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What Rhodesia’s sanctions tell us about Zimbawbwe

By Gugulethu Hughes 

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV. 

Over the years, the West has used economic sanctions to pursue regime change agendas around the world. The global economic and financial system is Western by design and therefore gives the West a strategic advantage to enforce sanctions. Economic sanctions have a direct impact on the life chances of citizens that in essence get excluded from participating fully in the global economic system. In a nutshell, economic sanctions serve as the height of economic bullying practiced by the West to enforce economic behavior that benefits Western countries. 

The case of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe, same territory, different administrations, different times, and both being slapped with economic sanctions while producing different outcomes exposes Western double standards. Before delving into the specifics in both cases, it’s important to give a historical and chronological context of the evolution of both countries. The common denominator is Britain. 

In 1795, Britain occupied the Cape, putting an end to the Dutch East India Company’s reign in the region. The Cape’s economy became infused with Britain and viewed as an extension of Britain. This position still exists to this day. Up to the creation of the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1869, the Cape remained a key logistics corridor for British traders who trekked to the East. In years to come, the Cape economy expanded with mass migration of British people to the Cape. This was encouraged and financed by the British government. 

In 1870, at the advice of his parents, a young man named Cecil John Rhodes came to present-day South Africa to work on a cotton farm where his brother had already been established. Rhodes’ ambition saw him pivot from farming to mining and ended in Kimberley where he went into competition with the likes of financiers Barney Barnato and the Anglo-German Alfred Beit

The trio later merged their ambitions into competitive cooperation, leading to the unification of their diamond claims into De Beers Consolidated Mines. Between 1890 and 1896, Cecil John Rhodes served as the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. In 1889, Rhodes and Beit formed the British South Africa Company after getting the Royal Charter modeled on that of the British East India Company. 

It is important to emphasize that the Cape Colony was viewed as a British territory, and it is from this vantage point that the British South Africa Company was formed to give not only Rhodes, but British expansion in Southern Africa both political and commercial structure. According to the JISC Hub, “The Royal Charter gave the British South Africa Company rights to maintain or distribute vast territory, to make treaties, to establish a police force, and to set up banking firms.” 

The Royal Charter granted to BSAC in 1889 by Queen Victoria opened the tollgate for the expansion of Rhodes’ ambitions into other territories controlled by Africans. A combination of British capitalism and Rhodes’ sheer will saw the British South Africa Company oversee the Pioneer Column march to Mashonaland in 1890, establishing and settling in Fort Salisbury afterwards. 

In 1888, before the granting of the Royal Charter in 1889, Rhodes had already sent Charles Rudd, James Maguire, and Francis Thompson to hoodwink the Matabele King Lobengula into signing what was to be known as the Rudd Concession. The Concession gave the BSAC exclusive mineral and exploration rights in the territories occupied by the Ndebele and the Shona peoples. This territory was to later become known as Rhodesia (Southern) and was administered by the British South Africa Company from 1890 up to 1923 when the British government took over. 

During the colonial years, the Rhodesia and Cape Colony settlers who shared similar British ancestry began to develop traits of nationalism separate from that of Britain. The Rhodesia settlers went a step further and began having ideas of being independent from both the Cape and Britain. In 1910, the Union of South Africa was formed (a predecessor to present day South Africa) which united the Cape, Natal, Travaal, and Orange River colonies. After several Anglo-Boer battles, these settlers agreed to unite and work together; not a single African person participated in this process. 

In 1922, a referendum was held in Southern Rhodesia to decide on whether to have the territory become part of the Union of South Africa or not. Only the Rhodesian settlers qualified to vote. The settlers voted against joining the Union of South Africa. However, the desire for self-determination saw the last serving Rhodesian Prime Minister, Ian Douglas Smith, with approval from his cabinet, unilaterally declare Rhodesia as a sovereign state independent from Britain. To borrow from Andrew Holt, “…Not since the United States in 1776 had a British colony declared itself independent, and the Rhodesian declaration was not dissimilar in language and syntax to its American forerunner. That afternoon Smith addressed the nation. He assured them that Rhodesians remained ‘second to none in our loyalty to the Queen’, but ‘the end of the road has been reached.”  

