by Hannes Wessels

I publish the correspondence below because I think it will be of interest to people wanting to better understand Rhodesian and Zimbabwean political history but also because I believe it provides a valuable insight into the mind of a quintessential liberal socialist. While the former foreign secretary fails to answer any of the pertinent questions posed below, he remains utterly unrepentant for his demonstrably disastrous actions while blaming all but himself for the tragedy that he played a stellar role in creating. Acknowledging errors of judgement or venturing an apology is anathema to him. Here, I believe, we are witness to the mind of a sociopath; a man who is unable to distinguish between right and wrong, and therefore is untroubled by conscience.

His interlocutor is quite correct when he insists Lord Owen’s mind was made up before he even entered the political fray unfolding in southern Africa. He was unable to control his instinctive loathing of white Rhodesians and their leadership because this was (and remains) a committed socialist who despised the gutsy libertarianism displayed by the Rhodesians who took responsibility for their own welfare and future as individuals and scorned the call for them to commit to a foreign power run by people like him who insisted they knew all the answers. This lack of empathy and wilful blindness to the facts is what characterised him then and still does today.

I know Ian Smith left this life sad at the state of the country he loved but at peace with himself; I wonder if the same will apply to this man.


I am writing to you today as a six-year old Ex Rhodesian who served in the British South African Police until 1980, and due to the deteriorating security and economic situation in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, had to leave.

Since then I and millions of people of all colours have left that country, because of the way that Mugabe and his ilk turned it into a dictatorship, that impoverished the majority of the population and destroyed democracy.

This could only have happened because you and the British governments turned a blind eye to the obvious intentions of the Patriotic Front.

You were given irrefutable evidence of their atrocities e.g. the Elim Mission massacre where eight missionaries men killed, women raped then killed, and four babies killed, and TWO civilian aircraft shot down, where any survivors were butchered on the ground…not a word of condemnation by you or anyone else in the supposedly civilized West!


Ongoing atrocities against the civilian populations of all colours were perpetrated but you chose to be Mugabe apologists/enablers instead.

You chose to support Samora Machel who destroyed Mozambique by nationalising private ownership and turned the country into a Marxist state!  WHY?

He chose to actively interfere in another country internal affairs with your support and denied the Rhodesian government the opportunity to negotiate a peaceful transition….WHY?

When Machel approached the UN complaining about the Rhodesian response, no one asked him to account for his destructive policies that destroyed his own country….WHY?

Mugabe killed off any traditional black leaders that were willing to discuss peace and the way forward with Ian Smith…you failed to hold Mugabe to account for this…WHY?

You chose to support Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia even after (he) held “elections” where he was the only candidate!….WHY

Why did you not take the time and effort to visit and sit down and assist to reach an agreement….WHY

            Even at the height of the war there was still a lot of goodwill between the races…you allowed Russia and China to influence events…WHY?

Did you at any time take the effort to look at the whole picture?

Did you know that even after independence Ian Smith was not protected at all and used to ride his bicycle to the shops! Supposedly the most hated man in the country and a world pariah! Funny how Mugabe needed motorcades with Army trucks and helicopters overhead as protection….and to feed his megalomania.

If you had taken the time and effort to understand the dynamics of the time and backed a peaceful organized transition to reasonable black moderates, and disowned the radical black opposition, things would have been very different and I would still be home, along with millions of others.

I know you will probably not even get to read this as your gatekeepers will block it…but on the slight chance you will my question is this:

Do you have any regrets over how this was handled?

Does your conscience prick you at all or are you still in complete denial?

Zimbabwe could have been a beacon but is now a disaster…….it could have even shown South Africa the way forward as well!




Father British Army WW2

Grandfather British Army WW1 and WW2

Both of whom moved to Southern Rhodesia after being encouraged to, after WW2, and then failed by YOU.


Dear Ian

            Thank you for your email.  From 1977-79 I made a huge effort to sort out a negotiated settlement, visited Africa more than any other Foreign Secretary. All the time the fighting on the ground meant Ian Smith was losing control of more and more of the country and Mugabe was gaining more territory and with it a larger army and with that more voters. 

Our Anglo-American initiative should have been embraced by Ian Smith. To have the power of the US linked to a settlement would have brought peace. The loss of President Machel, the best leader Mozambique ever had, in a dubious plane accident was a tragedy. Ian Smith was the problem since he could not compromise with reality and fought a hopeless battle to uphold white rule in what was Southern Rhodesia. The world had changed, Botswana next door proved that black majority government could be made to work, and it still does in that country. Ian Smith instead, as so often, brushed aside the Anglo-American proposals which was the one solution that could have held off Mugabe. By 1980 the opportunity was lost. 

