The Fall of Rhodesia

Why did the white minority rule end in today’s Zimbabwe?

By Tor G. Jakobsen, NTNU

Today’s southern African country of Zimbabwe, now infamous for its land invasions, state repression, and erratic rule by its de facto dictator Robert Mugabe was until 1980 a country with white minority rule. However, economic sanctions and guerilla warfare led to the transformation of power from the whites to the majority blacks, which in the recent decade meant a mass eviction of white farmers and also their exodus from the country as a whole.

In 1965 Rhodesia, led by its leader Ian Smith, declared independence from United Kingdom. The country was run by a minority of approximately a quarter million whites, who had both the political and economic power. This illegal declaration of independence led to economic sanctions against the new country, first from the United Kingdom, later from the United Nations. 1972 saw the beginning of a seven year long guerilla war between black nationalists and the Rhodesian security forces.

The sanctions continued and the political pressure against Rhodesia increased as the 1970s progressed. Negotiations concerning a transformation to majority rule came about in 1976, and the first multiracial elections took place in 1979, an election where the guerilla factions ZANU and ZAPU were banned from participating. After renewed pressure from the UK and the US a new election was held in 1980, this time including the two guerilla factions. Robert Mugabe (ZANU) won an overwhelming victory, and Rhodesia had now changed its name to Zimbabwe.

In 1891 the area which was to become known as Rhodesia came under the administration of the British South-Africa Company (BSAC), and thousands of white settlers poured into the region. When the reign of the BSAC ended, the settlers chose to create Southern Rhodesia rather than to join the newly formed South African Union to the south. Southern Rhodesia became a colony under British administration; however the settlers soon developed a tradition of self-rule with little interference from the UK. In 1936 and 1941 the agricultural land was divided between the blacks and the white settlers. The white minority received most of the fertile land. After a short union with the colonies of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi), Southern Rhodesia changed its name to Rhodesia, and kept its status as a self-governing colony under the umbrella of the British Commonwealth. Negotiations regarding full independence took place between Rhodesia and the United Kingdom, where the British insisted that independence had to mean majority rule.

Trekking in Rhodesia

Rhodesian Front and the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI)

Rhodesian Front was founded in 1962 as a union of several smaller parties and groups on the right side of the Rhodesian political spectrum. From 1962 and onwards the Rhodesian Front won all elections with a solid margin, and in 1964 Ian Smith became leader of the party. Rhodesian Front sought to preserve the white minority rule in the foreseeable future, something that was against the tide juxtaposed with events in other parts of the African continent. According to Ian Smith the British showed signs of wanting to get rid of their colonial problems without concern of the white Africans. A referendum was thus held in November 1964, where 56 percent of the Rhodesians voted for independence from Britain. On November 11 1965 Ian Smith’s regime declared their Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Rhodesia was now an independent state.

British Prime Minister visits Rhodesia in 1960

Reactions to the declaration of independence

The British government reacted with disbelief to Ian Smith’s declaration of independence. In a speech to Parliament on the day of the declaration Prime Minister Wilson (Labour) stated that the Rhodesian succession was regarded as illegal. He considered it to be a rebellion against the crown and the constitution. Smith’s government was to be regarded as private persons, without any right of legal authority in Rhodesia. The Soviet reaction was somewhat different than that of the British. The Soviet government highlighted the racist aspect of Smith’s regime and its suppression of the people of Zimbabwe. Its leader Brezhnev also lay blame on the British for allowing the racist regime of Rhodesia to gain military and economic power.


