By Gary K. Busch*
It was a shock to hear of the death of former Zimbabwe President Mugabe at his hospital retreat in Singapore. His death was no great surprise as he had been suffering for several years from a recurring complaint which required regular treatment at the Singapore clinic. He was 95 years of age so this, too, was not surprising. The shock was the finality of his passing.
However, what has been more shocking than his death has been the commentary in the world press on his life and efforts which pictures Mugabe as some sort of illegitimate villain who terrorised Zimbabwe for the thirty-seven years of his rule. This is not a truthful picture of his life and works. It demonstrates a serious lack of knowledge of the forces which shaped his policies and a woeful ignorance of the realities of Zimbabwe’s’ place in the Pan-African struggle to free Southern Africa.
Unfortunately, even within Zimbabwe, there are too many young people who don’t know or who never learned the real history of their country and their region or the amazing feat of winning the struggle for the independence of the country from the servitude of colonial and white settler politics.
Zimbabwe is one of a very few African nations which actually won its independence as a result of an armed struggle; as opposed to demonstrations, strikes and boycotts. During that armed struggle (The ‘Second Chimurenga’ the First Chimurenga was the Shona revolt against encroachment upon their lands, by the British South Africa Company and Cecil Rhodes in 1896 and 1897) Zimbabwean men and women took up arms and fought the White settler government of the Rhodesian Front and their “kith and kin” backers in the British Government. They risked their lives, their property and their futures in the battle against the injustice of White supremacy.
However, the struggle for freedom and self-rule in Zimbabwe was much more than a battle against the White settlers or the perfidious British. It was a Pan-African battle, of mighty proportions, which pitted the Frontline States of Africa (a coalition of African countries from the 1960s to the early 1990s committed to ending apartheid and white minority rule in South Africa and Rhodesia) whose membership included, initially Botswana, Tanzania and Zambia and later, as the struggle progressed, Angola (1975), Mozambique (1975) and Zimbabwe (1980). Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere was the chairman until he retired in 1985. His successor was Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda. These Frontline States sheltered, armed and supported the wide variety of national liberation movements which were seeking independence; among them ZAPU, ZANU, ANC, PAC, SWAPO, FRELIMO, COREMO, FLEC, MPLA, and several others as well as the military wings of these movements – among them ZIPRA,ZANLA, Umkonto we Siswe, POQO, PLAN and FAPLA.
Support for the liberation struggles in Southern Africa was not limited to the Frontline States. Ghana, Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt, Libya and others supported these liberation movements with equipment, trainers and officers. When the Southern African Development Coordination Conference was created in Lusaka on 1 April 1980, it dedicated itself to the cause of national political liberation in Southern Africa, and the reduction of these nation’s dependence on apartheid era South Africa for transport and logistics. On August 17, 1992, at a Summit held in Windhoek, Namibia, the Heads of State and Government signed the SADC Declaration and Treaty that effectively transformed the Southern African Development Coordination Conference (SADCC) into the Southern African Development Community, (SADC). Mugabe was the chairman of SADC’s organ on defence and security for the whole region. He was the key co-ordinator for the continuing struggle against apartheid and colonial polices.
What is even more important for the history of the liberation struggle was the financial, military, intelligence and political support ranged against African liberation movements by the United States and its NATO allies who viewed these struggles a part of their Cold War battles against the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Their aim was to support the South Africans in resisting African uprisings and, despite protestations to the contrary, their support for White supremacy rule in the Southern African region. The Soviets (supported by their international allies in East Germany. Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Cuba) played a major role in supporting the African liberation struggles with arms, finance and military assistance. The Chinese, as well as their North Korean allies were also very active in Southern Africa. Looking at a snapshot of the deployment of combatants in the Angolan War in 1986, in addition to the domestic liberation forces, is a good guide.
Opposing them were the armed forces of South Africa, with its own weapons-manufacturing capability (ARMSCOR and DENEL), UNITA (a local ‘liberation movement’ funded by South Africa and the US and reliant on South African logistical supplies), the remains of the White Rhodesian forces which had escaped the formation of Zimbabwe in 1980 with their aircraft, and the support and finance of Zaire (now the DRC) whose President, Mobuto, was a key supporter of Savimbi’s UNITA.
As Mugabe was leading the battle against the White settlers and their South African and international backers his actions were tempered by and his abilities hindered by the Cold War in the African theatre. Throughout this struggle Mugabe concentrated first on creating the independent state of Zimbabwe and returning the control of its land to indigenous farmers. The fact that he was able to do this is a testament to his vision and his ability to function against such powerful enemies; most of whom were outside Zimbabwe.
Rebellion and the Urgent Need for Land Reform
One of the principal causes of the Rhodesian Bush War was the inequitable division of the land in the country. From the earliest days of Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company (‘BSAC’), Whites were encouraged to come to Rhodesia to farm the rich, arable lands in a climate which was “suitable” for Whites. Between 1890 and 1896, the BSAC granted an area encompassing 16 million acres of prime land (about sixth the area of Southern Rhodesia) to White European immigrants. By 1913 this had been extended to 21.5 million acres. Most of the land owned by Africans was used as pastureland where they grazed their herds. As the Whites began to exploit the land they had been given they found themselves in competition with the African herds for pastureland.