It was Rhodesia’s unilateral declaration of independence that marked the beginning of Western sanctions led by Britain on Rhodesia. This British desire to maintain control of its territories, even those run by British settlers, was not a new phenomenon. The Commonwealth was formed on the premise that the British Queen (or King) is superior to all. In the same year that the UDI was declared, Britain responded by slapping Rhodesia with political and economic sanctions. 

For the first time, the United Nations Security Council in 1966 put Rhodesia under mandatory economic sanctions. The Council “declared an international embargo on 90% of Rhodesia’s exports, forbade the U.N.’s 122-member nations to sell oil, arms, motor vehicles or airplanes to the rebel territory or to provide it with any form of ‘financial or other economic aid.’” 

Interestingly, with all these restrictions in place, the Rhodesia economy continued to grow, and this is where Western duplicity and white supremacy takes form. The sanctions against Rhodesia were not designed to make the British settlers suffer but rather to pressure the Rhodesian government to cede control of the country to Britain again. The enforcers of the sanctions understood that they were white first and British, Rhodesian, or South African last.  

Throughout the 10-year tenure of the Rhodesian sanctions, Rhodesia still managed to access different global markets to purchase whatever it needed. South Africa was used to circumvent the sanctions because the South African authorities understood the supremacy of their whiteness. Financial inflows from South Africa to Rhodesia increased and aided the diversification of agricultural activities beyond tobacco, which the British termed the golden leaf because it was the biggest foreign currency earner. As Donald L Losman put it, “The internal impact of the sanctions has mainly affected Africans without the right to vote who cannot transform their economic hardship into effective pressure on the government…” 

The conglomerate London and Rhodesian Mining and Land company, also known as Lonrho, was led by Tiny Rowland and had interests in different African industries. Oil was also affected by sanctions on Rhodesia, but the impact was reduced thanks to clandestine cooperation with the British government. Lonrho had a majority shareholding in a company which operated the oil pipeline that supplied Rhodesia’s Feruka Refinery. Also, petroleum products were still reaching Rhodesia via Lourenco Marques through South African- and British-owned companies. In the words of Andrew Cohen, “the primary purpose of British sanctions against Rhodesia was to dissipate international calls for tough measures, rather than to bring about the end of white minority rule in Rhodesia.” 

In a paper titled Oil to Rhodesia—a Western Conspiracy – Hari Sharan Chhabra, 1978, the author writes, “But oil, the most vital material for Rhodesia’s economy, has been steadily reaching the country, keeping the Rhodesian regime alive. Ian Smith, Prime Minister of Rhodesia, stays on, defying not only Britain but the whole world. Had the oil sanctions been effective, the rebellion would have certainly collapsed long ago, bringing Smith to his knees. How Rhodesia gets its oil is rather interesting and the sanctions busting story reads like a novel. But what amazes students of Southern African affairs is that it is only now that the full story of oil supply to Rhodesia is emerging. Although belated, African leaders have now woken from their 12-year-long slumber and are taking retaliatory measures against the Western oil companies, the main culprits.” 

The British government then formulated the Bingham Inquiry which found that “British oil companies Shell and BP had supplied oil to Rhodesia in contravention of UN sanctions. The memorandum asked the British government to ensure that the companies restricted oil supplies to South Africa to pre-UDI levels to prevent the re-export of oil to the illegal Smith regime. It called for the extension of sanctions to South Africa unless it gave assurances that it would implement UN sanctions against Rhodesia.” 

