On 11 November 1965, the Southern African colony of Southern Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence from Britain. Incensed by the ‘winds of change’ blowing through the continent, the white settler state broke off negotiations with Harold Wilson’s Labour government, and decided to go it alone. Britain, having handed political autonomy to the Rhodesian government (along with control of one of Africa’s most technologically-advanced militaries), was powerless to resist this act of treason, which was somewhat ironically taken in Queen Elizabeth II’s name.
This declaration of independence (UDI), a ‘loyal’ act of treason, was a paradox typical of Rhodesia: a place typified by the tensions between a quintessentially colonial British society, and its vision for itself as a viable, post-colonial national community. The rebellion persisted until April 1980, when Britain’s last African colony gained its independence as Zimbabwe, over two decades after Britain’s colonial withdrawal from Africa had begun with the independence of the Gold Coast colony (as Ghana) in 1957.
Viewed alone, the UDI rebellion is a bizarre and anomalous late-colonial episode, but it was profoundly connected to broader trends taking place around the world: the decolonisation of Africa and Asia and the advent of ‘majority-rule’ administrations and states; the re-negotiation of national identities taking place in settler colonial societies in Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand; and the evolving and deeply intertwined discourses of Cold War and decolonisation. It also has ramifications for the way we understand contemporary identity politics in what Lorenzo Veracini has called ‘the settler colonial present’. In particular, Rhodesia continues to inspire discourses of racially-defined national identities and ‘whiteness’ in these settler societies, as well as in Britain and other parts of the ‘Western world’.
The period in which Rhodesia rebelled against Britain and the concept of ‘majority-rule’, or the right of black Africans to rule themselves, was one of flux, transition, and contestation as different groups fought for the right to define their nations. The languages of unilateralism, sovereignty, and independence used by the Rhodesians thus belied the fact that their nation relied upon, and was embedded within, a series of transnational networks that worked both for and against the rebel state.
One such network was the so-called ‘white bloc’ which surrounded Rhodesia upon UDI. This bloc, consisting of South Africa and the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola, almost surrounded Rhodesia, and went a long way towards mitigating the international economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations in 1965. Thanks to trading links through South African ports and the Mozambican port of Beira, Rhodesia continued to receive vital supplies, such as oil, to keep its rebellion going.
The Southern African white bloc also shared intelligence, and military personnel and hardware, mirroring the transnational struggles waged by the major Zimbabwean liberation armies, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and the Zimbabwean People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA). These armies were based outside of Rhodesia, in Mozambique, Tanzania and Zambia.
In this sense the war being fought for the Rhodesian and Zimbabwean nations was markedly transnational. While it claimed to stand alone, the support of Portugal and South Africa meant that Rhodesia did not fight alone, and by the end of the liberation war South Africa was bankrolling the defence of the white state.
Rhodesia was also part of wider settler colonial networks which, along with the former imperial mother country of Britain, were forced to interrogate their identities in the face of imperial retreat. Though nationalist histories told stories of colonies flourishing as nations, often in the wake of bloody sacrifices such as the First World War battle of Gallipoli, these tales were simplistic and self-serving.
These settler-colonial fictions served to obscure the continuing domination of indigenous populations by indigenising the settler presence, recasting settlers (who were, by definition, outsiders) as ‘natural’ citizens. These languages of belonging masked continued social, political, and economic inequalities. In this sense Rhodesia was one among many; far from being an exceptional basket-case state, it engaged in wider global reassessments of white identity which saw a raft of new national symbols such as anthems and flags emerge to signify sovereignty.
The Rhodesian rebellion also drew upon and engaged with debates in Britain about what Britishness meant, leading postcolonial scholars like Bill Schwarz to see in the Rhodesian crisis the evolution of long-gestating notions of racial whiteness and their associations with Britishness. As Britain became more multicultural after the Second World War, white Britons began to invert discourses of colonisation, claiming that the ‘mother country’ was being ‘colonised’ by Caribbean and South Asian migrants.
This logic was, and continues to be, perverse. Yet it had a considerable emotive hold. What Rhodesia offered to discontented Britons, feeling adrift and emasculated in a post-imperial world, was a haven of Britishness, a vision of a past – better Britain – where imperialist notions of gender, race, and decorum were preserved.
Such notions were fuelled by a sense of shared history and culture. When proud Rhodesians spoke of their plucky little country defying global economic sanctions, they used the idioms of the Second World War. Rhodesia had inherited the ‘blitz spirit’ and the ghost of Winston Churchill was often evoked by the Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith, who went so far as to say that if Churchill were still alive (he conveniently died in 1965, shortly before UDI) he would choose to live in Rhodesia.