In 1900 the colonial government decide to divide sections of Rhodesia’s land. They divided the land into five separate regions, based primarily on the amount of rainfall. “Region I comprised an area in the eastern highlands with markedly higher rainfall best suited to the cultivation of diversified cash crops such as coffee and tea. Region II was highveld, also in the east, where the land could be used intensively for grain cultivation such as maize, tobacco, and wheat. Region III and Region IV endured periodic drought and were regarded as suitable for livestock, in addition to crops which required little rainfall. Region V was lowveld and unsuitable for crop cultivation due to its dry nature; however, limited livestock farming was still viable. Land ownership in these regions was determined by race under the terms of the Southern Rhodesian Land Apportionment Act, passed in 1930, which reserved Regions I, II, and III for white settlement.[i]
Region V and a segment of Region II which possessed greater rainfall variability were organised into the Tribal Trust Lands (TTLs), reserved solely for black African ownership and use. This created two new problems: firstly, in the areas reserved for whites, the ratio of land to population was so high that many farms could not be exploited to their fullest potential, and some prime white-owned farmland was lying idle.
It was difficult for Africans to sustain themselves on the least favourable farmlands and many were compelled to work as labourers om White farms. This inequitable division of the land acquired by the Whites without compensation to the Africans who had toiled on the land for generations caused a great deal of unrest and agitation.
After a long period of protest and opposition, the Southern Rhodesian Government revisited the land tenure issue and passed the Southern Rhodesian Land Apportionment Act which reserved 49 million acres for white ownership and left 17.7 million acres of land unassigned to either the Whites or the Tribal Trusts.
When the Rhodesian Front issued the Universal Declaration of Independence, the Ian Smith Government passed the Rhodesian Land Tenure Act of 1969. This kept the forty-five million acres of prime land in White hands but allowed for the expansion of the African lands in the lower rainfall areas. The White farmers abused these reforms by using them as an excuse to expand the borders of their farms into formerly African areas and in evicting African farmers from their farms. The resentment at the inequitable division of the land was a burning issue in Rhodesian African societies and the main grievance which precipitated the agitation for reform which landed many African leaders, like Mugabe, in detention for ten years.
The Lancaster House Treaty and the Constitution which emerged from it, in addition to the terms of the ceasefire, was principally argued on the urgent need to include in the Constitution the radical reform of land tenure in the new Zimbabwe. The British Government was afraid that turning the land over to Africans immediately would cause unrest and conflict. Carrington proposed constitutional clauses underscoring property ownership as an inalienable right of all Zimbabweans (but not all at once). This was enshrined in Section 16 of the Zimbabwean Constitution, 1980. Lord Carrington announced that the United Kingdom would be prepared to assist land resettlement with technical assistance and financial aid. The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations, Sir Shridath Ramphal, also received assurances from the American ambassador in London, Kingman Brewster, that the United States would likewise contribute capital for “a substantial amount for a process of land redistribution and they would undertake to encourage the British government to give similar assurances”.[ii]
The Lancaster House Agreement stipulated that farms could only be taken from whites on a “willing buyer, willing seller” principle for at least ten years. White farmers were not to be placed under any pressure or intimidation, and if they decided to sell their farms they could determine their own asking prices. Exceptions could be made if the farm was unoccupied and not being used for agricultural activity. These were “entrenched clause” in the Constitution.
When Mugabe took office as Prime Minister, his government created the Ministry of Lands, Resettlement, and Redevelopment to assist in the acquisition of land from the White farmers under the terms of the Constitution. Not surprisingly the White farmers were not interested in selling their land, except perhaps their second or third farms. They raised the prices well above what was the fair market price for farmland, so the reform of land tenure was stuck in the aspic of the entrenched clauses for the full ten-year period. During that period the Ministry recovered only 7.41 million acres of farmland. The Zimbabwe population was furious as they thought that when they won the war they would get their land back. Mugabe and Nkomo said that the constitution had to be obeyed, even though it was inequitable. There were many Zimbabweans, mainly veterans of the war, who did not want to wait. Mugabe and ZANU-PF kept up with their side of the bargain.
At the end of the ten-year restraint of the entrenched clause (1990) Mugabe and his government announced to the British that the time of restraint was over. Lord Carrington had promised up to a billion pounds for compensation to the White farmers whose lands were being purchased. Mugabe asked how they should proceed.
The British made some small token payments to the White farmers, but the main expense was laid at the Zimbabwean government’s feet. Land Reform was going slowly as the Zimbabwe Government found it could not pay for the purchases. Another problem was that many leading African politicians used their positions to acquire farms without compensating the owners. The Land Reform, such as it was, was benefitting the politicians more than the populace. There was a great deal of unease among the White farmers and they conveyed this to the rest of the world.
In June 1996, Lynda Chalker, British secretary of state for international development, told Parliament that she could not endorse the new compulsory acquisition policy in Zimbabwe. She urged Mugabe to return to the principles of “willing buyer, willing seller” which was the term used in the “entrenched clauses”. Worse news came on 5 November 1997, when Tony Blair’s International Development Secretary, Clare Short, sent a letter describing the new Labour government’s refusal to honour the financial commitments made by the Conservative Government in the Lancaster House talks to compensate White farmers for the loss of their lands in land reform.
