What Rhodesia Can Teach Us about Zimbabwe

The world of 35 years ago was a dramatically different place, and nowhere more so than in sub-Saharan Africa.  In the early 1970s, Portugal still clung to its colonies in Angola and Mozambique, South Africa was under the heavy hand of apartheid, and Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then called, was run by the white minority regime of Ian Smith.  The domination of Africa by Europe and people of European descent was intact, albeit showing signs of stress.

When things changed, they changed at a speed few would have predicted. A 1974 coup d’état by left-leaning military officers in Lisbon, floridly named the “Carnation Revolution”, led within a year to the independence of Portugal’s five African dependencies.  In South Africa, the 1976 Soweto riots and the murder by police the following year of renowned political activist Steven Biko gave the disempowered black majority some potent martyrs to rally around and exposed to the world the ugly reality of apartheid.  By the end of the decade, these events had contributed to the end of Rhodesia and ushered in an era of majority rule, despite Smith’s assertion that it would not happen “in a thousand years”.

The reasons for Rhodesia’s collapse are relatively simple, and have much to teach us about how to tackle Robert Mugabe, Smith’s odious successor in Zimbabwe. 

First of all, the independence of Mozambique opened up a new military front and allowed rebels to launch attacks on targets in eastern Rhodesia. Secondly, being a landlocked country, Rhodesia was wholly dependent on neighboring countries for its imports and exports. Fuel, power, spare parts, arms etc. flowed in through ports in South Africa and Mozambique, and agricultural products flowed out. Under heavy pressure from the United States, South Africa made a calculated decision to try and postpone black rule at home by promoting it in Rhodesia. Already bogged down in a grim bush war with rebels, the Smith government suddenly found itself confronted with the prospect of serious trade sanctions imposed by its giant neighbor to the south. With electricity, oil supplies and military aid suspended, Smith was forced to enter negotiations with black nationalists, resulting in the birth in 1980 of the new nation of Zimbabwe, with Robert Mugabe at its head.

Today, both South Africa and Mozambique could play an equally vital role in forcing Mr. Mugabe to abandon his despotic ways and commence a return to electoral democracy in Zimbabwe. The way to do this is through the imposition of serious economic and trade sanctions. To be sure, Europe and North America already have what they call “targeted sanctions” on Zimbabwe, but these have failed to achieve the desired results. African sanctions, if properly applied, would be far more effective, as well as being politically more palatable.

The facts are telling. South Africa is Zimbabwe’s most important trade partner, selling its neighbor food and beverages, fuel, machinery, chemicals and so on.  The bulk of Zimbabwe’s imported electricity comes from South Africa and Mozambique. And nearly all of Zimbabwe’s imports pass through five ports, three located in South Africa and two in Mozambique.  Even the threat of cutting off the flow of electricity, petroleum, and spare parts would very quickly get Mr. Mugabe’s attention. Certainly there will be those who argue that sanctions are a blunt instrument which disproportionately hurt the poor; in reality, the truly poor have little to fear from sanctions as they now inhabit a subsistence world with few links to the formal economy.

Unfortunately, South Africa has been unwilling to demonstrate political courage by flexing its economic muscles.  Instead, the government has preferred to pursue Thabo Mbeki’s tepid policy of “quiet diplomacy”, as ever greater numbers of Zimbabweans are terrorized by their own government or forced to flee their country. Lately, however, South Africa’s transitional President Motlanthe as well the man likely to be the country’s next leader, Jacob Zuma, have publicly warned of the possibility of Zimbabwe’s disintegration and called for decisive action. Even Mozambique’s traditional silence on Zimbabwe was broken recently when the country’s ruling party Frelimo signed a declaration raising concerns about the country’s economic and humanitarian crisis.

Eventually Mr. Mugabe, like his predecessor Mr. Smith, will exit Zimbabwe’s long-running tragicomedy. Whether or not he is allowed to destroy his country before taking the final bow is a question South Africa and Mozambique can help to answer. They need only look to their recent past. ______________________________________________________________________________________ Christian Hennemeyer is a vice president of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and has lived and worked in Africa for more than 20 years.


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Christian Hennemeyer