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History of Zimbabwe - The liberation War, 1965-1980

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The liberation War, 1965-1980


The civil war/liberation struggle that engulfed Rhodesia in the wake of the socio-political and economic developments that occurred during the UDI period was a complex one. It marks how the crisis in Rhodesia escalated as opposition to white rule became increasingly militant. It is a war bedeviled by many ‘struggles within the struggle’. The final phase of the war was littered many atrocities that culminated in all the contestants in the struggle agreeing on the peace modalities at the Lancaster House Conference in 1979, which in turn resulted in the February 1980 general elections that ultimately led to independence on 18 April 1980.


Highlights of the escalating crisis in the early years of the UDI period were the famed Battle of Chinhoyi when ZANLA guerrillas engaged Rhodesia National Army soldiers and the 1967 Wankie Campaign which pitied Rhodesian soldiers against an alliance of ZIPRA and Umkhonto we Sizwe forces. Then there was also the 1969 Anglo-Rhodesia Agreement. The chapter argues that this was an attempt to ensure continued white rule while making token slow concessions to majority rule. This explains the huge “No” vote against those proposals during the 1972 Pearce Commission referendum that was set up to test the acceptability of the agreement. However, the intensifying conflict is marked by the ZANLA guerrillas’ infiltrating the north eastern side of the country with the major highlight being the attack on Altena Farm in December 1972. Henceforth, the whole country was soon engulfed in serious fighting as ZIPRA also infiltrated the country from Zambia.


An important aspect of the escalating crisis was the ‘global’ nature that the Rhodesian crisis assumed. The crisis was not an exclusively Rhodesian affair. The neighbouring countries, notably Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia, and regional powers like Tanzania and Angola, continental powerhouse, Nigeria as well as Russia, China and the USA, among many others, all played significant roles in the crisis. Hence the détente period from 1974 that witnessed protracted efforts spearheaded by Kaunda and Vorster to bring about a negotiated settlement in Rhodesia between Smith and the nationalists. However, the efforts of the African countries in particular also extended towards achieving unity among Rhodesia’s nationalist parties. This saw the emergence of several formations involving the nationalists during the UDI period. These included FROLIZI, UANC, ZLC and ZIPA. This plethora of formations is indicative of the fragmented nature of the nationalist camp in their fight against the Smith regime. Manifestations of the disunity are also reflected in the split that rocked ZAPU in 1971, the Nhari Rebellion against the ZANU leadership from late 1974 and the events surrounding the assassination of Chitepo in 1975, among others.


The escalating crisis is further highlighted by the manner in which the war became bloodier as the years went by. Serious atrocities were perpetrated by both sides as the war escalated. The Rhodesians carried out both air and ground attacks on mainly ZANU and ZAPU refugee camps in Mozambique and Zambia respectively. Some of these brutalities involved the covert poisoning of guerrilla sources of water and food supplies. Civilians were not spared either. There was the anthrax poisoning of livestock and the movement of thousands of rural villagers into concentration camps euphemistically called “protected villages,” among other atrocities. Equally, the nationalist armies attacked white farmers in their isolated homesteads, assaulted centres of colonial power and blew up infrastructure.


This was not a struggle informed merely by racial differences. There were numerous conflicts that were a result of various levels of tensions. Some of the conflicts were due to purely personality clashes while others were caused by class, ideological and ethnic tensions. It was not unusual for a given crisis to be explained on the basis of a combination of two or more of these variables. The many tensions that beset the nationalist war were not only because of the heterogeneous nature of the black society, but also a result of the individual motivations for joining the war. While there are the usual ‘heroic’ motivations highlighted in nationalist historiography, there were many who found themselves in the war through coercion and press-ganging. Even peasant support for the guerrillas was not always voluntary while relations between the guerrillas and other stakeholders in the war were also not always rosy. Some missionaries, for example, were brutally murdered, this notwithstanding the many sacrifices they made towards the welfare of the guerillas in particular and the rural communities in general.


The war also had a serious gender dimension. Women, particularly rural women, made heroic sacrifices in the war. However, some women took advantage of the presence of the guerrillas to report their abusive husbands. In the camps, for example, women guerrillas were subjected to all forms of sexual exploitation while chimbwidos in the fighting zones were sometimes raped. Then there was the ‘struggle’ by women combatants not to be restricted to serving only as porters, nurses and cooks, but also to be allowed to “handle the gun” as well. Thus, among the blacks, the fight against colonial oppression also co-existed with the struggle against male oppression of females. Within the white community, the war brought about a degree of emancipation to women since the escalating war meant the continued absence of their husbands and hence the need for them to be trained in self-defence methods likes how to handle a gun.


Other levels of tensions experienced during the war include the generational tensions in the rural areas as the mujibhas and chimbwidos assumed more authority over their elders because of their daily contact with the guerrillas. There were also the young DAs who controlled the peasants in the so-called protected villagers. These also wielded too much power as they were armed. Then there is also the spiritual element of the war in which, for instance, the ideological differences that affected the ZIPA period also impacted on guerrilla relations with traditional religion, albeit for a very short time. Another element of the tensions in the struggle is how the chiefs found themselves between a hard rock and a hard place as they had to please two masters, the RF government and the guerrillas. Ultimately, there was a shift in the balance of power in the rural areas as these traditional leaders generally lost power to the guerrillas.


The escalating cost of the war, the breakdown of civil administration, a collapsing economy, a failed Internal Settlement and increased pressure from allies all forced Smith to concede to the general elections that brought about majority rule. On the other hand, the nationalist leaders were also desperate to end a war that claimed thousands of lives in wanton bombings of refugees in neighbouring countries by the Rhodesian forces. The guerrilla armies were also confronted by strained logistics. Further to this, pressure from leaders of African countries, particularly the Frontline States, whose economies were also suffering the brunt of the war, also contributed to the nationalists conceding to unsatisfactory ceasefire arrangements whose effects continued to assail the new nation in the post-liberation war era. The war thus ended with the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement that resulted in national elections overwhelmingly won by Robert Mugabe’s ZANU (PF) party.