50th anniversary of UDI PDF Print E-mail
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Saturday, 07 November 2015 22:41

11th November marks the 50th anniversary of the unilateral declaration of Independence by the Smith government in Rhodesia. Rose and Dennis Benton, who helped start the Vigil in 2002 and have attended ever since, were close observers of the event, as Dennis recalls in this article.


Apologia UDI


On 11th November 1965 I phoned my girlfriend from the newsroom of the Cape Argus, the Cape Town evening paper, to tell her I had been alerted to listen to a broadcast from Salisbury by the Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith.


I was a junior reporter and had been roped in to help take down the speech in shorthand to provide the political correspondent with the full text. I knew my girlfriend Rose would be interested as she was a Rhodesian studying at the University of Cape Town.


The occasion was the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) by the governing Rhodesian Front – a rebellion by the British colony which led to a war between whites and blacks, the souring of race relations and the emergence of the Mugabe regime.


The whites of Southern Africa had been horrified by the chaotic handover of power in the Belgian Congo, which saw an exodus of Belgian colonists streaming southwards. The mayhem was captured in the famous question ‘Anyone here been raped and speaks English?’


Steady progress towards majority rule in Rhodesia had been promoted by the British government but this was halted on the rise to power of the conservative Rhodesian Front party supported by commercial farmers who had developed a vibrant agricultural economy.


Growing up among liberals in Cape Town opposed to the apartheid regime, I had looked to the Rhodesia of Sir Garfield Todd and other progressives as the way forward for white people who had made their home in Southern Africa. So I was disappointed that November day when Ian Smith suddenly applied the brakes.


I went up to see the situation in Rhodesia for myself. It was my first visit and a brief one but I was impressed by the good race relations compared to the mounting tensions in South Africa.


Despairing of growing oppression in South Africa, I left the country in 1966 for Britain, the country of my birth, hoping to be joined by Rose who wanted to pursue her studies in London. But sanctions imposed on the illegal Rhodesian regime made this too expensive so I flew to Salisbury to work for the Rhodesia Herald, by then heavily censored by an increasingly paranoid Smith regime.


Rose’s father was a Rhodesia-born farmer who was a firm Smith supporter so I had ready access to the Rhodesian Front establishment. I remember one evening a neighbour Lord Graham, the Foreign Affairs Minister, dropped in at my father-in-law’s house for drinks. I asked him how his officials travelled around the world and he confided: ‘They use British passports!’


Although I was opposed to their racist policies I could not but admire much that they had achieved. Rose’s father, for instance, had a thriving community on the farm, which had a black manager. One Christmas day, having been thrown from a horse into some farm machinery, I was taken to hospital in Harare by Rose’s mother accompanied by a heavily pregnant farm worker who also needed hospital attention. It was just part of the job for a farmer’s wife.


Rose and I watched with dismay as the Smith regime drifted steadily to the right, resisting all attempts to allow real step towards democracy. The deciding point for us came when I was sent to report on a meeting in a country area addressed by government minister P K van der Byl. He was assailed by agitated farmers and assured them that majority rule was a very long way away: ‘not in a 100 years?’ he was asked. ‘No’ he said, ‘not in a 1,000 years’.


We decided then to leave the country for Britain, welcoming from afar the eventual handover of power to the black majority and returning briefly to see Mugabe coming back to Zimbabwe. We supported him then but we believe that, like Smith, he betrayed Zimbabweans through sterile racism.


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