Ian Douglas Smith (1919–2007), Rhodesian prime minister


Britain’s policy of 1965 was to not accept the regime in Salisbury (the capital of Rhodesia, today known as Harare). The export of weapons to Rhodesia came to a halt, British export of capital was banned, and the purchase of Rhodesian tobacco, the country’s main export, stopped. Oil was however not included in the first sanctions. The goal of the sanctions was to undermine the stability of the Rhodesian currency, something which failed. Britain’s continued to favor economic sanctions rather than use of military force, and regarded Rhodesia as a British responsibility.Some of the goals of the sanctions were to put Rhodesia’s economy under pressure, create dissatisfaction within its population, and thus pressure Ian Smith to negotiate an acceptable (to the British) solution. The United Kingdom’s decision not to use military force against Ian Smith’s regime meant that a change of course had the come from within Rhodesia, motivated by external economic pressure. The goal of the pressure was that one in Rhodesia should experience a fall in real wages and a rise in unemployment and inflation. This should again lead to a massive emigration of white Rhodesians, which would undermine the country’s socio-economic structure or at least create enough dissatisfaction among the white part of the population that they would reconsider their support to both Smith and the Rhodesian Front. Violent rebellion was not wished for by the British; the reasons were part humanitarian and part the Marxist ideology of several African freedom fighters.

However, there were ways to dodge the sanctions. The most important factor here was the fact that South Africa, Portugal (which held Mozambique and Angola), and South-West Africa (held by South Africa) did not participate in the sanctions, and functioned as transit countries for the transport of good to and from Rhodesia. Other countries maintained trade relations with Rhodesia, despite the countries’ official stances. This was true for states like Japan, West-Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium.


The effect of the sanctions

Rhodesia had a strong economy, and experienced a trade surplus every year from 1965–75, with the exception of the drought year 1968 as well as 1971. Businessmen who traded with Rhodesia were often cooperative. Rhodesia was a reliable trading partner, and good terms of trade was often reason enough to disregard the UN sanctions. Anti-Rhodesian organizations often uncovered regular sanction busting activities, and forced the Rhodesians and their trading partners to find new trading routes. The sanctions were probably more an annoyance than destructive with regard to Rhodesian trade. The late oil blockade had the same characteristics: irritating, yet not devastating. Oil accounted for a mere 27 percent of Rhodesian power usage, and the boycott could be bypassed by importing oil through Mozambique and South Africa. The Rhodesian product that was hardest hit by the sanctions was tobacco. One can say that the sanctions alone could not break Smith’s regime, even though they were a strain on the Rhodesians.


The white population

In 1970 the population statistics showed that there lived 228,296 Europeans, 15,154 colored (of mixed origin), and 8965 Asians in Rhodesia. The black African population numbered 4,846,930. In other words, there were 21 times more blacks than whites in Rhodesia, and half of the blacks were under 15 years old. Thus, the future demographic trend seemed pretty clear: the share of whites would further decrease compared to the number of blacks. Further, around 30 percent of the white population had dual citizenship or were citizens of another country. Half of the whites could not trace their family history further back than to the Second World War, and during the 1960s Rhodesia had a net white emigration of 42,000. The lion’s share of Rhodesians was of British background, however there were substantial Boer, Jewish, and Greek minorities within the white population.

Despite all this, the general spirit amongst the whites was optimistic, and the Rhodesians were relatively firm in line with the Rhodesian Front and supported the founding of the Rhodesian Republic. There were several explanations to this. The start of the 1970s saw great economic growth, and the threat from terrorists was small as the government seemingly controlled the black African population. After the breakup with the United Kingdom in 1965, Rhodesia was by world opinion regarded as a “rebel” state and did not achieve international recognition, something that could contribute to strengthening the unity of the white population. To immigrate to Rhodesia could to a certain degree be seen as an acceptance of the country’s politics, a country whose white population was remarkable firmly behind their leader Ian Smith and the Rhodesian Front. Despite gloomy prospects the country had in 1970 survived five years of independence. The economic sanctions were not felt as hard as expected, in part thanks to neighboring South Africa and the Portuguese Mozambique. The Rhodesians entered the 1970s with optimism.

