Exploiting the Pearce Commission: The British Communist Party and the national liberation struggle in Rhodesia, pt 2

This is the second part in a three-part series of blog posts about the Communist Party of Great Britain’s relationship with the national liberation struggle in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe between 1965 and 1979. This post focuses on the Pearce Commission in 1972 and how the Communists used it to publicise its opposition to the Smith regime.

Cover of CPGB's International Affairs Bulletin from May/June 1972.
Cover of CPGB’s International Affairs Bulletin from May/June 1972.

After the Smith regime in Rhodesia announced its UDI in 1965, the Wilson government had pursued a line of not recognising the country’s independence before the breakaway nation implemented majority African rule (NIBMAR or ‘no independence before majority African rule’), although there were several attempts at negotiations to try to achieve this compromise. However the Smith regime was unwilling to negotiate with the British under these conditions.

In 1970, the Conservatives were surprisingly elected to power and Edward Heath became Prime Minister. Under the watch of Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home, Britain tried to re-engage with the Rhodesian government and made overtures to the Smith regime on a much more conciliatory basis. This warming of ties between Rhodesia and its former colonial superior led to the establishment of an inquiry into the state of affairs in Rhodesia and the treatment of its African population led by Lord Pearce, which became known as the Pearce Commission.

Because the leadership of both national liberation forces ZAPU and ZANU were both either in exile or in jail, supporters of both organisations came together to help establish the African National Council, which was to act as the representative of the country’s African population to the Pearce Commission. While both organisations helped form the Council, it seems that it was supported more forthrightly by ZAPU (and thus the Soviet leaning communist movement worldwide).

In a 1972 issue of the CPGB’s International Affairs Bulletin, the Party described the Council in the following way:

The ANC was formed in December 1971 as a spontaneous grass-roots reaction to the announcement of the terms of the Anglo-Rhodesian proposals. Although having a formal structure it represents the demands of African people in the country to express their view as to the terms of the Settlement.

But while the Commission conducted its investigation in the first half of 1972 and took note of the evidence presented by the African National Council, it was evident that the Rhodesian authorities were attempting to undermine the work of the Commission and that the Smith regime was unlikely to agree to its findings. As the Communist Party noted in mid-1972:

It is clear in spite of the diplomatic language used, that there was obstruction by the Rhodesian authorities of the work of the Commission which even cancelled visits to certain areas at the request of the authorities. On the arrival of the Commission there were demonstrations, especially in the urban, working class areas which were fired on by the police.

The obstruction by the Rhodesian authorities also extended to denying visas to people coming to the country to take part in the investigation, including Sir Dingle Foot who was to take part on behalf of the National Executive of the Labour Party. This gave the International Department of the CPGB an idea to take advantage of the Rhodesian government’s obstructiveness and possibly make some publicity for the Zimbabwean cause. Documents to this episode can be found in the National Archives at Kew in the file FCO 36/1331.

Letter from FCO to John Gollan (Jan 1972)
Letter from FCO to John Gollan (Jan 1972)

In January 1972, General Secretary of the CPGB, John Gollan, wrote to the Foreign Secretary announcing that the Communist Party was looking to send a delegation to ‘observe the Pearce Commission’s work’ and ‘discuss with the people of Rhodesia their opinion concerning the proposed settlement and their views as to the future of Rhodesia’. In the wake of Dingle Foot’s refusal of entry, Gollan wrote that he hoped that the FCO would assist the CPGB delegation in gaining entry to country. He wrote:

we are informing you of our proposed visit, since we would like to have an assurance from the British Government that it will take the necessary steps to ensure that no obstacles are placed in the way of our delegation.

A.K. Mason in the FCO’s Rhodesia Political Department wrote to the Assistant Under-Secretary of State, Stanley Fingland, and stated:

There is no question that the Rhodesian authorities would be prepared to admit a Communist Party delegation. There is no Communist Party in Rhodesia and any attempt to form one would almost certainly be banned under existing legislation.* Nor could the Communists in any way be involved with the proposed all-party mission which would, of course, comprise those parties now represented in the House of Commons.

But Mason wrote that the CPGB’s request could not be dismissed out of hand, advising:

If, however, we were to refuse even to notify the Rhodesians of the Communist Party’s proposal it would enable them and, no doubt, the Russians and others, to make some cheap propaganda at our expense.

Mason recommended that the FCO tell the Rhodesian regime that the CPGB intended to send a delegation to the country, but would tell Gollan that ‘control of access to Rhodesia is in the hands of the Rhodesian authorities’.

Fingland disagreed with this position and proposed that the FCO should bluntly tell Gollan that ‘the Secretary of State is not in a position to give the assurance which he has sought’. Thus a letter to Gollan from the FCO’s John Graham simply stated:

As has been made clear in the course of debates in Parliament, control of access to Rhodesia has in practice long been in the hands of the authorities there. The British Government is therefore not in a position to give the assurance you request.