She said that the UK did not accept that Britain had a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. Notwithstanding the Lancaster House commitments, Short stated that her government was only prepared to support a programme of land reform that was part of a poverty eradication strategy. She had other questions regarding the way in which land would be acquired and compensation paid, and the transparency of the process. Her government’s position was spelled out in a letter to Zimbabwe’s Agriculture Minister, Kumbirai Kangai. The Short letter wasn’t widely circulated internationally but was, effectively, a total abandonment of the British Government’s commitment to comply with the system they compelled the Patriotic Front to agree to at Lancaster House. Since Labour had replaced the Conservatives in the British Parliament the Labour Government washed its hands of any commitments made by the previous Foreign Office. The actual letter states
This was, effectively, a declaration of economic war against Zimbabwe. ZANU-PF politely explained to the British that they were removing the entrenched clauses in the Constitution as the ten years had passed. They were now going to acquire the farms from the White farmers and pay them what they had originally paid for them – zero. If the White farmers wanted compensation they should make their claims to the British Government out of the billion pounds they had been promised at Lancaster House.
This development was broadcast across the media internationally as horror stories about the occupation of White farms; without any reference to the role of the British in delaying and then denying their contribution for the return of land to Zimbabweans. The hostility of the West to Zimbabwe escalated and the vilification of Mugabe, in particular, grew. The White farmers were portrayed as victims. They could promote themselves as victims because the actions of the Rhodesian Front Government against Africans had been overlooked and buried out of reporting and analysis by the Western media.
The Rhodesian Front Policies Against the Africans
The injustices of the Rhodesian Government of Ian Smith and the Rhodesian Front have been airbrushed over in the last forty years and the crimes of the oppressors have been relegated to a foot note as has the active involvement of the Western Powers in covertly supporting Rhodesia and South Africa despite this knowledge. What they did, and later admitted to, would have kept the ICC judges in The Hague busy for a generation had the court been formed at that time. Even as they knew they were losing the battle in 1978 they experimented with the use of weaponised anthrax against the Black population in Rhodesia. In 1979, the largest recorded outbreak of anthrax occurred in Rhodesia. As shown in sworn testimony and repeated in the autobiography of Ken Flower, Chief of Rhodesia’s Central Intelligence Organization(‘CIO’) and CIO Officer, Henrik Ellert, the anthrax outbreak in 1978-80 was anything but benign. The original outbreak was the result of a policy carried out by the Rhodesian Front government with the active participation of South Africa’s ‘Dr. Death’ (Dr Wouter Basson) and, together with the South Africans, the Rhodesian Front used biological and chemical weapons against the African liberation forces and the rural Blacks to prevent their support of the civil war and against their cattle to reduce rural food stocks.
Much of the detailed background of this program emerged from testimony at the South African Truth and Reconciliation hearings. Dr. Death used Rhodesia as a testing ground for their joint chemical and biological warfare programs. Witnesses at the commission testified to a catalogue of killing methods ranging from the grotesque to the horrific:
1. “Project Coast” sought to create “smart” poisons, which would only affect blacks’ people, and hoarded enough cholera and anthrax to start epidemics
2. Naked black men were tied to trees, smeared with a poisonous gel and left overnight to see if they would die. When the experiments failed, they were put to death with injections of muscle relaxants.
3. Weapon ideas included sugar laced with salmonella, cigarettes with anthrax, chocolates with botulism and whisky with herbicide.
4. Clothes left out to dry were sprayed with cholera germs.
5. Water holes were doused with poisons to kill the cattle and anyone else who drank from them.
Dr. Wooton Basson was aided by the work of Dr. Robert Symington, professor of Anatomy at the University of Rhodesia. The active work was performed by Inspector Dave Anderton, head of the “Terrorist” desk at the CIO. In 1979-80 there were 10,748 documented cases of anthrax in Rhodesia which involved 182 deaths (all Africans). In contrast, during the previous twenty-nine years there had been only 334 cases with few deaths. This was no accidental outbreak. Some of the weaponised anthrax was delivered to the US by the South Africans where it provided feedstock for the US chemical and biological feedstock; later stored on Johnson Island.
Despite these ongoing horrors and atrocities, the Rhodies continued to receive open support from South Africa and covert support from the U.S. and its Cold War allies who feared the influence of the Soviet Union and “Red” China on the continent.
Zimbabwe’s Initial Challenges
The newly independent Zimbabwe faced many challenges beyond the problems of Land Reform. The Rhodesian Bush War was not the only war of liberation in Africa at the time. It overlapped several Cold War conflicts in its neighbouring countries, including Angola’s war of independence (1961-1975) and civil war (1975-2002), Mozambique’s war of independence (1964-1974) and Civil War (1977 to 1992), and Shaba I (1977) and Shaba II (1978) in the DRC These conflicts, which often pitted Soviet or Chinese military trainers and equipment against NATO members and their allies, made any coherent response to the demands for liberation, pan-African solidarity and justice a pale vision of what was demanded.
Initially the Afro-Asian Bloc in the UN had greater power over its ability to determine policy and raise support from the international community. Each year at the General Assembly the delegates had to vote over the application of the People’s Republic of China to substitute itself for the Republic of China (Taiwan) which was a member of the UN and had a Permanent Seat on the Security Council. Each year, before the vote on admitting Red China to the UN, the Afro-Asians were able to get political concessions and foreign aid projects arranged with the West in exchange for a “No” vote on China. On Oct. 25, 1971, the United Nations General Assembly voted to admit the People’s Republic of China (mainland China) and to expel the Republic of China (Taiwan). Once the PRC was voted into the UN the Afro-Asian Bloc lost much of its power and influence. The admission of Red China to the UN was one of the most important changes in how the world viewed Africa. It became safe to ignore Africa and its demands for liberation and development. On the other hand, it also gave China’s African associates a new clout in their dealings with the UN and the international organisations by being able to mount support from China in the Security Council.
