Southern Rhodesian Freedom Fighters Begin Toppling White Supremacist Government Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Settler colonialism was finally defeated in Zimbabwe’s war for liberation when freedom fighters succeeded in their attrition battle against the white supremacist Rhodesian state.

Summary of Event

In 1979, the leaders of the Patriotic Front, Patriotic Front, Zimbabwe the political alliance between the Rhodesian liberation factions, signed the Lancaster House Agreement Lancaster House Agreement (1979) ending the war between the white minority government and indigenous freedom fighters and paving the way for a short transition period to independence for Southern Rhodesia, which would thenceforth be known as Zimbabwe. The agreement called for a new constitution that would institute a parliamentary system and reserve 20 percent representation for whites for seven years. The new government would honor Rhodesia’s debts and obligations, protect minority rights, and pay full compensation for any land taken for redistribution. During the brief transition, there would be neutral armed forces to monitor elections and the cease-fire. The negotiation led to Zimbabwe’s independence under the newly elected prime minister, Robert Mugabe, and to the end of international economic sanctions against Rhodesia on April 18, 1980. Anticolonial movements;Southern Rhodesia Nationalism;Southern Rhodesia Revolutions and coups;Southern Rhodesia British Empire;dissolution [kw]Southern Rhodesian Freedom Fighters Begin Toppling White Supremacist Government (Apr. 28, 1966) [kw]Freedom Fighters Begin Toppling White Supremacist Government, Southern Rhodesian (Apr. 28, 1966) [kw]White Supremacist Government, Southern Rhodesian Freedom Fighters Begin Toppling (Apr. 28, 1966) Anticolonial movements;Southern Rhodesia Nationalism;Southern Rhodesia Revolutions and coups;Southern Rhodesia British Empire;dissolution [g]Africa;Apr. 28, 1966: Southern Rhodesian Freedom Fighters Begin Toppling White Supremacist Government[08870] [g]Zimbabwe;Apr. 28, 1966: Southern Rhodesian Freedom Fighters Begin Toppling White Supremacist Government[08870] [g]Rhodesia;Apr. 28, 1966: Southern Rhodesian Freedom Fighters Begin Toppling White Supremacist Government[08870] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 28, 1966: Southern Rhodesian Freedom Fighters Begin Toppling White Supremacist Government[08870] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Apr. 28, 1966: Southern Rhodesian Freedom Fighters Begin Toppling White Supremacist Government[08870] [c]Independence movements;Apr. 28, 1966: Southern Rhodesian Freedom Fighters Begin Toppling White Supremacist Government[08870] [c]Government and politics;Apr. 28, 1966: Southern Rhodesian Freedom Fighters Begin Toppling White Supremacist Government[08870] Mugabe, Robert Nkomo, Joshua Smith, Ian Muzorewa, Abel Sithole, Ndabaningi Tongogara, Josiah Chitepo, Herbert Kaunda, Kenneth

Several years before two African liberation movements emerged to initiate a guerrilla struggle against the Southern Rhodesian white minority government in 1964, African nationalists had pushed for political reforms that could achieve decolonization and African majority rule. These efforts were complicated by the peculiar political history of the self-governing colony known as Southern Rhodesia.

Southern Rhodesia was the name given to the colony in south-central Africa occupied in 1890 by the British South Africa Company British South Africa Company , a private British charter company under the directorship of Cecil Rhodes Rhodes, Cecil . In 1923, after several years of company rule, the colony was turned over by Great Britain to its small community of white settlers. From that point, Southern Rhodesia was a self-governing British colony. The settlers instituted a white minority government, which expropriated the best lands, guaranteed preferential employment opportunities for whites, and forced Africans into a low-wage labor market. African dissent was divided and weak. The government used coercion and brutality to keep resistance to a minimum.

The Southern Rhodesian government expanded its influence in 1953 with the creation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The federal regime was dominated by Southern Rhodesian settlers, who used their position to spur economic development in the territory at the expense of Zambia and Malawi. When African nationalism in those two states undermined the federation, it also challenged the nature of colonial rule in Southern Rhodesia.

