The British Communist Party and the national liberation struggle in Rhodesia, pt 1

This is part 1 of a series of posts looking at how the CPGB responded to the national liberation struggle in Rhodesia and the establishment of Zimbabwe in 1978-79. It is an off-shoot from my research into relations between the CPGB and the South African Communist Party. Part 2 will look at the CPGB’s reaction to the Pearce Commission in 1972 and a possible Part 3 will look at how the Party viewed the negotiations between the Smith regime and ZANU/ZAPU between 1977 and 1979. It is pretty new stuff for me, so any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

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In 1965, Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith announced the country’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from the British Commonwealth. Although there had been civil disobedience by the Zimbabwean people and the beginnings of an uprising prior to this, Smith’s (UDI) intensified the civil war in Rhodesia as the Smith white minority government fought two national liberation movements – the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). Supported by South Africa and Portugal, the Rhodesian government fought these two movements from 1964 until 1978-79, when the Smith regime conceded power to the Patriotic Front (the combined forces of ZANU and ZAPU), ending white minority rule and the establishment of Zimbabwe.

By the late 1960s, the wave of decolonisation had effectively swept over most of the African continent, with only the Southern African states, such as Mozambique, Angola, Rhodesia and South Africa holding out. Therefore Southern Africa became a focal point for anti-imperialists across the globe and flashpoint in the Cold War. The British left had, for the most part, supported decolonisation and opposed these states that continued to impose white minority rule in Southern Africa. Although the left’s efforts were primarily channelled into the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) and campaigned mostly on South African issues, there was healthy support for the national liberation forces fighting the Smith regime in neighbouring Rhodesia.

As allies of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was heavily involved in the AAM in Britain, and also involved in supporting ZAPU in the Rhodesian Civil War (which also had support from the Soviet Union). In a 1969 issue of International Affairs Bulletin, the journal of the Party’s International Department, the CPGB stated that the AAM and Fenner Brockway’s Movement for Colonial Freedom (soon to be Liberation) both greatly supported the Zimbabwean cause, but lamented that the labour movement had ‘not been sufficiently active on the issue’ (IAB, 3/4, Jan/Feb 1969, CP/CENT/INT/08/08, LHASC).

The same bulletin framed ZAPU as the spearhead of the Zimbabwean national liberation movement, stating: that ‘ZAPU is a mass party, and is firmly based on the workers and peasants’. This was contrasted with ZANU (which was supported by Chinese and had links to the Pan-Africanist Congress in South Africa, the main rival of the ANC), whose influence, the CPGB believed, was ‘more narrowly restricted and appeal[ing] more to sections of the intelligentsia, who are influenced by Maoist adventurism.’ The CPGB complained:

ZANU certainly appears to take little or no part in the present armed guerrilla struggle being waged by the ZAPU-ANC alliance, except to make wild statements from time to time which are based more on imagination than on fact.

The Party further added:

From the political standpoint ZANU seems to rely on flamboyant proclamations far remote from the realities of the actual struggle.

Between 1966 and 1968, Prime Minister Harold Wilson pursued negotiations to secure a new constitutional arrangement in Rhodesia, including majority rule for the country’s African population. Labour agreed in principle to ‘NIBMAR’ (no independence before majority African rule), although it was more or less powerless to prevent Smith from maintaining Rhodesia’s self-declared independence after 1965. Smith was able to reject most overtures from Wilson and the Communist Party was of the opinion that there was little hope in these negotiations achieving anything of significance. For the CPGB, support for the armed struggle was paramount, even though a resolution pronouncing this support was defeated at the 1968 Labour Party Conference.

The CPGB declared:

With their leaders in prison and in detention, the operation of a system of repressive laws, and with the Labour Government’s policy of appeasement of the Smith regime, the national movement has now taken the only way left for them to struggle for their aims…

Having formed an alliance for joint struggle, the Zimbabwe African Peoples’ Union (ZAPU) and the African National Congress (ANC), of South Africa, launched their first military operations in August 1967 around Wankie. This marked a decisive new stage in the independence struggle of both the Zimbabwean and the South African people…

It is essential to win support for an understanding of the reasons for the armed struggle, to lay the basis for winning not only moral and political support for the freedom fighters, but material support as well.

The Communist Party put forward five main demands in regards to Rhodesia, which were very similar to those put forward by ZAPU. These were:

  1. No talks with Smith.
  2. Full moral and material support to the people of Zimbabwe in their struggle for liberation.
  3. Suspension of the 1961 Constitution and a fully representative conference to frame a new constitution based on universal adult suffrage and majority rule.
  4. The release of all political prisoners and detainees.
  5. Complete mandatory sanctions to be applied in accordance with the United Nations resolution.*

While giving support to ZAPU, the practical activism that the CPGB was involved in regarding Rhodesia was attempts to convince the trade unions to support the national liberation struggle (just as the unions were doing with regards to South Africa and the AAM). If the trade unions could be convinced to take this action, it would put pressure upon the Labour Party (and the government) to follow this lead, particularly in supporting the armed struggle. The International Department concluded its report on Rhodesia in 1969 with this statement about the importance of the British trade unions in campaigning for a democratic and independent Zimbabwe:

The British labour movement must be won to ally itself with the movement at present campaigning for a reversal of these policies of betrayal and for support of the Zimbabwe peoples in their struggle for one man one vote and no independence before majority rule.

However as the relationship between Britain and Rhodesia changed under the Heath govermment, which came into power in late 1970, the Party started to seek other forms of activism to highlight the struggle of the Zimbabwean people and not simply direct their efforts into pushing resolutions through the labour movement. This will be discussed in the next blog post on this subject.


*The five demands of ZAPU were:

  1. One Man One Vote.
  2. No Independence Before Majority Rule.
  3. No Negotiations with the Smith Regime.
  4. Comprehensive and mandatory economic sanctions.
  5. Moral and material support for the Zimbabwe people in their struggle for independence based on universal suffrage and majority rule.

(‘The Khartoum Conference and Six Liberation Movements’, IAB, 4/1, May/Jun 1969, CP/CENT/INT/08/08, LHASC)

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