The World

Rhodesia: the ‘white man’s burden’ gets heavier and heavier

JOHN BORRELL April 5 1976
The World

Rhodesia: the ‘white man’s burden’ gets heavier and heavier

JOHN BORRELL April 5 1976

Rhodesia: the ‘white man’s burden’ gets heavier and heavier

The World

An ominous political storm continues to build over southern Africa, threatening to engulf white-ruled Rhodesia in interracial warfare. While Rhodesian troops skirmish almost daily with Mozambique-based insurgents, the pressures mount on Prime Minister Ian Smith, that steadfast foe of majority rule who has turned a deaf ear to his critics for more than a decade. Now even Smith’s theoretical friends and allies in South Africa are demanding that he make a deal with the Rhodesian blacks, if only to prevent the eruption of a war many fear might escalate to the proportions of another Vietnam.

Beginning with the 1974 coup in Portugal, and the subsequent granting of independence to Mozambique and Angola, the Salisbury regime of Smith became suddenly vulnerable. The two former Portuguese colonies had acted as a buffer between the Rhodesians and independent black nations to the north. But with Angola now in the hands of a Soviet-backed regime after a bloody civil war and with Mozambique providing shelter to black Rhodesian guerrillas, Salisbury is caught in a pincers. The Kremlin’s fascination with Africa, Washington’s alarm about Russian intentions and Britain’s dogged determination to see majority rule established are further aspects of what is emerging as the world’s number one trouble spot. For Rhodesia’s 270,000 whites, who for 10 years have coped with United Nations sanctions and constant international sniping, the immediate prospects are bleak.

The recent closure of the 700-mile border with Mozambique, coupled with an escalating guerrilla war, put tremendous pressure on Smith to reach agreement with black nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo, a moderate politician by African standards who would have to rely heavily on the whites to retain any power he gains. So far, Smith hasn’t budged, and the South Africans, among others, are becoming increasingly disillusioned with him. What the South Africans fear is that they will become embroiled in a war triggered by the militant external wing of Rhodesia’s African National Council (ANC) from bases inside Mozambique. “We just can’t afford to get involved,” said a senior military man in Pretoria. “It’s a war we can’t win. We don’t want any part of it.”

Although claims that there are more than 12,000 men under training in Mozambique are undoubtedly exaggerated, there is no doubt the guerrilla army is rapidly being built up. Mozambique Foreign Minister Joaquim Chissano has denied that

Cubans are training the Rhodesian guerrillas, but there are Cuban and Russian military advisers in Mozambique, and Salisbury fears they could eventually become involved as they did in Angola. Western intelligence sources say the Russians are trying to squeeze the Chinese out as suppliers of arms to the external wing of the ANC. Russia has traditionally supported the Nkomo group in Rhodesia’s two-way nationalist split, but the Kremlin appears far from convinced that Nkomo can win a guerrilla war against either the whites or the seemingly more powerful external wing, which draws its support from Rhodesia’s majority Mashona tribe.

To counter the growing number of incursions from Mozambique, the Rhodesian government has stepped up border patrols and civilians are busy turning their farmhouses into fortresses with government funds. Barring outside interference

of the Angolan type, the Rhodesian whites can probably contain the black nationalists for several years. The Rhodesian troops are tough and efficient, and even the guerrillas acknowledge their skill. “We hate to admit it,” said one nationalist official in Lusaka, “but they are good soldiers and they really believe in what they’re doing.” However, it is not in the mountainous border country that white Rhodesia faces its biggest threat. It is in the graceful, treelined avenues of Salisbury’s suburbs. “What we can’t afford,” said a senior Rhodesian official in Salisbury, “is a loss of white morale. If whites start leaving the country in large numbers, we are finished.” There is no evidence yet of an Angola or Mozambique type of exodus, but some whites are leaving. If the war gets tougher the trickle could turn into a flood. Neither South Africa nor Britain is keen to handle a massive white exodus from Rhodesia, which is one reason both Whitehall and Pretoria are pressuring Smith to settle with Nkomo. Their argument is that by a settling with Nkomo the whites in Rhodesia will do a lot to protect their future interests while thwarting Soviet designs. Nkomo is from the minority Matabele tribe, which accounts for about 30% of the total black Rhodesian population of six million, and there seems little doubt that he would have to rely on the basically white police and army to remain in power.

Settlement prospects appear dim when viewed from either side of the Zambezi River. Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda, one of the architects of the current negotiations, is becoming increasingly pessimistic. “We have consistently urged the whites in Rhodesia to be reasonable and accept a peaceful transfer of power to the majority,” Kaunda said recently. “But the whites in Zimbabwe [the African name for Rhodesia] have spurned the hand of friendship, and freedom must now be achieved through force of arms.” Zambia, currently suffering its most severe economic recession since independence more than a decade ago, is in urgent need of its old export routes through Rhodesia to Mozambiquan ports and through Angola to the Atlantic. But the Angola war has cut the Atlantic route and, with the Rhodesian border closed since 1973, nearly all Zambian exports and imports must go through the notoriously inefficient Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam. Zambia has yet to recognize the MPLA government of Angola— partly because of concern over the continued Soviet and Cuban presence in Angola. “The Russians and the Cubans are Africa’s new colonialists,” said a governmentowned newspaper recently. “They are not here to chase out the whites, as they claim, but to kill Africans in order to impose their ideology on the continent.” Zambian Foreign Minister Rupia Banda has said on a number of occasions that Zambia would be only too happy to see the Cubans take on the South Africans in Namibia (SouthWest Africa). “But they appear too frightened to do that. All they have done so far is kill Africans.”

Although the Zambians may be disappointed with the Cuban and Russian performance so far there is growing evidence they have long-term plans for Namibia. According to diplomatic sources in Lusaka the Soviet Union has offered to equip and train SWAPO (South West African Peoples Organization) guerrillas in camps in Angola. “The Russians realize that they can do much to enhance their standing in Africa by being closely identified with the liberation struggle at the southern tip of the continent,” said one diplomat. “And they also realize that the white-ruled states of southern Africa are an acute embarrassment to the West, so there will be little Western resistance to Soviet involvement.”

JOHN BORRELL