Zimbabwe-Rhodesia Was Not Super!

I don’t know how it happened, but an article that is reasonably straight on the factual details somehow slipped past the vigilant demand for error at the Weekly Standard.

It’s an article by James Kirchick about the transition between Rhodesia and Zimbabwe and the role of the Carter Administration.

Kirchick focuses on the 1979 creation of “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia”, an attempted compromise by Ian Smith’s government designed to head off unrestrained majority rule. Kirchick’s argument is that the Carter Administration bears the lion’s share of the responsibility for ignoring the potential of this settlement and forcing a hasty, careless transition to the elections that put Robert Mugabe in power.

There is certainly a lot of shading of the facts and some hammering of square pegs into round holes going on in the article, but I think the main body of his argument has some validity to it.

Mostly, I’d just ask that people who ask for hardnosed assessments of one situation don’t turn around and demonstrate blinkered innocence about another comparable circumstance. This is what I think Kirchick does in evaluating the two versions of “majority rule” in the transition to Zimbabwe.

I think he’s right that the Carter Administration just wanted to get the Rhodesian situation resolved in the most expedient way possible, and that for them, resolution meant Smith’s capitulation and a basic majority-rule election. Kirchick finds some choicely naive quotes from Andrew Young about Mugabe, though to be fair, most observers were naive about Mugabe at the time. (Even Smith and his allies briefly praised Mugabe in the first two or three years after Mugabe was elected.) I don’t think that a secure or constructive transition in Rhodesia was very high on the Carter agenda: the only goal was to make the Rhodesians disappear. Kirchick also overstates to some extent the Carter Administration’s leadership role in that transition: the Callaghan government in the UK was equally important in pushing for it before Margaret Thatcher came into power.

So Kirchick faults people at the time for not taking a harder look at Mugabe, not questioning the way that the elections were handled, not pushing for a more extensive set of constitutional guarantees, and so on. Fair enough. The problem is that Kirchick holds up the 1979 elections that created “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia” as a perfectly adequate alternative without cluing his readers in on some of the problems with them.

Kirchick does summarize some of the ways that “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia” was something less than a model majoritarian democracy. Whites were to retain effectively permanent control over most of the key capacities of the government, and have a large enough permanent plurality in the legislature to block most initiatives undertaken by African lawmakers. The new arrangement specified that the government was not permitted to address land reform or economic redistribution in any respect. To a very significant extent, the capacity to govern was kept a white privilege, while Africans were allowed to be titular and symbolic representatives of the state.

Let’s get real here: that’s not majority rule or democracy. It wasn’t a lasting formula for resolving the legitimate aspirations of Africans for self-determination. I don’t even think it was a particularly promising formula for negotiating the way to some more satisfying transition: it looked cynical and half-hearted, and it was cynical and half-hearted. I can’t really blame Andrew Young, Cyrus Vance or any other involved party for viewing “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia” as a stillborn chimera. Kirchick seems to think that there could have been a Muzorewa government with these kinds of restrictions that survived with the backing of the United States and that indefinitely kept Mugabe and Nkomo out of the picture. I can’t see it no matter how I twist the counterfactual. In purely realist terms, Muzorewa’s government had little more military or economic capacity than the Smith government that preceded it, and therefore no greater ability to defeat entrenched insurgents. Mozambique and Tanzania weren’t going to give up support for Mugabe and Zambia for Nkomo, regardless of what the Carter Administration did. Even the South Africans were ready to cut Rhodesia loose, seeing it as an indefensible liability. Mugabe and Nkomo had genuine support from many Africans in the country: you couldn’t have a final settlement that didn’t include them, any more than the apartheid regime in South Africa could have had a transition that excluded Mandela and the ANC. Western support couldn’t have kept Zimbabwe-Rhodesia alive any more than the nearly blank-check endorsement of the South African government by the Reagan Administration could keep back the political and economic rot that was forming underneath apartheid during the 1980s.

