Australian policy towards Rhodesia/Zimbabwe

by Ian Hancock

Delivered at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on 19 May 2011

On 5 March 1980 Malcolm Fraser, the Prime Minister of Australia, wrote to Robert Mugabe, the avowed Marxist whose party had just won a crushing victory in the elections for the new Zimbabwe Parliament: 'I am confident', Fraser wrote, 'that under your leadership Zimbabwe will make great progress in achieving your goals of peace, prosperity and unity'.1

Fraser's message should be read in context. After all, the study of history is not entirely about 'learning to be wise after the event'.2 Early in 1979, when the Australian Government became closely involved in the so-called 'Rhodesian problem', the outlook for any solution looked very bleak. A war was escalating by the day; 90 per cent of the country was under martial law; and various attempts to negotiate a peaceful settlement had foundered. Nevertheless, after a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Lusaka, Zambia, in August, a prolonged, often intemperate constitutional conference in London approved a transitional period of British rule, a ceasefire and an election. Even so, as the election approached in January–February 1980, calm and sensible heads in Salisbury, London and pretty well everywhere else expected there would be some sort of explosion.

Yet, after the result was announced, Mugabe stunned virtually all who saw, or heard about, his televised victory speech. Instead of proclaiming the Marxist revolution and death to Whites and their Black collaborators, Mugabe spoke with obvious sincerity about reconciliation and racial integration.

The Australian Prime Minister was entitled to feel relieved and hopeful: a brutal war would not be renewed; a course of action he supported had produced a democratically-elected government in southern Africa; and Mugabe had acknowledged that the new Zimbabwe needed White participation in order for the economy to recover and prosper.

So, Fraser's enthusiasm in March 1980 is perfectly understandable. There remains, however, an intriguing question about his role in the events of 1979–80. Australia, he told Mugabe, 'was glad to have been able to contribute'. Philip Ayres in his biography of Fraser claimed that '(t)he centrality of (his) part in the processes leading to Zimbabwe's independence is indisputable'. Major African figures involved affirmed it. Mugabe himself lent hearsay support.3

But there are two important considerations here. First, Ayres referred to 'processes', not to 'outcomes'. Secondly, he based his 'centrality' argument on the lead-up to Lusaka and on CHOGM itself. Tonight, I want to argue that while Fraser influenced the process in its early stages he was not central to it afterwards, or to the eventual outcome. One implication of this argument is that, except in the most indirect sense, Fraser did not, as some have claimed, help Mugabe into power.4 Indeed, taking a broader view of Australia's engagement with the 'Rhodesian problem' in 1979–80, its more striking feature is the combination of the moral commitment and hard-headedness of its policies, along with a readiness to court new friends in Africa at the expense of persistently irritating an old one, namely, the British Government. To develop this case, I shall draw principally on Australian archival sources, and look in turn at the lead-up to the Lusaka CHOGM, at CHOGM itself, the Lancaster House Conference, and the transitional period leading to the elections.

First, however, some background.

The 'Rhodesian problem'

The 'Rhodesian problem' took formal shape in 1965 when Ian Smith's Rhodesian Front Government made its Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). Comprising in total no more than five per cent of the population, most members of the White communities saw UDI as protection from the wind of change which had blown away the colonial empires of Africa and installed Black governments in their wake. Essentially, the British saw the 'problem' as one of returning the breakaway colony to legality, leading to an internationally acceptable independence. They had originally laid down five principles which had to be met before the colonial authority could devolve power. The most important one required that any settlement must be acceptable to the Rhodesian people as a whole. Several attempts to achieve such a settlement had failed because the Smith Government refused to concede the principle of Black majority rule or because Africans resisted half-measures on the road to that objective.

By the late 1970s the 'Rhodesian problem' had been reshaped by the war, by an extensive international involvement, and by the deterioration of the Rhodesian economy affected by British and United Nations (UN) sanctions and the emigration of White skills. The two guerrilla forces – the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) under Mugabe's political leadership and operating from bases in Mozambique, and Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) based in Zambia – made those two Frontline States, as well as Angola, Botswana and Tanzania, parties principal to the 'Rhodesian problem'. Moreover, raids by the Rhodesian Security Forces into Zambia and Mozambique, and an economic blockade of Zambia, meant those two neighbouring countries had a special interest in solving the 'Rhodesian problem'. The 'problem' itself was also linked to the broader southern African issues of the independence of Namibia and the continuation of apartheid in South Africa, all closely involving the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).

