‘I have a particular perspective, a double vision, as the daughter of British settlers in Southern Rhodesia. I have this sense of absolute belonging and absolute not-belonging’.
Doris Lessing 2007
The argument runs that Rhodesians were bigoted racists clinging to the old ways for dear life, oblivious to any moral concerns. From one perspective this is true. But let me give you another, more personal one.
I arrived in Salisbury from London in October 1955 with my Mum, Maureen, or Mo as she was universally known, on a British Overseas Airways Corporation Dakota. We had changed flights in Rome, Nairobi and Entebbe, for two days travelling time.
I was three and a half years old. My Dad, Arthur, had gone over three months ahead of us to start his job in a dry cleaning firm. My English parents found the warmth, space and friendliness invigorating. Although Mo had been a reluctant emigrant from Manchester, she subsequently told me that from the first day of her arrival at Salisbury’s Belvedere Airport, she never once harboured a yen to return or any semblance of regret. She loved the place.
It was never clear to me why we chose to emigrate. Mo later recalled no dinner-table discussion, only that Arthur had gone down to London for a job interview. He returned in the evening and said ‘Right, we’re off to Southern Rhodesia’. Mo was surprised, shocked and anxious, but oddly chose not to argue with him, or at least that is what she recalled 50 years later.
It was probably a flight from austerity, red tape, bleak winters, smog, and fuel shortages. Food rationing in Britain only ended in July 1954, when restrictions on the sale and purchase of meat and bacon were lifted, fourteen years after their imposition and nine years after the end of the war. It does sound grim. Neither did Arthur have any tribal loyalties, such as a passionate affection for Manchester United, for instance, to hold him back. He was not a regular at the pub. Perhaps Arthur had seen the ‘Land of Opportunity’ poster in the window of Rhodesia House on the Strand in London. (The building is still there, at number 429, but is now Zimbabwe House, naturally), as many others had.
The weather in October in Salisbury, when Mo and I landed for our first sight of the land we would now call home, is warm, sometimes very warm. The locals sometimes referred to it as suicide month. It’s shirt sleeves, shorts and wide-brimmed hat weather. It would have been in stark contrast to a Manchester autumn. The purple jacarandas were in bloom, the bougainvilleas a myriad of bright colours. It was ‘too beautiful’ Mo would remember 50 years later.
Mo recalled that Arthur drove us through the suburbs to our temporary immigrant hostel accommodation at somewhere called Cranborne, in what was a converted pilot training station for the Royal Airforce during the war. Some weeks later we found a home in Southerton, Mo was very happy there, surrounded by new European, mostly British, immigrants like us.
In the white suburbs of Salisbury, most people lived in bungalows on an acre or more of garden. There was an abundance of sub-tropical bright colours of orange, yellow and purple bougainvilleas, the violent scarlet of the tulip trees and the wonderful displays of jacaranda trees. Well tended, well watered green lawns peaked out from behind the trees and hedges. Many households had productive vegetable patches. These botanical riches were invariably maintained by black gardeners.
Day to day life for white Rhodesians was pleasant. There was ample domestic help. Most often there were two servants, one working inside the house, the other in the yard. The ‘houseboy’ or maid, was the senior servant, usually dressed in a crisp white, occasionally khaki, uniform. They ruled the roost much like the butler in English stately homes. Gardeners in the more affluent suburbs had khaki kit and often gumboots.
Whatever their background and training, if they had any, household servants were required to adopt European standards: to be punctual, clean and efficient. Most lived on the property, in spartan servants’ quarters separate from the main house. The householders did not generally intrude on a servant’s private space, but often set ‘rules’ that forbad visitors, including relatives, and any undue merrymaking. By contrast, servants naturally knew every detail of their employers’ lives, being privy to most conversations and the comings and goings. Servants were often ignored, blending into the background, no doubt much like English country houses of bygone eras.
Servants also freed up the household’s time. Instead of mowing the lawn and washing the car, fathers could head to the golf club; without meals to prepare and washing to do, mothers to the tennis court; the children, without beds to make or school shoes to polish, could roam the suburbs in friendly gangs. The warm and clear Salisbury climate lent itself to a casual outdoors life of sport, barbecues and sundowners on the verandah. The absence of any major body of water meant that fishing or boating required a minor expedition.
There was art to be perused at the Gallery, and live theatre, mostly amateur or semi-professional, was on hand at ‘Reps’ (The Repertory Players) on the city’s northern fringe, though in reality neither was of much interest to the mainstream. It has been suggested that the theatre was probably better known for its bar, which was a favourite local watering hole.
When Mo and Arthur arrived, political discussion was far removed from its narrower, racially antagonistic form of the 1960s and 1970s. Politics in the 50s was still strongly influenced by experiences in the war, when Rhodesia provided a very high number of serviceman on a per capita basis, both black and white. Men who had spent half a decade fighting the racist Nazi regime found the idea of returning to a society built on notions of racial superiority at worst incongruous and at best repugnant.