Kirchick doesn’t even go into some of the other depressing details. Yes, many Africans voted in the 1979 election, but virtually as many did not. Kirchick claims that’s entirely due to violent suppression of the vote by guerillas in 1979, but let’s be fair here. A great many Africans chose not to vote because they saw “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia” as a phony settlement, with good reason. In 1979, African voters weren’t given a full choice of possible candidates, given that the two major nationalist parties (and some minor ones) were not on the ballot. You can’t praise some version of a plebiscite when it produces Muzorewa and then ignore or dismiss the fact that a majority of African voters did choose Mugabe in the 1980 election.

In 1979, many of the voters in more secure rural areas were more or less commanded to vote in particular ways by chiefs who were controlled to a significant extent by the Smith government and backed by the Rhodesian military. (Yes, in 1980, a similar situation pertained in the opposite direction in that the guerillas were allowed to intimidate rural voters near their assembly areas. But that’s the point: Kirchick can’t use one fact to ignore the 1980 result and then overlook a very similar issue only a year earlier.)

I agree with Kirchick that Sithole and Muzorewa were not simply “stooges”. In what I’m writing now, I’m arguing that even Chief Chirau, another ally of the Smith government, was more complex in his views and loyalties than was commonly thought at the time. But if Kirchick wants us to be hard-nosed retrospectively about Mugabe, there’s no reason to regard either Sithole or Muzorewa as saintly liberal democrats, either. Muzorewa was driven by untrammeled personal ambition for power, and Sithole certainly made some deals with various devils both before and after 1979.

Neither transitional moment had much promise for making a better postcolonial future. No one involved in either government really seemed to have a clue about how to restructure the state, which is fundamentally what was needed. Smith was an autocrat, too, and in “Zimbabwe-Rhodesia” he sought to retain most of his autocratic prerogatives. Perhaps he might have allowed Abel Muzorewa some share of those capacities over time, but that’s hardly a liberal democracy in the making. The transition that didn’t happen, the one that might have made a difference, wouldn’t have been a question of who got to retain control over the military, or who was in charge of repressing civil liberties, which is really all that the difference between 1979 and 1980 amounts to. The transition that might have mattered would have been the one that abolished the Central Intelligence Office, that guaranteed personal and political rights, that strengthened an independent judiciary that both Smith and Mugabe governments treated with disdain, that vastly shrank and restrained the ranks of the military and police forces, and so on.

However, while I’d like Kirchick to apply his hardnosed assessment more evenly, I don’t disagree with him that enormous mistakes were made in both 1979 and 1980, and that the Carter Administration made a goodly share of those mistakes. History is the art of hindsight, and when you practice its art, you’ve got to be honest with yourself. Anyone who knows the full political history of Robert Mugabe knows that there was plenty of reason to regard him as a destructive autocrat before 1980. If you gave him a pass then for political reasons, you ought to own up now. (I know I was certainly very credulous about Zimbabwe and Mugabe when I began my own involvement with southern Africa as an undergraduate involved in the anti-apartheid movement in the early 1980s.) Certainly there isn’t much reason to think of him as a “good leader gone bad” when you look at the early 1980s, considering that he wasted almost no time sending troops into southern Zimbabwe to murder civilians.

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6 Responses to Zimbabwe-Rhodesia Was Not Super!

  1. withywindle says:

    I think the very first time I read in any detail about Zimbabwe–sometime back in the mid-1980s–I asked myself “I wonder when they’ll get around to kicking out the whites?” I’m only startled it took so long. But then, when I did a paper in high-school about policy toward Asians in Uganda and Kenya, I also predicted that the Kenyans would expel the remaining Asians the next time it seemed convenient, and that doesn’t seem to be happening. (Yet?–I didn’t time-limit that prediction!) So I’m only batting 50% on predicted expulsions/dispossessions in Africa so far.

    Kirchik is an interesting voice on The New Republic’s “The Plank” blog.