At the same time, the Douglas-Home sent a telegram to the Rhodesian authorities informing them of the CPGB’s request and the FCO’s response to Gollan. Gollan replied to Douglas-Home that he was ‘shocked’ at the Foreign Secretary’s reply. Gollan complained that the procedure followed by the government concerning delegations of Labour and Liberal Party members was not followed when it was Communist Party members. Gollan complained ‘you appear to be discriminating against us’.

An internal FCO memo outlined the difference between the circumstances surrounding the Labour/Liberal delegations and the delegation proposed by the Communist Party. These were:

  1. the Labour and Liberal Parties asked the Secretary of State to approach the Rhodesian authorities on their behalf, whereas Mr Gollan did not;
  2. the Communist Party is not represented in Parliament;
  • the Communist Party proposes in effect to conduct its own test of acceptability, whereas the Labour and Liberal Parties agreed merely to observe the Pearce Commission in operation.

Phillip Mansfield, from the FCO’s Rhodesian Political Department, added:

The Communist Party know, of course, that they have no hope of being admitted into Rhodesia and are clearly seeking to exploit the situation for propaganda purposes.

The FCO sent another letter to Gollan outlining these reasons, but offered the conciliation that if the CPGB were intending to send a delegation to Rhodesia, a list of names of those intending to travel was needed so that the FCO could forward them into Salisbury. Gollan quickly replied that both himself and Jack Woddis, head of the Party’s International Department, would form the two-man delegation. Another internal FCO memo said of this request, ‘Clearly there is no chance of the Rhodesian authorities admitting them to Rhodesia’, but conceded that they would communicate the Communist Party’s wish to the Rhodesian government.

I have been unable to locate any information on what happened after this exchange and haven’t been able to access the Morning Star or Comment from 1972 to see if any publicity was made from the Party’s attempt to send a delegation to Rhodesia. But it shows how affairs in Southern Africa (including national liberation struggles) were important for those fighting the Cold War and that any possible involvement of communists (from Britain or the Soviet Bloc) had to be taken seriously by the FCO. It also shows that the CPGB’s attitude towards the national liberation struggle in Rhodesia was changing. While the British party followed a line of no negotiation with the Smith regime (as pronounced by ZAPU) during the 1960s, when ZAPU co-operated with the Pearce Commission, the CPGB followed (although the armed struggle was intensified at the same time). At this moment, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe seemed like the weakest link in the capitalist-imperialist chain in Southern Africa and the ‘facts on the ground’ in 1972 meant that the CPGB, following ZAPU and the Soviets, attempted to exploit the Pearce Commission to put public pressure on the Smith regime.

The next post will look at how the Communist Party reacted to the victory of the national liberation forces in Zimbabwe in the mid-to-late 1970s and how the Party reacted to the negotiated settlement achieved by the British Commonwealth between 1977 and 1979, but also to the fact that Robert Mugabe’s ZANU was the leading force in post-imperial Zimbabwe, rather than the Soviet-backed ZAPU.


*This is an interesting point. As I had previously blogged, in 1950, both South Africa and Australia were intending on introducing legislation to ban the Communist Party in both countries. The CPSA’s newspaper The Guardian said that Southern Rhodesia was watching these developments and could introduce similar legislation in the future. In the FCO file, the Rhodesian Political Department found out that this legislation had not been introduced and the fact was that ‘there has never been a Communist Party in Rhodesia’. The memo from the RPD explained:

In July 1966 Mr Lardner-Burke announced that preparations were being made for a Suppression of Communism bill to be placed before the Rhodesian parliament. As far as the two Research Departments can tell, no such bill was introduced and it is thought the reason for this might be that the Rhodesians decided that they had sufficient powers under the Unlawful Organisations Act and the Law & Order Maintenance Act to make a Suppression of Communism Act unnecessary.



3 responses to “Exploiting the Pearce Commission: The British Communist Party and the national liberation struggle in Rhodesia, pt 2”

  1. Hi Evan, many thanks for your posts on Zimbabwe/Southern Rhodesia. I wonder why Zim never developed a strong communist party? ZAPU, as you remark, was probably the closest they got to it. Does it not seem surprising in view of the dominance of the SACP during the nationalist struggle, and the closeness geographically of the two countries? I would love your opinion on this. ps. I completed a Masters in IR and my thesis was on Zim decolonisation (primary sources mainly from Kew Archives). I was also intrigued by your comment that those African countries undergoing decolonisation might have issues liaising/getting support from CPGB in view of the colonial link…

    • I am General Secretary of the Zimbabwe Communist League, I am also a member of the revived ZAPU and a former member of the CPGB. We are in he process of forming a Communist Party in Zimbabwe. Check Zimbabwe Communist League on Facebook

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