One of Zimbabwe’s main problems was that it is a landlocked country, so its trade had to pass through other countries, by rail or road. A map shows why Zimbabwe relied on its neighbours for safe passage of its imports and exports.
That situation meant that most of the goods going in and out of Zimbabwe had to go through either Mozambique or South Africa. This was also a problem for the Rhodies in the later stages of Rhodesian Front rule. In response to a program of international sanctions against Rhodesia the Rhodesian Front was able to create a relatively sophisticated system of sanctions-busting commerce. Part of its ability was the use of transport links through the Mozambican ports of Beira and Laurenço Marques (later Maputo). This was facilitated by the Portuguese colonial authorities which controlled Mozambique at the time. This co-operation lasted until the Carnation Revolution in Portugal on 25 April 1974 when a military coup in Lisbon overthrew the authoritarian Estado Novo Regime in Portugal by dissident soldiers who were committed to ending Portuguese overseas colonial rule; especially because the colonial budget was eating up over 40% of the national budget. This was partially derived from the fact that the Portuguese were fighting colonial battles with African insurgent movements.
The U.S. and NATO had reluctantly supported the Estado Novo government in Portugal because it was virulently anti-communist. However, this did not stop the creation and financing of anti-colonial forces in Portuguese African colonies by both the West and the Communist Bloc. In the Portuguese African colonies, there were multiple liberation movements. Some were supported by the Soviet Union; some by China; some by the U.S. and Britain; and others by South Africa. In many countries the French supported both or all sides.
When the Portuguese abandoned their African colonies in 1974/1975 this caused a severe problem for the Rhodesian Front as easy movement of goods from Rhodesia through Mozambican ports was restricted by a FRELIMO Government which was financed by the Soviet Bloc and a RENAMO military force supported by South Africa; both of whom contested transport on the road and rail links. As a result, almost 90% of Rhodesia’s trade became dependent on South African road and rail connections as the Mozambican routes were more difficult and unsafe; even the oil pipeline built by Lonrho from Beira to Rhodesia which supplied most of the energy needs of Rhodesia was threatened. This dependence on South Africa for its commercial trade with the world was a very heavy burden for the new Patriotic Front Government as it took office. The South African Government, with whom ZAPU and ZANU had been fighting for years as a result of the South African support for the Rhodesian Front had a very effective grip over the Zimbabwe economy.
In fact, the problems Mugabe faced with the Land Question and competing ethnic strife between Shona and Ndebele, and internal Zezuru/Karanga Shona rivalries, were important to Zimbabwean unity and growth, but the strategic problems of logistics were a far more pressing and difficult problem. Its solution lay, not in economics or discussion of political or ethnic abstractions but in manoeuvring through the minefield of the impact of the Cold War battles in Southern Africa on free transport. The success in addressing that is Mugabe’s greatest legacy to the Zimbabwean people.
This delicate balance between Zimbabwe’s economic and trading programs and the Pan-African programs of liberation was well recognised by the US and its allies. In a paper prepared for the US Deputy Director of Central Intelligence on 9 July 1986, this dependence was illustrated. It concluded that “A review of trade and financial statistics shows that all neighbouring states, except Angola, are vulnerable to South African economic retaliation.”[iii]
This expanded on a Research Paper on the transport system “Transport Routes in Southern Africa”[iv]
The findings of that study did not favour the African states. It found, “Much of the region’s trade moves along the “Southern Route” of north-south rail lines running from the Zairian Copper Belt to South African ports.
The transportation dependence of the black states of the region also includes their use of South African equipment. South African freight cars are used in nearly all the black states, as are South African locomotives in several-states. An equipment recall by Pretoria would, in our view, strangle the economies of the landlocked states.
In our view, the short-term prospects for implementing this strategy are gloomy. The insurgencies in Mozambique and Angola would have to end, and massive investment in equipment and training of personnel would be required. The SADCC has had difficulty raising transportation development funds, and the transportation systems of several of the member states—particularly the coastal ones—have deteriorated further since initial cost estimates were made…
Even if the insurgencies in Mozambique and Angola end, which would open vital east-west routes, we believe that South Africa would still maintain considerable leverage over the transport and more general economic options available to the black states.”
In response, the SADC states drew up a plan for a “Beira Corridor” which would channel Southern African trade through Mozambique. Although progress began on expanding and protecting the rail line to Beira and the oil pipeline from Beira to Umtali in Zimbabwe, progress was slow and risky as South Africa sponsored the RENAMO forces in Mozambique who opposed the FRELIMO government which took over from Portuguese rule and from attacks by South African commandos. This opposition to free trade through Beira led to Mugabe ordering the creation of the 5th Brigade under Gen. Shiri, trained by North Koreans, to fight against the RENAMO and South Africans to keep transport moving.
In July 1986, the Directorate of Intelligence at the CIA produced a research study “Beira Corridor Vulnerability” in response to a request from SADC for U.S. support of the project. The study found “The history of sabotage and attacks in the Beira transportation corridor, and our analysis of the military capabilities of government and insurgent forces that operate there, indicate that the road, railway, pipeline, and port cannot be effectively protected against attacks carried out by either the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) or South Africa. In our judgment, Mozambican and Zimbabwean troops may be able to provide reasonable security for the corridor’s limited number of bridges, oil pumping stations, and other key targets, but are unable to prevent insurgent ambushes, landmines, and sabotage along this route through RENAMO’s heartland. Furthermore, the corridor also is vulnerable to attack by South African commandos, aircraft, or naval forces.