The reassessment started immediately after the war. Aboard the troopship Ruys which was bringing Rhodesian and South African servicemen back from Europe, two Rhodesian servicemen, Hardwicke Holderness and Pat Lewis organised lectures and debates, partly as a way of alleviating boredom, but also because they were keenly aware that the world had changed dramatically. The war exerted certain pressures within some circles for change and reform which would recognise the influence of the growing economy, large-scale white immigration, and the greater exposure Rhodesia had to world trends. The cosy arrangement whereby white paternalists ran the show with acquiescence from the Africans appeared to be over.
Probably the most important association that emerged which expressed a Rhodesian patriotism based on multiracial partnership was the National Affairs Association. It came to prominence as a lecture and discussion group in post-war Rhodesia, and was followed by the Interracial Association of Southern Rhodesia (IASR). They illustrated the intensity of the discussion and debate on forming a new political relationship with Africans. For the first time, associations were consciously created which did not differentiate on racial grounds, unlike the Welfare Society, Missionary Conference or Rhodesia Labour Party.
As The New Rhodesia said, ‘the Native vote and the representation of Natives ... could be defended in the climate of 1927, scarcely in that of 1947’. It seemed to some of the white elite that a deep understanding of the country’s problems and prospects would enable informed debate about the way forward, and would put ex-servicemen in a position to influence policy. As Jack Howman, later Minister of Internal Affairs in the rightwing government of the Rhodesian Front, said: 'we came back [from the war] full of ideas about how we were going to change things, how Rhodesia had to be reconstructed and how we were going to face a brave new world. You fight to make the world safe for democracy and you know just how it’s to be organised. There was much debate as to what to do and how to do it and how to build up our country. Fortunately there prevailed the thinking of those who said, “But until we know sufficient of the problems, how are we to propose or to propound answers, or solutions? Surely we’ve got to get involved in the study of the problems”. And that’s how National Affairs came into being. To study the national affairs of the country by inviting prominent speakers, experts in their field, to come and talk at our lunchtime meetings once a week.
Holderness had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford before the war, had travelled to Austria and Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s, and those experiences and the war had shaped his political consciousness. He became a bomber pilot with Coastal Command and finished the war as a Wing Commander, decorated with the DSO and DFC. He wrote: 'War was intolerable, and even in victory incapable of producing any good - except for the capitalist armaments manufacturers. Capitalism bred inequality and injustice: "food without appetites at one end of the town and appetites without food at the other". People could be played for suckers by appeals to patriotism. So in 1933 the majority vote in the Oxford union debate against fighting for ‘King and Country’ ... was something we could quite understand'.
On his return to Rhodesia in 1945, after an absence of eight years, he was unsure what he would find, but he did know that the cosy arrangement whereby whites ran the show and blacks accepted it would have to be confronted: 'We had been away from Rhodesia for a long time and hardly knew what we should expect to find on our return. But one thing seemed certain: that you could not have parliamentary democracy there and, in effect, confine it to the whites. However uninterested in politics the blacks might have appeared to be in the past they could hardly be uninterested now. The world had shrunk, and Southern Rhodesia could no longer be isolated from its trends. For parliamentary democracy to prevail it would have to be sold in competition with Russian communism and Fascism, both of which after all claimed to be popular movements. And Rhodesian whites could hardly reject the racialism embodied in the Nazi philosophy while practising racial superiority themselves.'
Holderness, perhaps the most liberal of white Rhodesian politicians (he was a Member of Parliament, but never a government minister), thought that a multi-racial partnership stood a good chance of success in Rhodesia: 'There was not the Poor White problem in Southern Rhodesia which South Africa had been saddled with, and the history of contact between whites and blacks here had surely been too short to leave deep-seated legacies of hatred. Besides, there was the experience of the world which so many Rhodesians had had in the course of war service, and there were all these immigrants with many skills. Surely these were promising factors.'
This sentiment was echoed by Robert Tredgold, Southern Rhodesian Minister of Defence during the war and eventually the country’s Chief Justice, who believed that ‘there is no better solvent of artificial barriers between human beings than military service together. I do not believe that any Rhodesian officer, who led Africans in the field, could ever feel again the naked prejudice that so often alienates man from man, where they do not possess the same pigmentation of the skin’.
