Review of Unpopular Sovereignty

Unpopular Sovereignty: Rhodesian Independence and African Decolonisation

by Luise White

University of Chicago Press (2015)

Distributed in Zimbabwe by Weaver Press

Launched at SAPES Policy Dialogue Forum on 18 June 2015

The following are the notes provided by Professor Luise White who provided the keynote address.



  • I’m a child of the 1970s, which means I was an unquestioning supporter of liberation movements around the globe and that I believed that the proper study of history was of ordinary, disenfranchised people, that my task as an historian was to rescue prostitutes and beggars from the condescension of the present.

  • If anyone had told me twenty years ago that I would ever write a book about white people, let alone reactionary white people, I would have laughed in their face. Maybe I would have spit.

  • But here I am, not only writing about white people but writing about really bad white people and most of all the ideas these people had. I found myself almost obsessed with the Rhodesian state, and the very question of how Rhodesia got away with it – not just declaring itself independent so that it could keep Africans out of the institutions of representative government, but how it survived without a shred of legitimacy – let alone credibility – in the world.

  • Rhodesia was the first pariah nation. It was sanctioned well before South Africa ever was. Indeed, the sanctions of the 1990s – the former Yugoslavia, Iran, Libya – were all modeled exactly on the mandatory sanctions for Rhodesia. And no other country on the globe recognized it. Ever.

  • There’s actually a lot of evidence that most of the original Rhodesian Front cabinet didn’t expect Rhodesia to survive very long, which I think underscores the way they made up policies as they went along.

  • But what Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia starting in 1961 was very consistent about was the idea that theirs was a legal state governed by a constitution that was itself consistent, if not almost sacred in its purity, and not subject to multiple interpretations.

  • This seminar is called constitutions and state legitimacy but it could just as easily have been called constitutions and state illegitimacy. Almost every Rhodesian constitution between 1961 and 1979 could be described either way.

  • Southern Rhodesia as you probably know wasn’t really a colony, but it had a legal relationship to Britain in which all laws, especially those that had anything to do with the treatment of Africans, had to be approved by Britain. This was the reserve clause. In practice Britain almost never vetoed a Rhodesian law because there were all these informal channels by which Rhodesians assessed what Britain would accept and tended to water down some of its own laws just to make sure they were approved. The only major legislation that was vetoed was the one that wanted to close voting rolls to Africans after 5,000 were enfranchised.

  • Let me start with what was essentially the first state constitution, that of 1961. The Central African Federation had been pronounced dead, plans were made for independence of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, and no one in Britain at least wanted to predict a future for Southern Rhodesia.

  • The 1961 constitution was negotiated with great hope and pride and double dealing. For the first time, African nationalists were present. The resulting constitution had two voting rolls. Since 1896 Southern Rhodesia had a single, common roll, on which anyone of any race could register if they met basic property, residency, and literacy requirements. For all the prattle that this proved the country was not racist, very very few Africans met these requirements. The idea of two rolls, the A and the B, was to have a lesser roll (the B) that allowed for lower qualifications – calculated by a combination of property, income and years of schooling -- that allowed more Africans to vote. This was necessary to impress Britain and to run the country – even at its peak, the white population could not do it alone. The A and B rolls were designed to increase African voting but the constitution had mechanisms to minimize the impact of African votes. There was a convoluted way to count the votes so that no B voters could dominate in a place where there were a significant number of A roll voters. But the B roll added perhaps 10,000 Africans to the rolls, even if they would eventually not vote, It had a justiciable bill of rights, which Rhodesians agreed to because they thought it was a good bargaining chip with Britain to get rid of the reserve clause. It was supported by the ruling United Federal Party which claimed it would give independence soon. It was supported at first by ZAPU: the publicity secretary, one Robert Mugabe, said it wasn’t ideal but it kept the settlers from getting the independence they wanted. Nkomo supported it until many in his party, including detainees, called it a sham and a deception and demanded that he oppose it.

  • He eventually did denounce the constitution to which he’d been a signatory and boycotted the referendum on it, but not before ZAPU held its own referendum against it that proved to be a powerful if disorganized exercise in democracy.

  • White Rhodesians on the other hand denounced the constitution that the white electorate had supported by a 2:1 margin because Britain had lied and did not remove the reserve clause.

  • My point here isn’t so much party politics or whether or not Britain lied to politicians in Africa but the many meanings of this constitution: depending on who was talking, it either promised majority rule in a distant future or really really soon.

