How whites consolidated power in Rhodesia

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By Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu

BEFORE we look in relative detail at the post-1923 Southern Rhodesia administration, it is important to have a cursory mental picture of the measures the British South Africa Company (BSAC) and its principal, the British Government, implemented to consolidate their colonial rule over the country.
The uprisings, the so-called rebellions, had been crushed and the BSAC was in control.
The black people’s traditional leaders were being replaced by BSAC stooges.
The British Government appointed its own officer called commissioner over the British South Africa Police (BSAP) to guard against any abuse of that force as had occurred leading to the abortive Jameson Raid.
In 1898, the British Government granted the colony some semblance of representative Government and Mashonaland and Matabeleland were brought together with Salisbury (Harare) as the capital of that territory.
A legislative body comprising nine members was created.
Four of those nine were elected and five were BSAC appointees. To qualify as a voter, one had to be able to fill up a voter’s application form, to be economically employed and getting an annual income of at least £50, or to occupy a house worth £75.
These electoral qualifications were increased, in fact doubled in 1912, as some Africans had in the interim received some education and could fill up the voter’s application form or could earn a little more than £50 (sterling) yearly.
The British Government decided to have a resident commissioner in Salisbury.
He reported to the Colonial Secretary in London but via the British High Commissioner based in Cape Town.
The BSAC had, to all intents and purposes, been confirmed as a British Government agent by these measures, a situation that would, argued Britain years later, be changed by the 1923 Letters Patent that granted Southern Rhodesia ‘internal self–Government’.
We should note that the 1898 ‘responsible Government’ measures had a clause that said the resident commissioner would monitor the laws enacted by the nine-member BSAC legislative council, and report for nullification to and by the British Government any law or laws that were against the social, political, economic and cultural interests of the Africans.
That power was seldom used, as a series of discriminatory laws were passed by the BSAC Legislative Council which was wholly European.
Only in 1901 was a law disallowed because it was not in the best interests of the black people.
That law sought to double poll tax.
The number of Legislative Council members gradually went up, with elected members becoming more than appointed ones.
At the beginning of the First World War (1914), the council had 12 elected and six appointed members.
That simply indicated how BSAC political power was increasing in the colony.
African political leadership had been either neutralised or eliminated.
It had been, of course, in the hands of the country’s hereditary personnel, some of whom had last played a meaningful role in the 1896-97 uprising.
The BSAC administration encouraged immigration by offering European settlers land in the country’s climatically best regions. The land ownership and usage issue was the most painful to the black people.
They could not understand how land could become an individual’s private property.
To them, land belonged to the people collectively and not individually.
One could sell one’s livestock or crops but certainly not land.
But some traditional Africa leaders, particularly those handpicked by the BSAC, would barter large pieces of land for handkerchiefs and caps as did a Nyasaland Yao Chief Kapeni who in 1891 bartered a part of his chiefdom to two Europeans, Lamagna and Steblecki.
He was given in exchange 14 handkerchiefs, two blankets, an iron kettle, 31 pieces of calico, two elephant guns, 84 lbs (40kg) of brass wire, one piece of blue calico, one piece of German print, eight tin caps, eight kegs of gunpowder and a scarf.
The land involved included rivers, minerals on or in it and trees and whatever vegetation growing on it.
We can rightly assume that land included ponds, fish, crocodiles, and any other aquatic creature, and, of course, all the water and reeds, birds and beasts thereon!
Chief Kapeni represented the ultra self-serving people some of whom sold their very brothers, sisters and children into slavery.
We cannot categorically rule out the existence of such traditional leaders in Zimbabwe during those years when Western type of cloth was extremely rare in the country.
Demand for land by white colonial settlers, especially agricultural land, increased as investments in the mining sector rose.
The mines recruited large numbers of labourers whose demand for food rose yearly.
European immigrants were assisted to establish themselves in farming.
In Southern Rhodesia, the average size of a farm was 3 000 acres, the same size promised each Pioneer Column member in 1890 and exactly the same acreage promised each white person who joined BSAC forces against King Lobengula’s warriors in 1893.
That was actually a part of what is known as the Victoria Agreement and covered all the white mercenaries who belonged to either the Fort Victoria (Masvingo) or the Salisbury group.
To get such lands, the BSAC administration grabbed land from the Africans without any qualms, dumping the indigenous people on unhealthy, arid regions.
That, coupled with the European demand for agricultural land as stated above, created serious inter-racial hostility.
The BSAC administration attempted to deal with the explosive situation by creating ‘native reserves’ and dumping hundreds and hundreds of black people on those infertile lands.
It was in an attempt to resolve that crisis that BSAC created a department of agriculture in 1908.
Maize and tobacco farms were located mainly in Mashonaland, and ranching was concentrated in Matabeleland.
These agricultural activities were meant to benefit European settlers by and large.
Land hunger continued among the black community in spite of the BSAC administration’s creation of a land bank and a land resettlement department that served primarily white settlers.
The two institutions worked closely with those who promoted immigration.
It is interesting to note that at one time prime land was sold for as little as nine pennies an acre and farms were rented for only £3 (sterling) yearly.
As early as 1895, the BSAC had identified the Gwaai and the Shangani native reserves to absorb the Matabeleland landless black people.
In 1915, a commission estimated that Southern Rhodesia had 732 153 Africans and that, of these, 405 326 were living on reserves.
That situation got worse with the passage of time to such an extent that in June 1950, the Home Affairs Minister told the Salisbury House of Assembly that reserves covered 21 million acres of which 18 million were suitable for agriculture.
Three million acres where unsuitable for human occupation.
That situation had been worsening since the early 1890s, leading to enactment of the Land Apportionment Act (1931), the Land Husbandry Act (1950) and the amended Land Tenure Act (1969) (formerly the Land Apportionment Act).
When ‘internal self-Government’ was granted in 1923, the new settler-regime inherited a land time-bomb whose fuse was lit when the black people decided in the 1950s that they had had enough, leading to the full-blooded armed liberation struggle and the subsequent repossession by the indigenous people of their land.
Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu is a retired, Bulawayo-based journalist. He can be contacted on cell 0734 328 136 or through email. sgwakuba@gmail.com

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