• U.S.

ZIMBABWE RHODESIA: Breakthrough in London

6 minute read

Lord Carrington wins his gamble, but hazards lie ahead

Even veteran U.S. diplomats had to concede that it was a “masterful” performance. Said one State Department official: “Hard ball is what the entire process is all about. Carrington has proved that he can play that very well indeed.” Thanks largely to the tactical skills of Britain’s urbane, aristocratic Foreign Secretary, the sixth week of the Lancaster House Conference in London on Zimbabwe Rhodesia ended with a long awaited breakthrough: Patriotic Front Co-Leaders Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo after a four-day exclusion from the talks accepted a British-drafted constitution. In return Lord Carrington promised Western-financed compensation for any lands nationalized by a future Zimbabwe government.

That agreement ended a deadlock that had developed when Carrington, as chairman of the conference, two weeks earlier put forth a constitutional plan requiring compensation for all dispossessed landholders. Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Prime Minister of Salisbury’s biracial government, immediately accepted it, but Mugabe and Nkomo raised a number of objections. The guerrilla leaders were particularly incensed at the idea of asking Zimbabwe’s blacks to buy back lands that they believe were stolen by white pioneers in the 1890s.

The whites, who constitute only 3% of the population, now control half of Zimbabwe Rhodesia’s territory and more than 80% of its most productive farm lands. This imbalance, the guerrillas argued, would have to be redressed by a sweeping program of land redistribution. After the

Front repeated its rejection of the British plan, Carrington excluded them from the talks and began bilateral negotiations with the Muzorewa government.

Much credit for bringing the Patriotic Front back to the conference table went to leaders of the front-line African states (Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Botswana and Angola), which provide crucial support to the guerrillas. Staggering under severe economic pressures, these countries have been urging their Patriotic Front wards to negotiate a settlement of the costly seven-year war. Frontline leaders were shocked by Carrington’s strong-handed tactics and feared that the success of the talks was being “jeopardized” by a mere technicality. Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, a key sponsor of the Lancaster House talks, invited the other front-line Presidents to an emergency summit at Dares Salaam to seek a way out of the apparent impasse. The meeting fully supported the guerrillas on the land question and made a conciliatory plea for both sides to “move on to the next crucial stage.”

Washington, meanwhile, played a key role in some behind-the-scenes negotiations aimed at getting the financial guarantees that might help resolve the crisis. Although it has avoided any direct role in the negotiations, the Carter Administration is considering a multinational “Southern Africa Aid Package,” which would provide between $1 billion and $2 billion to Zimbabwe Rhodesia and the neighboring states that have suffered from the war. State Department officials insist that this is a broad-based “agricultural and development fund” and not a “buy-out-the-whites scheme.” Still, the initiative provided assurance that substantial U.S. aid would be available for Zimbabwe Rhodesia’s future land-reform projects, including nationalization.

At the urging of the front-line leaders, Nkomo and Mugabe adopted a face-saving compromise and rejoined the talks. They dropped their objections to guarantees of white citizenship and pension rights, leaving the land settlement as the only outstanding issue to be resolved. Carrington’s assurances, backed by the promise of U.S. aid, removed that obstacle.

Behind Carrington’s bold handling of the crisis lies a determination on the part of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government to rid itself of the “Rhodesian cross” as swiftly as possible. The British policy shift involves more than a mere change of government from Labor to Tory. Perceptively reading the mood of the Commonwealth and front-line states, Carrington had first to dissuade Thatcher from a premature recognition of the Muzorewa government.

He then had to embark on negotiations whose success seemed doubtful to many observers from the outset. A breakdown in the tripartite talks, which came perilously close last week, would have involved tremendous risks. Britain would then have been virtually obliged to recognize the cooperative Muzorewa regime, lift sanctions and oversee elections without Patriotic Front participation. That course would not only have angered the front-line and Commonwealth states, it could also have provoked an escalation of the war and possible intervention by Communist bloc countries and South Africa. But by facing down the guerrillas last week, Carrington won big on a high-stakes gamble.

The Foreign Secretary must now try his luck on a new set of problems, namely the transitional arrangements. His plan calls for the Muzorewa government to repeal the 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence, dissolve the Salisbury Parliament and relinquish its own power.

During the six-month run-up to elections, Rhodesia would effectively revert to the status of a British colony, run by a British governor assisted by some 300 civilian and military advisers. A cease-fire would confine the Salisbury security forces to their barracks and the guerrillas to their bases, leaving Commonwealth observers to police the elections.

Carrington’s plan is likely to meet strong objections from both sides. The Patriotic Front has thus far insisted on sharing power with Muzorewa and the British during the interim period and merging its armies with the Salisbury security forces. Muzorewa, on the other hand, may balk at the idea of abandoning all authority during the interim period. Hard-lining Rhodesian whites, led by former Prime Minister Ian Smith, can be expected to offer stiff resistance to a settlement that strips them of most of their remaining power.

The key to the Rhodesian response may ultimately lie in the hands of Lieut. General Peter Walls, commander of Salisbury’s security forces, who flew to London last week to join the talks. A tough soldier who has directed the relentless seven-year fight against the guerrillas, Walls is unlikely to permit the dismantling of his 52,000-man force, much less its integration with the 40,000-man Patriotic Front forces.

Nor can Salisbury’s principal backer, South Africa, be counted on to support a weakening of its ally’s military might.

Pretoria recently hinted that it would intervene militarily should the forces of “chaos and confusion” descend upon Zimbabwe Rhodesia. Last week South African Foreign Minister Roelof (“Pik”) Botha flew unexpectedly to London to express his government’s concerns to Carrington and Thatcher.

The formidable difficulties ahead cannot obscure the reality that emerged from last week’s crisis: after years of bloodshed and fruitless diplomatic maneuvers, the warring parties had finally agreed upon a majority-rule constitution. Whatever hazards lie ahead, that indispensable foundation has been laid, and the prospect of a peaceful settlement looms somewhat larger on the horizon. Despite their divergent views on the shape and form of the future Zimbabwe government, neither side relishes the alternative of all-out civil war.

As one front-line diplomat put it last week, “War is about life and death, but a parliament is not.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com