The Last Stubborn Outpost of a Past Epoch: The British Communist Party and National Liberation in Zimbabwe, pt. 3

This is the third (and final) post in a series looking at how the Communist Party of Great Britain viewed and interacted with the national liberation struggle in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. The other instalments can be found here and here.


Throughout the 1970s, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe was seen as a weak link in the imperialist rule that spanned Southern Africa at the time. From 1972 (when the Pearce Commission was held) until the withdrawal of Portugal from Mozambique and Angola in 1975, Rhodesia was the primary battleground between the national liberation movements, the Soviet-backed ZAPU and the pro-Chinese ZANU, and the Rhodesian Army, supported by the South African regime (and by proxy the USA and the UK). After Mozambique and Angola became independent in 1975, the racist states of South Africa, Namibia and Rhodesia were further isolated. On the global stage, the US and the UK were now wavering in their (outright) support for these white-ruled countries and pressure, particularly from the US, was put upon Rhodesian leader Ian Smith to accept majority rule. The Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain, especially the Communist Party of Great Britain, were galvanised by these developments. In a 1976 pamphlet, the head of the CPGB’s International Department, Jack Woddis, wrote:

Southern Africa clings on, a last stubborn outpost of a past epoch. White rule in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia is an anachronism. History has passed its verdict. Apartheid and all its works must go.

After the Pearce Commission in 1972, the Communist Party suggested that any ‘settlement’ in Zimbabwe would have to take in the wishes of the Zimbabwean people and it had realistically put the end to any secret deal between the British Conservative government and the Smith regime. Writing in CPGB fortnightly journal Comment (August 11, 1973) Martin Gostwick stated that ‘a “settlement” now which does not enable the people to take the power and win independence will have to be made over heads’ and despite the ‘conniving’ of the British Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home and Ian Smith, it was unlikely that the Zimbabwean people would allow this to happen. The British, Gostwick argued, still had a role to play in ending white rule in Zimbabwe and urged ‘progressive forces’ in Britain to ‘aid the struggle in the ways which the peoples think will help’. However ultimately reminded readers that ‘Prime responsibility in the struggle for self-determination rests with the people of Zimbabwe’.

The granting of independence to Mozambique and Angola in 1975 changed the dynamic in southern Africa, with Mozambique (which shared a border with Zimbabwe) heavily assisting the ZANU and its armed section ZANLA and the civil war in Angola drawing in the South African military in a proxy war with the Soviet Union and Cuba. Rhodesia was becoming increasingly isolated and although the apartheid regime in South Africa still largely supported the Smith regime, South Africa was being pushed to the limits militarily and economically. As Mike Terry wrote in Comment in April 1975:

With the overthrow of the fascist and colonial Caetano regime in Portugal and with Mozambique and Angola on the road to independence, a key factor in how the struggle in southern Africa develops as a whole is the situation in Zimbabwe…

Apart from the external factors, the mid-1970s were also a turning point in the Zimbabwean struggle as it brought together the two largest national liberation forces into a formal alliance. Since the Pearce Commission broke down in 1972, there had been agreement between ZAPU, ZANU and the various African groups within Zimbabwe that the African National Council (ANC) would be an umbrella organisation for the different strains involved in the struggle. As the CPGB resolution on Southern Africa at the Party’s 1975 National Congress (republished in Comment in November 1975) stated:

In Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), the ANC… co-ordinates the various forms of struggle which have led to the increasing insecurity of the settler regime, and leads the fight against the growing repression, and to win full liberation, based on democratic majority rule.

As talks were to begin in Geneva in late 1976, the leading figures of ZAPU (Joshua Nkomo) and ZANU (Robert Mugabe) met in Lusaka to discuss a military and political alliance. The result of these negotiations was the establishment of the Patriotic Front, which was a formal alliance between the two groups, and the PF represented the national liberation movement in Zimbabwe at Geneva in December 1976, facing off against representatives from the Smith regime, as well as the Americans and the British. Combat intensified in Zimbabwe as the Geneva talks broke down, as Smith demanded a long ‘transition’ to majority rule under white supervision, which was rejected by the PF.

