Before 1965, Rhodesia was, for me, a pink land on a school atlas somewhere in Southern Africa, but as a sixteen year old knowing little about very much, it all changed on the 11th of November of that year when Iain Smith the prime minister and leader of the ruling Rhodesian Front party declared Unilateral Independence (UDI) from the UK. This singular event stirred in me an interest in that nation and Southern Africa that has remained and grown over the years.
I was still at school at the time and didn’t know what UDI was, but I quickly understood that it was an attempt by the colonial whites who represented a mere 5% of the country to hold on to power indefinitely. I remember the front page story in the newspaper and I followed Harold Wilson’s hapless efforts on HMS Tiger. On my landlady’s TV I watched a news programme which bizarrely showed plans of the warship and the complicated allocation of rooms to avoid an embarrassing meeting of the two politicians, at night, in their pyjamas. I also followed the role of sanctions to bring the Rhodesian Front to recognise universal suffrage and I was convinced then and now that had the UK government taken decisive military action at that point, then the whole history of the nation could have been so different. The declaration could have been nipped in the bud and with the implementation of universal suffrage, Zimbabwe could have become a shining beacon in a troubled continent. Sadly it was not to be, even a labour government, it seemed, albeit with a tiny majority, didn’t have the will or stomach to stand up to Iain Smith and his Rhodesian Front Party. They were after all our “kith and kin” a blatantly racist phrase that was to haunt British relations with the continent for decades and, in my view, contribute in some way to the years of war, oppression, famine, terror and tyranny. To the mind of this sixteen year old, the situation was uncomplicated and clear cut – Britain had a moral duty to intervene and if that meant war planes and troops on the ground then so be it.
I think I got that moral certainty from my mother. She had a deep interest in the plight of the injustice in Africa. While travelling from The UK to Australia as a young girl leaning over the deck of the ocean liner docked in Cape Town she witnessed a drunk black man slip off the pier and struggle in the water. To her shock a crowd gathered and laughed at the pathetic flapping of the drowning man before a driver lept from his truck, dived in and saved the man. It left an indelible mark on her mind. Life was cheap if you were black.
Despite all the peace-making efforts, it seemed that both sides in the Rhodesian conflict were committed to war and convinced that this was the only way to achieve their ends. I read the fascinating biography of Abel Muzorewa and had great sympathy for his stance, but his compromise with the Smith regime was not tolerated and led to his demise. He just seemed to slip from the scene. At the same time I watched a TV documentary which took an inside look at the independence struggle and focused on Robert Mugabe and what was to become ZANU. It was a heartening story of loyalty between comrades and a genuine desire for freedom and their beloved Zimbabwe , then Rhodesia. It included a visit to the Zimbabwe ruins and songs around the camp fire. One which I recall at the time I can still remember:
Beautiful Zimbabwe/Beautiful Zimbabwe/Oh no, I’ll never forget/Beautiful Zimbabwe
Long live comrade Mugabe/Long live comrade Mugabe/Oh No I’ll never forget/Long live comrade Mugabe
In 1968 with our young family, we visited close friends working in Zambia. It was astonishing trip. We visited Mosi-Oa-Tunya “The smoke that thunders” and saw the railway bridge across the ravine where the failed negotiations took place. We crossed the border on several occasions and were struck by the richness of Zimbabwe in contrast to Zambia’s relative poverty. On one occasion we visited a farm where the children in a white family had just come from acting as extras in a film. We were told that Richard Attenborough was making a film about Cecil Rhodes. It did seem strange to me at time. Later we realised the film was “Cry Freedom” and the story of Steve Biko. Against this background it was easy to be caught up in the swelling optimism, the prospect of a new dawn for the whole continent. Unknown to us and most of the world, Mugabe, was at this time deploying the infamous fifth brigade, trained by North Korea, and carrying out systematics slaughter against their own people in Matebeland. The Gukurahundi genocide was happening not many miles away from where we sipped our cokes on the banks of the Zambezi. The full scale of this horror was inconveniently suppressed, downplayed and denied and not fully catalogued until The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace produced their report “Breaking the Silence” in 1997.
Earlier this year David Coltart a Zimbabwean human rights lawyer published his own account of the past 50 years in Zimbabwe’s history – “The Struggle Continues – 50 years of Tyranny in Zambabwe” . It is a massive volume, over 600 pages long, with a confusing and baffling barrage of names and acronyms. But it is a riveting story. As any good lawyer would, the details are catalogued with uncompromising accuracy and there is a transparency, openness and fairness in all that he says. His integrity shines through every page and his honest reporting of the radical changes that occurred in his own thinking as well as in his own faith is quite remarkable. His own story is woven between the events with just enough detail for you to know that it is real and true. Reaching the conclusion, it has been the most encouraging, uplifting and hopeful things I have read about Africa. Coltart takes his title from Frelimo’s cry “A vitória é certa” which was adopted by ZANU PF and epitomises the hope for Beautiful Zimbabwe. “In the pursuit of democracy there is never a final victory because democracy is a process not an event. Even countries that have had democratic institutions for over a century, experience the same evolution and, on occasions, reversal of democracy. Zimbabwe, as a young emerging democracy, is no different. The struggle continues – yes, it does indeed.”