40 years on from UDI, Zimbabwe is still paying the price

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FORTY years ago, on 11 November, 1965, Ian Smith, the prime minister of Southern Rhodesia, made his Unilateral Declaration of Independence.

The UDI announcement was made on the Rhodesian Broadcasting Corporation at lunchtime. The British South Africa Police patrolled the black satellite townships surrounding the capital. In the city itself, the wide jacaranda-lined avenues were nearly deserted. There were no demonstrations and no business for the hawkers. The whites who were around simply went back to work, perhaps after a drink at Meikles Hotel, a colonial bastion up there with Raffles in Singapore and Shepherd's in Cairo.

That was what I did. By the time I got to my office, just across from Meikles in the Rhodesia Herald building, a lot had happened: the censor was in position, armed with a government regulation, TV crews were filming my colleagues in the newsroom, and the directors of the company were holding a special board meeting.

The directors decided, sensibly, that the Herald and its associate papers would continue to publish with material censored out, but would cease to publish if the censor sought to insert unwanted copy. With this uneasy stand-off, the TV crews went away and we got out a paper with blank spaces exactly the size of the censored copy.

Quickly, a black market in censored copy developed in the packed Press Club, also handily located in Meikles. Thus, early on, there was a touch of Evelyn Waugh and Scoop. Later, the Herald reduced the blanks to token spaces, indicating something had been left out but not how important it might have been.

I was the financial editor on the Rhodesia Herald. As the UK and the United Nations cranked up sanctions, it was obvious why the Rhodesian authorities were banning sensitive financial information. But, like most applications of censorship, much of the excluded material was irrelevant, innocuous, even counter-productive.

For example, a picture of the governor, Sir Humphrey Gibbs, with his croquet mallet at the ready was taken by the Rhodesia Herald a few days after UDI, and censored. Today, a Gibbs spin doctor would surely advise him against posing for the faintly ludicrous picture in the crisis atmosphere of 1965; for the same reason, a Smith spin doctor would surely let it go through.

Before UDI, the governors of Southern Rhodesia, appointed by the government in London, were usually not hugely distinguished retired military. Had a military man been in the job at UDI, it is just possible it might not have happened. But a phalanx of retired British military living in Rhodesia, from majors to brigadiers, effectively lobbied old chums in Whitehall to ensure force would not be used against a rebellion. Gibbs, an old Etonian scion of a banking family and friend of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, was the first Rhodesian and civilian for a long time to occupy Government House. He farmed in Rhodesia, was very popular and also opposed any use of force.

The British prime minister, Harold Wilson, announced force would not be used - at the least, throwing away a low-level bluff, the economic sanctions were also, in part, a bluff; the subsequent civil war in the 1970s was very real.

A friend who was involved said that Wilson, the starred First from Oxford who spent the Second World War collecting coal statistics, was mesmerised by Smith, the fighter pilot with the wonky eye and the dry accent. "Think again, Prime Minister,'' Wilson lamely urged him just before UDI.

Gibbs was pressed to stand down by Smith after UDI but, encouraged by Britain, remained in Government House, a symbolic protest against the unconstitutional gesture and a channel for the various attempts by Wilson to resolve the post-UDI impasse.

Millions of people got caught up in the UDI imbroglio, most haplessly, a handful commendably.

The hapless included the scores of thousands of peasant blacks who got caught up in the sway of atrocities and reprisals which passed between the nationalists and the authorities up to, through and beyond UDI, for something like 15 years. These people, or their progeny, are now the victims of Robert Mugabe's excesses. Slightly less haplessly, because they had the vote, thousands of whites, many, like Ian Smith, of Scottish origin, got caught up in sanctions-busting and later, as the security situation deteriorated, part-time in the defence and police forces.

Almost all the principals involved with UDI are dead. Only the two most responsible for Rhodesia/Zimbabwe's history in the past 40 years, both in their 80s, survive: Smith and Mugabe. Mugabe is not a consequence of Smith; Mugabe must be held responsible for his own disastrous agenda in the past few years. But Smith can be held responsible for seeking to implement the delusion that 200,000 whites in the middle of sub-Saharan Africa could not just temper but reverse the wind of change which Macmillan identified in Cape Town in 1960.

Given what has happened elsewhere in Africa, Zimbabwe would probably not be a colour-blind sylvan oasis if UDI had not happened. But UDI, then Mugabe, gave the worst possible outcome to what had been called the Jewel of Africa.

• Roger Nicholson was a journalist and politician in Rhodesia between 1957 and 1969. He now lives in Crieff and regularly visits Zimbabwe.