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ZIMBABWE RHODESIA: Return of the Union Jack

5 minute read

A British lord rules a wayward colony—for a while

British imperial rule was temporarily brought back to Africa last week by a tall, well-fleshed Englishman named Christopher Soames. A police band played God Save the Queen as the 59-year-old diplomat, a son-in-law of Winston Churchill, stepped briskly from his Royal Air Force VC10 onto the tarmac of Salisbury Airport. Lord Soames thus be came the first British Governor of Rhodesia since the colony’s rebellious white minority illegally declared independence 14 years ago.

Hours earlier, the Parliament of Zimbabwe Rhodesia had met for the last time to rescind former Prime Minister Ian Smith’s 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence and return the colony to British sovereignty under its former name of Southern Rhodesia. The Union Jack will not wave over Salisbury for long: after next spring’s elections, the Queen’s proconsul will hand over power to the new leaders of an independent Zimbabwe.

Soames’ historic arrival was actually a bold gamble. It had been hoped that it would crown 14 weeks of painstaking negotiations among representatives of Prime Minister Abel Muzorewa’s biracial Salisbury regime, the Patriotic Front guerrilla alliance and the British government. Meeting at London’s Lancaster House under the skillful chairmanship of British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, the negotiators had hammered out important agreements on a new majority-rule constitution and a transitional plan leading to legal independence. A full cease-fire agreement, however, continued to elude the negotiators. The gamble was to send Soames into Salisbury without it.

For at week’s end, the British faced an embarrassing dilemma when the conference formally ended without any final settlement. At the last plenary session, Patriotic Front Co-Leaders Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo flatly refused to sign a British-drafted plan that would require their guerrilla forces to assemble at 15 dispersed camps. This arrangement, they argued, would make them easy targets for the Rhodesian army.

In a last attempt at bluff-calling, Carrington ruled out further concessions and proceeded to initial the final conference documents with Muzorewa’s representatives. Carrington’s action cleared the way for a “second-class solution”: a bilateral settlement with Salisbury that would bar the guerrillas from the elections. In that event, warned an angry Front spokesman, “it will be a British war against us. If the conference breaks up, we go back to the bush to fight.”

Foreign Office advisers nevertheless felt that the odds for a comprehensive agreement were still better than even as informal contacts continued. Nkomo remained anxious for a settlement, they believed, though Mugabe was holding fast to a hard line. The question was whether he would give in to the pressure of neighboring African states, whose leaders are reportedly urging their Patriotic Front wards to conclude a truce. One hopeful sign: both Nkomo and Mugabe said they would stay on in London.

The eleventh-hour snag at Lancaster House obviously left Soames in an awkward position during his first days in Salisbury. Though theoretically endowed with dictatorial powers, the new Governor planned to “play it gently,” as a senior aide put it, until the cease-fire dilemma resolved itself one way or the other. A former ambassador to France, Soames has a reputation for a keen political sensitivity, an ability to get things done and a certain measure of arrogance. Predicts a friend: “He will frighten the life out of whites or blacks who dare disobey his orders.”

One immediate result of Rhodesia’s renewed legality was the lifting of the economic sanctions imposed by Britain after Rhodesia declared independence. The Carter Administration decided to follow suit and end U.S. sanctions too before Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s official visit to Washington this week. Nonetheless, the return of British sovereignty caused little rejoicing in Rhodesia. Among the country’s 212,000 whites, a somber mood of surrender and betrayal combined with a strong distrust of British motives. Snapped a white Salisbury housewife: “The British are not here to return democracy to us. They are here to turn us over to whosoever will get us off their hands.”

With the 3% white minority stripped of its former privileges, the real contest is expected to take place among the blacks. Bishop Muzorewa, once the most popular of the black leaders, has lost much of his credibility through his failure to improve the economy and end the war. He has enraged many fellow blacks by his dependence on Ian Smith’s white followers and his open dealings with South Africa.

But there is little unity among his rivals, and the electoral campaign is likely to exacerbate their tribal and political differences. Nkomo and Mugabe, for example, have still not even decided whether to stand together in the election —if indeed they ever participate. Since as many as ten black factions will bevying for the votes, no single party is likely to be able to form a majority government. Thus the stage seemed set for a prolonged power struggle. Says maverick Black Nationalist Leader James Chikerema: “Soon after the election, there will be civil war, and the British do not want to be a part of it.”

Lord Soames will do his best to prevent that gloomy scenario from unfolding. But in the end, he can do no more than set the electoral process in motion under the fairest possible conditions and hope for the best. Once Britain’s short-lived raj is over, the people of an independent Zimbabwe will be in control of their own destiny. That in itself is no small accomplishment.

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