It was evident early in 1979 that the two current, seemingly incompatible, approaches to the 'Rhodesian problem' were going nowhere. First, there was the so-called 'Internal Settlement'. Ian Smith had accepted the removal of legislative racial discrimination and handed a form of power to the Black majority. But the constitution, approved by a Whites-only referendum, preserved White control over the security forces and the civil service, and gave the Whites a blocking mechanism to protect their entrenched privileges. Following an election in April 1979, where there was a 64 per cent turnout and a 67 per cent vote for his United African National Council (UANC), Bishop Abel Muzorewa became Prime Minister with a predominantly Black Cabinet, albeit including Ian Smith. The guerrilla forces, notionally aligned as the Patriotic Front, had not participated in the election. The war continued, no government recognised the newlyproclaimed state of Zimbabwe Rhodesia, and economic sanctions remained in place.

The second approach consisted of the Anglo-American proposals published in September 1977. They provided for a return to legality, a British transitional administration, a UN presence during the transition, and majority rule based on universal suffrage elections. Smith had effectively by-passed this option, while the Patriotic Front preferred a military victory to a negotiated settlement. The gap between the Front and the internal settlement parties had become so wide early in 1979 that the British Labour Government and the Carter Administration had ceased talking about talking to begin holding talks.

Leading to CHOGM

The Fraser Government, like its predecessors, supported sanctions against Rhodesia, and it backed the Anglo-American proposals. Yet Australia's steadfastness was compromised by the unwelcome baggage it carried to the high moral ground: the continued existence of the Rhodesia Information Centre in Sydney;5 the Coalition backbench and party organisation support for the Muzorewa Government; and the favourable, all-party observer report on the election undertaken in the face of international criticism.6

The Prime Minister rode over all opposition. The Department of Foreign Affairs assisted him with arguments for opposing the internal settlement. In advance of the elections, it agreed that the settlement had 'some positive elements', and urged the Government neither to accept nor reject it. But the Department stressed that any new Rhodesian administration would almost certainly not fulfil the conditions necessary for international recognition and the lifting of sanctions. The settlement did not guarantee 'genuine majority rule' and the elections were unlikely to be adjudged a free and fair test of Rhodesian opinion.7 The Department could also point to opposition within the Commonwealth. On 19 March the High Commissioners based in London met as the Commonwealth Committee on Southern Africa. 'Sonny' Ramphal, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, who never disguised his support for the Patriotic Front, told them the elections were 'a major exercise in delusion and misrepresentation'. The Committee then unanimously declared the new Rhodesian constitution 'illegal' and the elections 'fraudulent'.8

Foreign Affairs had long recognised that the forthcoming Lusaka CHOGM would be an 'African' conference, sharply focused on southern Africa. Several initiatives were planned to show that Australia would not be 'marking time' in Africa.9 The most adventurous was a Commonwealth Statement on Racism and Racial Discrimination in Southern Africa. Two officials were not convinced. One believed Australia 'need not – and should not – play a leading role' over Rhodesia.10 These contrary views, however, soon disappeared. Returning from a March visit to London and Lusaka, two officials – Roger Holdich of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) and Duncan Campbell of Foreign Affairs – wrote a paper recognising there would be an even more pronounced emphasis on southern Africa in 1979 than at the London CHOGM in 1977. It recommended that Australia develop a profile as 'an active and constructive member of the Commonwealth' and become 'accepted as enlightened on Southern African issues' and 'as a progressive member of the Western group of Commonwealth countries'. It should 'give convincing support' to the Black governments in the region and to the OAU-recognised liberation movements, and should ensure Australia remained 'beyond criticism' in areas of particular sensitivity such as the continued existence of the Rhodesia Information Centre.11

On 1 May the Government endorsed a revised Holdich-Campbell document. This submission incorporated the Prime Minister's request for additional material while removing the more polemical phrases of the original. The submission stressed how failure to deal effectively with southern African issues could have 'very damaging consequences for the Commonwealth'. Its 'continued vitality' was 'of basic importance to Australia's longterm [sic] strategic interests' which included combating Soviet influence in Africa. There was a danger of African leaders at Lusaka adopting more radical measures than those approved by earlier CHOGMs. They might even call for Britain's expulsion from the Commonwealth as some had demanded at the 1971 CHOGM in Singapore over the Heath Government's decision to resume arms sales to South Africa. If confronted with a resolution declaring the internal settlement elections 'null and void', the submission concluded: 'we would prefer to fudge' and go on pressing for all-party talks, although the Government may have 'to go along with a fairly clear-cut condemnation' of them, as it had done recently at a meeting of the UN Committee of 24 in Belgrade. Above all, Australia should use its influence 'to develop and uphold a constructive and realistic consensus at Lusaka'. To do this, Australia had to ensure that its standing on southern Africa remained high.12

