Causes Of The Rhodesian Bush War

Knoji reviews products and up-and-coming brands we think you'll love. In certain cases, we may receive a commission from brands mentioned in our guides. Learn more.
In July of 1964, ZANLA militants assassinated Petrus Oberholtzer, a white official of the Rhodesian Front government. The administration under Ian Smith quickly moved to arrest the political leadership of both the ZANU and the ZAPU. ZAPU's ZIPRA militan

Causes of the War - Southern Rhodesia was established in the late 19th century when British and South African settlers colonized the region.  Over the years, these "Rhodies" developed their own way of life and unique sense of individuality, being granted self-governance from 1923 - but not dominion status within the British Empire.  However, upon the end of World War II, many colonies began to seek complete independence from Imperial rule, this also being reflected by the British Labour party's policy of decolonization. 

Britain, very early on, recognized that the growth of political consciousness within the colonies was a political fact, and that the independence of the colonial territories was inevitable.  Concerned at the possibility that chaos would ensue from the abrupt change to native rule, as it had during the independence of Belgian Zaire, Britain desired to control the transfer of full power to colonial territories, most evidenced by the policy of "No Independence Before Majority Rule."

On November 11, 1965, at precisely 1pm local time, the South Rhodesian colonial government under Ian Smith, opposed to black majority rule, took matters into their own hands, and declared their independence from Britain.  The British Empire and Commonwealth condemned the move together with the United Nations, which in UN Resolution 216 expressed that the declaration "made by a racist minority" was illegal.  Consequently, the new state of Rhodesia was never internationally recognized, and suffered the impact of economic and diplomatic sanctions.  Economic support was still provided by South Africa and by the Portuguese colony of Mozambique until its independence on June 25, 1975.

Ian Smith signing the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) (Image Source)

The new Rhodesian Front government under Prime Minister Ian Smith was composed of a Senate and a House of Parliament, both of which were dominated by whites.  Out of the 66 seat parliament, 8 were reserved for tribal chiefs and 8 were reserved for "non-Europeans."  This reflected the composition of Rhodesian society, in which all who owned property could vote, those being whites and tribal chiefs.  This was through and through seen as an attempt by whites and a minority of black Rhodesians to protect their lifestyle, which was higher in terms of living standards and safer than most other territories in Africa at the time.

Black nationalists also arose in this time period, seeking to bring about independence for Rhodesia and the elimination of the wealth disparity between blacks and whites.  These nationalists were mostly black radicals and communists, who repeatedly tried to form political movements to campaign for black majority rule.  They formed, under the leadership of Joshua Nkomo, the Southern Rhodesian African National Congress, which was banned in 1959, the National Democratic Party, which was banned in 1961, and finally the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU), which was banned in 1962. 

Due to internal opposition, these black nationalistic efforts soon split into two rival, hostile organizations in late 1963- the original Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).  ZAPU, along with its military wing ZIPRA, consisted mainly of Ndebele ethnic groups and was headed by Joshua Nkomo.  ZANU, along with its military wing ZANLA, consisted mainly of the Shona speaking tribes and was headed by Ndabaningi Sithole and later Robert Mugabe.  The two organizations were supported by the Soviet Union and Communist China, respectively.

In July of 1964, ZANLA militants assassinated Petrus Oberholtzer, a white official of the Rhodesian Front government.  The administration under Ian Smith quickly moved to arrest the political leadership of both the ZANU and the ZAPU.  ZAPU's ZIPRA militants, operating out of Tanzania, and ZANU's ZANLA militants, operating out of Mozambique, began launching attacks against Rhodesia's government and civilians, and the war began.

Despite the various economic and diplomatic sanctions, Rhodesia was still able to develop and maintain an extensive military capability.  Apart from WWII-era British weapons and hardware already in their possession, such as the Bren light machine gun and the Sten sub-machine gun, as well as military equipment produced internally, the Rhodesian army received a large amount of war material from South Africa. 

This included a large amount of Belgian FN FAL rifles, which became the standard infantry weapon during the war, the Belgian FN MAG machine gun, and in the mid-1970s Eland armoured cars.  The Rhodesian Air Force was also well-equipped, albeit with many obsolete aircraft, such as WWII-era American-made Douglas Dakota transport aircraft and WWII-era British-made de Havilland Vampire jet fighters.  They were, however, able to acquire many modern Aerospatiale Allouette II helicopters, as well as some Cessna Skymaster aircraft and Canberra bombers.

Rhodesian forces tracking through the bush - Cover Photo - Image Source 

At the outbreak of the war, the Rhodesian regular army consisted of about 10,000 mainly white soldiers, with such units as the Rhodesian SAS and Rhodesian Light Infantry being all-white.  By the late 1970s, however, the majority consisted of black soldiers.  The regular army was supported by about 40,000 reserves, the paramilitary British South Africa Police of about 10,000, and the elite mounted tracking unit of Selous Scouts. 

By the late 1970s, all white males up to the age of 60 were periodically called up into the army.  Many volunteers also joined up from around world, including soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, and US fresh from the Vietnam War.  During the war, many of the white civilian population carried personal firearms and a siege mentality set in, as farms, villages, and transportation were often attacked by the ZANLA and ZIPRA terrorists.

The rebel guerillas operated quite differently and often fought against one another.  ZANLA operated out of Mozambique as an insurgent group, being tied with the Mozambique FRELIMO independence movement, and backed itself up with local bases in Rhodesia.  ZIPRA operated out of Zambia, but being supplied with Soviet military instructors and heavy Soviet equipment, such as T-55 tanks, SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles, and stockpiles of AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles, posed more of a conventional threat.

© 2011 Gregory Markov


UN Resolution 216

Military - Rhodesian Bush War