These were some of the atmospherics that new immigrants like Mo and Arthur must have absorbed. Perhaps there was another dimension too. The journalist John Parker, himself a 1955 migrant, ascribed to ignorance of ‘multi-racial society’ rather than malice in his book Rhodesia: Little White Island: 'We knew very little of the country which was to become our home for the next eleven years; not much more than a smattering of history overlaid with Kiplingesque romanticism about the ‘immense and brooding spirit’ of Cecil John Rhodes ... We had no knowledge of the real history of the African peoples of Southern Africa, and practically no experience of mixing - or not mixing - with a foreign race of a different colour ... in the mid-1950s, the simple truth was that we had never found ourselves in a situation where race affected us in any way. We didn’t know there was anything to be biased about. To the average member of the nation which had stood so gallantly to the horrors of Nazism, anything which suggested prejudice of a racial, religious or any other brand was unthinkable.'
The process of assimilation was also remarkably swift, aided no doubt by the invariably warm welcome many of the new migrants experienced. The Parkers were struck by the ‘instant friendliness’ of their neighbours which ‘did much to help us settle down with record speed’.
Of course, one does not generally arrive voluntarily in a new society brimming with angst about an unjust system. Certainly Mo and Arthur harboured no initial misgivings. That requires first-hand experience. Experience such as that of author Doris Lessing.
Lessing grew up in Southern Rhodesia, leaving eventually for London in 1949 at the age of 30. She was a radical, a sometime member of the Communist Party, hardly a typical Rhodesian. In 1950, her first novel, The Grass is Singing was published. It vents anger at the festering question of black against white which broods over the land like thunder.
In a 2007 radio interview in Australia she said in her unmistakably white Rhodesian accent of clipped consonants, protracted vowels, and its slightly nasal hum, that Rhodesia was a ‘very nasty little police state. Now, while I was growing up I didn't really notice. When I say notice, I knew it was bad; I had no idea how bad it was until I went out of Rhodesia and looked at it from the outside.’
It wasn't until she was in her early 20s, during a visit to South Africa, that Lessing was able to see the society from a distance and conclude without equivocation that the country of her youth was ‘a very ugly, nasty little society and I didn't like it at all. It was also very provincial, culturally isolated’. It is ironic that she took this view from South Africa, which was just as brutal.
Yet she acknowledged a broader perspective, too. 'I have a particular perspective, a double vision, as the daughter of British settlers in Southern Rhodesia. I have this sense of absolute belonging and absolute not-belonging … I can absolutely understand the end of the British Raj. People like my parents believed, sincerely, in the virtues of British Empire and its function uplifting and civilising, and that it was God-inspired. They really did believe that.
'I can understand it very well. I used to meet these people since a lot of them came to Rhodesia. They were bitter people. As they had seen it, they had been doing their duty and now nobody valued them. I can see their point of view, but I don't share it. In then Salisbury, now Harare, I, and half a dozen other people were the only people who celebrated Indian independence. We were regarded as absolute traitors to want to do such a thing.'
She then turns snobby. ’Only someone who’s lived in these dreadful colonial places will understand why. They are so dead and narrow and stultifying. If you are living in that kind of society where a small number of people are oppressing a great many, they become obsessed by the fact, and they talk about nothing else, day and night. And I always think of Goethe, who said, if you are going to keep a man down in the ditch, you are going to have to get into the ditch with him.’
There is of course much truth in Lessing’s outburst, but Mo, in particular, never thought much about politics and how Rhodesian society was run. She loved her job as a buyer for a construction company. She enjoyed life.
Perhaps a less dramatic but equally damning reflection on the Rhodesian mind has been made by academic Anthony Channels in an essay about how Rhodesian writers described the war of Liberation. He ranges over depictions of war in novels about Rhodesia and concludes:
'It is an extraordinary comment on white Rhodesian novelists that … only Michael Hartmann has managed to escape from the ignorant generalisations about Africans which exempt Whites from having to confront the fact that their policies and their government may in some way be responsible for the war. Eighty-five years of the colonial experience and of daily contact with Africans have not been sufficient to release, in the European mind, Africans from their character as superstitious savages. Nor have the Whites been able to alter their self-image from that of pioneers engaged in the glorious saga of Empire. As alarming as this is the evidence that these novels provide of an almost total lack of understanding of the history and the content of African nationalism.'
Combining the recent arrival of so many of the adult population with matters such as the lack of extended family, neighbourhood or community ties, and the high degree of mobility, many people could fall back only on their adoption of Rhodesian attitudes as a sign of belonging. Such people, whose position would be threatened by African advancement, at least had as representative in prime minister Sir Roy Welensky, a man who knew what they felt. The prime minister of the mid-1950s, the last of the moderates, Garfield Todd, said that Welensky ‘shares all the worst prejudices of a person ... who has been a workman in a country where his very job and livelihood and standard of living was threatened by the advance of the African people’, a telling comment.
The Fifties were in many ways the highpoint of colonial life in Rhodesia, and certainly a time of some optimism. Journalist John Parker wrote that ‘the mood was expansion. Capital and people were flooding in, bringing with them new outlooks and novel ideas. For ten years Salisbury, once described to me by a Rhodesian as "the town where the prevailing disease is an ingrowing mind’ became the cosmopolitan capital of Africa south of the Sahara". There was an intensity of ideas and debate about the postwar world, which did not pass Rhodesia by. As Todd later put it, ‘all of a sudden one woke up to find that the place was in ferment’.
