Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Civic Virtue, Young Men, and the Family: Conscription in Rhodesia, 1974-1980

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Civic Virtue, Young Men, and the Family: Conscription in Rhodesia, 1974-1980

Article excerpt

In John Lonsdale's concept of civic virtue it is the hard work of young men (and women), performed either for themselves or for others, that earns them the rights of membership in, and the responsibilities toward, a broader political collectivity in which public debate is always somewhat disturbed by the differences among the older men the young men have grown up to be.1 This may be an extremely useful way to think about African politics after World War II, because it brings families into political processes so forcefully: it is a way to interrogate how families see the state. The idea of civic virtue may have an application well beyond Kikuyu politics in the 1950s. In this essay, I want to use Lonsdale's idea of civic virtue and apply it to Rhodesian struggles over national service, as the illegal and embattled state fought a guerrilla war against two African armies in the 1970s.

Southern Rhodesia was founded by the British South Africa Company for mineral exploitation and white settlement in 1890; it was granted self-governing dominion status by the British in 1923 after its electorate of 20,000 whites rejected "closer union" with South Africa. The white population increased dramatically after World War II, from 82,000 in 1946 to about 250,000 in 1965. Almost all this immigration was of English-speaking whites, dwarfing the Afrikaner and Greek populations and making the country more British than ever before. In 1953, Southern Rhodesia had become part of the Central African Federation. Some form of amalgamation with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland had been bandied about by Southern Rhodesian politicians for years, but by 1953 a federation was seen as a hedge against majority rule. Such a hedge was temporary, of course, and when the Federation ended and the other member states became independent black-ruled countries, Rhodesia (no longer distinguishing itself from the country that was now Zambia) sought a return to its dominion status. This was not possible in the mid-1960s, and in November 1965 Rhodesia rebelled from England and made a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) under the Rhodesian Front (RF) government, led by Ian Smith. As an independent entity, Rhodesia was as much a fantasy as it was a state. Officials and supporters described it as a peculiar Utopia located outside time and space, and certainly outside Africa. For many authors, UDI was, after Thermapolaye and Lepanto, the third time the forces of civilization stood firm against the eastern hordes.2 Rhodesia was like Britain at its best, like Britain in the 1940s, or even a recreation of Rhodesia in the 1920s.3 For many, Rhodesia was a right-wing social imaginary, the last stop on the imperial highway that most observers believed had reached a dead end well before 1965. To be a Rhodesian was to be out of place, fixed in action if not in borders. "A Rhodesian," the foreign minister intoned, "is a breed of men the like of which has not been seen for many a long age and which may yet perhaps by virtue of the example that it sets, go some way towards redeeming the squalid and shameful times in which we live."4 Indeed, to be a Rhodesian was to be not a Rhodesian. They "were the only true Britons left,"5 freed, according to a new immigrant, from "the sorrow of editorials, UNO, trade unions, pundits, culture and the rest."6

Such imaginings were accompanied by a guerrilla war fought from exile by two African nationalist armies; the war began timidly in the mid-1960s and escalated in the early 1970s. This war took its inevitable toll on Rhodesia's economy and manpower-not only war casualties, but emigration-and after several failed settlement proposals, the Rhodesian Front proposed an internal settlement that involved sharing power with some of the African political parties that had been unable to gain a foothold among the nationalist parties in exile. As the war intensified and Rhodesia lost ground in the countryside, in 1979 it became the short-lived and no less illegal Zimbabwe-Rhodesia that had an African president at its helm and a new sanction for the military. …

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