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“”The more we killed, the happier we were. We were fighting terrorists.
Rhodesia, previously Southern Rhodesia and later the Republic of Rhodesia was a British colony and later an unrecognized independent state located in what is now known as Zimbabwe. It was named after its founder, Cecil John Rhodes (1853–1902), who was the leader of the British South Africa Company and an all-around white supremacist who was able to conquer much of southern Africa through military means and the acquisition of mineral rights. Rhodesia became infamous for its brutal racial policies even by the standards of the British Empire, which caused it no shortage of trouble when it tried to declare independence in 1965 under a white-dominated government run by Ian Smith (1919–2007). One and a half decades of civil war later, under a significant amount of international pressure, Rhodesia allowed an election to be held with all races allowed to participate. Robert Mugabe won, creating the Zimbabwe that we all know and love today.
Despite it being long gone from the map, Rhodesia is still celebrated by the alt-right and other white nationalists to this day, with many of them using Rhodesia as well as its successor state's failures as "proof" that whites will always be better than blacks at running countries, with the Selous Scouts being especially popular among the more militant white supremacists. Of course, Rhodesia was not the utopia that racists would have one believe, unsurprisingly for a state that was founded on apartheid and was fighting a civil war throughout most of its existence.
Moving to South Africa at the age of seven, Cecil Rhodes eventually made a lot of wealth there through mining, founded the company of De Beers, and soon managed to effectively monopolize the world's diamond trade. So if you're wondering why diamonds are so artificially expensive to this day, Cecil Rhodes is the man to thank. With his nearly-unlimited supply of wealth and large number of connections, he was able to secure a royal charter in 1889 that allowed him to exploit mineral resources further north in Africa in exchange for protecting British colonial interests against competing Portuguese and German colonialism. Under the British South Africa Company, which was heavily modeled after the British East India Company, he started by securing treaties with local rulers over mineral rights and founding the Pioneer Column, a small military force that would help him conquer territory. With early victories against the Ndebele Kingdom and competing Portuguese colonialists, Rhodes was able to quickly secure the territory in what would become Rhodesia. In particular, he is credited with introducing the machine gun to Africa, allowing him to mow down indigenous warriors and destroy any civilization in the area. Eventually, the conquered areas would become known as Rhodesia, though somewhat ironically, Rhodes himself preferred to call the territory "Zambonia". In 1898, his territories would be split into "North Rhodesia" and "South Rhodesia", corresponding to the modern states of Zambia and Zimbabwe respectively.
Rhodes was certainly a very racist man, being a believer in the supremacy of the English race. He believed that Britain would eventually come to rule the entire world, and most of his life's work, including the establishment of the Rhodes Scholarship that many world leaders (including Bill Clinton) would go on to receive, was done in service to that goal. Allegedly, he did support the rights of blacks to vote, but the government that he led did everything in its power to suppress the ability for black Africans to participate. Even today, there are statues of him all over the UK and South Africa, and as with Confederate monuments in the U.S., there is a growing movement to get rid of them. In 1923, the British government formally took over Rhodesia from the British South Africa Company as the BSAC was becoming too profitable and the Crown wanted in on the profits, but it allowed Rhodesian settlers to have a degree of autonomy over their territory, similar to what was going on in Canada and Australia. Rhodesia managed to avoid being absorbed into South Africa following the results of a 1922 referendum (in which only white people could vote, naturally).
With the white settlers having autonomy over Rhodesia, they were able to oppress the black population in ways not previously possible. Originally a mining colony, the white settlers redistributed half of Rhodesia's land among themselves, which just so happened to be the best land for farming. This allowed Rhodesia to become massively profitable by growing crops like tobacco. While it was hit hard by the Great Depression, food exports during World War II allowed its economy to have a resurgence and led to a life of luxury for the white settlers while the indigenous population was suffering massively. Additionally, the British set up internment camps and refugee camps throughout Rhodesia during WWII. Rhodesia also contributed many soldiers to the war, more per capita than any other British colony, although the army was heavily segregated, with the whites in the home front while the blacks were being sent to die in Burma. Unsurprisingly, the black soldiers were poorly compensated, and, to this day, the Zimbabwean government hasn't given black WWII veterans any recognition.
