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.