But by the end of the decade things had soured. It was clear that attempts at partnership between blacks and whites, mild as they were, were not progressing fast enough, and that most people were not getting any meaningful sense of inclusive citizenship.
In a speech in September 1959, Welensky, by no means a man of liberal views, said: ‘If we go on treating an African who is educated and who has achieved a standard of culture akin to our own as an inferior being for all time, then I believe we are making a clash on racial issues inevitable’.
Inevitably indeed, the expectations of those Africans who had anticipated their own advancement under a more liberal regime were being disappointed, and there were problems with industrialists and businessmen as well. In February 1959 the Daily News opined:
'So far as we are concerned it would be a pity for the Prime Minister to merely give lip-service to the racial co-operation of the African. Something positive and progressive must be done quickly to encourage racial co-operation on the part of the African people and demonstrate to them in practical terms that this road holds out a better promise.'
The newspaper continued that if discriminatory practices were not abolished quickly, ‘they are capable of driving all Africans into the camp of desperation and extremism. Moderation and co-operation cannot grow out of a desolate social, economic and political system, where the privileged race which is white is not prepared to make sacrifices to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the African people’. In an editorial only a few days previously, the Daily News had warned that the independence of Ghana had been noted by Rhodesian Africans, and although the immediate causes of the violence in Algeria and the Congo were ‘internal’, they were influenced by ‘the ferment of black nationalism that is in evidence throughout Africa’. This was a warning to the white population that the Federation could not isolate itself from continental trends and ‘keep their African uncontaminated’.
It was a fact that some meagre and peripheral measures to remove discrimination had be introduced: Africans could now buy lottery tickets, bet on horses, buy beer and wine (but not spirits), post offices were technically free of discrimination, as were the railways. The Daily News wrote that while these were worthwhile achievements, ‘it is regrettable that this liberal trend in legislation did not come earlier [in the years after the war] probably African thinking and outlook would not be as negative as it is today’.
The Chronicle joined in the worry about the state of partnership, pointing out that the Rhodesians themselves were primarily to blame:
'If we consider the cinemas alone, is it not remarkable, after seven years of Federation, ostensibly dedicated to racial partnership, that even an African MP, solicitor or doctor is denied admission? We provide our critics with sticks to beat us by perpetuating such nonsense ... such multi-racial cinemas should come sooner rather than later, if only to dispose of the insulting anomaly of the intelligent, prosperous, educated and hygienic African being treated like a pariah in his own land.'
The political class was by now trying to steer an obscure path between repression of black protest at exclusion and modest attempts at inclusion and partnership. There was still support for this approach amongst the white electorate - certainly from Mo and Arthur - but it was diminishing as evidenced by the increasingly better showing of the right wing - initially in the form of the Dominion Party , then its successor the Rhodesian Front - at the ballot box. Its opposition to the mildly progressive 1961 constitution saw it win the December 1962 election with almost 55 per cent of the vote to secure 35 seats out of 65. From the 1965 election onwards it won a clean sweep of all seats always securing three quarters and upwards of the popular - white - vote. The white people made it clear to all that they rejected partnership; rejected sharing the ‘good life’ with their black countrymen and women, and buried their heads in the sand. It was only a matter of time before the whole lot blew up.
The 1961 Constitution was in reality the last meaningful attempt to develop a franchise which would gradually allow greater African participation in electoral politics, and was the last chance for a ‘non-racial’ franchise. It was also the last time that the marked difference in philosophy - that Africans should be encouraged to raise themselves so that they could enter the European system rather than develop a parallel African system - was evident. But it was too little, too late, in any case. The fuse of African nationalism had been lit.
All of the post-war talk of a new approach was forgotten. Indeed, such was the government control of the media that it was now seen as unpatriotic. There was to be not much substantial debate about political direction. Unlike most western democracies, where the electorate is roughly split down the middle between left-of-centre parties, and right-of-centre parties, the mainstream overwhelmingly supported the deeply conservative Rhodesian Front under the leadership of Ian Smith - 'Good ol’ Smithy'.
Rhodesian society became even more parochial. There was a limited exposure to new ideas or contact with the world outside Southern Africa, insularity heightened by restrictive foreign currency regulations. Rhodesians enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle in which friends and outdoor activities were central until the late 1970s by when the civil war had become brutal, waring down the Rhodesian Front government’s ability to control the country.
Mo and Arthur had divorced by 1970. Mo abandoned Rhodesia for South Africa with her new husband, who held conventional white political views. Arthur stayed on after independence in 1980, unperturbed by the new regime of Robert Mugabe.