In Rhodesia, whites were a race set against time, defying decolonisation to preserve what they considered to be the ‘best of British’. Their failure was due to the collapse of white society domestically, the ratcheting up of pressure by an increasingly effective liberation movement, and the erosion of the white Southern Bloc. Mozambican independence in 1975 saw the opening of a new 3,000-mile frontier for the already-overstretched Rhodesians to police, and whenever South Africa sought to bring the intransigent Rhodesians to the negotiating table, it simply turned off the economic and military taps sustaining the rebel state’s resistance.
In 1977, two years before Rhodesia collapsed, British pop-punk band The Jam sang of ‘War in Rhodesia, Far Away, A Distant Land’. But thanks to the international networks of which Rhodesia was a part, Rhodesia was closer to home than the lyrics suggested. The Rhodesian rebellion came at a time of increasing racial anxieties in 1960s and 1970s Britain. In the twilight of Britain’s empire, white nationalist fervour was stoked by opportunistic politicians such as Enoch Powell. Powell often held up the Rhodesian crisis as yet another example of Britain’s post-imperial emasculation and humiliation.
Though Powell’s conception of Britain was more complicated than it has often been portrayed, a white backlash in support of Rhodesia’s rebellion helped to fuel a broader narrative that continues to haunt contemporary British politics: the idea that Britain, once so great, could be great again. This, like white Rhodesia’s narrative of sovereign independence, was based upon misplaced assumptions about the strength of the nation, and its failure to reassess its place in the world after the empire.
Today, as white nationalism around the globe has become resurgent, the symbols of the Rhodesian state have re-emerged. Dylann Roof, who massacred 9 black churchgoers in South Carolina in 2015, was famously pictured wearing a jacket with the apartheid South African and Rhodesian flags. For such white nationalists, the story of Robert Mugabe’s
misrule of Zimbabwe (and the failings of the post-apartheid South African state) have been read as proof that white people are inherently more capable than black people. Similarly, older online communities of ‘Rhodies’, now dispersed around the world, whose colonial nostalgia has been joined and in some senses usurped by today’s growing online community of white supremacists, with no direct connection to the former colony, who venerate Rhodesia as part of their broader racist discourse.
Now, as then, this obscure historical episode in Southern Central Africa was never just about a single country. It had implications which reverberated through space and time to inform debates about British and settler identity and belonging; the meaning of decolonisation and sovereignty; and the racialised nature of national identities. Though Rhodesians spoke of ‘going it alone’, their rebellion would have lacked both materiel and meaning without these broader international contexts.
David Kenrick is an independent researcher. He received his BA and MA from the University of Liverpool and his D.Phil. from St John’s College, University of Oxford. His first book, “Decolonisation, Identity and Nation in Rhodesia, 1964-1979” will be published by Palgrave as part of the Britain and the World Series on 12 December 2019. He has published work in the Journal for Southern African Studies (JSAS) regularly reviews books on imperial history, decolonisation, and settler colonialism for the JSAS, Itinerario, and other journals. He tweets at @dwkenrick
 BBC, On This Day, 11 November ‘Rhodesia breaks from UK’; AP Archive, ‘Rhodesia Proclaims Independence – 1965, Today in History, 11 Nov 16’, Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6fof-8r0kM
 Wikipedia, ‘Decolonisation of Africa’, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decolonisation_of_Africa
 L. Veracini, The Settler Colonial Present(Basingstoke, 2015).
 See B. Schwarz, The White Man’s World(Oxford, 2012), esp. chapters 5 and 6.
 David Blair, ‘Ian Smith: The Man Whose Folly Unleashed Mugabe’, Daily Telegraph, 20 November 2007: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1569980/Ian-Smith-Man-whose-folly-unleashed-Mugabe.html
 AP Archive, ‘RR7545A Rhodesia: Ten Years After U.D.I.’, Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVl8hsj7wIE
 For a nuanced exploration of Powell and his politics see Camilla Schofield, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain(Cambridge, 2015).
 John Ismay, ‘Rhodesia’s Dead: But White Supremacists Have Given It a New Life’, New York Times Magazine, 18 April 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/10/magazine/rhodesia-zimbabwe-white-supremacists.html, Zack Beauchamp, ‘The racist flags of Dylann Roof’s jacket, explained’, Vox, June 18 2015, https://www.vox.com/2015/6/18/8806633/charleston-shooter-flags-dylann-roof
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