Despite being traditionally pro-ZAPU and highly critical of Mugabe’s ZANU, the CPGB welcomed the formation of the PF, with John Sprack calling the PF an attempt to ‘eliminate the chances of a civil war’ (Comment March 5, 1977). In May of the same year, Denis Shaw further outlined in Comment the Communist Party’s position, conceding that while ZANU had ‘many of the features of the right wing breakaway of the Pan Africanist Congress [in South Africa]’, it had ‘increasingly adopted a more progressive character’ and had ‘borne the brunt of the military operations of the liberation movement’ since 1972. For the CPGB, they argued that ‘coordination at a political was necessary if [unity] was to be maintained militarily’ and saw the PF as ‘the expression of this political cooperation’. By the time of the CPGB’s National Congress in November 1977, it seemed, on paper at least, that any apprehensions towards the role that ZANU were playing in the PF had disappeared. The resolution on Southern Africa boldly asserted:

We salute the heroic people of Zimbabwe who, in the face of Smith’s terror regime, are strengthening their unity under the leadership of the Patriotic Front in the fight to end white minority rule, win national liberation, and introduce a regime of democracy and equal rights, which will enable the people to complete their economic and social emancipation.

Between September 1977 and December 1980, a series of talks were held by the British and the Americans in an attempt to broker a deal between the Patriotic Front, the internal African groups and the Smith regime. Starting with the White Paper Rhodesia: Proposals for a Settlement (published in Sep 1977), the British proposed a staged transition to majority rule and an agreed ceasefire. Writing for Comment in December 1977, AAM activist Margaret Ling wrote that these proposals ‘were quite incapable of bringing about the kind of Zimbabwe for which the Patriotic Front are striving’ and condemned the British for putting forward this proposal. Ling wrote:

More than twelve years after UDI, Britain is still operating on the assumption that Rhodesia’s white minority can somehow be persuaded to voluntarily relinquish their powers and privileges, and can offer no guarantee whatsoever that by the time the proposed independence date arrives, the racialist regime would actually have been physically removed.

In March 1978, the Smith regime convinced the African groups inside the country to a new round of parliamentary elections where a number of seats were allocated to African voters. The Salisbury Agreement, or the Internal Settlement as it was more widely known, was boycotted by the Patriotic Front as it left the Smith government in power and the structures of the racist state still in tact. As Brian Bunting (from the South African Communist Party and CPGB/AAM member Christabel Gurney wrote in March 1978:

In Zimbabwe and Namibia…, the West recognises that the days of the white minority regime are numbered and that if no other ‘solution’ is found, the regimes face inevitable defeat by the Patriotic Front in Zimbabwe and by SWAPO in Namibia.

So they have intervened – not to ensure genuine majority rule in these countries, but to frustrate it by attempting to tie the hands of the only movements which can lead their peoples to genuine freedom.

The internal settlement saw the installation of Bishop Muzorewa, who had been a leading opposition figure at the time of Pearce Commission, as the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, with his United African National Council the only legal African party. In Comment (Nov 1978) the Muzorewa regime was accused of only surviving via South African support, with Jill Sheppard writing, ‘its war against the Zimbabwean people and neighbouring states is massively subsidised by South Africa.

The internal settlement was also criticised in the pages of Marxism Today by John Ngara, ZANU’s representative in London. Ngara described the purpose of the newly installed Muzorewa government was ‘to perpetuate the repressive regime through the cosmetic involvement of some Africans in a government in which the Rhodesian Front [Ian Smith’s party] wielded all power’. The publication of a piece by a ZANU representative in a CPGB journal might have been a demonstration of how seriously the Communist Party in Britain, and the wider Anti-Apartheid Movement, took the Patriotic Front alliance. Even the SACP’s African Communist ran a similar version of Ngara’s article, although the ANC (the close ally of the SACP) was, at the time, sceptical about ZANU’s overtures towards closer ties.

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During 1979, talks increased between the Smith regime and the PF, with Britain and Australia joining the negotiations at Lancaster House. A ceasefire and an agreement was finally signed by the Patriotic Front in December 1979 and elections were held in February 1980. While nominally the Patriotic Front still existed, both ZAPU and ZANU campaigned separately and both featured on the ballot. When the results were announced on March 4, 1980, it emerged that out of a total of 80 seats, ZANU had won 57 seats, ZAPU had won 20 and the UANC won 3. Christabel Gurney wrote in Comment that month that these results were ‘a great triumph for the Zimbabwean people’s liberation struggle’ and now ‘represent[ed] the interests and aspirations of the majority of its people’.