The Southern Rhodesian African National Congress African National Congress, Southern Rhodesian (ANC) emerged as an effective voice of African aspirations in 1957. Under the leadership of Joshua Nkomo, its president, the organization built on the political activism of its predecessor, the Youth League. The ANC worked within the system to seek redress of its grievances—pass law restrictions, labor exploitation, and land policies. It sought the repeal of discriminatory laws and the basis for genuine political participation by the African majority. In 1959, the government banned the organization, arrested most of its leaders, and declared a state of emergency.

A new organization, the National Democratic Party National Democratic Party, Southern Rhodesian (NDP), was formed in 1960 as successor to the ANC. It too was banned in December of the following year, only to be replaced by the Zimbabwe African People’s Union Zimbabwe African People’s Union[Zimbabwe African Peoples Union] (ZAPU), under Nkomo’s continued leadership. All efforts at achieving internal reforms by working within the system seemed exhausted by 1963. Prominent leaders such as Ndabaningi Sithole and Mugabe raised concerns about Nkomo’s effectiveness and his direction for the organization. Nkomo denounced their dissent and moved to expel them. This split was cemented when Sithole formed the Zimbabwe African National Union Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) in 1963. ZANU’s focus on political activism within the country seemed in sharp contrast to Nkomo’s interest in forming a government-in-exile.

Meanwhile, Southern Rhodesia’s white politics suffered political defeats at the hands of the British when the federation came to an end in 1963. A right-wing political party, the Rhodesia Front Rhodesia Front (RF), assumed a leading position in 1964, under the prime ministership of Ian Smith. Smith wanted to gain independence for his government while subverting African nationalism. He banned both ZAPU and ZANU and jailed most of their leaders, including Nkomo, Sithole, and Mugabe, for the next ten years. When negotiations broke down with Great Britain, he announced the Unilateral Declaration of Independence Unilateral Declaration of Independence, Rhodesian (1965) (UDI) for the state of Rhodesia on November 11, 1965.

Herbert Chitepo, Zimbabwe’s first African attorney, was designated by ZANU to set up an external ZANU wing. By 1965, he had a revolutionary council in operation in exile in Lusaka, Zambia. Chitepo mobilized the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) as the means to prosecute a long guerrilla struggle. Jason Moyo represented ZAPU in Lusaka and began forming a military wing, the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army[Zimbabwe Peoples Revolutionary Army] (ZIPRA). The division between the two nationalist parties was now institutionalized with the development of two armies.

The Battle of Chinhoyi Chinhoyi, Battle of (1966) on April 28, 1966, between ZANLA forces and the Rhodesian military is often considered to be the beginning of the military struggle for Zimbabwe. Initially, ZANLA trained and mobilized troops with a conventional strategy in mind, but the Chinhoyi experience, together with external influence from China and the liberation movement in neighboring Mozambique, convinced the ZANU leadership that guerrilla warfare with political education for mobilization would be more effective.





Chitepo successfully shifted ZANU’s emphasis. By 1968, ZANU cadres were recruiting troops inside Zimbabwe and politicizing the peasantry. Most training took place in camps in Zambia or Tanzania, with some guerrillas receiving training in China. The progress of the liberation movement in Mozambique meant that ZANU was allowed to create staging and training camps in liberated zones in Mozambique after 1972. Their proximity to Zimbabwe made for effective recruitment and deployment of forces throughout the eastern border with Mozambique. ZANLA also benefited from the military leadership of Josiah Tongogara, who earned the chair position of the war council. He built on the strategy of stretching Rhodesian forces throughout the country, attacking white farms, and increasing Rhodesia’s economic costs in prosecuting the war.

