Rhodesian Bush War
Second Chimurenga
Zimbabwe Liberation Struggle

Zimbabwe had originally been part of the British colony Rhodesia. It had been a self-governing colony since 1923, but with a white minority ruling over an African majority. In the 1960s a new constitution was approved that allowed for limited African participation, but this failed to appease most Africans.

The Federation of Rhodesia, which had been created in 1953, broke up as African majority governments assumed control of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nyasaland (now Malawi). Modern Zimbabwe, then known as Southern Rhodesia, remained under white minority rule whose conservative trends in fact hardened with the break-up of the Federation of Rhodesia.

Britain tried to negotiate a way for the government in Southern Rhodesia to eventually allow for African majority rule, but the negotiations proved to be unsuccessful and Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith unilaterally declared Rhodesia's unilateral independence from Great Britain on November 11, 1965. While Britain considered the act to be an act of rebellion, it did not intervene by force. It did, however, request UN economic sanctions on Rhodesia and it also refused to recognize Rhodesian independence when a British commission's hearings discovered that the vast majority of Africans opposed the terms of Rhodesian independence that did not provide for adequate African representation. In 1966 the UN Security Council placed sanctions on Rhodesia, the first in the history of the Security Council. The sanctions were broadened in 1968 by imposing an almost total embargo on all trade with, investments in, or transfers of funds to Rhodesia and restrictions on air transport were also imposed.

From the opposition to white minority rule emerged two African nationalist organizations: the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by Robert Mugabe and operating from Mozambique, and the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) led by Joshua Nkomo and operating from Zambia. The groups would later be united under the name ZANU-PF in 1974 (PF is short for Patriotic Front). Both organizations carried out guerrilla campaigns against Ian Smith's government throughout the 1970s, largely beginning in 1972. Smith attempted to bring right-wing politicians in the United States and Britain to his cause, but failed and his government continued to go unrecognized by the international community.

Increasing pressures on the Rhodesia and the Smith government continued to mount with embargo-related economic hardships, continued guerilla activity, majority rule in neighboring former Portuguese colonies, and a UK-US diplomatic initiative all bringing pressure to bear on Rhodesia. The Smith government eventually agreed in principle to majority rule and a meeting with African nationalist leaders in Geneva to negotiate a final settlement. However the meeting failed because of Ian Smith's inflexibility and the inability of the African leaders to form a united political front.

A 1978 internal settlement created an interim coalition government with Smith and three black leaders. A 1977 UK-US plan called for majority rule, pre-independence elections, a democratic constitution, and an integrated army. While the plan was not widely supported, no one really rejected it either and it began to go into effect. The United African National Council, led by Bishop Abel T. Muzorewa, won the parliamentary elections but Muzorewa lost credibility as he sought support from South Africa. The elections also failed to end the guerrilla conflict, which continued despite the moves towards majority rule and democratization.

Estimates of the size of the insurgent forces vary considerably, but numbers were believed to have been over 50,000 in 1979. Not all of these, however, were sufficiently armed or trained to be considered combat effective. In the late 1970s about 15,000 guerrillas were active inside Rhodesia at any given time, most of them from ZANU.

Ranged against the guerrillas in 1972 were security forces and reserves that numbered under 50,000 men. These were incorporated in a small, white-officered regular army of 3,400, of whom 80 percent were black, backed up by 8,000 white reservists. Equipment was old but well maintained. The air force inventory consisted of fifty-five aging aircraft that were nonetheless adequate to keep air superiority over any potential African enemy. The air arm could also strike at will against enemy bases in Zambia and Mozambique, and its helicopters were used effectively in counterinsurgency operations.

The tough paramilitary police force, 6,400 strong and two-thirds black, was reinforced by a predominantly white reserve of nearly 30,000. Rhodesian security forces expanded dramatically in the late 1970s. By 1979 the regular army consisted of 10,000 men, including 3,200 white conscripts, trained reservists, organized in the Territorial Army, numbered about 15,000. Air strength was enhanced by the delivery of additional aircraft from South Africa. Rhodesian regular forces had high morale, and all components were well trained for their missions.

The military situation had seriously deteriorated by mid-1977 as the number of well-armed guerrillas grew measurably. Guerrillas brought the war to the cities and disrupted transportation and communications, but most of their attacks continued to be aimed at psychological targets - remote white farmsteads, undefended black villages, and isolated government installations. Both ZANLA and ZIPRA conducted operations in the TTL, but neither was able to establish liberated zones there. Large areas of land went untended as white farmers left holdings that were vulnerable to attack. Rural unemployment rose, schools and medical facilities were shut down in many ares, and more than 850,000 homeless blacks fled to refugee camps. About 150 "protected" villages containing more than 350,000 black inhabitants were set up by the government under special security precautions intended to isolate guerrillas from their support in the countryside, and "no-go" free-fire zones were established in the northeast. Curfews were imposed as urban violence increased, and systematic identity checks were instituted. Martial law was proclaimed in the TTL in 1978 and the next year was extended to the whole country. Prosecutions under the Emergency Powers Act and the Law and Order (Maintenance) Act multiplied as a result of the crackdown. Among those charged under the latter measure was Donal Lamont, the Roman Catholic bishop of Umtali, who was convicted of not reporting the presence of guerrillas in his diocese.

Estimates of casualties vary considerably as to numbers and cause. The most conservative figures indicate nearly 20,000 war-related deaths over the whole period of the conflict, a number that grew by increments of up to 1,000 a month during the peak of the fighting in 1979. More than half of these were guerrillas killed in combat operations. Losses in the security forces were put at 1,120 dead. About 500 white civilians were killed by guerrillas, including 107 passengers in two Air Rhodesia airliners shot down by Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missiles. The government cited 3,500 black civilians who died as a result of guerrilla actions, many of them as victims of land mines. Another 3,500 dead were officially listed as "crossfire" victims. Figures reported did not include severe civilian casualties inflicted during air attacks and commando raids on guerrilla camps in Zambia and Mozambique.

Atrocities and acts of intimidation were committed by both sides in the war, notably by security forces during punitive raids on villages suspected of aiding the guerrillas and by guerrillas in dealing with blacks accused of collaborating with the government. Some of the most widely publicized incidents were the murders of missionaries, which the government laid to the guerrillas. Nationalist organizations denied complicity in these actions, and some church officials and missionaries believed that security forces were responsible for them.

In 1979 the British began aggressive negotiations with African leaders aimed at reaching a final settlement on independence and majority rule. As part of the transition to independence the British reverted to imposing de facto colonial status on Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, which was followed by the lifting of sanctions on the country. The United States lifted sanctions not long afterwards. Three months after the negotiations began, an agreement was signed that called for a cease-fire, new elections, a transition period under British rule, and a new constitution calling for majority rule while protecting minority rights. The new country was to be called Zimbabwe.

With the new agreement, the UN Security Council endorsed the settlement and called upon its member states to remove the sanctions. In the pre-independence elections, ZANU-PF, led by Robert Mugabe, won an absolute majority and was asked to form Zimbabwe's first government. Mugabe stated that he would work for Zimbabwe's integration and reconciliation, as well as repairing the damage from the guerrilla campaigns. In regards to foreign policy, Zimbabwe was to be non-aligned and though it would opposed apartheid in South Africa, it would not be a base for anti-South African guerrillas. The British government formally granted independence to Zimbabwe on April 18, 1980 and most other states followed suit soon after.

Join the mailing list