However the electoral result suggested Mugabe’s ZANU was looking to abandon the Patriotic Front and started openly criticising Nkomo’s ZAPU. The CPGB published a subsequent article by Ngara in Marxism Today (May 1980) which now attacked ZAPU and pronounced Mugabe’s government as the way forward for Zimbabwe. Ngara alleged that:

ZANU’s dependence upon Zambia, a country heavily dependent on Rhodesia and South Africa for its economy, tended to circumscribe ZAPU’s operations against the Smith regime.

This was compared with ZANU’s reliance upon Mozambique, which ‘tended to make the party more ideological’ and ‘led to its adoption of Marxism-Leninism as its guiding philosophy’. Ngara announced that Mugabe was committed to building socialism in Zimbabwe, but this would be implemented in a cautious and pragmatic fashion.

Vladimir Shubin, the Soviet Union’s liaison with the national liberation movements in South Africa, admitted that the Soviets were unhappy with ZANU gaining power and that Mugabe’s regime had developed links with China and North Korea. The Communist Party in Britain didn’t, in public at least, seem to share these same concerns, and pronounced that the victory of the PF in Zimbabwe gave great hope for SWAPO in Namibia and the ANC/SACP in South Africa. Gurney reminded readers that:

We must recognise that neither Zimbabwe not any other country in Southern Africa can develop in peace and security while apartheid South Africa remains.

There was considerable debate over whether the events that led to the liberation of Zimbabwe, particularly the long military campaign, would serve as a framework for the eventual destruction of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. However, when interviewed in Marxism Today in 1984, SACP/ANC figure Joe Slovo distanced the approach that the SACP/ANC were taking to what had occurred in Zimbabwe:

We are going to have our own model. In a sense, I don’t believe in simply following models.

The Communist Party, through the pages of Marxism Today, were also distancing themselves from the two parties of the former Patriotic Front. In a May 1983 article, David Jones claimed that ‘ZAPU was no left wing party’ and described both ZAPU and ZANU as no more than national liberation movements with ‘a bundle of interests united against the overriding oppression of Ian Smith and his settler government’. Costa Gazidis, a member of the Pan Africanist Congress, wrote into the journal and criticised Jones’ claims:

For many years during the war of national liberation, the left in Britain gave exclusive support to ZAPU because it was regarded as the only ‘authentic’ and ‘socialist movement, while ZANU was all but ignored. The unexpected success of ZANU threw ZAPU supporters in Britain into disarray. The eclipse of ZAPU deeply saddened the Anti-Apartheid movement, and their support group ZECC (Zimbabwe Emergency Co-ordinating Committee) was quickly disbanded.

While Gazidis described the Mugabe government as a ‘revolutionary government’ and declared that the ‘national bourgeoisie in Zimbabwe are a progressive and patriotic force’, the CPGB was cooling any support it had for Mugabe, but still believed that victory in Zimbabwe was an important step for the forthcoming dismantlement of apartheid in South Africa.


As I have argued over these three blog posts, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe was seen as a vital battleground in the fight against racism, imperialism and apartheid in Southern Africa and for most of the 1970s, the Communist Party of Great Britain, as well as many others on the British left, viewed Rhodesia/Zimbabwe as the weakest link in the imperialist chain (to paraphrase Lenin). Roger Fieldhouse, quoting Abdul Minty (Honorary Secretary of the AAM in Britain), suggests that the struggle in Zimbabwe sometimes overshadowed the fight against apartheid in South Africa. However, as Fieldhouse acknowledges, others disagree and see the collapse of the Smith regime in Rhodesia as an important step for the national liberation of the whole of Southern Africa.

This is the line that the Communist Party took, expressing solidarity with national liberation movements across the developing world – while defeating apartheid in South Africa was important, it was only one arena in a larger struggle against imperialism and racism worldwide. At the same time, while the CPGB was heavily invested in the victory of the PF (and before that, ZAPU) in Zimbabwe, it became clear soon after Mugabe’s victory that things were developing differently to how it was predicted by the international communist movement.

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