Inspired by Southern Rhodesia's "success", the British formed the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, also known as the Central African Federation, hoping that Rhodesia's economic success would spread to the underdeveloped protectorates of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (which is now called Malawi) and also so that the white settlers could exploit mineral resources in Northern Rhodesia and cheap labor in Nyasaland. Understandably, the black residents of these colonies were not amused by now being economically and politically dominated by an explicitly white supremacist state, so opposition to the federation was intense from the beginning. Starting in 1960, there would be several events that shook Rhodesia to the core. France was starting to decolonize Africa (well, kind of) and there was more international pressure for Britain to leave their colonies. In 1961, South Africa would officially leave the Commonwealth. This is significant because South Africa's apartheid system allowed Rhodesia to deflect from their crimes, but with them gone more attention was being placed on Rhodesia and led to Britain adopting the "No Independence Before Majority African Rule" (NIMBAR) policy. Finally, in 1963, after years of movements among the African people, the Central African Federation was officially dissolved, and while it wasn't a total wash for Rhodesia, as they kept most of the Federation's assets, with its dissolution, Zambia and Malawi became independent, and it made the white population fear that their time of dominance over Africa was coming to an end.
Ultimately, the white settlers saw the writing on the wall, and the settlers formed the Rhodesian Front in order to preserve their power. It was first led by Winston Field, but two years later would be taken over by Ian Smith. The Rhodesian Front's founding principles included anti-racial integration, white ownership of Rhodesia's land, anti-communism, and Christianity. The Rhodesian Front won the next set of elections by an overwhelming margin, and when it was clear that negotiations with the UK were going nowhere, they declared independence on 11 November 1965 to universal international condemnation. With "Northern Rhodesia" changing its name to "Zambia", "Southern Rhodesia" took the entire Rhodesia name for itself.
When Rhodesia declared independence, condemnation from the international community was swift. The United Nations called Rhodesia an "illegal racist minority regime", with not a single country, not even their fellow apartheid state South Africa, recognizing their independence. Because of this, the UN Security Council voted to impose sanctions on Rhodesia, the first time the UN had ever sanctioned a state, with Rhodesian tobacco, chromium, copper, asbestos, sugar, and beef being affected by the ban. Still, the sanctions proved difficult to enforce, as South Africa wasn't willing to give up on one of its biggest trading partners, and Portugal was willing to support Rhodesia by smuggling Rhodesian goods out of its colony of Mozambique with false certificates of origin as António Salazar wanted to stick it to Britain for not supporting Portugal during the Indian Invasion of Goa. Due to Rhodesia's history of self-rule, the British could not do much about their independence, but nevertheless Rhodesia responded to the sanctions by declaring itself a republic in 1970.
Tensions had been building between the white ruling class and the indigenous Africans for years, but tensions really started increasing when the Rhodesian government cracked down on the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress, which had formed to protest the white minority rule. This led to the formation of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) to protect the rights of the black majority, which was also cracked down upon. The rise of the far-right Rhodesian Front further inflamed tensions, and a schism in the ZAPU led to the rise of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and its militant wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), led by Robert Mugabe. The competing groups were largely split among ethnic lines, with Ndebele supporting ZAPU and Shona supporting ZANU. The Oberholzer murder, when ZANU insurgents killed a white foreman, led to the Rhodesian government cracking down even more harshly on ZANU and ZAPU. The Battle of Sinoia, when Rhodesian police officers killed seven ZANLA guerrilla fighters, is widely considered the first battle of what would become known as the Bush War.
Despite being isolated on the international stage, Rhodesia was able to get a significant amount of military support by framing the war as a struggle against communism, as this was during the Cold War and ZAPU had support from the Soviet Union while ZANU was supported by Maoist China. About 400 Americans fought as mercenaries for the Rhodesian government. Israel was also a supporter of Rhodesia starting in 1967, and the aforementioned Portugal was also a supporter. Throughout the 1960s, Rhodesia was in a strong position since the rebels were disunited and Rhodesia was surrounded by friendly territory, making Zambia the only location from which the rebels could make significant inroads. In 1971, Rhodesia entered the Alcora Exercise, a secret alliance between them, Portugal, and South Africa to protect their shared colonial interests in southern Africa. Still, the sanctions were beginning to take a toll on Rhodesia, and the situation would only get worse in the coming years.