ZAPU’s military wing, ZIPRA, remained small in this period, showing no indication of any willingness to engage the Rhodesian forces in any sustained effort. Instead, ZAPU retained Nkomo’s strategy of negotiation while building its military capacity. ZIPRA was trained by Soviet advisers but remained small until the mid-1970’s. Even then, ZIPRA demonstrated no inclination to politicize the peasantry in the area in western Zimbabwe where it made incursions. ZIPRA seemed more interested in preparing for conflict with ZANLA at some future date than in attacking the Rhodesians.

The British had rejected the UDI in 1965 and had successfully implemented economic sanctions against Rhodesia through the support of the United Nations. The Smith regime had tried to find a basis for a negotiated settlement with Great Britain, but the sticking point of African acceptance remained to thwart Smith’s aspirations. In 1971, Smith made some considerable international progress. The United States openly defied sanctions and purchased strategic minerals, primarily chromium. The British signed a tentative settlement that recognized the validity of the UDI while pledging the Rhodesian government to some form of majority rule in the next century. The one caveat was that African opinion would be sampled to ensure its support for the settlement. The Pearce Commission was formed by the British in 1972 to assess the African response.

Methodist bishop Abel Muzorewa, who had not participated openly in politics, was approached by ZANU and ZAPU representatives to lead the fight against the agreement. In December of 1971, he became head of the United African National Council United African National Council and began to mobilize African public opinion so that the Pearce Commission would know that Africans unequivocally rejected the Anglo-Rhodesian settlement. Although Muzorewa undermined the settlement, he was not ready to support violence to gain Zimbabwe’s freedom.

Smith then sought negotiations directly with Muzorewa. During their talks, circumstances changed in southern Africa. A coup in Portugal quickened liberation forces’ victory in Mozambique, leading to independence in 1975 and raising concerns about expanding regional conflicts in South Africa. Even though South Africa provided some troop support in Rhodesia, its leadership, under the direction of Prime Minister John Vorster Vorster, John , pressured Smith to seek an agreement. The African front-line states, under the initiative of Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, pushed Zimbabwean nationalists for unity, which would hasten the war’s end. In response to progress in the talks with Muzorewa, Smith agreed to an amnesty for political leaders in jail, and in December, 1974, most were released.

It was then that a coup within the ZANU leadership was disclosed. Mugabe replaced the ousted Sithole as ZANU’s head. This move did not enhance efforts at unity, though there was a general recognition of Muzorewa’s leadership through the umbrella organization of the African National Council.

International conferences based on initiatives by U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger did not prove fruitful. Smith enjoyed some success in broadening the conflict and lessening the pressure in Rhodesia. He organized a resistance insurgency against the newly independent Mozambique and applied military and economic pressure to Zambia.

In 1976, the nationalists countered with the formation of the Patriotic Front, which unified the political wings of ZANU and ZAPU—at least publicly. The following year, the United States repealed the Byrd Amendment, which had provided a loophole in economic sanctions against Rhodesia. As the war heated up, it pushed Smith toward new negotiations. Smith reached an internal settlement with Muzorewa, Sithole, and Chief Jeremiah Chirau in 1978 as a basis for African majority rule. The internal settlement meant an African prime minister and African parliamentary majority, but it entrenched whites in much of the political and economic leadership of the country. The internal settlement was rejected by the international community and the Patriotic Front. The war continued.

By the middle of 1979, it was clear to the new government and Smith’s forces that negotiations with the Patriotic Front under British auspices were necessary to achieve peace. With external pressure on both Smith and the uneasy Mugabe-Nkomo alliance, a new constitution was negotiated at Lancaster House in London. The front-line states, particularly Zambia and Mozambique, which had suffered considerably during the war, celebrated this success. South Africa, which remained concerned about the possibilities of the war expanding on its borders, was relieved by the settlement. Great Britain was finally off the hook for its colonial role in Southern Rhodesia. The white settlers were apprehensive, and though many fled to South Africa, others saw the settlement as entrenching their economic position. For the Africans, independence was finally a reality.