An article titled British Cover-Up Charged on Oil Flow to Rhodesia, authored by Bernard D Nossiter, appeared in the Washington Post on September 20, 1978. In the article, Nossiter notes that the Bingham Inquiry fingered British oil companies Shell and BP for breaching the economic sanctions against Rhodesia. Nossiter also claims the Labour government of Harold Wilson was aware of these breaches. Quoting the report, Nossiter writes that, “The Wilson government approved a ‘cosmetic’ device to cover up the breach of the U.N. and British-backed sanctions. The Wilson government not only agreed to the sanctions evading technique of swapping French for British oil, but also decided to keep it secret, lest British “sincerity” on enforcing the embargo be questioned…” 

Interestingly, the Inquiry Report, which was compiled by respected lawyer Thomas Bingham, absolved the top executive of both British Petroleum and Royal-Dutch Shell. These were the two British companies that supplied Rhodesia with more than half of its oil from the period they declared unilateral independence in 1965 up to 1977. The report also failed to make any findings against PM Wilson or any of his government ministers for aiding the breaching of both the UN embargo and British Law. 

In 1979, The New York Times carried an article titled U. S. Oil and the Embargo on Rhodesia in which it cited British Petroleum, Shell, Caltex, and Compagnie Francaise des Petroles for supplying Rhodesia with oil during the economic sanctions period and oil embargo. The article further quotes Bernard Rivers, who together with Dr. Martin Bailey unearthed the oil scandal as saying, “I have no doubt that Mobil South Africa and Caltex were full partners with Shell and BP in this affair. And I really can’t believe that company executives here don’t have real doubts about their denials, if indeed they believe them at all. At the very least, the evidence shows that the parent companies have lost control of their South African subsidiaries. And certainly, it raises questions about what the United States Government may have known.” 

Caltex refused to cooperate with any investigations, arguing it had not violated any US law. The Times’ article further states that in 1978, when the Anglo‐American plan for Rhodesia was being drafted in final form, London informed Washington of the pressure it was exerting on Shell and B.P. and suggested similar action toward Mobil and Caltex — a course the State Department considered but rejected, according to department sources. What this highlights is that Western countries could not hold Britain, which claimed authority over Rhodesia, accountable for allowing violations of its own laws and the UN embargo by British oil companies. Secondly, Western countries like France and the USA also breached the UN embargo with impunity. 

Again, the commercial interests of the imperialist countries reigned supreme with full awareness that Rhodesia itself was an extension of white supremacy. In the Fletcher Forum, Joel Richard Paul stated that Mozambique’s port city of Maputo, which once prospered from shipping goods to and from landlocked Rhodesia, had become economically depressed since Mozambique closed its borders in 1976. In this sense, UN sanctions had cost Zambia and Mozambique more than $500 million. Only South Africa, with its even more repressive racist regime, had profited from its position as Rhodesia’s vital link to global markets. 

Writing for Foreign Affairs in an article titled The Toll of Economic War , in March 2022, Nicholas Mulder wrote how Britain, in coordination with Canada and the United States, launched an airlift operation to fly in all of Zambia’s oil & coal imports and fly out its copper exports. This was the Western response to Rhodesia stopping coal and energy suppliers to Zambia which affected their infrastructure, production and transportation of copper which was vital for the economic survival of the western countries who had named Zambia their copper belt. The West collaborated on putting into place economic sanctions that they went on to breach, collaborated in not holding each other accountable, and collaborated in getting copper out of Zambia while Africans in Rhodesia, South Africa, Mozambique, and Zambia experienced economic exclusion and subjugation. 

In 1979, after years of protracted struggle waged by Russian- and Chinese-aided ZIPRA and ZANLA military forces, the Lancaster House Agreement was reached in Britain between both ZAPU, ZANU, and the British which led to the first “democratic” elections in 1980. Robert Mugabe emerged as the Prime Minister. Greg Dropkin, Ben Lowe, and John Waller later wrote an article that made great observations on the status quo with regards to the ZANU victory. The trio remarked that, “The victory of the liberation movement in Zimbabwe was different from that of Frelimo in Mozambique or MPLA in Angola. Whereas the latter came to power by smashing the ‘settler capitalist’ state apparatus (1), ZANU and ZAPU inherited, despite the years of struggle, a settler state that was still largely intact. This inevitably poses a host of problems for the liberation movement. Can they keep the struggle going and move towards a socialist Zimbabwe by whittling away and replacing the oppressive and racist state apparatuses? Or are they restricted to limited power within the existing state, able only to assist a transformation which white settler colonialism to neo-colonialism?” 

