“May she be worthy of the name”: Rhodesia as utopia for the far right
Rhodesia and Zimbabwe have acted as utopias for the fa right and far left.
Dylann Roof, a far-right terrorist responsible for murdering nine people in a South Carolina church, ran a website called ‘The Last Rhodesian’.
This was a strange interest, even for a person bent on mass murder and with fringe political views.
Why would an American far-right terrorist born in 1994 be fascinated with a former British possession that ceased to exist fifteen years before he was born?
Roof’s interest was not idiosyncratic. The far right continues to lionise the iconography, military, and traditions of the Rhodesian republic that existed in defiance of the United Kingdom, her former colonial master, from 1965 to 1979.
Rightist Twitter accounts abound with praise for Rhodesia’s elite military unit the Selous Scouts, and the ‘farm boys’ who fought against a predominantly Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movement for black majority rule in the country that would become Zimbabwe.
Rhodesia was a white settler state where the black majority were denied full participation in the political life of the country. And it was this issue that would see the country break from the United Kingdom in an act of defiance that led to fourteen years of boycott and guerrilla war.
The circumstances surrounding Rhodesia’s declaration of independence from the United Kingdom are complex, but essentially the UK would only grant independence if the black majority were allowed to participate fully in the political life of the country.
The colony’s white settler population were perturbed by the chaos that followed independence in other African states, and fearful that a black majority government would be formed by communist politicians.
As was the case in many independence struggles, the organising cadre for independence held Marxist-Leninist or socialist views. And the communist world was keen to support independence movements for both ideological and strategic reasons.
Whatever happened, the white settlers stood to lose their considerable economic holdings — particularly farmland — under a black majority government.
The result was that Rhodesia, under the leadership of Ian Smith, broke with the UK and became an independent state.
Motto: ‘May she be worthy of the name’.
Independence meant international obloquy. The communist world and newly independent countries in the former colonial world boycotted and condemned a state that was a throwback to 19th century colonial practises.
The UK also participated in a boycott against the new republic, and so the Rhodesians found themselves internationally isolated with support only really guaranteed from their fellow settler states in the region: South Africa, Angola, and Mozambique.
But by the mid-1970s Angola and Mozambique had both achieved independence — a development that tightened economic conditions in the republic, and granted guerrillas fighting against Rhodesia additional bases.
The combination of sustained guerrilla warfare, boycotts, and flagging resolve eventually saw Rhodesia capitulate to majority rule in 1979. A complicated series of negotiations saw the republic briefly become a British colony again before being granted independence.
Majority rule brought Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union (Patriotic Front) to power. Mugabe, a Marxist-Leninist with Maoist sympathies, has remained in power to this day.
The country’s name — along with those of significant cities and towns — changed as the country shifted identity from Europe to Africa.
Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.
The appeal for the far right in this history is superficially obvious. The Rhodesian republic defended white minority government, and did so in an assertive way at a time when the idea of white minority government had come to be seen as immoral — even in conservative circles.
White minority settler states, such as South Africa, were tolerated only in so far as it was expedient to do so to halt communism.
But why celebrate Rhodesia particularly? The Rhodesian story is relatively short, and Rhodesia’s commitment to white minority rule was not the most robust in the region. South Africa’s apartheid state was far more aggressive, overtly racialised, and significant in economic and strategic terms than Rhodesia.
Rightists have a disposition towards noble lost causes, of course. The right thinks of itself as being driven back by ever advancing leftist forces. Standards are forever falling, old moral truths forgotten, and the mob boorishly destroying all that is beautiful.
Thus the right is sympathetic to any cause where an elite fights a doomed, romantic action against a majority cause: Cavaliers against Roundheads; the Confederates against the Union; and the Rhodesians against most of the world.
Aside from the actual content of Cavalier or Confederate beliefs, the very way these causes were organised and their quixotic nature appeals to rightist sensibilities — even if a rightist would not defend the content of these beliefs today.
But Rhodesia’s particular appeal for the far right lies, I believe, in two factors: The way Rhodesians thought about their own political project, which was distinct to the South African apartheid government; and, the consequences of majority rule in Zimbabwe as opposed to other states — particularly South Africa.
To take the second point first, the situation in Zimbabwe since the end of white majority rule can be divided into two periods.
During the 1980s Zimbabwe seemed to be a success story. The white settler population did not flee — as many had predicted — nor were their savage reprisals against them by the black majority, as the right had predicted.
Mugabe’s government introduced socialist policies, but did not attempt to turn Zimbabwe into a Marxist-Leninist state. The economy continued to grow, and the socialist policies that were enacted appeared to the improve education and health of the black majority.
At this point Zimbabwe seemed like a model that South Africa — still under apartheid — could follow in opening to majority rule. There had been no descent into uncontrolled violence, the traditions of parliamentary democracy had been extended to all, and a social safety net that had not existed before benefitted the whole population.
This was when Zimbabwe became a utopia not for the far right — who had backed the Rhodesian republic — but for the far left, particularly far-leftist social democrats who did not sympathise with the Soviet or Chinese models of socialism, but still sought a more aggressive form of socialism than that found in mainstream social democracy.
Zimbabwe occupied a position similar to Venezuela under Hugo Chávez, a place where socialism was being built but without the brutality and greyness of the Soviet model.
This changed in the 1990s. The economy tanked and racial animosity grew. Zimbabwe has remained in severe economic difficulties ever since, with the white minority slowly ebbing and the government growing increasingly authoritarian.
Zimbabwe went from a great hope to an embarrassing failure for the left. Meanwhile, South Africa — while beset by many severe problems — has remained more or less intact since the apartheid system was abolished.
Rhodesia/Zimbabwe represents a vindication for the far right in a way South Africa and other post-colonial states do not.