Zimbabwean independence changed the face of southern Africa. It proved that the white settlers were not invincible and undermined many of South Africa’s rationales about its position in Namibia. Although the post-independence era was not without difficulties, Zimbabweans have proved that white settlers and Africans can work together for national development and prosperity.

For Zimbabweans, the victory opened new opportunities through self-determination. The edifice of discriminatory legislation that had underwritten policies of separate amenities, segregated services, movement restrictions, job reservation, and limited access to land was eliminated quickly. Efforts to purchase land for the resettlement of refugees and former combatants became a priority. The new government took the unprecedented step of opening up schools to all prospective students, through high school. The old colonial system, which had promoted considerable wastage from grade to grade, was abolished. Support for new facilities, teachers, and materials was mobilized to meet the new demand.

The significance of the African victory over the white minority regime was best seen in terms of the reaffirmation of human dignity. Zimbabwe’s early ability to develop and maintain democratic institutions in the face of its colonial legacy and South African subversion and overt attacks provided important inspiration to the people of South Africa who struggled to remove the burdens of apartheid from their society and their spirit.

However, Mugabe, at first elected by democratic processes, and prudent in his policies, began to tighten his grip on power and to rule as an autocrat, though winning elections owing to his ongoing popularity with the majority Shona tribe. His attacks on private property in 1999 led to emigration of whites and destabilization of an economy that had initially been a net exporter of agricultural products. Eventually he incurred the wrath of the international community with the imposition of travel bans by the European Union and suspension from the Commonwealth of Nations. A once promising model of black majority rule replayed old mistakes of many previous autocratic regimes, ironically at a time when many other African countries, including South Africa, Namibia, and Mozambique were laying the foundations for stable democracies in neighboring countries long afflicted by violence. Anticolonial movements;Southern Rhodesia Nationalism;Southern Rhodesia Revolutions and coups;Southern Rhodesia British Empire;dissolution

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hancock, Ian. White Liberals, Moderates, and Radicals in Rhodesia, 1953-1980. London: Croom Helm, 1984. This book focuses on the liberal tradition in Rhodesia and the politics surrounding negotiations for the settlement with the African nationalists. It outlines the pressure in white politics to follow Smith’s policies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, David, and Phyllis Johnson. The Struggle for Zimbabwe: The Chimurenga War. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1981. This book provides a detailed account of the liberation struggle. It shows how and why the war effort succeeded. It is sympathetic to African aspirations and the socialist model of development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meredith, Martin. Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe. New York: Public Affairs, 2003. A study of Mugabe’s transformation from a political visionary promising racial harmony to a dictator. Focuses on Zimbabwe after 1980.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moorcraft, Paul. “Rhodesia’s War of Independence.” History Today 40 (September, 1990): 11-17. This article traces the efforts to preserve white minority rule in Southern Rhodesia. It discusses the military strategies and their effectiveness during the war. It also examines the internationalization of the conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nyagumbo, Maurice. With the People: An Autobiography from the Zimbabwe Struggle. London: Allison and Busby, 1980. This volume provides an insider account from the African nationalist perspective. Nyagumbo shows the nature of the commitment to the struggle and the hardships endured to achieve victory.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Meara, Patrick. “Zimbabwe: The Politics of Independence.” In Southern Africa: The Continuing Crisis, edited by Gwendolen M. Carter and Patrick O’Meara. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982. This chapter is a readable overview of the struggle for independence. It recounts the split between ZANU and ZAPU in 1963, the Pearce Commission inquiry in 1972, and the development of the Patriotic Front.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sibanda, Eliakim M. The Zimbabwe African People’s Union, 1961-87: A Political History of Insurgency in Southern Rhodesia. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2005. An account of the African People’s Union, or ZAPU, and its historical role in Zimbabwean independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sithole, Masipula. Zimbabwe: Struggles Within the Struggle, 1957-1980. Harare, Zimbabwe: Rujeko, 1999. A history of Zimbabwe’s liberation movement and its internal strife and disagreements, including that among the African National Union, ZANU, and other groups.

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