The coup in Lisbon in April 1974 changed the fortunes of Rhodesia irrevocably. The end of Portuguese rule in Mozambique not only deprived Rhodesia of a long-standing ally and brought to power there a left-wing nationalist movement; it meant that Rhodesia’s entire eastern border, some 760 miles long, was potentially vulnerable to infiltration by Zanu guerrillas operating freely from bases in Mozambique. Moreover, Frelimo‘s accession to power in Mozambique emboldened Rhodesian nationalists to believe that in Rhodesia too guerrilla warfare would succeed in overthrowing white rule.
The South Africans were quick to recognise, in the aftermath of the Lisbon coup, that an entirely new strategy was needed. Hitherto, they had looked on Angola, Mozambique and Rhodesia as a valuable buffer separating them from contact with black Africa, a cordon sanitaire which it was in their own interests to strengthen. But with the withdrawal of the Portuguese from Angola and Mozambique, Rhodesia was no longer important as a front-line defence, for the winds of change had finally reached South Africa’s own frontier. The South African prime minister, John Vorster, calculated that in the long run Smith’s position, without an open-ended South African military and financial commitment, was untenable. White rule in Rhodesia was ultimately doomed. In this new assessment, Smith, with his long history of intransigence, was no longer a useful partner but a potential liability. His stubborn resistance to change only served to magnify the dangers of communist involvement in southern Africa. An unstable white government in Rhodesia was less preferable than a stable black government, heavily dependent on South African goodwill.
With this objective in mind, Vorster set out to force Smith to come to terms with the Rhodesian nationalists. He was obliged to act circumspectly for fear of antagonising his own electorate and provoking an outcry in Rhodesia. Fortuitously, he found an ally in Zambia’s President Kaunda, who had become increasingly concerned about the disruption caused in Zambia by the Rhodesian imbroglio and about the dangers of a widening guerrilla war there. In conjunction with other African leaders, Vorster and Kaunda conspired to impose on Smith and the nationalists their own plan for a Rhodesian settlement. As a preliminary step, Smith was required, much against his better judgement, to release nationalist detainees, including Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe….
Under pressure from South Africa, Smith went through the motions of attempting a negotiated settlement but, like Mugabe, saw no need to compromise. A conference in August 1975, held under the auspices of Vorster and Kaunda in railway carriages parked on the Victoria Falls bridge on the border between Rhodesia and Zambia, broke up in disarray after the first day….
In early 1976 the guerrilla war entered anew and more perilous phase. From bases in Mozambique, hundreds of Zanu guerrillas infiltrated into eastern Rhodesia, attacking white homesteads, robbing stores, planting landmines and subverting the local population. When Nkomo’s talks with Smith broke down, Zapu guerrillas joined the war, opening a new front in western Rhodesia, along the borders with Zambia and Botswana. Main roads and railways came under attack. White farmers bore the brunt, living daily with the risks of ambush, barricaded at night in fortified homes. A growing number of whites, rather than face military service, emigrated.
Though Rhodesia’s army commanders still expressed confidence in their ability to defeat the guerrilla menace, in many parts of the world it seemed that Smith was embarked upon an increasingly risky venture to sustain white rule which endangered the stability of the whole region. Among those whose attention was drawn to the Rhodesian war was Henry Kissinger. In the wake of the Angolan debacle, Kissinger was particularly alert to the dangers of how nationalist guerrilla wars could widen the circle of conflict, drawing in neighbouring countries and providing the Soviet bloc with opportunities for intervention. He found Vorster similarly worried and impatient with Smith’s intransigence. In tandem, they agreed on a plan to force Smith to accept majority rule. To make Smith amenable to the idea, Vorster cut back oil shipments and supplies of arms and ammunition, withdrew helicopter pilots and technicians from Rhodesia and delayed its import and export traffic through South Africa. Kissinger was left to present the terms of surrender.
At a meeting in Pretoria in September 1976, Kissinger handed Smith a typed list of five points that he said must be used as the basis for a Rhodesian settlement. Smith took the document and slowly read aloud the first point: ‘Rhodesia agrees to black majority rule within two years.’ He looked around the room and said: ‘you want me to sign my own suicide note.’…
When Smith finally left the stage as prime minister on the last day of white rule on 31 May 1979, his legacy was a state unrecognised by the international community, subjected to trade boycotts, ravaged by civil war that had cost at least 20,000 lives and facing a perilous future.
As the war intensified, Britain launched one last initiative to find a solution, calling for negotiations at a conference to be held in London. Muzorewa and Nkomo readily agreed to attend, but Mugabe saw no need. His guerrilla army was planning to embark on a new phase of urban warfare. ‘We felt we needed yet another thrust, and in the urban areas, in order to bring the fight home to where the whites had their citadels’, he recalled. The longer the war lasted, the greater were the prospects for achieving his revolutionary objectives.
Only under extreme pressure from Zambia ‘s Kenneth Kaunda and Mozambique’s Samora Machel did he eventually agree to attend. Both Zambia and Mozambique had suffered heavily as a result of Rhodesian raids on guerrilla bases and supply lines they harboured. Neither could afford to sustain the war any longer. Machel was blunt in his warnings: if Mugabe refused to go to London and explore negotiations, then Mozambique would withdraw its support….
Mugabe arrived in London in September 1979, a cold, austere figure who rarely smiled and seemed bent on achieving revolution, whatever the cost. While in exile he had repeatedly insisted on the need for a one-party Marxist state, threatened that Ian Smith and his ‘criminal gang’ would be tried and shot, and warned that white exploiters would not be allowed to keep an acre of land. His main hope was that the conference would break down.
Against all odds, however, the conference stumbled towards agreement. At the final hurdle, when Mugabe balked at accepting the ceasefire arrangements and made plans to fly to New York to denounce the whole proceedings at the United Nations, he was given a direct warning by an envoy from Machel that unless he signed the agreement, he could no longer count on using Mozambique as abase for operations; in other words, as far as Mozambique was concerned, the war was over. Mugabe was resentful about the outcome of the conference: ‘As I signed the document, I was not a happy man at all. I felt we had been cheated to some extent, that we had agreed to a deal which would to some extent rob us of [the] victory we had hoped we would achieve in the field.’…
Returning to Rhodesia in January 1980, nearly five years after his escape into exile, Mugabe was given a hero’s welcome by one of the largest crowds ever seen in Rhodesia. Banners portraying rockets, grenades, land mines and guns greeted him, and many youths wore T-shirts displaying the Kalashnikov rifle, the election symbol that Zanu wanted but the British had disallowed. But Mugabe himself was unexpectedly conciliatory. In Mozambique, shortly before Mugabe’s return to Salisbury, Samora Machel, still struggling to overcome the massive disruption caused by the exodus of whites at independence in 1975, had intervened to warn Zanu against fighting the election on a revolutionary platform. ‘Don’t play make-believe Marxist games when you get home,’ he said. ‘You will face ruin if you force the whites into precipitate flight.’ Consequently, Mugabe’s manifesto was stripped of all reference to Marxism and revolution.