In our judgment, development of the corridor, as an alternative to dependence on South African facilities, probably would result in greater South African confrontation with its neighbours. Moreover, Zimbabwe’s military requirements to protect the Beira corridor may create an opportunity for Moscow to initiate a major arms supply relationship with Harare.”[v]
The Cold War in Southern Africa
When Mugabe and his colleagues emerged from the British detention centres in 1974/1975 they found an Africa which was far different than that of the Africa of the mid-1960s when they were jailed. The aborted independence of the Belgian Congo had been a testament to the willingness of the U.S., Belgians, and French and South African mercenaries to openly intervene in the national liberation struggle by assassinating Patrice Lumumba and installing Moise Tshombe and Joseph Mobutu as tame leaders under their control. The US set up its own airbase in the Congo, WIGMO, guided by Larry Devlin of the CIA who became a “superminister” in the Mobutu Government. The French thwarted true independence in its colonies after Guinea choose direct independence over a “flag independence” under continued French rule and did not submit to the Pacte Coloniale which tethered the other francophone African nations to the political, economic and military control of France. An imprisoned Mugabe missed the Biafran War, where the French oil interests funded the breakaway state of Biafra with the support of South Africa and the Air Trans Africa pilots from Rhodesia. On the Federal side Russian, Ukrainian and Egyptian pilots supported the federal government.
The war for independence for Southwest Africa had begun while they were in prison and there was a Cold War struggle for control of the insurgents by the Soviets and their allies supporting the MPLA of Angola and SWAPO of Namibia. The Soviets sent down Vasily Grigoryevich Solodovnikov, the former head of the Institute for African Affairs in Moscow, to co-ordinate Soviet assistance from a base in Lusaka, Zambia. There were around twenty-one KGB officers in charge of planning, logistics and training in Lusaka. They arranged for African volunteers (cleared by their local parties) to travel to Odessa and other training bases in the Soviet Union for the military struggle. Mischa Wolf, the head of the East German STASI, sent down key officers to offer intelligence support and training (mainly in Angola). In fact, there were many “translators” from Moscow who served in Africa, including the Russian Igor Sechin (the current head of Rosneft and a key associate of Putin) and Viktor Bout. They all represented an important Soviet presence in Southern Africa. Many of the current Southern African military and intelligence officers (like Emmerson Mnangagwa) were graduates of this training program, as were the key leaders of the ANC in South Africa; both political and military.
The Chinese, too, had an extensive presence in Africa based in Tanzania. They even had their own arms factory in Pemba. They offered their support for training at their academy in Wuhan, China for African volunteers and spread military officers across Southern Africa offering support to the liberation movements.
The U.S. was active in restraining African liberation. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson sent Averell Harriman to the Congolese capital, Leopoldville to assess the growing power of the insurgents after Christphe Gbenye, Gaston Soumialot and Lawrence Kabila had taken over much of the Eastern Congo. Harriman and Cyrus Vance the Deputy Defense Secretary, drew up plans for an American airlift, carrying Belgian and South African soldiers, to install Tshombe as head of Katanga. They succeeded in installing Tshombe but created a much more serious problem for the West.
The U.S. flew in Belgian soldiers from the U.S. airbase in the Azores to Stanleyville. It had the approval of the Unite Nations and the support of Harold Wilson’s UK. One result of this open foray into interventionism was the growing involvement of the Cubans in the politics of the region. Che Guevara had gone to the UN and spoken against the Western action. He flew to China to meet with Chou En Lai, who had just been in Africa and then with Nasser in Egypt. They all pressed Che for a greater involvement in Africa and the need to express Cuba’s opposition to the U.S. after the Cuban missile crisis and the invasion of the Bay of Pigs. Che went back to Fidel and got permission to send a delegation of Cuban fighters to the Congo.
Che disappeared. His sudden disappearance was a subject for conjecture all over the world. He eventually surfaced in the Congo where, with 100 Cuban guerrilla fighters to assist him, he put into action his theories of how to help the oppressed peoples of Africa throw off the yoke of colonial imperialism. His first task was to help the young Laurent Kabila in his struggle against the dictator Mobutu, who had seized power in the newly independent Congo following the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. The diaries that Guevara kept during his months in Africa record a political, strategic and ideological failure.[vi] He wrote,” We went to Africa to Cubanise the African fighters. Instead they Africanised the Cubans.” Despite this, Fidel sent thousands of troops to Africa to fight on the side of African insurgents. They played an important role in the Angolan War and were, in the minds of the Western planners, an example of the clear and present danger of allowing the Soviets and their allies to grow too strong in the region.
The US Military in Africa
The U.S. is no stranger to military invasions in many countries, including a large number on the African continent. The United States engaged in forty-six military interventions from 1948–1991, from 1992–2017 that number increased fourfold to 188.The latest statistics are produced by the Congressional Research[vii] who show several more.