The article further notes that, “ZANU’s election victory gave it power in a state still very much dominated by foreign multinationals. Around 70% of capital in Zimbabwe is foreign investment, half of that being British (including Dunlop, Lonrho, Turner and Newall, RTZ, Unilever, BAT, Barclays) and one-third South African (Anglo-American Corp. being the most notable). The foreign companies control manufacturing and agricultural production for the domestic and African markets; and asbestos, gold, chrome, nickel, copper and coal production (among others) for the world market. As the economist Duncan Clarke has written: “It is hard to find a sub-Saharan African example comparable to the Zimbabwean case, in which the role of foreign investment has been so long established, as deeply integrated into the sectors producing the bulk of output, so strongly interconnected with local capital, and in consequence probably as difficult to foresee being quickly and successfully altered.” 

Robert Mugabe’s new government in Zimbabwe appointed racist Commercial Farmers Union President Dennis Norman as the Minister of Agriculture. This was done to ensure that no expropriation of land without compensation was instituted as per the Lancaster House Agreement. The government encouraged and supported white commercial farmers in their economic activities. Dropkin, Lowe, and Waller further asserted, “If a pragmatic socialist Party is to change things over time, as ZANU intends, it must be aware of not only the limitations of its room for manoeuvre, but also the dangers of itself becoming integrated into the structures it sought to overthrow. Take for example the deceptively glib ZANU Manifesto statement that ‘private enterprise will have to continue until circumstances are ripe for socialist change.’ Who, for example, will develop the capitalist economy to ripeness if not the ZANU Government? Who will assist in this if not multinationals and Western Governments? How will Zimbabwean capitalism become ‘ripe’ without emphasizing productivity and efficiency, thus weakening the position of workers? How will ZANU decide when conditions are ‘ripe for socialist change’? And how will it avoid developing a vested interest in the status quo before then?” 

The article opens with a quotation from Robert Mugabe made in his 1980 speech which reads, “We recognize that the economic structure of the country is based on capitalism and whatever ideas we have must build on that. Modification can only take place in a gradual way.” 

From the Robert Mugabe statement, we begin to understand the character of his government better as well as many events before and after his ascension. For example, some socialist figures within ZANU were eliminated before the Lancaster House Agreement was reached, people like Herbert Chitepo and Josiah Magama Tongogara. This paved the way for Robert Mugabe to become the leader of ZANU through a declaration called the Mgagao Declaration, made in Mozambique. Despite ZAPU/ZIPRA and Joshua Nkomo having a bigger footprint across the country, and with links to ANC’s Umkhonto we Sizwe where they shared military and intelligence support from Russia, Robert Mugabe miraculously emerged as the winner of the 1980 elections. Link that with his victory statements and immediate government policy, and it becomes clear his victory was more the will of Britain rather than the people. 

It did not take long before he received British knighthood in 1994, a couple of years after his North Korea-trained Sixth Brigade army waged a genocide on the Ndebele people. The operation was named Gukurahundi and claimed more than 20,000 lives. From 1980 to 1988, current Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa served as the Minister of Security and Head of the Central Intelligence Organization which oversaw the genocide. 

In 1981, the Entumbane Uprising took place. Disarmament of freedom fighter returnees was taking place in Bulawayo, and the ZIPRA fighters accused the new government of not disarming ZANU’s ZANLA fighters. The Enock Dumbutshena Commission was set up to look into the uprising, but the report was never made public. With the aid of apartheid South Africa, which saw ZIPRA as a threat to its authoritarian rule due to its proximity to the ANC, and the people of Matabeleland sharing common languages and culture with black South Africans, ZANU created a decoy called Super ZAPU which made some insurgent attacks to justify the genocide. 

