Review of Unpopular Sovereignty by Luise White

Luise White. 2015. Unpopular Sovereignty: Rhodesian Independence and African Decolonisation. London:
The University of Chicago Press. 343+xvi pages. ISBN-13: 978-0-226-23519-6. Price: US$30.

The year 2015 is the 50th anniversary of white-ruled Rhodesia’s bid for independence. The bones of the
story are well-known to most people. On 11 November 1965 the Cabinet of Rhodesia (unsurprisingly)
announced that Rhodesia now regarded itself as an independent sovereign state. This was the first unilateral
break from Britain’s Empire since that of the American colonies 189 years before. The majority of the
international community deemed Rhodesia's action illegal, and economic sanctions, the first in the UN's
history, were imposed on the breakaway state. Protracted political negotiations failed and the bloody
Rhodesian Bush War (1964-1979) led to the Lancaster House Agreement, the first fully-democratic elections
ushered in the independent state of Zimbabwe. Until this book, the motivations and actions of the Rhodesian
government were seen as those of a rebel white state only interested in maintaining its privilege and power.
Luise White has done an admirable job in showing the more-complicated aspects of this story within the
broader politics of African decolonisation, a perspective long-needed in studies of the Ian Smith era.

Much of the book deals with an under-explored facet of Rhodesian history - the question of citizenship and
how it was negotiated, invented, restricted and denied. To White, citizenship means political rights bestowed
by a legal authority, usually a constitution and is not a synonym for nationality, belonging or community (p.
39). Thus the concept does not automatically imply voting rights or any other sort of benefits and obligations.
White does a masterful job of sorting through the complex imaginings of citizenship in Rhodesia as it applied
to the various classes and colours in society; after 1965 Rhodesian citizenship was not always desirable and
more so after military service became de rigueur. Dual citizenship - a hot topic in Zimbabwe in post-2000
politics - was often seen as desirable and necessary. The notion of “kith and kin” so beloved of Smith and his
followers was perhaps a mistake not least because it encouraged a lessening of attachment to Southern
Rhodesia and promoted an appeal to external nationality that created a fluid (or even transient) white
population. This weakened the political structures and allowed the radicals to rule.

It may come a surprise to readers of this book to learn that white and black politics often became entangled,
sometimes even because of common interests. This comes through quite strikingly in White’s discussion of
the 1961 Constitution where both sides were fractured in their engagement with the issues surrounding the
new legislation, especially whether or not to accept it. The divergence in the politics was, of course the
meaning of the constitution which Ian Smith believed would lead to full independence for Southern Rhodesia
when the Federation was dissolved, whereas for Nkomo and his party, the constitution meant a loss of voting
and socio-political rights. This was a position to be repeated for the next twenty years.

UDI is often presented as something endorsed by the entire government of Rhodesia which White shows is
untrue in Chapter Four. Smith mistrusted his senior military and civil service officials and feared a coup in the
months before 1965. There were also worries about a British invasion to enforce the decision to decolonise.
Rhodesia’s legal status - was it a quasi-dominion or a quasi-colony? - clouded matters. White strikingly
argues that “had Britain invaded, however, it would have meant that Britain would literally have taken over
Rhodesia, to make it a colony, so that Britain could then decolonize Rhodesia” (p. 113). Ironically this is what
happened in 1979-1980.

This quest of legitimacy was repeated in local politics when in 1965 judges ruled that Rhodesia had a fully de
facto government which delighted the politicians and depressed the citizenry. Other signs of independence
such as the currency, anthem, and passports were debated and enacted a little erratically. Rhodesia
sometimes “took the work of showing the world it was a sovereign nation very seriously, and sometimes it did
not” (p. 123). By asking for internationally-backed sanctions, Britain reinforced the confused status of
Rhodesia and gave it international recognition of a state, rather than a colony.

Sanctions and their impact on the imagined narrative of independent Rhodesia are an important part of this
book. Instead of attempting to account for everything that was smuggled, or minutely discuss the dirty
dealings between Rhodesia and the rest of the world, White investigates the meaning such activities had for
the government and its citizens. Chapter Five shows that sanctions did not work. Rhodesia had a carefully
planned economy long before UDI and provisions were made to expand industry and agriculture to meet
local demand from local production. The economy grew at an average of 9% a year between 1966 to 1974; it
slowed more due to the disruptive effects of civil war than sanctions. Sanctions busters became a new class
of “heroes” and Rhodesia celebrated its unlikely friendships in Francophone Africa, the Soviet Republics and
in Asia where necessary goods were sourced or sold. Like in post-2000 Zimbabwe, the Rhodesians were
able to use sanctions as evidence for persecution of a government committed to policies that were
necessary and just for its citizens and the rest of the world be damned. Political unity linked to national
identity was greatly enhanced by the mythology of sanctions busting.

The story of the 1969 Constitution in Chapter Six is convoluted, especially the back-and-forth on voter
qualifications, socio-political rights of blacks and various provisions to be enshrined in the constitution. The
complications are overshadowed by the 81% voter approval of the constitution and 72% endorsement of a
republic, both of which stripped blacks of political representation. The result of this vote was thus a great
irony: there was such an atavistic view of black society and politics that the RF’s quest for legitimacy with the
international community meant that it would have to create its own opposition and support amongst the rural
communities. “Rhodesia was now a nation adrift in its own ideologies” (p. 206). The Pearce Commission and
resulting “no” vote left Smith alone with a weaker bargaining position and showed the possibility of
mobilisation of the dis-enfranchised majority in the country. The illogical Internal Settlement of 1979 was the
unwelcome result of this position.

As shown in Chapter Ten, the Lancaster House negotiations were “great theatre” (p. 257). The tension
surrounding the transition to Zimbabwe was mitigated by the many private meetings Lord Carrington had
with the delegations where the actual deals and compromises were made. The subsequent ceasefire,
elections and installation of a new government are discussed in detail, augmented by refreshing
perspectives, notably regarding the motivations of the main players in the political and military scene. The
actions of General Peter Walls and Bishop Abel Muzorewa, whose fall from grace is well chronicled, deserve
a book of their own.

I completely agree with White’s call for the treatment of the history of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe as a
continuum rather than a “before and after” view. “The history of Zimbabwe is Rhodesia” (p. 311). There are
many similarities and continuities for both nations, both in local politics and international relations, especially
from the year 2000. There are obvious examples such as the introduction of restrictive legislation and
curbing of press freedom but there are also more subtle commonalities, not least the politician’s worries over
the loyalty of the armed forces given a deteriorating situation. The expense of maintaining a large civil
service is a recurrent theme too. Comparing government concerns on how to restrict citizenship and voting
rights in each nation could be another book in its own right!

It is no exaggeration to say that this book is exactly what I hoped to read in a re-analysis of Rhodesia’s
uneasy transition to majority rule. Luise White is an excellent historian in that she has not let the emotions of
the time period under review get under her skin and neither does she suffer from the disillusionment
engendered by post-independence politics. The questions she asks on the creation of Zimbabwe are
wonderfully disruptive and destroy the simplification of our history that has become the lazy norm.

Associate Researcher, Natural History Museum, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe