Hannes Wessels,

Reading this seminal work on the history of these unusual people and the country they helped construct, has been both enlightening and distressing. ‘Last of the Rhodesians; Society Adrift,’ by Duncan Clarke, is a detailed account of the eventful 90 years after the occupation 1890 during which so much was achieved and then the road to ruin up to the present day.

On a personal basis, for me it has also been a rude reminder that as a historian and a writer, this man operates at a level well out of my reach. It is a big book, nearly 700 pages, but seldom does Duncan fail to interest as he describes the personalities, places and events that filled this fascinating period of time. Few people that played any sort of a role in any facet of the life of this country escape his attention.

As a born and bred Rhodesian, whose father played an important role as Cabinet Secretary under Ian Smith, I applaud his professionalism. While I have little doubt, he feels the same anger many of us who lived through these times do, he keeps his emotional distance, writes in rational, measured tone, and lets the facts speak for themselves. And there are plenty of facts to digest but there is also humour and anecdotal material to lighten the narrative.

A wonderful chapter titled ‘Pulling the Pith’ brightens the book while covering the unique sense of humour that evolved in the country and the unusual ability of Rhodesians of all races to self-deprecate and make themselves the butt of their own jokes. From Vic MacKenzie to Wrex Tarr, he lists the comedians and songsters who kept a country at war and under siege, laughing.

Covering the astonishing amount of literature that has appeared on this country and people, he goes into some detail dealing with Doris Lessing, who he laments, did not see the funny side like many of her compatriots, stole the literary limelight and won a Nobel Prize on the back of her unflattering portrayal of her white countrymen. On her way to becoming a Communist she famously referred to them as ‘petty bourgeois Philistines’. Unfortunately her view was the one seized upon internationally and the message was well received by the many who had an axe to grind. 

Her message certainly resonated with the mandarins of the British Foreign Office and the political establishment in general, who empathised with the white Kenyans, the ‘Officer Class’ but looked at the Rhodesians, ‘the NCO’s’ with a certain amount of disdain.  Unfortunately for the Rhodesians, despite being relegated to lower class status, their rambunctious libertarian approach to life was also not well received by Labour and Liberal politicians who preferred people who believed big government was the answer, while the Rhodesians saw their future fending for themselves. The ‘settlers’ fell between two stools, and friends were few.

One of the reasons this is a big book is the author covers the country’s critics across the social, political, media spectrum and there were a multitude of them with a lot to say as they added their voices to the anti-colonial chorus. Bellicose throughout ‘the struggle’ and then strangely quiet when the country’s ‘inheritors’ turned out to be less than what their millions of supporters expected them to be. Few ever recanted it seems.

One of these is the late English intellectual and writer, Christopher Hitchens who spent considerable time in the country, enjoying the warm and affordable hospitality while damning the ‘white racist settler revolt’ and the ‘treasonous pro-apartheid riff-raff around Ian Smith’ that had brought the country to the ‘verge of ruin’. Later, during the Mugabe era, he found other issues to tackle with his poison pen.

The author takes on the prickly question as to who was to blame for what went wrong and looks for answers from all the angles. While pointing no fingers himself, he does express his disagreement with some frequently held views. One of the scenarios he tackles is the question of UDI and the belief held by many that Ian Smith made a catastrophic mistake in choosing this course of action. What Clarke goes on to explain is that well before UDI, plans were already unfolding in places of power and influence all over the world, aimed at ending white rule. The likelihood is white rule in Rhodesia was doomed no matter what was done or not done.

This point is driven home as he describes the full extent of the forces being mobilised against the country to bring about regime change in the country. He goes into detail listing the full extent of the support that was forthcoming from Soviet, Chinese and other Warsaw Pact countries and the sums are staggering. Most of this was in the form of military support but there was plenty of non-lethal assistance from the West, principally Sweden who, under the late PM Olaf Palme, were unstinting in financing and facilitating the resistance to white rule through the various liberation movements.

He goes on to raise the puzzling political paradox that characterised successive British governments’ approach to the country. On the one hand they claimed ‘sovereignty’ over the territory, indicating it was part of the realm, while on the other hand they encouraged military and economic attacks designed to destroy it.

There is plenty of anecdotal material but one that caught my eye was the story about Duncan Fletcher who, having just coached the England cricket team to an ashes victory, had become a national hero; but then the British press tumbled to the fact that Fletcher was of Rhodesian stock and this caused consternation leading to articles reminding readers of the litany of crimes with which he was associated. One report described Rhodesians as ‘the most unloved race on the planet’. Needless to say there was no talk of a knighthood for Duncan.

Having read this book, I certainly know more than I did about this subject but sometimes I feel I’d rather not know. All so damn sad for so many across the racial spectrum who wanted to make the best of it but, thanks to forces well beyond their control, were denied the opportunity.

8 thoughts on “The Last Rhodesians”
  1. “Civil war – noun – “a war between citizens of the same country.”