Between the mid 1950’s to the end of the 1970’s, only four overt U.S. military operations in Africa were recorded, though large-scale proxy and clandestine military operations were pervasive. Under the administrations of US Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. (1981–1993) military intervention accelerated, rising to eight, not counting the large scale clandestine ‘special forces’ and proxy wars in Southern Africa. Under the Clinton regime, US militarised intervention in Africa took off. Between 1992 and 2000, 17 armed incursions took place, including a large-scale invasion of Somalia and military backing for the Rwandan genocidal regime. Clinton intervened in Liberia, Gabon, Congo and Sierra Leone to prop up a long-standing troubled regime. He bombed the Sudan and dispatched military personnel to Kenya and Ethiopia to back proxy clients assaulting Somalia. Under George W. Bush, 15 US military interventions took place, mainly in Central and East Africa.
The Pentagon has military ties with 53 African countries (including Libya prior to the recent war). Washington’s efforts to militarise Africa and turn its armies into proxy forces for the War on Terrorism got a boost in 9/11/2001. The Bush Administration announced in 2002 that Africa was a “strategic priority in fighting terrorism” Henceforth, US foreign policy strategists, with the backing of both liberal and neoconservative congress-people, moved to centralise and coordinate a military policy on a continent-wide basis forming AFRICOM. AFRICOM organises African armies, euphemistically called “co-operative partnerships,” to conduct anti-terrorist wars based on bilateral agreements (Uganda, Burundi, etc.) as well as under ‘multi-lateral’ links with the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The bulk of the U.S African interventions before 1995 were concerned, directly or indirectly, with the preservation of South Africa in its struggles against African liberation movements. The interventions after that were largely about fighting terrorists.
Why Was African Liberation Delayed by The Cold War?
The principal problems which African liberation leaders had to face in the period from 1960 to 1995 derived from the fact that the international community viewed their struggles as part of their worldwide struggle between NATO, the forces of the Warsaw Pact and the emerging Chinese efforts to expand their influence globally. However, Africa was not always a priority in these Cold War conflicts.
The problem for most journalistic and academic studies of these struggles is that they do not start from an appreciation that, in real life, almost everything is “joined-up”. As the U.S. was approaching the problems of Southern Africa and its covert support for the South African government it was also struggling with the demands of the Vietnam War (militarily, financial and political) and its battles in Iran and the Middle East. The Soviets were facing dramatic internal changes after their invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia; the growing dissidence in Poland and East Germany and costly wars in Chechnya and Afghanistan. China was suffering the chaos of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. In all these cases, African demands, while important, were very much on the back burner and well-behind in the queue for focussing national expenditures. Access to Africa’s great mineral resources was the main motivator for Great Power interest in Africa; both in acquiring them and in denying them to their enemies. The activities and interests in Africa by the UK and France, however, were in preserving their traditional colonial advantages and control. South Africa was fighting for its survival against a growing, politicized African majority prepared for armed conflict, especially after Sharpeville.
That meant that the African leaders, like Mugabe, had several separate and competing tasks for their attention. The first was the battle to achieve independence from the British colonial forces and the Rhodesian Front government which had assumed British prerogatives. That meant fighting the Bush War against the Rhodies and then negotiating independence with the British after they had reclaimed Zimbabwe from the Rhodesian Front. In order to achieve the military power to fight the Rhodies a source of weapons, training and support had to be acquired. The primarily Ndebele forces joined together in a political party, ZAPU, under the leadership of Joshua Nkomo. They had their own military force (ZANLA) and were headquartered in Lusaka, Zambia under the control and support of the Soviets and their advisors led by Solodovnikov. Not only did they receive arms and training, they sent hundreds of the ZANLA forces for training inside the Soviet Union. This was mirrored in the Soviet support of Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia.
On the other hand, the primarily Shona political forces united in a political party, ZANU, based in northern Mozambique and led by Robert Mugabe. It too, had a military arm (ZIPRA) and was sustained in its military pursuits by the Peoples’ Republic of China which provided arms, training and guidance to ZIPRA in Africa and in training camps in China. Many of the leaders of ZANU came from among the Zezuru/KoreKore Shona while the bulk of the armed forces of ZIPRA were Karanga. Although the vicissitudes of the negotiations led the leaders of ZAPU and ZANU to join under the rubric Patriotic Front, there was little, if any, co-operation between the ZANLA and the ZIPRA forces. Even when the Patriotic Front won independence in 1980 the two military wings had difficulty joining a united Zimbabwean Army. A British officer was assigned to help them.
The aims and ambitions of the Soviet Union and China were clear. They were able, for very little expense, to engage with the liberation forces in support of their liberation aims and gain untrammelled access to African resources which were very much needed at home. They were able to remove the British and the French from their colonial possessions in Africa and built up solid political and commercial relations with the African leadership which transcended the winning of liberation. They were also able to put pressure on the “glavni vrag” (the main enemy), the US, for appearing to support the forces of apartheid South Africa and White Supremacist Rhodesia. Despite protestations by successive U.S. governments (Republican and Democrat) that they were not racists and didn’t support racism in any form, the policies on the ground gave lie to this assertion as they established a quiet working relationship with the South Africans in their wars against SWAPO, MPLA, FLEC and their efforts to subvert independent African governments in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and the DRC.