I suggest you read more about what actually went on during this period. Not just what I have written but others too looking back. I wrote my account in my autobiography “Time to Declare”. I am sure there are second-hand copies going cheap in the Penguin edition.  The most recent article I wrote I attach reviewing a good book. I hope you will conclude from this that I was no supporter of Mugabe: the true story is how I tried to give Nkomo a chance working with Muzorewa and others. It was not a sham transfer of power. Those days were long gone, and Kenneth Kaunda was not opposed to it, nor were many sensible whites in Rhodesia.

Yours sincerely

David Owen



I thank you for your response which to be honest I did not expect.

Whilst I realise that this is water under the bridge and a lifetime ago, it still gnaws at me and countless other ex Rhodesians and now displaced and impoverished Zimbabweans. 

I would like to respond to some of the points you raised, and I realise you probably don’t want to get onto an e mail excercise, nontheless here they are….

            Whilst you visited Rhodesia you came with preconceived ideas and treated Ian Smith, who was  Head of State, with clear disdain and even as irrelevant and not even pretending to show any sort of respect for his position, whilst fawning over Marxist trained leaders who showed no respect for human life and were quite prepared to sacrifice thousands of lives to gain power and then never let go!

            At your suggestion I ordered your book and it raises more questions than answers to your insistence on installing people who were obviously going to go the communist route.

 You stated that when you first met Mugabe you classed him as a “good Marxist”!….is there such a thing? You also stated that he was determined to win through the barrel of the gun and that “retribution ” was going to be dealt out!

            It seems unbelievable that you did not hear the alarm bells ring at that stage,  and perhaps look for alternative leaders to deal with…moderates who would work with all parties to forge the way forward.

            You stated that Ian Smith was the problem because he was unwilling to accept black majority rule, you seem to forget that he accepted terms with Alec Doulgas  Hume, then Kissinger then Vorster and then the internal settlement where he handled power to black moderates, Abel Muzorewa, Sithole and Chikerema,  it seems you were the person unwilling to accept that Rhodesians were able to come to an agreement without the British!

            If you had put as much effort in supporting this initiative and pressuring the Frontline leaders to accept, as you did supporting Russian and Chinese ldealogists who would destroy the country within 20 years……missed opportunity?

            Britain could have been in pole position to turn Zimbabwe into a real force for good and certainly influence the future of South Africa with all the benefits of that African giant going forward.

            You seemed to have a blind spot when dealing with the Frontline leaders none of whom ran viable democratic countries and installed one party states!

            You stated that Machel “was the best thing that happened to Mozambique “!

Considering that he was a self-avowed Marxist, in  1977 Frelimo declared itself a Marxist Leninist state, nationalized all land, schools and hospitals…. jailed any dissention and chased the Portuguese out which led to the total collapse of the economy and agriculture, yet you took direction from them regarding the future of another country! Within a few short years Mozambique had the begging bowls out…how could he have been the saviour of Mozambique?

            Not sure how Machel death has anything to do with Ian Smith….6 years later!

You mentioned Botswana and yes it was a success story, but considering it had no natural resources, besides diamonds and beef perhaps it was not really a priority for the communists.

            Against this picture of Machel’s Marxist policies and Mugabe Marxist policies did you really wonder why the Rhodesian Government baulked at dealing with any notion of handing over power to anyone with that leaning?

            Did you try to put yourself in the shoes of the white population who had seen one African country after another gain  independence which in turn led to dictatorships, retribution against the white and indeed Asian populations, the dismantling of democracy, economic collapse and turmoil; don’t forget we saw the aftermath of the Congo where Belgian refugees poured in with tales of horror!

            Did you try to understand that this was the last British Colony in Africa and perhaps we wished for a different outcome?

            Yes perhaps UDI was a knee jerk reaction,  but it appeared that the British were in a lot of rush to hand over to anyone, and we were acceptable “collateral damage”.

            You also mention Nkomo ….I can still hear that chuckle in the interview where he was asked what weapon was used to bring down the Viscount  “we have our weapons “….this did indeed harden attitudes…as I am sure you remember after the Lockerbie atrocity!

Unlike the Viscount atrocities, the Lockerbie condemnation was loud, long and no stone left unturned to find the culprits…double standards?