  • And why not? The language of rights and who can vote and who can count votes in which constituency and electoral district is not exact; it’s subject to interpretation and words have multiple meanings and legal genealogies.

  • Yet the various interpretations of the 1961 constitution were to continue well past 1965, and even into the 1970s Britain all but begged the Rhodesian Front to return to the 1961 constitution.

  • They knew it was unacceptable to Africans, but it turned out to be far less unacceptable than the ones that were to follow it.

  • In fact, the UDI constitution was identical to the 1961 constitution with one exception: the reserve clause had been removed. So had Rhodesia’s legal link to Britain.

  • But – and this is a very big but – the 1965 constitution did not legitimate Rhodesia. What the government regarded as proof of its legal sovereignty was in fact a court case that began three months after the announcement that Rhodesia would go it alone.

  • In this case two detainees – well the wife of one detainee, Daniel Madzimbamoto, who had been detained in 1962 and Leo Solomon Baron, ZAPU’s lawyer who had been arrested in his home while listening to Ian Smith’s radio broadcast announcing UDI – sued that they had been jailed under the 1961 constitution. Because that constitution had been illegally removed the current regime had no legal right to detain them. Because of ZAPU’s ties to South Africa’s ANC the detainees were defended by two ANC lawyers, including Sydney Kentridge who had defended Mandela a few years earlier. The Rhodesian Front argued that UDI was in fact a revolution and as such it replaced earlier constitutions.

  • This was called the constitutional case. It took nine months of deliberation for the high court to rule. Their decision was that there had been no revolution and that by international law UDI was an illegal act. But – and here’s another big but – the Rhodesian Front government was the only source of law and order in the land and that was the basis of constitutional authority. Rhodesia, they ruled, was not legally independent but de facto independent. It was independent in fact and the detainees had to remain in prison.

  • One of the judges later wrote that they all joked that they should go home and pack their bags; they would surely be removed from office. But later that day Ian Smith told a crowd at the Salisbury Agricultural Show that this ruling was a milestone for Rhodesia. What he didn’t say but I will is that de facto was better than illegal.

  • Everyone in the Rhodesian Front government knew that the 1965 constitution was a stop-gap measure, that it was just the 1961 constitution with a paragraph removed.

  • In 1968 they set up a constitutional commission that was to create a new constitution that was perhaps the strangest and easily most reactionary document produced in the 1960s anywhere. When it was put in place in 1969 it did not legitimate Rhodesia but made it more illegitimate than it already was.

  • The constitutional commission heard evidence from several hundred officials and individuals and took submissions from whoever wanted to write one, wherever they were. Officials described African society in ways I can only call bonkers. The same men who had banned the National Democratic Party and then ZAPU two years later, announced that Africans did not understand politics the way we white people did. Officials who had struggled with the violence the implementation of the Land Husbandry Act brought about now said rural Africans were only interested in crops and rainfall; when they had serious problems they went to the diviner. Maybe urban Africans had some idea of the modern world and perhaps they should vote, but no one in the countryside cared enough to be enfranchised.

  • At the same time one submission suggested dividing the country among its 3 races, whites, Shona and Ndebele. Each would have its own province, its own government which for Africans meant a council of chiefs. Until this utopia could be achieved there would be a five-year transition in which rural Africans would elect chiefs by a method so complicated that the constitution said it would be explained later. Urban Africans could elect representatives, but so few as to make no difference. African representation was to be based on African contribution to the overall income tax in the country – at the time it was 1/66 of that of Europeans.

  • The draft constitution was contested. Ian Smith campaigned against it, calling Rhodesia a “meritocracy” and the Rhodesian Front a party that did not judge men on the basis of skin color. Nevertheless, the constitution passed the party congress by a tiny margin, causing some of the most reactionary members of the party to resign.

  • A year later Rhodesia became a republic. This didn’t make a big difference as Rhodesia had been ignoring the Privy Council for years but this status coupled with the new constitution threw Britain into action.

  • In Rhodesia the new constitution didn’t mean much more than a senate in which chiefs – in hastily made robes and wearing pith helmets – now served. No one seriously believed there would be separate provinces for the three bogus races in five years. Britain on the other hand was horrified. It was one thing to have spawned this odd rebellious nation but quite another to allow Rhodesia to remove Africans from all institutions of representative government.

  • Between 1971-72 Britain and Rhodesia negotiated principles for a settlement. The proposals were actually terrible – Rhodesia got independence so long as it returned to the 1961 constitution and made vague promises about majority rule sometime – and in the test to see if it was acceptable to the population of Rhodesia as a whole it was, naturally enough, overwhelmingly rejected by Africans.