The US role in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba left little doubt of the US willingness to actively subvert newly independent African states for its own, perceived, interests. On March 17, 1970 the U.S. cast its first veto ever in the Security Council as it joined with Britain in rejecting an African-Asian resolution that would have condemned Britain for not using force to overthrow the white-minority government of Rhodesia. The U.S. justified its veto because it would block exports of Rhodesian chrome and unjustly enrich the Soviet Union, the second biggest chrome exporter. A CIA Intelligence Assessment at the time, Chromium: Western Vulnerabilities and Options [viii] rationalised support for exempting chromite from the UN sanctions on Rhodesia by pointing out “ Southern Africa’s severe economic, social, and political problems might disrupt mining and transport activities in one or more countries of the region at any time and the USSR could embargo chromite exports to the West as it did during the Korean war…The Soviet Union would benefit from a disruption of chromium supplies from southern Africa. After 1985 it might even be able to expand its own exports to capture disrupted markets. It might do so selectively, however, as a means of nurturing economic and political ties with key Western countries. Large-scale exports during a prolonged disruption would in turn serve to increase Western dependence on the East by discouraging the development of alternative sources”.
Funding Rival Liberation Movements As Surrogate Troops
This Cold War competition in the liberation struggles in Southern Africa led to forming rival liberation movements across the region – some supported by the Soviets and Chinese, and their rivals supported by the US and South Africa; all in the same country or with neighbours.. African liberation became a proxy war for the main protagonists. Africans fought other Africans in the name of liberation, with the US and Soviets watching on and cheering their acolytes.
The rivalries and intense levels of warfare between domestic forces was bitter and bloody. In Angola the Soviets and the Cubans supported Neto’s MPLA – the US and South Africa supported Savimbi’s UNITA. Neto, and then Dos Santos, travelled, with great fanfare to Moscow and Havana, while Savimbi was feted in the US and Switzerland. The liberation forces which had set up headquarters in Luanda actively supported Sam Nujoma of SWAPO for the liberation of Namibia while the US and South Africa supported Dr. Kareina of SWANU and the South African-backed Turnhalle Alliance as an opponent of SWAPO. There were few sights more bewildering than in oil-rich Cabinda, when the South African commandos attacked the Cubans guarding the Gulf Oil installation. In Mozambique the South Africans created RENAMO to fight the FRELIMO government and assisted RENAMO by sending South African commandos to accompany them. In Botswana, Potlako Leballo’s POQO army of the Azanian People Liberation Army was suppressed by the South African military with the quiet support of the ANC; the US posted POQO as a terrorist organisation, advertising its putative Chinese connections.
In South Africa itself, the ANC was divided between the “regular” ANC and the “Vula Boys” of the MK. Far more damaging to the cause of the liberation of South Africa was the creation by the South Africans of a Zulu military force, supported and trained in camps in the Caprivi Strip by the South African Army, engaged to fight against the ANC inside South Africa, “Operation Marion”. The South African Nationalists funded the Inkatha Freedom Party (‘IFP) of Buthulezi and provided the fighters of the IFP with weapons, explosives, communications equipment and training facilities. During November 1985 Buthelezi set out his needs to the then Director of Military Intelligence, Major-General Tienie Groenewald who offered military support, which included both an offensive and an attacking capacity. Buthelezi’s requests were placed before an extra-ordinary meeting of the SSC at Tuynhuis on 20th December 1985; where Minister of Defence, Magnus Malan, Minister of Law and Order, Louis Le Grange and Minister of Constitutional Development and Planning, Chris Heunis were tasked with establishing a “security force” for Buthelezi against the ANC internally.
Two hundred and six Inkatha men were recruited by M Z Khumalo for this. The 206 were taken to the Caprivi Strip in Namibia where they received training at Hippo Camp by the Special Operations component of Military Intelligence and Special Forces. The recruits were divided into operational groups; one of which was an offensive group of some 30 men. The trainees were instructed that their targets would be located within the ANC. They began a campaign of murder, assassination and destruction of the ANC leadership. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission over 20,000 died, more than half of whom died after the ANC was unbanned.
On 21 January 1988 Chief Director Intelligence Operations, Major General Neels Van Tonder met with Buthelezi. Van Niekerk, Colonel Mike Van den Berg and M.K. Kumalo and agreed to build more training bases for the Operation Marion IFP Zulus at Port Durnford and a separate base for the rest of the group at Mkhuze. By 1990 there were more than 5,300 IFP “Self-Protection” fighters operating against the ANC in South Africa.[ix]
There were similar bases set up for African military groups, like RENAMO, by the South African “Securocrats” to fight against African liberation groups; the most well-documented of which was the support for Savimbi’s UNITA. In addition,” Lang Hendrick” van den Bergh, the head of the Bureau of State Security (B.O.S.S.), recruited and operated African intelligence officers in many of the Frontline states. This was particularly effective in Zimbabwe when the Central Intelligence Organisation (which took over from the Rhodie Ministry of State Security) could continue after independence under its existing head, Ken Flower, and several of his colleagues.[x] Unfortunately for Mugabe and the CIO they covertly maintained contact with Van den Bergh and assisted in the creation of RENAMO and empowered three BOSS operatives to place arms caches in the farms of ZAPU politicians after the ZANLA riots at Entumbane, Glenville and Connemara in Matabeleland which precipitated the Gukurahundi massacres of Ndebele civilians carried out by the Zimbabwe National Army. Periodically, CIO leaders like Geoffrey Price and three other colleagues would defect to South Africa and worked with BOSS. It wasn’t until Happyton Bonyongwe took effective control of the CIO that there was any trust by Mugabe and ZANU-PF of the role of the CIO. Happyton Bonyongwe was later succeeded in his role by the current Zimbabwe President, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
The Challenges Faced By Mugabe
When Mugabe returned from the Lancaster House talks to become Prime Minister of the new Zimbabwe there was great anticipation of his victory dramatically changing life for Zimbabweans. While most people did not expect an overnight change to their lives they were not expecting the immense challenges and delays faced by the Patriotic Front.