    I suppose it would be interesting to know if (non-white) Zimbabweans are the sources of Kirchik’s argument, which would argue that some of them are constructing a retrospective myth of Muzorewa, as a way to provide a cultural underpinning for a political departure from the Mugabe regime. Even if factually false, this potentially could be a very useful myth to promote for Zimbabwe’s future. (Cf. “we were all in the Resistance during the war, m’sieu.)

  2. emmanuelgoldstein says:


    Thanks for the rebuttal. You might also have mentioned that the Smith govt. almost certainly used chemical and biological weapons against the rebels in 1979 and 1980. (See pp. 28-42 of Chandre Gould’s PhD here) These sorts of things make it difficult to believe that Smith seriously intended to give way to liberal democracy.


    FWIW, overt persecution of Asians in Kenya lasted from 1963 to 1969, and had lost intensity well before the end. (The only other period was during the 1982 coup attempt in Nairobi, and that was in the context of a general breakdown of law & order). Also, a fair few of the Asians kicked out by Amin went to Kenya.

    Anyway, since 1969, Kenyans of South-Asian descent have earned prominence in the arts, business, the professions (a Chief Justice, several lawyers of distinction, etc.) and almost every other sphere of Kenyan life you care to mention. This guy has entered Kenya’s national mythology; the national history curriculum acknowledges the role of Asians in Kenya’s history; Kenya’s first vice-president was half-Goan; a Kenyan team of largely South-Asian descent did exceptionally well at the 2003 World Cup; disproportionately large number of South-Asian women teach in majority-black schools; the national religious-studies curriculum requires study of all three of Christianity, Hinduism and Islam; Asian food is popular; Asian professionals contributed greatly to the late 90’s revival of substantive democracy; the remaining hatreds are best explained by class not race.

  3. nord says:

    Were/are there a sustainable democratic / majoritarian models for Zimbabwe and South Africa? I can’t see how a democratically elected government can co-exist with a society where 10% of the population lives at a first world level, and 90% at a third world level. Perhaps gradualism can delay the process – certainly Mugabe provided a lot of stability for +20 years. The ANC doesn’t seem threatened with elections yet, so they may have time, but the end point still seems the same.

  4. withywindle says:


    Yes, I did a paper comparing Ugandan and Kenyan policy toward Asians, asking why the different outcomes. I had a nicely complex answer, but I was at that point (1988) arguing that when 1) a Kikuyu-dominant government came to power again, and 2) the Kikuyu commercial classes decided they didn’t want Asian competition, then 3) out the remaining Asians would be evicted, with no particular tears on the part of any other Kenyans. This I think was a reasonable argument to make in 1988. Now, there *wasn’t* a Kikuyu-led government until arap Moi left, so I didn’t get a chance to test the thesis until just the last few years–at which point, no expulsions. I don’t know exactly what Kikuyu-Asian economic tensions are simmering right now, if any, so I don’t know where that part of the thesis stands. I do suspect, however, that the expulsion/no expulsion decisions have a great deal to do with economic interest, and very little to do with curricula, arts, or food. Asian prominence in business and teaching employment makes them more likely to be expelled than the reverse. The only cultural argument I’ll take as realy promoting non-expulsion is soccer!

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Nord, I don’t see that Mugabe provided “a lot of stability” for 20 years. He brutalized the southern part of the country in the early 1980s, and the current collapse had clear roots around 1994-95. That leaves a grace period of about a decade from 1985-95 when things seemed relatively ok, but in retrospect, a lot of things were already rotting in the foundation at that time.

  6. withywindle says:


    Incidentally, what are the prospects for South Africa to stay democratic and stable, with no expulsions, civil wars, dictatorships, etc.? In my class with Harry Wright, as the transition was gathering steam, my prediction was that a black democracy of some sort would make it there.–again, prediction holding so far, though the ANC shows alarming tendencies toward one-party-ism. Thoughts?

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