The end of Rhodesia
By 1972, several major events would occur that would begin to turn the tide of the Bush War. First, FRELIMO was having success against the Portuguese colonialists in Mozambique, resulting in frequent raids into Rhodesia's borders. Two years later, the Carnation Revolution would oust the fascist government of Portugal that had supported Rhodesia; as a result, Angola and Mozambique would both gain independence and support the rebels. Henry Kissinger, realizing that the West's support of an openly white supremacist government might backfire on attempts to win over the hearts of ordinary Africans in the war against communism, decided in 1976 to try to get Rhodesia to open up to majority rule. By this point, even Apartheid South Africa was scaling back its support of Rhodesia. Still, Rhodesia would not give up so easily, and by that same year they had begun to escalate the war to the point of committing several war crimes. Notable among them was their use of chemical and biological weapons against the insurgents and their supporters, including parathion, thallium, and deliberate spreading of cholera and anthrax. Additionally, they used landmines on the Zambian and Mozambican borders, which is also a war crime under international law.
With Operation Eland, Rhodesian forces disguised as FRELIMO soldiers crossed into Mozambique and killed over 300 guerrilla fighters; this move earned Rhodesia further international condemnation. Rhodesia would attack Mozambique again during Operation Aztec, which earned them a rebuke from the UN Security Council. Rhodesia responded by funding the insurgent group RENAMO, which they hoped would take down the FRELIMO government of Mozambique that was sympathetic to the rebels. At the same time, the rebels were beginning to have successes of their own. ZANLA managed to hit an oil storage depot with a volley of rockets, destroying a fourth of Rhodesia's fuel supply. They additionally launched an attack on Umtali, Rhodesia's third-largest city, but this resulted in increased Rhodesian bombing of Mozambique. Rhodesia would also begin to start bombing Zambia as well.
Nonetheless, despite all of their desperate measures, it was becoming increasingly obvious that the war was unwinnable for Rhodesia. Their economy was tanking, the rebels were gaining support among the black population of Rhodesia at an increasing rate, and the white population was demoralized due to all of the fighting in their territory, causing many to leave the country. In 1978, a deal changed the country's name to "Zimbabwe-Rhodesia" and gave blacks more representation in government; however, since the military, police, and judiciary would still be controlled by the white minority, the rebel groups rejected it. Ultimately, the British government would help negotiate the Lancaster House Agreement, which ended the war and made the rebels accept the prior peace deal, in exchange for new elections in which the entirety of the country's population could participate. Furthermore, it ended the sanctions and gave control of Rhodesia to the British until a final settlement could be worked out. Although the war technically ended in a military stalemate, the elections would work to the advantage of the black militants. Ultimately, in the 1980 election, Mugabe would win in a landslide, marking the beginning of the modern state of Zimbabwe.
Naturally for an apartheid regime, Rhodesia wasn't a good place to be if you weren't white. Rhodesia had numerous laws that basically allowed for slavery, such as the African Labour Regulations Act, which made it a crime for blacks to terminate contracts of employment, and the African Lands Husbandry Act, which allowed the government to compel blacks to work in an area for three months per year; both of these were used to push forced labor on the black population. The justice system was very unfair, with black plaintiffs having no right to a jury, being given harsher sentences, and being thrown in harsher prisons. Free speech was heavily restricted, with human rights activists frequently being deported. During the Bush War, Rhodesian forces were responsible for the forced relocation of 600,000 blacks and systemic torture against rural blacks. And as mentioned before, whites that only made up 3% of the population were given the best 50% of Rhodesia's land, and the Rhodesian government used WMDs during the Bush War. In short, only a white supremacist would consider it a good place to live.
Common apologist arguments
Despite all this, there have been and still are people willing to defend the government of Rhodesia; this was common among neoconservatives of the day but is now mostly limited to open white supremacists. Their arguments are fairly easy to refute.
But it wasn't as bad as Apartheid South Africa!
First of all, if your best argument for defending Rhodesia is that it was not as bad as frickin' Apartheid South Africa, you know you are defending a morally-bankrupt regime. Nevertheless, there were subtle differences between the apartheid practiced by the regimes; for example, South Africa explicitly banned blacks from voting, while Rhodesia achieved the same thing with extreme voter suppression laws. Nevertheless, arguments about which is worse are pointless, as it should be clear to anyone that these were both despicable regimes, and neither is worth defending.
But it wasn't as bad as Zimbabwe under Mugabe!