Malcolm Fraser intended to be a mediator. The opportunities were considerable. The defeat of Pierre Trudeau's Government in Canada, and Robert Muldoon's pointed comment in New Zealand about not aspiring to be a world leader, left the field open for the Australian Prime Minister to present a modern version of the 'old Commonwealth' to 'new Commonwealth' leaders. Fraser was soon in contact with Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania (the leader of the Frontline States) and Michael Manley of Jamaica. In the course of these activities he unsettled the British Government. Years later Robin Renwick, who had headed the Rhodesia Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 1979, reflected some of its disquiet in writing that Fraser, 'despite or perhaps because of his conservative domestic policies kept trying to position himself some distance to the left of the Patriotic Front'.13

Against most expectations – including those of Canberra – the Rhodesian elections and Margaret Thatcher's election victory on 3 May became the circuit breakers for the 'Rhodesian problem'. Lord Carrington, the new Foreign Secretary, quickly accepted the FCO argument that Britain could not justify granting independence to Zimbabwe Rhodesia on the basis of its existing constitution. He nevertheless insisted that solving the 'Rhodesian problem' was primarily a British responsibility, and that an election described as 'fraudulent' had actually created an opportunity. Carrington and his advisers began persuading Muzorewa to participate in further constitutional change, and they quietly set aside the Anglo-American approach. Lord Harlech, a former British Ambassador to the United States, was sent on a mission to meet the Commonwealth African Presidents, President Samora Machel of Mozambique, Muzorewa, Smith and – crucially – the Patriotic Front. Deliberately, if unobtrusively, Carrington and the FCO were defying predictions of an early recognition of the Muzorewa Government.

On the morning of 14 May, 11 days after the British election, three Australians met Carrington and Sir Antony Duff, the Deputy Under- Secretary of the FCO. Allan Griffith, Fraser's special adviser in PM&C, Duncan Campbell and Sir Gordon Freeth, the Australian High Commissioner, arrived with a hastily-manufactured presentation conceived in fear of Mrs Thatcher recognising the Muzorewa Government.14 Australia, they said, wanted to be consulted over Rhodesia; and consulted in advance of a decision being taken and not merely advised of one already made. They explained that, although Australia was not a party principal in southern Africa, the underlying issues and Third World attitudes were central to its interests. Rhodesia was simply not worth the destruction of the Commonwealth, the consequent loss of Western influence among important Third World countries, and the subsequent portrayal of the break-up in racialist terms. Griffith spoke of Canberra taking a moderating role before and during CHOGM. He stressed the importance of the Australian Prime Minister maintaining his credentials with African and Third World figures, pointed to Fraser's continued support for the Anglo-American proposals, and highlighted the need to offer hope for a return to legality.

Carrington, who had strong family and personal connections with Australia,15 thought his visitors should acquire some perspective. Given the strength of the Tory right wing, the Conservative Government faced the more acute domestic political difficulties. Moreover, he also had to hold Muzorewa's hand and keep the Americans and the European Economic Community (EEC) foreign ministers onside. (Carrington did not mention the additional problem of restraining Margaret Thatcher.) Anyone, he said, who found fault with the Rhodesian constitution should recognise it had, in effect, achieved nearly a 65 per cent approval. Many countries had comparable entrenched provisions, and it was not for outsiders to say what might or might not be acceptable to the Rhodesian people. (A Foreign Affairs official in Canberra wrote 'rubbish', 'Tory legalism' and 'wot sophistry [sic]' next to these reported comments.) On the other hand, Carrington said there was room for manoeuvre. As he repeatedly made it clear in the following weeks, Britain would not be suddenly recognising the Muzorewa Government and dismantling British sanctions.

Malcolm Fraser wanted more. He wrote to Thatcher on 19 May expressing his fear that the Rhodesian issue had the potential to split the Commonwealth. It was important to find a formulation 'to keep CHOGM on the rails at Lusaka' and to avoid 'an explosive confrontation … between the old and new Commonwealth over African issues'.16 The Prime Minister subsequently told senior officials that the Australian and British governments were pursuing different policies.17 Australia's position was firm and unequivocal. Just prior to Mrs Thatcher's visit to Canberra in late June Cabinet resolved that a 'premature recognition' of the Muzorewa Government would endanger the Commonwealth and the West's standing in Africa. Moreover, without the support of the Frontline States, recognition 'would not lead to a stable and peaceful' solution for the 'Rhodesian problem'.18

In keeping with this approach, Fraser pressed Thatcher in Canberra on 30 June to accept the six points which he later told Cabinet they had both endorsed. According to Fraser, the two leaders acknowledged the gains made in Rhodesia and the deficiencies in the new constitutional arrangements. They agreed on the need for greater Africanisation, and for an announcement at Lusaka about the process for achieving further change (a process to include the Rhodesians and other African states). They accepted that a final settlement must have 'adequate support from independent African states', and supported further consultation on these matters before the Lusaka meeting.19 The British Government, it later transpired, viewed these six points as no more than a summary of what was discussed.20