    It doesn’t matter how you try and spin it, the words “civil war” in the context of Rhodesia are wrongly used as it gives readers the false impression that the war came about as a natural progression of blacks being wrongly and unfairly treated by whites. We now know that this was all window dressing and propaganda for Communists to gain support to achieve their nefarious agenda of taking over Southern Africa. In 1977 a very informative little booklet entitled “The Red Tide, The World Via Southern Africa” by the Russian author Ivan Kowalski who became a committed Rhodesian was published in Gwelo by Modern Publications (Pvt) Ltd. See – https://www.amazon.com/Red-Tide-World-Southern-Africa/dp/B0055IZ2B4 It’s a great pity at the time, more people (myself included) did not dig around a bit deeper to find out what evil forces were really driving the Rhodesian Bush War, but sadly this would have made no difference at all to the final outcome.

  2. I look forward to that but the history of the RF was related to me by the late Deputy Commissioner Bill Crabtree whom the RF accused of being a British spy – which your interviews appear to have exposed to be Ken Flower? DC Crabtree had warned Winston Field what was going on after Field was put in as a more moderate and acceptable Prime Minister at the start. Of course Field was an ex RTA President as well! Prior to UDI a friend of my father’s grew 200 acres of tobacco under irrigation from a dam on the Mbilambuya River (near Mbalabala) that flows out of the Matopos. Back in the day – that family went on a trip around the world and came back with two brand new Ford V8 motor cars from tobacco money – and then went bust after the tobacco collapse post UDI. Funny to think of tobacco being grown between Mbalabala and Matopos in an 80 Ha block – but it was.

  3. Ntabenende, I find it very difficult to understand your line of thinking here. You say, “what did we actually achieve when Jeff Collett was killed in action in Zambia in October 1978, or when Martin Olds was gunned down 22 years later in Nyamandhlovu?” The same question could be asked about any country in history that stood against tyranny and paid a heavy price for it in blood. What about Britain during the Second World War? Are you one of those people who think it’s better to surrender to tyranny (like British premier Chamberlain wanted to do just before WW2) in order to save lives rather than fight against it? You may not know this but there are things worse than dying, ie, living like a slave. Jack Malloch (not Mullock!) would not have participated in “rolling out a Tobacco Republic” as he was not the sort of person who would have participated in such a selfish act. And lastly, there was no “civil war” in Rhodesia. How could there have been if 70% of the Rhodesian armed forces were black volunteers? Do the research.

    1. Mugabe once explained that to control a population you need to control the three F’s. Food, fuel and finance. If we go back to Rhodesia we can recall Op Turkey and indeed the AMA that controlled the sale of maize via the GMB, we can remember petrol coupons and we can remember exchange control and holiday allowances? The stand against tyranny is not disputed in any manner or form – but in this case Malcolm Fraser, Lord Carrington, Margaret Thatcher, Henry Kissinger, and even BJ Vorster (under duress) slowly tightened the noose on Rhodesia so that in hindsight we can see that they were all actually working in concert with ZANLA, ZPRA, Russia and China? The clip of Andre Scheepers trying to get to the UK via Holland to track down those who assassinated John Giles at Lancaster House changed the lens on Rhodesia for me. Similarly – the image of myself as a young policeman (working in intelligence) in Op Repulse – “standing up against tyranny” in a 300 000 acre block with approximately 20 groups of ZANLA – I can truly see that it was an exercise in futility. I also thought that I was making a stand – but put simply, we were simply used, and sold a dummy even with a token visit by Hilary Squires who was totally out of touch with reality on the ground – so am at peace to admit my obvious naivety. I can also believe that Patrick Stanley, Skinny Martin and Neil Cunningham all died down there, in vain – just like Jeff Collet. The definition of Civil War is open to debate and interpretation. As far as I am aware it refers to an internal national war regardless of colour or greed, or who is wrong or who is right? I am also at peace for anybody to have their own justifications for that war, for UDI, for Ian Smith and the RF and for the RF creating smuggler oligarchs. Victor Frankl has explained that “between stimulus and response is a space – and how we use that space will create our happiness and freedom.” Justifying the Rhodesian war is a choice?

  4. Watching events unfold in Ukraine and then following the great list of Russian Oligarchs with their super yachts – has to make one think about the whole notion of The Ultimate Banana Republic? The military stories that Hannes has brought to light will always have great historical value for the human spirit. The losses of class mates and military colleagues in that war always leaves us on a somber note. However, the contemplation of UDI being set up as a means for The Ultimate Tobacco Republic by its architect Boss Lilford (reputedly Rhodesia’s richest man?) and rolled out by John Bredenkamp and Jack Mullock changes the notion of Romantic Rhodesia to that somber and rather sad comprehension that all those that died may well have been for a Tobacco Republic. I have it on good authority that Mr. Bredenkamp was very keen on the Fast Track Land Reform Programme because it affording a far ore lucrative business opportunity with the commercial farmers out of the way. It has been published that Mr Bredenkamp left an estate of around 730 million Pounds Stirling. Joining the dots – what did we actually achieve when Jeff Collet was killed in action in Zambia in October 1978, or when Martin Olds was gunned down 22 years later in Nyamadlovu? For some – a 700 million Pound Stirling bank account is good enough? I believe that the likes of Sir Humphrey Gibbs – who migrated to the country in 1928 and bought a farm – and then was heavily involved in the RNFU (farmers ‘ union) could see what UDI was going to deliver – Civil war and international isolation like Putin has achieved?

    1. I suggest you read the book Sir. I think you might change your opinion if you do.

    2. I suggest you read the book Sir. If you do I think you might change your opinion.

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