Why Lancaster?


By Dr Irene Mahamba

“TO those of us who had flown from Rhodesia to cover the conference, it seemed only a matter of time before we returned to a country that had become a battlefield.

We mocked the optimism of Lord Carrington, the Foreign Secretary, but marvelled at his patience as he chivvied the delegations in round-after-round of stultifying negotiations. Unknown to us, of course, Carrington had good reason to be cheerful.

British Intelligence had a brilliant record in Rhodesia. The MI6 reports crossing Carrington’s desk that autumn told him what Ian Smith also knew, but could never accept: the war had been lost and South Africa, distracted by the conflict of Angola, was not about to step in and pick up the pieces. The rival guerilla forces of (Joshua) Nkomo and (Robert) Mugabe were gathering men and material along Rhodesia’s borders for a final offensive during the 1979-80, November to March, rain season. For the first time, large-scale urban terrorism in Salisbury was being planned. Many areas of the countryside had fallen under nationalist control, allowing guerillas to move large numbers of men by daylight.” (James MacManus:1989)

Though the Rhodesians knew they had lost the war against the liberation forces, they would not accept this truth.

However, the British knew that continuing with the war was foolhardy on the part of Rhodesians.

Thus, it was not an idle boast when the liberation forces stated:

“If the Lancaster Conference reaches no decisions, we will despatch our military men back to Africa. This means the intensification of the struggle. We can win without Lancaster House. That is a certainty…we can achieve peace and justice for our people through the barrel of the gun.” (Muchemwa:2015)

By 1978, Rhodesians were on their backfoot.

The Rhodesian cowardly genocidal massacres of refugees at Nyadzonia (August 9 1976), Chimoio and Tembwe (November 23 and 25 1977) did not change the tide of the war in the Rhodesians’ favour.

The massacres of refugees at Freedom Camp and Mkushi Camp in Zambia (October 18 1978) did not help.

Rhodesians, by their own admission, could not hold their own against the freedom fighters, so they had resorted to ultra-terrorist methods from the early 1970s. 

They spawned the Selous Scouts, a calculation to use the worst cruelty imaginable to turn the tide of the war. There were no laws here, just a desperate diabolical bid to retain power, at all cost.

The December 1978 bombing of the Salisbury Fuel Depot by ZANLA forces and the destruction of the Grand Reef Air Base in Manicaland on Christmas Eve of the same year were a bold statement.

The guerillas were winning the war. 

Thus, it is military victories of the liberation forces which sent British and Rhodesians to the negotiating table. 

Rhodesia’s regular army failed to prevail against the liberation forces, the ultra-terrorists, the Selous Scouts, Muzorewa’s  so-called Auxiliary Forces, stood no chance.

And so Lancaster had to be; they had lost the war. Lancaster was for them to negotiate terms of surrender, though they tried to make it seem otherwise.

The Lancaster House Conference was scheduled to kick of on September 10 1979.

The Rhodesians, on September 1, attacked ZANLA’s rear Base Camp in Mapai, with massive assistance from South Africans, but they lost dismally. A month later, on October 2, they attacked the Mavhonde ZANLA HQ Base and again lost.

The Rhodies thought they could wrestle victory from the liberation forces at the 11th hour. 

They failed, dismally.

Thus: “The white minority avoided the indignity of outright military defeat but it was the imminence of a guerilla victory in the field that allowed the British to negotiate the transfer of power.” (James MacManus 1989)

It is important to underline that the only reason we prevailed at Lancaster was because we had prevailed on the battlefield. 


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