By Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu
AT the August 1979 Lusaka Commonwealth Heads of State Conference, the recently elected British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was virtually confronted about Rhodesia by angry colleagues from Asian, African, Australasia, Caribbean and North American member-states.
They all demanded a solution to the impasse and told her that Britain was, in effect, compromising the socio-cultural values of the club by failing to deal effectively with the issue.
Thatcher was believed to have at some time privately suggested to Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda that his Government should order Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU and its military wing, ZIPRA, to return to Rhodesia and join the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia administration instead of fighting it.
President Kaunda’s reply was said to have been that, should he do that, ZIPRA could overrun and seize Zambia and that the black people were, in any case, fighting for the very basic right of the masses of Zimbabwe.
The Zimbabwe-Rhodesia administration had been officially inaugurated in Salisbury (Harare) on June 1 that year (1979).
The South African regime had been, for the past few years, advising Ian Douglas Smith to face reality by accepting black majority rule.
He had unilaterally declared independence because he and his Rhodesian Front did not want black majority rule, that is, ‘one person, one vote’.
Smith had said publicly that black majority rule would not be introduced to Rhodesia in his lifetime, ‘not even in a thousand years’.
That unrealistic declaration was made before Mozambique was liberated in 1975 and when Rhodesia was relatively secure, as both Mozambique and South Africa assured it safe passage of its exports and imports through ports on the eastern and southern Indian Ocean coasts.
The situation had, however, changed when Commonwealth leaders gathered in August 1979 in Lusaka.
The British and the US administrations would have rather the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia regime was accorded official recognition than transferring state power to ZAPU or ZANU, or a combination of those two liberation movements.
That wish was, however, impractical because the large guerilla forces of each of those organisations were in control of large areas in which they were operating.
The alternative to a constitutional conference was an outright military defeat of the Zimbabwe-Rhodesian forces.
ZANU and ZAPU guerillas had by that time penetrated the country’s urban centres and had, in Salisbury, set large oil storage tanks ablaze.
That was in addition to shooting down two civilian aircrafts in the Zambezi River region, targets for which the British and the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia administrations would not forgive the Zambia-based ZAPU and its armed wing, ZIPRA.
To revenge, the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia regime mounted several air raids on refugee camps in Mozambique where at Nyadzonia and Chimoio, they literally massacred defenceless people, most of whom were women and children.
They did the same on refugee camps in Zambia, Botswana and Angola.
In addition to those air raids, they organised Selous Scouts commando attacks with Joshua Nkomo as their special target.
But each time they attacked a house or camp, Nkomo would have recently left it.
In April 1979, they raided his Lusaka residence, about 300m or so from Zambia’s State House.
They demolished the house, but Nkomo had left it for a safer place an hour earlier.
It was at the height of those raids that the British Government announced that a constitutional conference on Rhodesia would be held in London in October 1979.
The main difference between that conference and previous ones was the venue, London, the British capital city.
Earlier conferences were held either on British Air Force frigates on the high seas or in foreign lands.
The first was between the then British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and Ian Smith aboard HMS Tiger on the Indian Ocean in 1966.
The second was on HMS Fearless near Gibraltar on the Mediterranean Sea in 1968.
Both attempts failed, just as well they did, as the black people were not represented.
The third attempt was in Geneva, Switzerland, from October 1976 to early January 1977, while the fourth was at Valetta in Malta, in January 1978.
They also drew blanks.
Pessimism had become the major feeling about such occasions to resolve the Rhodesian issue.
In 1979, however, the situation had changed in both Rhodesia and internationally.
In Rhodesia, then unofficially called Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, Ian Smith’s Rhodesia Front desperately needed a face-saver as its military defeat was inevitable, while on the international diplomatic arena, the British Government could no longer think of any plausible excuse for not finding and enforcing a settlement acceptable to the majority of the people of Zimbabwe.
Britain had repeatedly said it would not grant independence to Rhodesia before majority African rule: ‘No Independence before African Majority Rule’, it declared to the world.
The Zimbabwe-Rhodesia regime was only a facade as real state power was in the hands of Smith’s white minority.
The judiciary comprised only white judges; the civil service commission and the national security sector were also in white hands as were the ministries of finance and economic development.
Bishop Abel Muzorewa, the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia Prime Minister, had no authority whatsoever.
Chaired by Lord Carrington, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Relations Secretary at that time, the conference opened in Lancaster House with immediate majority rule as the basic demand of the Patriotic Front, that is of ZANU and ZAPU.
The Patriotic Front (PF) delegation was headed by that organisation’s co-leaders, Robert Gabriel Mugabe and Dr Joshua Mqabuko Nyongolo Nkomo.
The PF’s opening speech was made by Nkomo who highlighted, among several matters, the land question.
The British Government’s position on this was that the alienation of land should be left to those who owned it and those who wished to buy it, and should be based on the principle: ‘Willing buyer, willing seller’.
Urgent issues included a decision on a general election date, a ceasefire declaration, a handing over of Government authority from the British Government to the representatives of the black majority of Zimbabwe.
The majority rule Constitution was to have a Bill of Rights, freedom of worship and equality before the law, irrespective of one’s gender, race or creed.
The country would remain a unitary, and not a federal, state.
In any case, the idea of federalism was Chief Khayisa Ndiweni’s but it was not a part of the agendum as Chief Ndiweni was an integral part of the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia delegation comprising Ian Smith, Bishop Muzorewa, Rev Ndabaningi Sithole, James Robert Dambaza Chikerema and Chief Jeremiah Chirau.
The federal idea was not entertained by that delegation, so Chief Ndiweni requested Joshua Nkomo to have it included on the agendum as a Patriotic Front item.
Joshua Nkomo turned down that request with a great deal of disdain.
As the conference progressed, secret information leaked out that the British Government had a fall-back position that, should the discussions fail or collapse because of whatever reason, a very remote possibility in any case, Britain would accord de facto recognition to the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia regime.
That would enable Britain and its allies, including the US, to step in militarily should the Patriotic Front guerilla forces be seen to be close to seizing power.
That was not to be as the conference agreed on virtually every aspect discussed, and a Constitution was signed by heads of delegations on December 21 1979.
Lord Soames was duly appointed the Governor of Rhodesia from that date until April 18 1980 when Britain’s Prince Charles witnessed the lowering of the British flag and the hoisting of that of the newly born state of Zimbabwe; a historic occasion that occurred just about 90 years after the British South Africa Company (BSAC), headed by Cecil John Rhodes and charted by Britain’s Queen Victoria, hoisted the British flag on the Harare Kopje on September 12 1890.
Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu is a retired, Bulawayo-based journalist. He can be contacted on cell 0734 328 136 or through email. firstname.lastname@example.org