            You stated you were no supporter of Mugabe, but venture that your attitude only changed after the massacre in Matabeleland (with the 5th Korean trained Brigade) where 20 000 people were killed and many more maimed or went missing,  without any condemnation from anyone! This only emboldened Mugabe and proved that he was untouchable…he was even knighted! What a travesty!

We, however, knew all long the real Mugabe but we were naive in letting him go at all!  In fact Mugabe was treated relatively well whilst in prison, even getting a degree ….he definitely didn’t treat his political  prisoners in the same fashion at Chikarubi prison( refer Morgan Tsvangirai who was  beaten to a pulp.) And others who simply disappeared.

In your article in the Daily Maverick you mention Lord Soames, I am afraid he simply wasn’t up to the job and failed miserably to take the tough decisions that would have prevented a Mugabe takeover, through intimidation, murder and circumventing the Lancaster Agreement by keeping his forces outside threatening the local population.

(Please see the letter written by General Walls to Margaret Thatcher voicing his concerns time before the elections results were called.)

            I know this because I recorded many affidavits from the rural black population who readily came forward complaining of threats by the real ZANLA combatants/terrorists who were still in the field and carrying on as per normal. These were sent to Soames, I believe, who dismissed them as irrelevant!

            Whilst Mugabe stunned everyone with his message of reconciliation at independence it wasn’t long before tribal rivalries surfaced and the killings started, then it was the white Air Force offices who were cleared of all charges and re arrested, then it was the ZIPRA 7 who were also cleared of all charges then re-arrested  then finally he showed his true colours with the destruction of the white commercial farming community because they dared to oppose him and because democracy wasn’t going his way.

 Seems Ian Smith was right all along….

            You state that there is no animosity between blacks and whites in Southern Africa and that is true during the Rhodesia  and early Zimbabawe days , and I believe that had Mugabe been sidelined that would have continued, however it was always a matter of time before Mugabe and his Russian/Chinese trained henchmen would turn that country into a hellhole…

 I would like you to read 3 books that details this from a personal perspective….

 ‘Mukiwa’ by Peter Godwin who tells of a young white boy in Rhodesia who goes onto fighting  the war, then  becoming a lawyer and defending the Zipra 7 and then exposing the genocide in Matabeleland.

His second book is oddly titled 

“When the Crocodile Eats The Sun” and tells of the land invasions and the brutality against white farmers and their black farm workers, and the collapse of Africa’s bread basket. 

The third book is called 

“104 Horses” by Mandy Retzlaff and tells of  the rescue of 104 horses from the thugs taking over the farms,  and the dilemma that faced the white farmers of what to do with their horses…(although thousands of horses, cattle, pigs and family pets were put down)they were ridden across the country at night,  across the Mozambique border to the coast and have now become a tourist attraction as well as a place of safety.

 These books tell of the destruction of a vibrant beautiful country that is now a failed state….this could have been avoided.


I thank you if you have read this far…

  Yours sincerely 



I am now living here in Somerset North UK having no where else to go…


Dear Ian

Thank you for your detailed letter and I am grateful to you for taking the trouble to read my book. Some of the points you raise had some possibilities at various moments in history . But there was one inexorable fact – regret and reject it though you do. After President Carter came into the White House apartheid in South Africa and the refusal to give all black people the vote in what legally was still Southern Rhodesia was going to have to change. 

Ian Smith never accepted that in 1978. Thereafter the ZANU forces were going to build up and force Mugabe into power . The Lusaka meeting, with Nigeria present, before the dreadful Elim massacre and Nkomo’s ZAPU forces appallingly shot down the Viscount, was Smith’s last chance.

UN sanctions forced the pace in South Africa in the late 1980s.  Fortunately there were realistic white politicians in South Africa with the courage to compromise.

I think this all I can add. I wish you well.

Yours sincerely

David Owen 

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2 thoughts on “Letters to Lord David Owen”
  1. Well, at least he wrote back…….If only to excuse himself. I also believe it was a time that doomed post colonial nations due to the Civil Rights Act, which was for our American nation to rectify many things. However, that was very different that black nationalism backed by the Soviets and Chinese. The US and Britain turned their heads in sanctimonious ‘anti-racist’ thought rather than rational and gradual change. Not only did change fail in Rhodesia, it led to Botha handing the keys to the ANC to loot and destroy South Africa.
    This man cannot answer the questions because he was operating from a different world view. The reality on the ground made no difference. Spying and politics were at play as well. JMHO.

    1. Actually Dan it was not PW Botha who handed over it was FW de Klerk. Lampooned though he was, PW was one of the few Nat leaders who could see the bigger picture and was a good friend to us in Rhodesia.

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