkable kill rate of more than 20 times their own losses and they successfully undertook some of the most audacious special forces raids in the history of warfare. But Rhodesia now became heavily dependent on South Africa for trade and, in particular, for oil and munitions.  South African Prime Minister, John Vorster, thought he could save South Africa by following a policy of southern African “détente”.  Given that the coup in Portugal led to both flanks of southern Africa being transferred to communist control – and in the case of Angola to the insertion of tens of thousands of communist Cuban troops –  this left Rhodesia seriously exposed and vulnerable to pressure from South Africa.  It is important to note that these events were occurring more than 10 years before the reformist Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union. The communist threat was considered very severe and in the case of southern Africa had never been greater.

The USA now started to take an increasing interest in the region and in September 1976 Vorster arranged for Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to meet Ian Smith in Pretoria. Under a threat of withdrawal of South African oil and munitions, Smith had no option but to agree an announcement of his acceptance of a transfer of power within two years.  As it turned out, factional disagreement among the terrorist groups led to the two year period being missed and Rhodesia managed to organise its own internal settlement with some of the more moderate nationalists.

A new constitution was agreed between the Rhodesian government and various nationalist leaders who were not engaged in terrorism.  As a compromise, the country would be renamed Zimbabwe Rhodesia.  At the general election held in April 1979 Bishop Muzorewa’s UANC party won. Black Africans now held 72 out of the 100 seats in the new parliament. Given that the ZANU and ZAPU terrorist groups sought to impose a boycott, it was striking that nearly 2 million votes were cast – that being a 64% turnout. All the demands for majority rule had been met so it now only remained for the rest of the world to recognise the new majority ruled country. Some hope!  This failure even of the new British conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, to accept the new country with a black prime minister and a black president, probably just goes to show that whatever Rhodesia did or might do would have made no difference.

In early 1980 the naïve British government supervised another election supposedly oblivious of the intimidation wrought by Mugabe’s thugs. He won of course.


In preparing this piece, I have to say that it seems to me unlikely that if the alternative choice had been made at any of the crossroads in Rhodesian history, the final outcome would have been very much different.

Joining the Union in 1923 would have robbed Rhodesia of its distinctive identity and as a part of South Africa, even with its millions of whites, that far more powerful country still had to throw in the towel.

Had Rhodesia not joined the Federation in 1953, and instead been granted full independent Dominion status, the fall of Portuguese Moçambique likely would have led to the same end result; after all that was the position which wealthy South Africa faced.

As we have seen, the granting of an unadulterated 1961 constitution would still have been less helpful than the granting of full Dominion status 10 years earlier and terrorism was being initiated in any event and before the 1965 declaration of independence.

So I am forced to the view that only if the Portuguese coup had not taken place might Rhodesia have survived long enough for economic and political evolution to have had a chance. Beyond that it would have needed the full support of the West which had probably been a non-starter since WW2 and, I would argue, it was probably the shot fired by Gavrilo Princip in 1914 that marks the real start of the West’s decline which is continuing to this day.

© Colin Weyer, Window on Rhodesia – the Jewel of Africa

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1 Response

  1. Linde says:

    Using a frame of reference that is essentially of the British Empire and looking at the development of nations within the empire and from the empire turns up many important facts which played out in the history of Rhodesia.

    This mysterious ‘loss of the will to govern’ attributed to Great Britain, I think, needs to be attributed to the rise of Internationalism, specifically through the UN and its influence in the affairs of nations. European nations were mandated by the General Resolution 1514 in 1960 to decolonise. The Communist Bloc members of the UN were not so mandated, but the Western European nations were. The USSR was not mandated to ‘decolonise’ from the nations it conquered in WWII and then ‘colonised’ into the Soviet Union for example.

    The Central African Federation was ‘decolonised’ by Great Britain – Zambia and Malawi were created with the stroke of a pen – but as Ian Smith points out, they had never achieved independence. Whereas Rhodesia had de facto independence and proceeded to develop a Rhodesian solution for making it work which Great Britain refused to recognize because it was a nationalist / Rhodesian solution and not an internationalist one (like Zambia for example).

    African nations that were ‘decolonised’ were rendered open for Communist invasion and they promptly were invaded. Great Britain, together with other European powers under the mandate of the UN General Resolution 1514 stood aside while the former colonial populations were invaded by Gook cadres financed, trained and equipped by the Communist Bloc. The lying W media referred to these Gooks as nationalist liberation forces – but these nations had already been decolonised.

    Ian Smith – the ‘paddling our own canoe’ speech Oct 1 1967


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