Cecil J. Rhodes (1853–1902), the mining magnate who gave his name to Rhodesia

The Rhodesian Bush War
The Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe Africans People’s Union (ZAPU) were to become the two leading freedom or nationalist movements for the black population of Rhodesia. By the late 1960s they started targeting white Rhodesians. Robert Mugabe became leader of ZANU in 1969, and 1972 saw the starting point of ZANUs guerilla campaign against the minority government in North-East Rhodesia. Mugabe’s ZANU fought mainly in Eastern Rhodesia, and made use of bases in Mozambique. They received support from China, yet still lacked food, clothing, and weapons. ZAPU, which was led by Joshua Nkomo, fought in Western Rhodesia, made use of bases in Zambia (former Northern Rhodesia), and received support from the Soviet Union.

The nationalist organizations ZANU and ZAPU received support from communist countries due to their shared ideology. The Marxist ideology suited the African nationalism in Rhodesia, as it did in several other African countries. One fought against a small capitalist elite which owned most of the arable land, and who represented capitalist export oriented farming. The black Africans were the proletarians, and the whites controlled the means of production. Thus, the blacks struggle for majority rule was easily combined with Marxist ideology.

The Bush War

In December 1972 the guerilla offensive set of with an attack on a white farmer family. Even though there were no casualties, this event marked a change in ZANU tactics. Other attacks followed and the government soon realized that it faced a larger guerilla threat than the smaller skirmishes that had taken place in the 1960s. As a countermove against ZANU’s offensive in the northeast, the Rhodesian forces started their operation “Hurricane”. Government forces regained control over the area, and the guerilla threat seemed to be avoided for the time being.

There was a rise in international oil prices in 1973, something which also affected the Rhodesian economy. Even more important, in 1974 Portugal gave up their two colonies Mozambique and Angola (the former directly bordering Rhodesia). The new leaders of these countries were both Marxist, and the nationalist organizations now received support from Rhodesia’s neighboring countries. The whole power balance of southern Africa had been altered. The white bastion of Portuguese Angola and Mozambique, Rhodesia, South-West Africa, and South Africa had lost two of its members. South Africa wished to achieve a détente with the newly formed states, and Rhodesia thus became a thorn in the eye of South African foreign policy.

The situation had now been dramatically changed for the minority government of Rhodesia compared to the more optimistic years following the foundation of the republic. The country had all of a sudden two more hostile neighbors, and the relationship with South Africa had cooled. Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique became more involved in the war when guerilla activities spread into their territories. There was also a fear that the East and the West would interfere in the conflict and that it would get a Cold War dimension.

Why did Rhodesia experience guerilla warfare? Well, there were many factors behind the unrest. The black Africans lacked both economic and political influence, and there was also a wish for true democracy. In 1970 the mean income of blacks was 10 times lower than the corresponding white mean income. Another explanatory variable was the wave of Marxism that swept over the African continent. Knowledge of Marxist ideology and political and supply-wise support from the Soviet Union and China helped initiate the guerilla war. A third factor was a wish for power and influence by the two strong rebel leaders, Nkomo and Mugabe.


Military service

Because Rhodesia had a small white population and relatively few blacks joined the country’s armed forces, the war had a large effect on the daily life of the common Rhodesian. A white Rhodesian could be six weeks on duty and six weeks back home and so on. This could go on for years, and naturally had an impact on many Rhodesian families. Refusing military service was not accepted and was punished with imprisonment. When the guerilla war commenced in 1972, the security forces (the army and air force) consisted of 4700 personnel, with a reserve of 10,000. The security forces mainly consisted of white Rhodesians. The British South Africa Police, which was a paramilitary organization, consisted of 8000 men, of which three quarters were black Rhodesians. Also, one had 35,000 police reserves, of which three quarters were white. In other words, for a white Rhodesian the likelihood of experiencing combat as the 1970s progressed was indeed large. Dodging military service, if one was fit for duty, became increasingly difficult.