This was the line preferred by Ian Smith, who would spend the remainder of his days telling anyone who would listen how Rhodesia would be so much better if we didn't let those blacks take charge. Even ignoring the problems with the aforementioned fallacy ('not as bad as') as well as hindsight bias, we have to consider that for years, Rhodesia's white minority government did everything it could to keep power, rejecting diplomatic solutions for as long as they could, crushing peaceful attempts at reform such as the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress, and kept resorting to increasingly more brutal measures to keep the black population in line. None of this excuses Mugabe's own incompetence or brutality, but it's hard not to see how the actions of the Rhodesian government created the circumstances that allowed someone like Mugabe to rise in the first place.
But Rhodesia had a good economy!
The question is, a good economy for whom? Sure, the white settlers were doing well, but they were less than three percent of the population and were only able to do through the forced labor of black Africans. For a comparable modern-day example, look at Qatar. Sure, it has the highest GDP per capita, but this number excludes the migrant workers who constitute around 90% of Qatar's population and are abused by their employers, underpaid if they are paid at all, and forced into heavy debt. In short, just because the top percentage of the population of a country is doing well economically doesn't mean that it's a good place to live.
But Rhodesian minority rule was the only way to preserve the white population!
If you see anyone still defend Rhodesia today, this will probably be their main reason, as white supremacists like to use this as "proof" that white genocide is a real thing. But never mind that white people only gained control of Rhodesia by killing indigenous people and stealing their resources or that the Rhodesian government took every opportunity to antagonize the black population, most whites left either to the UK or South Africa around the time that Zimbabwe gained independence, with 100,000 whites still remaining in 1986. In fact, the Rhodesian government noticed that this was a problem even before the end of minority rule and had to pass laws that made it difficult for whites to emigrate. While there are certainly ethnic tensions, and Robert Mugabe has definitely antagonized the white population unfairly, most notably in his seizures of farms from white farmers, there is not, nor has there ever been, this mass slaughter of white people that white supremacists will insist has happened. There are around 40,000 whites still remaining in Zimbabwe today, the rest of them either having left due to Mugabe's increased antagonism or having died from old age. The new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is much less hostile to the white population than Mugabe was and even started giving back some of the farms that were seized under the Mugabe government.
Modern popularity among white supremacists
Despite Rhodesia no longer existing, it is seen with nostalgia by many on the far-right. One of them was the Last Rhodesian himself, Dylann Roof, who was responsible for killing 9 people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. There are still shops that sell Rhodesian flags and war memorabilia to appeal to these groups. The origins of the militia movement are also quite closely tied to Rhodesia, as Soldier of Fortune, which played a pivotal role in inspiring the militia movement, was encouraging Americans to fight in Rhodesia. The Selous Scouts, a highly trained anti-terrorism unit, are particularly highly regarded, and one will find many a hardcore militia site singing their praises.
Ultimately, the reasons why Rhodesia is still so popular among the far-right are similar to the reasons why the Lost Cause of the South is still an enduring narrative. It provides them with a narrative of a heroic group of fighters for the white race who ultimately lost but extolled all of the virtues associated with white supremacy. It provides them a reason for why things should always be run by white people and how black people will ruin everything if given the chance. It gives them an idealized version of the past and an identity to strive for. Of course, like the Lost Cause, this narrative is completely pseudohistorical, but of course, that's never stopped racists from repeating it like it's a fact.
