Throughout the 1960s and 70s, five successive British prime ministers had to contend with the “Rhodesia problem.” The former colony – which unilaterally separated from Britain in 1965 – became a thorn in the side of every leader from Harold Wilson to Margaret Thatcher.
Rhodesia did what only one other country in the world – the United States – had accomplished: It successfully declared its independence from the mighty British Empire. But Rhodesia’s sovereignty was short lived. In 1980, the country reborn as Zimbabwe, held a democratic election in which Robert Mugabe became president, an office he continues to hold with ruthless authority.
Zimbabwe’s colonial past might seem of little significance in resolving its current crisis. But there’s an interesting twist in the history of Rhodesian independence that remains vitally relevant today.
The cause of the Rhodesia problem was the colony’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence, which Rhodesia’s obstinate prime minister, Ian Smith, declared on Nov. 11, 1965. The brash move was precipitated by the British policy of refusing to grant independence to British colonies in Africa before they had established majority rule. While Britain faced some opposition among white settlers in its other African territories, there was no greater resistance to majority rule than in Rhodesia, where whites represented about 4 percent of the population yet controlled the economy.
From 1972 onwards, black guerrilla groups fought the white regime, which dug in against economic sanctions and international isolation. Yet a turning point in ending white rule came from the most unlikely of places – apartheid South Africa.
In 1975, Prime Minister B. J. Vorster withdrew South African military units fighting alongside Rhodesian forces against Mugabe’s Zanu-PF rebels, without even warning Smith. Vorster also halted oil supplies to Rhodesia. The unlikely action – Vorster hoped that getting Smith to concede to majority rule would win South Africa important new allies in black Africa – played a crucial role in bringing majority rule.
In his memoirs, Smith bitterly counted South Africa as one of his country’s “great betrayers.” Nevertheless, Vorster’s action forced him to do the unthinkable. In September 1976, Smith accepted the principle of majority rule, a concept that he had said just years earlier would not occur in Rhodesia for “1,000 years.”
Today many people are calling – with good reason – for South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, to put the same screws on Mugabe that Vorster did on Smith.
It is important to appreciate the gravity of Vorster’s decision in 1975. Just months earlier, a left-wing military coup overthrew the dictatorship of Marcelo Caetano in Portugal. This led to the immediate evacuation of Portuguese troops from Angola and Mozambique, which had been reliable buffer-state allies of the South Africans in fighting insurgencies against white rule in southern Africa. Angola entered a long civil war in which Cuba and the Soviets would become mired, and which also sapped South Africa.
Mozambique fell into the hands of Frelimo, a Marxist rebel group hostile to apartheid South Africa. While Vorster’s motivation for abandoning Smith was hardly altruistic, he knew that a white-ruled Rhodesia was impossible to maintain.
What matters is not Vorster’s rationale for abandoning white Rhodesia but the fact that he did. Thabo Mbeki and his governing African National Congress sympathize with Mugabe and his liberation past, just as Vorster’s National Party saw Ian Smith as a hero standing athwart the black masses. But sometimes, statecraft requires breaking with one’s most steadfast ideological convictions. This is one lesson that Mbeki ought to have the courage to emulate.