The far right predicted a slide into authoritarianism, economic collapse, and persecution of the white minority if Rhodesia fell. All these predictions have come to pass, albeit more slowly than the far right anticipated.
And for those who believe that inherent racial differences account for the differences in success between societies, this story is taken to vindicate their views.
As for the left, they no longer celebrate Zimbabwe as a great example for the world. She has been forgotten, as Cuba and Venezuela were forgotten when their experiments with socialism turned toxic.
The second reason why the far right is keen to celebrate Rhodesia in the current context is the form white minority rule took in the country.
White Rhodesians did not justify their rule in explicitly racial terms —even the republic’s leader Ian Smith did not see white minority rule lasting forever.
The Rhodesian project was thought about in civilizational terms. That the settlers were more civilized than the indigenous people was taken as granted, but this was not a permanent state decreed by race. The settlers had an obligation to ‘bring up’ the indigenous people to a level where they could govern themselves.
This approach is paternalistic, and contains many questionable aspects with regard to how one thinks about what a ‘civilization’ is.
But, however flawed, it is not an approach that starts with race nor is it one that implies that one group of people must remain subordinate to another forever.
This differentiates Rhodesia from South Africa’s apartheid system, which was influenced by Nazi thought on race — along with religiously sanctified racial divisions through the South African branch of the Dutch Reformed Church.
The apartheid system — in its own terms — believed that it was giving each racial group space to develop according to its own needs, but its thought was much influenced by a scientistic approach to race. There was no expectation that other races would become as civilized as the ‘leading races’, the Afrikaners and Anglo-descended whites.
The difference in thinking will seem trivial to people who look upon Rhodesia and South Africa as equally revolting. Politics raises strong feelings — a rightist is likely to condemn Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘communist’ without much nuance after hearing a few of his views, and a leftist is as likely to say both Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa were ‘fascist’.
But for those of us interested in the ideas that make political worlds, why people come to follow these belief, and the rhetoric they use to justify these views to others, the nuances matter.
Ian Smith fought against the Nazi and fascist regimes in the Second World War. This does not make his actions in upholding white minority rule in Rhodesia correct, but it’s an important distinction when one remembers that politicians associated with the formation of apartheid South Africa were sympathetic to the Nazi cause.
Nazism remains unutterably unpalatable to the vast majority of people in the Western world — even the far right is cautious about associations with the movement, and the people who become overt neo-Nazis are likely to be particularly damaged individuals.
Given the above, we cannot be surprised that the far right would cleave to a settler state that both defended white minority rule, but did so for paternalistic or apparently ‘noble’ reasons.
The ambiguity in this position becomes apparent with Dylann Roof, a case where the actual thought content of Rhodesian politics was subordinate to ideas of racial domination. And, one could argue, his actions represents the emergence of latent genocidal tendencies in that thought.
The professed nobility of a cause does not make it so. The hidden motivations of the settlers included the desire to preserve their economic advantage — along with a casual distain for the indigenous population.
This distinction is particularly salient given President Trump’s recent (July 6 2017) speech in Poland committed the US to defend civilizational values — namely Western civilization.
This way of thinking is not so different to how the Rhodesian white minority government thought about politics.
The Rhodesians saw themselves as engaged in a struggle for Western civilization against communists who — though they professed a concern for race equality and justice — were merely interested in wielding untrammelled power.
In the current political environment, the left seeks to associate Western civilization as being synonymous with white racial domination — and in doing so recapitulates the struggle of ideas that occurred over Rhodesia and Zimbabwe.
For the far right, Rhodesia serves the same purpose as Cuba in the far-leftist political imagination. As a far-leftist, Cuba is the place you always wanted to go, but can’t because it is too difficult to disentangle yourself from commitments, family, and love affairs.
But Cuba is to be cheered on when there is an opportunity, and while a far-leftist cannot feel patriotic about their own country those feelings can be displaced on to Cuba.
Rhodesia is inaccessible to the far right in time not in space. As a state that upheld values associated with the non-liberal right to a degree not seen in the current world it can provide a surrogate for patriotic feelings that cannot be expressed in countries where liberalism is the hegemonic political system.
This explains the rich fantasy around Rhodesia among the far right online.
Furthermore, the far right are ideologically embattled in their own countries with their views as generally acceptable to the public as public homosexuality was to the Victorians.
The identification with Rhodesia takes on a two-fold significance, as an inaccessible utopia and as a model for how to behave when one is outnumbered and outgunned in one’s own territory.
If the left continues to press forward in attacking institutions, traditions, and customs that it believes represent white hegemony posing as Western civilization the place of Rhodesia in political discussion will become more significant — especially if the left insists on dishonestly eliding a defence of Western civilization with overt racial supremacy.
The term ‘Western civilization’ may contain passive, latent assumptions of racial superiority; but it is a different beast to the overt racial politics found in Nazism and apartheid South Africa.
A state can be dissolved, cities renamed, history books rewritten from a new perspective, statues removed. But this does not mean a country has ceased to exist.
Whenever the hammer and sickle is waved on a demonstration, the USSR lives again in its most diminished form.
Where a handful of men meet to discuss the laws for the coming Caliphate, the Caliphate exists.
And when a far-rightist Twitter account flashes a cheery photo of Rhodesian soldiers about to enter battle, the Rhodesian republic also lives.
Where these disembodied political states take root is often also where violence occurs.
We should be cautious when we summon spirits — even in jest — for we do not know what intentions these ideas have for us when they possess us.
Edit 14/08/17: I replaced a previous image heading this article. I found it shocking and off putting — even though it illustrated the racist brutality of the Rhodesian regime. I couldn’t stand to look at it.