- Belgian Congo, an even more brutal African colony
- German Empire, another historical country that racists are obsessed with
- Crusades, also popular among militant white nationalists
- Ian Smith: 'The more we killed, the happier we were', Sandra Jordan, The Guardian 28 October 2000
- Is De Beers still a monopoly?, Eleonor Piccioto, The Eye of Jewelry 16 December 2019
- The First Stone Aged People To Be Mowed Down With A Machine Gun, Medium 18 April 2015
- The role of Cecil John Rhodes' British South African Company in the Conquest of Matabeleland, South African History Online 7 March 2017
- Built on white imperialism, Rhodes Scholarship now open to all, Study International 20 February 2018
- Why is Cecil Rhodes such a controversial figure?, Justin Parkinson, BBC News 1 April 2015
- University of Cape Town’s battle to tackle a racist legacy, Linda Nordling, Nature 18 May 2021
- Southern Rhodesia rejects joining the Union of South Africa, South African History Online 16 March 2011
- Rhodesia, The British Empire
- Internment Camps, Rhodesian Study Circle
- World War Two: Armed Forces - Rhodesia, Geni
- They fought for Britain. In return they were given £10, David Smith, The Guardian 2 September 2006
- Central African Federation, Geography
- South Africa withdraws from the Commonwealth, South African History Online
- The Break-up of the Central African Federation: Notes on the Validity of Assurances, H.D. Sills, African Affairs Vol. 73, No. 290 (Jan., 1974), pp. 50-62
- Selby thesis, Angus Selby, ZW News 15 June 2007
- Rhodesia/Zimbabwe (1964-present), UCA
- Learning From Rhodesia, Tichaona Zindoga, The Southern Times 13 August 2012
- Situation in Southern Rhodesia, UN Security Council 6 May 1965
- United Nations: Sanctions Against Rhodesia, Time 23 December 1966
- What Portugal Does About Her Colonies Will Affect All of Africa, John Grimond, The New York Times 2 June 1974
- Rhodesia to Zimbabwe – A Chronology, George M. Houser, The Africa Fund
- Southern Rhodesian African Nationalists and the 1961 Constitution, John Day, The Journal of Modern African Studies Vol. 7, No. 2 (Jul., 1969), pp. 221-247
- Robert Mugabe and Todor Zhivkov, Sue Onslow, Wilson Center
- Battle of Sinoia, DBpedia
- International Politics and National Liberation: ZANU and the Politics of Contested Sovereignty in Zimbabwe, William Cyrus Reed, African Studies Review Vol. 36, No. 2 (Sep., 1993), pp. 31-59
- Soldiers of Fortune, Kyle Burke, Jacobin 2 June 2018
- When Israel supported boycotts against a white supremacist regime, Eitay Mack, 10 March 2021
- A military alliance between Portugal and African states that few knew about, Peter Murtagh, The Irish Times 25 April 2014
- Portugal Honors April 25 Revolution, the World's Coolest Coup, NBC News 25 April 2015
- Ian Smith of Rhodesia and Henry Kissinger meet in Pretoria, South African History Online
- "Zimbabwe is not a South African province": Historicising South Africa's Zimbabwe policy since the 1960s, A.S. Mlambo, Historia vol.61 n.1 Durban May. 2016
- Long Ignored: The Use Of Chemical And Biological Weapons Against Insurgents, Glenn Cross, War on the Rocks 15 August 2017
- Zimbabwe's Minefields, The Halo Trust
- Operation Eland, DBpedia
- United Nations Security Council Resolution 411, UN Security Council
- How Rhodesia, South Africa and the CIA Caused Civil War in Mozambique, Takudzwa Hillary Chiwanza, The African Exponent 22 December 2019
- The Fragility of Domestic Energy, Amory Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute
- Rhodesia city skeptical as border opens, Gary Thatcher, The Christian Science Monitor 15 January, 1980
- Zambia in 'State of War' With Rhodesia, Robin Wright, Washington Post 17 May 1977
- The Rhodesia Settlement, 1979-1980, Patrick Salmon, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
- Lancaster House Agreement, UN Peacekeeper
- Observer picture archive: Voting in Rhodesia, 2 March 1980, Greg Whitmore, The Guardian 25 February 2018
- Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Southern Rhodesia, Christopher H. Zimmerli, The International and Comparative Law Quarterly Vol. 20, No. 2 (Apr., 1971), pp. 239-300
- Tireless worker for human rights in Rhodesia, The Irish Times 23 August 2003
- Janice McLaughlin, the nun who exposed human rights abuses in Rhodesia, dies at 79, Firstpost 17 March 2021
- Reality Check: Migrant Workers Rights With Two Years To Qatar 2022 World Cup, Amnesty International
- Why 100,000 white Rhodesians never left Zimbabwe. It may be frustrating, but it's home, Edward Girardet, The Christain Science Monitor 6 October 1996
- Why White Supremacists Identify With Rhodesia, Robert Beckhusen, Medium 19 June 2015
- Zimbabwe's white farmers: Who will pay compensation?, BBC 16 May 2019
- Zimbabwe's elderly whites return to Britain, The World 4 June 2009
- First white farmer gets land back under Zimbabwe’s new leader, Farai Mutsaka, The Independent 22 December 2017
- The racist flags on Dylann Roof's jacket, explained by Zack Beauchamp (Jun 18, 2015, 1:50pm EDT) Vox.
- Rhodesia nostalgia ‘screams out extreme hatred,’ say Zimbabweans, Indiana State University 13 November 2018
- 5 reasons you should know about the hard core Selous Scouts, David Grove, We Are the Mighty 25 October 2021