First, it was not possible to redistribute land because of the entrenched clauses of the new Constitution. Many returning soldiers felt that this was the main item they had been fighting for and it was not immediate and was being resisted by the Rhodies and the British. Secondly, the new army could not accept all the returning soldiers. Some would have to leave the military and look for jobs in the civilian economy; trying to find work when there wasn’t a lot of work to be found. Moreover, the ZANLA and ZIPRA forces had to be combined into a single national army; a difficult task for those who military experiences had been so different. Thirdly, and importantly, the disquiet between the Shona and the Ndebele over accepting political appointments and legislative power was viewed by both sides as essentially unfair. The external forces to Zimbabwe, Cold War, British and South African fostered and promoted these divisions and factionalism and made progress slow and hazardous for the government. Fourthly, the liberation struggles in Southern Africa continued and nationalist wars in Angola, Namibia and the DRC continued unabated and required that Mugabe, as head of the Defence Section of SADC, play a role in supporting the anti-colonial forces.
Mugabe was in a difficult position. He was not particularly friendly with the Soviet Union as they had supported his competitors for years. There was very little that the Chinese could do to assist. The U.S. had adopted the Korry Report under President Johnson which effectively reduced the U.S. from a broad engagement in Southern Africa by choosing five nations on which to concentrate its assistance. The rest were consigned to a policy of “benign neglect”. It was only under Nixon that Henry Kissinger changed U.S. policy in Africa after his realisation that there were thirty-seven thousand Cuban troops active in the area. He issued the famous National Security Study Memorandum 39 (NSSM39) which quietly recognised support for the South African Government and channelled covert U.S. policies to them to support the South Africans while making many speeches about the unpleasantness of apartheid.
The limits of US rhetoric were the result of the effective internal opposition to US government policies by opponents of the Vietnam War, by the civil rights activists who were empowered by the civil rights movement and by the rise of the Black Power movement in the US military. Battles between US Black soldiers and the White officers in Vietnam was not uncommon. In the US Navy, the Black Power groups formed the Black Faction group which included the Stop Our Ships (SOS) movement. The SOS supervised confrontation between Black sailors and the Navy which impeded the USS Ranger, the USS Kitty Hawk, the USS Richard B. Anderson, the USS Midway, the USS Constellation and the USS Forrestal from sailing or deploying to and from Vietnam. The fires set by them on the USS Forrestal alone resulted in over $7 million in damage and was the largest single act of sabotage in naval history. They were supported on shore in the US by thousands of anti-war protestors.
The effect of these protests and demonstrations against U.S. racial and civil rights policies of its government tempered the willingness of the Nixon administration to display its NSSM39 policies and, most important of all, made it clear that the use of U.S. military power in Africa would have to be through surrogates. They understood the risk of using the U.S. military, including a large proportion of Black soldiers, to shoot and kill Africans would likely provoke such protests in America that the consequences were too dire to predict.
Mugabe was forced to be patient but kept up a steady pressure on the British to proceed with Land Reform and exposed to the world the background funding and support by the British of a new Ndebele political party, the MDC, which challenged the ZANU-PF electorally. Despite enormous Western pressure against the move, Mugabe and Moven Mahachi, the Defence Minister delivered Zimbabwe’s military support behind the battle for control of the DRC Government of Laurent Kabila by the force of Rwanda and Uganda.
Little by little Mugabe achieved his aims. Zimbabwe remained free and independent. The land issue was resolved. With the assistance of the Zimbabweans, the DRC was saved; Namibia and Angola were liberated, the ANC took power in South Africa. The price paid for this was very high and the greed and avarice of Zimbabwean politicians has made a mockery of the ideals they preached and kept the nation from making an economic success of the great resources of the country. Mugabe made several unfortunate choices but, at the end of the day, his legacy is positive. It is for this that he should be remembered. His enemies were not only in Zimbabwe.
[i] Angus Selby, “White farmers in Zimbabwe 1890-2005.” PhD Thesis, University of Oxford: June 2006
[ii] Martin Plaut, “Africa : US backed Zimbabwe land reform”. BBC News 22 August 2007.
[iii] CIA, Talking Points For DDCI- Southern Africa, , Declassified 2011/09/16 : CIA-RDP91B00874R000100200003
[iv] CIA, Transport Routes in Sothern Africa, , March 1983, CIA-RDP90T01298R000100040001
[v] NSC “MOZAMBIQUE: Vulnerability of the Beira Corridor”, CIA-RDP86T01017R000707340001-9, 1986
[vi] Che Guevara, The African Dream: the Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo. Harvill Panther, 1971
[vii] Barbara Salazar Torreon and Sofia Plagakis, Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2019, Congressional Record Service, D.C., Updated July 17, 2019. These do not include CIA interventions.
[viii] CIA, “Chromium: Western Vulnerabilities and Options “, CIA-RDP84S00558R000100100002-1
[x] Ken Flower, Serving Secretly: An Intelligence Chief on Record, Rhodesia into Zimbabwe 1964-1981, 1987.
* The author is the editor and publisher of the web-based news journal of international relations www.ocnus.net and the distance-learning educational website www.worldtrade.ac. He speaks and reads 12 languages and has written six books and published 58 specialist studies. His articles have appeared in the Economist Intelligence Unit, Wall Street Journal, WPROST (a leading Polish weekly news magazine), Pravda and several other major international news journals