On 11 November 1965, Southern Rhodesia’s prime minister, Ian Smith, unilaterally declared his territory’s independence from Britain. Not since the United States in 1776 had a British colony declared itself independent, and the Rhodesian declaration was not dissimilar in language and syntax to its American forerunner. That afternoon Smith addressed the nation. He assured them that Rhodesians remained ‘second to none in our loyalty to the Queen’, but ‘the end of the road has been reached’.
The road to Southern Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) began at the Victoria Falls conference in the summer of 1963. It was here that the dissolution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, or Central African Federation (CAF), was agreed. Two of Federation’s constituent members, Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, became independent in 1964 as Malawi and Zambia respectively. Southern Rhodesia was more problematic. Unlike its former partners, which were British protectorates, Southern Rhodesia had been a self-governing colony since 1923. However, it was also dominated by a white minority numbering 224,000 according to the 1965 census, as opposed to over 4 million Africans. Predominantly British in origin, this minority community was strong and largely united. It also had the support of the ‘Rhodesia lobby’ on the Conservative backbenches back in Britain.
Winston Field, Southern Rhodesia’s prime minister at the dissolution of the CAF, sought independence on the basis of the 1961 constitution. The key problem with this solution lay with the franchise. Voting provisions were complicated, with two voting rolls. Race was not mentioned in terms of allocating a person to a roll, but the property, income and education qualifications for the ‘A’ roll ensured that it was predominantly European, resulting in the dominance of the white minority. The Conservative government of Alec Douglas-Home was therefore unwilling to grant independence on the basis of the existing arrangements. Aside from the moral and ethical imperative of ensuring fairer representation for the majority black African population, Britain also came under international pressure. Fellow members of the United Nations and especially the Commonwealth opposed any solution that facilitated continued minority dominance, and appearing to support the Southern Rhodesian government risked serious damage to Britain’s international reputation. Continue reading »