The Second Chimurenga: Zimbabwe's successful War of Independence

After the end of World War Two the liberation struggle in Africa began in earnest, as the nations sought to free themselves from colonial rule. The desire for independence often resulted from perceived disparities in living conditions between Africans and white settler populations, as well as the manifest racial prejudice exercised by the colonists. In what was then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia, the black uprising took place between 1964 and 1980. To the whites it was the Rhodesian Bush War and to the blacks it was the Second Chimurenga, the first having been the failed attempt at independence that happened in 1896-7. The end result was present-day Zimbabwe.

The origins of the Second Chimurenga go back to the 1950s, when growing resentment among the blacks led to the formation, in 1957, of the Southern African National Congress, which succeeded in gaining support in both urban and rural areas. This was seen by its founders as a revolutionary movement, bent on striking at the economic roots of the colonial system by carrying out acts of sabotage. The aim was also to excite terror so that the whites would give way to demands to repeal discriminatory legislation such as the Land Apportionment Act of 1930 that created a form of apartheid and gave the best land to white farmers. Actions during the 1950s mainly consisted of acts of civil disobedience, such as strikes. 

In 1960, the National Democratic Party was founded, its leading lights being Joshua Nkomo, Robert Mugabe, Ndabaningi Sithole and Herbert Chitepo. After the leaders were arrested, Nkomo founded the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), and disagreements among the nationalists led to a rival organisation being set up, namely the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), led by Robert Mugabe.

The first act of war could be said to be the assassination of Petrus Oberholtzer on 4th July 1964. He was a white farmer and an official of the Rhodesian Front, the political party (led by Ian Smith) that was opposed to any move towards black majority rule and which had gained power in 1962. Oberholtzer was stabbed to death when he stopped at a roadblock. The action was carried out by ZANLA, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army which was the military wing of ZANU.

The whites under Ian Smith had their own agenda as far as independence was concerned, reckoning that they could best preserve their way of life without interference from London. This led to the UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) declared by the Smith government on 11th November 1965. With moderation now being off the agenda on both sides, violence was the only likely outcome.

The war consisted largely of guerrilla actions against white farmers, often launched from bases in neighbouring countries. In response, Rhodesian Front forces mounted raids against bases that they said were guerrilla training camps, mostly in Zambia and Mozambique.

On 18 April 1966, at Sinoia (Chinoyi) in Mashonaland West, a group of ZANLA guerrillas who had invaded from Zambia to blow up power lines were confronted by the Rhodesian Air Force and seven of the former were killed. A second ZANLA group then attacked a farmstead, killing the farmer and his wife, and were subsequently beaten back.

Many other such operations were to follow, with the Rhodesian forces, which had helicopters at their disposal, usually being able to repel guerrilla raids. This was despite the sanctions that were imposed on the Smith government by most of the world community, the notable exception being the apartheid regime of South Africa that continued to support the white Rhodesians.

During the 1970s the war intensified, with the Rhodesian forces developing guerrilla tactics themselves through the formation of the “Selous Scouts”, which acted like a commando brigade, while the nationalists were supported by countries such as China and the Soviet Union that supplied them with more sophisticated weapons such as heat-seeking missiles and AK47 assault rifles. 

Internationally, efforts to arrange a negotiated settlement were rejected by both sides, and the Smith government was roundly condemned, at the United Nations, for its actions including bombing raids deep into Mozambique territory.

Civilian casualties of guerrilla actions continued to mount, with black workers on white-owned farms becoming targets. In May 1978, 50 civilians died in crossfire between nationalists and Rhodesians. 

Eventually, both sides came to realise that a military solution was impossible and that negotiation was the only answer. In particular, it became increasingly apparent to white Rhodesians that majority rule had to come eventually, and negotiation was the only way of preserving their lifestyles. The sanctions imposed on Rhodesia were making life very uncomfortable, especially when support from South Africa began to weaken. The apartheid regime of South Africa had its own agenda, including a policy of “detente” with several black African republics that made continued support for Rhodesia untenable.

On 3rd March 1978, Ian Smith signed an agreement with several moderate black leaders, including Abel Muzorewa and Ndabaningi Sithole, to create a power-sharing government for “Zimbabwe Rhodesia”. This did not have the support of ZANU or ZAPU, and the new arrangement clearly could not last long with the Bush War continuing.

The Lancaster House Agreement that ended the war was brokered by the British government in 1979, under the chairmanship of Lord Carrington, who was the first Foreign Secretary of Margaret Thatcher’s first administration. The conference that led to the agreement lasted from September to December, with participation from all the major players in the conflict. The net result was a power-sharing government in which 20% of seats in the Zimbabwe government were reserved for whites. Land reform was the most difficult point at issue, with Robert Mugabe being least willing to agree a settlement that still left vast areas of farmland in white ownership. The elections of February 1980 gave ZANU 57 seats, and therefore control of the new Parliament.

Although the Second Chimurenga was now over, and Zimbabwe was an internationally-recognised country under the control of the majority black population, this was not to be the end of bloodshed and misery in this part of the world.


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