Rhodesian soldiers on patrol

With the increase in guerilla attacks in 1976 it became obvious that a regular armed forces of about 6000 personnel (1400 were foreigners, so-called “soldiers of fortune”) was not enough to manage a full-scale warfare. Thus, the private sector had to be somewhat neglected as the military had top priority. No white male 17-year olds were allowed to leave Rhodesia to study. Conscription was now in effect also for ages 38–50, however this was somewhat modified in 1977.
According to government statistics there were at least 20,350 war-related deaths in Rhodesia between December 1972 and December 1979: 468 white civilians, 1361 members of the security forces, 10,450 terrorists, and 7790 black civilians. Even though the numbers for the black civilians is possibly underestimated, and a fair share of guerilla fighters were killed in battles in the neighboring countries, the white population was hardest hit by the war if one takes into account their total numbers.

The Rhodesian Bush War was a gruesome war where atrocities, torture, and murder of civilians was common place on both sides. The “freedom fighters” had terrorized the rural population, butchered accused traitors, and massacred innocent civilians. The “defenders of Western Civilization” abused prisoners, killed civilians, and burned villages. The warfare had placed the economy and peoples feeling of personal security under pressure.

The Turning Point
In 1976 the warfare intensified, and now also included skirmishes between security forces from Rhodesia and neighboring Mozambique. After a Rhodesian aerial attack in Mozambique, the border was closed between the two countries. This meant that Rhodesia lost two important railroad lines which accounted for about half of Rhodesia’s transport of goods. Both export and import now had to be transported along the only two railroad lines into South Africa. These were subject to massive sabotage operations in 1976. The tourist industry had now become a target for guerilla attacks, and border skirmishes with forces from Zambia and Mozambique had become commonplace.

However, the real turning point took place in West-Germany in June 1976, where the U.S. foreign minister Henry Kissinger met the South African Prime Minister John Vorster. The United States put South Africa under pressure, and the South Africans thus pressured Ian Smith to agree to a deal orchestrated by Kissinger. The essence of the deal was that majority rule was to be put into place within two years. Ian Smith later described this as a betrayal by South Africa. He had previously ensured the Rhodesians that South Africa would not succumb to American pressures, as Rhodesia and South Africa had a common understanding between them that they were the defenders of Western Civilization in the region. Rhodesia was dependent on South Africa, their only ally, and the government’s perception was that they had been sold out, especially by Prime Minister Vorster, and had no other alternative than to accept Kissinger’s package. It became clear that transformation to majority rule was inevitable. It was now a goal for the Rhodesians that the more moderate nationalists came to power rather than Nkomo or Mugabe. One no longer fought to keep a white rule in the foreseeable future, but rather to get an acceptable black rule that could possibly preserve the essence of the Rhodesian civilization. Another goal for the whites was not to lose their economic privileges even though their political power would vanish.



The guerilla warfare meant higher taxes for the white population. Almost the whole white male population between 18 and 50 years was affected by different forms of military or police service. The society as a whole felt the lack of skilled workers, as emigration increased drastically from 1973 and onwards. An uncertain future, lack of possibilities, and the burdensome military call-ups were the main reasons that many white Rhodesians chose to leave the country.

In the period 1960–72 there was a relatively large immigration and emigration of whites to and from Rhodesia, but from 1973 emigration rose sharply. In 1974 and 75 there was a net immigration of whites, however this was due to the around 20,000 Portuguese refugees that arrived from Angola and Mozambique. In 1976 there was a net emigration of 7072 whites. More than 1000 whites left the country each month. These are very large numbers as the white population at the time lay between 200–250,000.

When Mozambique got their independence in 1975 and South Africa became less supportive of Rhodesia, the sanctions became more difficult to cope with. The situation worsened due to the escalation of the guerilla war and the following mass emigration of white Rhodesians. All of these were causes of the fall of Rhodesia. However, it was not the economic sanctions alone, or the Rhodesian Bush War alone that causes the downfall of Smith’s government. It was rather the interplay between them, and especially the direct political pressure from the USA and South Africa which paved the road for majority rule.

Further reading
Godwin, Peter & Ian Hancock (1993). Rhodesians Never Die: The Impact of War and Political Change on White Rhodesia, c. 1970–1980. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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