  • Ian Smith was furious, not just at the outcome but because he had threatened Britain that if the proposals were rejected Rhodesia would have no choice but to continue under the 1969 constitution which was impossible to implement and made Rhodesia more of a pariah nation than it had been before.

  • The next five years were furious negotiations and meetings with Americans, Britons and South Africans and even an all-party conference. In 1976 and ’77 two diplomats, one American and one Briton, meet with the Rhodesian cabinet – in between meetings with ZANU and ZAPU – and lay down the law.

  • If Rhodesia wants sanctions lifted, if it wants any kind of legitimacy, if it wants an end to the war everyone knew it was losing, then it had to have a late 20th century constitution and one man, one vote. Smith kept talking about voter qualifications and the British diplomat shot him down: voting was a universal right, he said, exceptions could be made for lunatics but not illiterates.

  • These were the Anglo-American proposals and they became the basis of the 1979 constitution, which not only allowed for one man, one vote but allowed anyone who had been resident in the country for two years to vote so that foreign-born farm workers, estimated at just under 10% of the population, voted.

  • Ian Smith and his cabinet campaign for the new constitution: they advocate universal suffrage in part because they believe the bigger the African turnout the more likely sanctions will be lifted.

  • This was the election that brought Muzorewa to power, however figurehead that power was. ZANU and ZAPU had promised a boycott but the most conservative estimate was the over 40% of Africans voted. All observers – especially Samora Machel who sheltered ZANU – knew that something different had happened in Rhodesia and that this was the ideal moment for a negotiated end to the war.

  • Britain could not have agreed more. They initially embraced the internal settlement but when they met Muzorewa they were horrified: he was a man without any political skills whatsoever. The new prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and the foreign secretary, Lord Peter Carrington, didn’t like each other very much but they were willing to work to get Muzorewa to see more sense or find someone else to work with.

  • That someone else was the Commonwealth heads of state meeting in Lusaka in August 1979. Thatcher and Carrington chatted in gardens and hallways with every African head of state and many many others to see what would be acceptable. In the end, the Canadian and Australian prime ministers and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia wrote an “agreement” that was to be the basis of the Lancaster House negotiations that started a month later.

  • Lancaster House is a building near Buckingham Palace where the constitutions for soon-to-be independent colonies were negotiated. I say negotiated because both African and Asian and Caribbean nationalists and the British had teams, but most of these constitutions were off the peg: universal suffrage, anyone convicted of a felony will be enfranchised five years after his release, a bill of rights, an independent judiciary. Where they differed was in the allocation of seats in parliament, as sometimes seats were reserved for minority groups – mainly South Asians in Fiji and but in the 1960s whites in East Africa.

  • All this was true for the negotiations that formally made Rhodesia Zimbabwe. What made this Lancaster House conference different was two things.

  • First, the new constitution had to negotiate a ceasefire, if not an end to the war. This meant weeks of argument about when and how to dismantle the security forces and the extent to which the 1979 election could serve as a model for the one in 1980. There were long-drawn-out fights over the interim period and it was only by the most artful sleights of hand that the eight weeks proposed in Lusaka was presented and accepted as a compromise in Lancaster House.

  • Second is the legacy of Lancaster House. Is there another former colony that talks about the negotiations for the independent constitution as being so critical to its present state? I don’t think so. Lancaster House has a meaning in Zimbabwe that it has nowhere else that I know about. It is as if Zimbabwe was made in those negotiations, not in the politics that preceded it and the elections that came after it.

  • In the conclusions to this book, I argued that Southern Rhodesia’s and Rhodesia’s constitutions were all written for external audiences – in the case of Southern Rhodesia and Rhodesia the audience was Britain and the international community – with such goals as two very different kinds of independence, recognition, or the lifting of sanctions – rather than for the needs of the men and women who would be so governed. And because these constitutions had been written for external audiences, they contained mechanisms by which they could be undermined at home.

  • So let me end with a question: Rhodesia, including Zimbabwe Rhodesia, had five constitutions between 1961 and 1979. All but one contained progressive and regressive elements that are still at play here and elsewhere. (I cannot think of a progressive element in the 1969 constitution but I’m sure there’s one or two). So why is the Lancaster House constitution the only one that matters? Why does this constitution cast such a long shadow?



Luise White

University of Florida

Gainesville, Florida