The Matabeleland killings were good for British and apartheid South African economic interests as it was good for Mugabe and ZANU’s thirst for political power. Even after the Unity Accord was formed in 1987 to mark the end of the genocide and ZAPU being swallowed by ZANU to form ZANU PF, Mugabe’s opponents continued to be eliminated. 

Just like opponents were eliminated towards the Lancaster House Agreement, opponents were also eliminated towards the Unity Accord Deal. These included the likes of ZIPRA commander Lookout Khalisabantu Masuku, and persecution of ZIPRA commander Dumiso Dabengwa. In the early ‘90s, socialists like Sydney Malunga were also eliminated. 

The purpose of discussing Mugabe’s regime is not to pour scorn on the man but rather to highlight the West’s duplicitous nature on human rights matters when black people are affected instead of white people. Robert Mugabe was equally a victim of Britain’s conniving ways. So was Joshua Nkomo, who was side-lined due to his Soviet links, and Morgan Tsvangirai, who was chosen as the British heir and used as the black face to beg for sanctions against his own country. 

When the Robert Mugabe regime was carrying out these human rights violations, the West saw no need to put Zimbabwe under sanctions. They only did so when the Mugabe regime threatened the livelihoods of whites. 

In 1999, Britain and its farmer settlers in Zimbabwe sponsored the formation of a new political party called the Movement for Democratic Change. The party was led by Morgan Tsvangirai – a new British horse. ZANU PF responded by kickstarting a land reform program which saw the party lead the repossession of land from settlers without compensation, going against the Lancaster Accord. Britain made a counter response by getting Morgan Tsvangirai and his colonial outfit to beg the West to place economic sanctions on Zimbabwe. 

In the meantime, white settlers were moving to South Africa and other African countries like Zambia and Namibia where Britain hegemony still reigned supreme and where Rhodie communities still thrive as they do in the West. In 2001, the EU, UK, and USA slapped Zimbabwe with economic sanctions which they conveniently refer to as smart sanctions targeted at human rights violators. The question is, where were these smart sanctions when ZANU was violating human rights before the land reform program? 

Also, it must be understood that human beings are economic animals as much as social animals. Any restrictions on persons to travel and freely partake in economic activities, especially when those individuals are strategic policy makers in government and business, is an attack on Africans’ capacity to enjoy self-determination.  

As Robert Mugabe himself put it in March 1980, “We recognize that the economic structure of the country is based on capitalism…” It is apparent the sanctions on Zimbabwe are fundamentally economic and affect the poor more than the so-called targeted individuals. This was the same case with Rhodesia sanctions. It is therefore not surprising that at the height of the economic sanctions on Zimbabwe, companies like Lever Brothers, now called Unilever, scaled down their manufacturing activities and imported more food from South African companies owned by settlers like Johan Rupert. Economic sanctions have got nothing to do with human rights but are a business strategy that keeps imperialism alive. That’s why they only get imposed when Western economic interests are threatened. 

Rhodesia “weathered” the sanctions because it was a settler led country molded in all imaginable forms of capitalism and imperialism. Zimbabwe, on the other hand, cannot weather the sanctions because Robert Mugabe turned against the British and did right by his people. Unfortunately, at the time of genesis of the land reform program, the Zimbabwean economy was still rooted in capitalistic ideas. That meant that the sanctions got the life machine unplugged from the country. 

Whatever efforts the Zimbabwean government is making to restart its economy is a case of closing the stable when the horse has already bolted, but it is important to also acknowledge that progress is being made. When white man Ian Douglas Smith turned against the British, the West ensured that Rhodesia avoided going into a coma. 

In hindsight, the Zimbabwe Land Reform program is a lost opportunity for all African countries. The ground was fertile for other African countries to show solidarity by also repossessing land from colonial settlers. It must always be understood that Africans are not fundamentally bound to colonial treaties like the Lancaster House Agreement and CODESA here in South Africa. The land and minerals belong to us, and we are being too romantic in thinking that Western settlers will willingly surrender our resources. The only way for any African country to beat Western sanctions is through the formation of a real African Union.

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Gugulethu Hughes


Gugulethu Hughes is the ScoonTV Africa correspondent

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