Mrs Thatcher addressed the National Press Club late on the following afternoon.21 She said the British Parliament would probably not approve the continuation of sanctions beyond November; recognition, 'being a slightly wider problem' could take a little longer. She would go to Lusaka 'trying to persuade other nations to come along with us' in recognising the Rhodesian Government, and added: 'I am sure the Australian Prime Minister will help me in that objective.' The Australian Prime Minister would do nothing of the sort. Fraser quickly assured other Commonwealth leaders that Australia's position on recognition remained unchanged. Mrs Thatcher, he maintained, had spoken from previously-prepared positions which she had modified in her conversation with him.

By now, the difficulties between Canberra and London were not confined to the 'Rhodesian problem'. The FCO did not like Australia's proposed declaration on racism, thinking it might 'stir up a hornet's nest', prove as divisive as the issue of apartheid, and undermine Britain's preference for a constructive and forward-looking relationship with South Africa. There was also the possibility of Kaunda and others seeking to equate racism with Zionism. Rejecting the 'hornet's nest' argument, Foreign Affairs argued that the proposed declaration might 'satisfy African and other leaders … (that) the Commonwealth remains a politically relevant institution'. But the overarching consideration was one of principle. The Prime Minister had made it clear on many occasions that the abhorrence of racism was a fundamental plank of Australian policy.22

Approaches to the 'Rhodesian problem' remained, however, the more serious source of contention. Freeth saw Carrington again on 10 July, and found the Foreign Secretary 'explosive' on the matters Canberra wanted to raise, namely, African concerns about Britain not going to Lusaka in good faith, and Australian concerns that Britain might employ emotional rhetoric rather than factual argument. Carrington found African suspicions exasperating, particularly given Britain's record for transferring power to its colonies. It was time forceful words were spoken; Britain should not be constantly on the receiving end of African abuse and demands. In a calmer moment, the Foreign Secretary told Freeth how the FCO was working on proposals for a fair and reasonable modification of the Rhodesian constitution which would secure the widest possible international acceptance. Nkomo and Mugabe would be invited to participate although Britain would not listen to endless argument leading to deadlock. As for Fraser's proposed role as a mediator, the gap between Britain and some Commonwealth supporters of the Patriotic Front was too wide to be bridged by someone taking the middle position.23

Freeth left the meeting convinced Carrington was adopting the principle of 'he [who] is not with us is against us'. A Foreign Affairs brief offered several explanations for Carrington's frustration, including his disappointment that Australia had not adopted a position closer to Britain's and allowed Britain to convey the impression it had done so. At least the British would take proposals to Lusaka, were prepared to include the Patriotic Front, even if on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, and had implicitly acknowledged the need for constitutional change in Rhodesia.24 Subsequent official conversations with FCO officials had clarified other points: among them, although the British approach to consultations was genuine they would not be pressed at Lusaka to submit a detailed plan where the fine print 'would be pored over and pawed over'.25

Fraser soon gave Carrington further cause for annoyance. On 17 July the Prime Minister sent letters regarding CHOGM to Kaunda, Muldoon and Joe Clark, the new Canadian Prime Minister. London thought the Kaunda letter implied that Fraser expected CHOGM to devise formulations to assist the process towards a settlement, including changes to the constitution. A PM&C official might have believed Fraser's words 'suitably skate over the reference to "process" ',26 but Duff and Carrington thought the Australian Government wanted something definitive from Lusaka. Andrew Peacock, the Australian Foreign Minister, had to assure Carrington that Australia did not want to cut across British actions. It accepted that the 'Rhodesian problem' and its handling at Lusaka was mainly a British responsibility. Australia just wanted Britain to tell CHOGM the Rhodesian constitution had shortcomings and needed amendment, and to put forward a broad program of action. Carrington pronounced himself satisfied. He considered any firm proposals a recipe for disaster. Besides, as he told Peacock: 'This was a tightrope: if Britain fell off, then it fell off. But it would be grateful not to be pushed'.27

Australian officials ensured that Fraser went to Lusaka well briefed on the viewpoints of the participants.28 There were now some grounds for optimism. Peacock, who visited Kenya and Tanzania after meeting Carrington, found Nyerere more open-minded than his public utterances intimated.29 In Nigeria, Fraser noted how General Obasanjo, its newly-elected President, was hostile towards the British Government and ready to leave the Commonwealth.30 Yet even Obasanjo (who sent his Foreign Minister to Lusaka) claimed to have an open mind. He assured Fraser, Nigeria would not deliberately play a destructive role, though on the eve of CHOGM his government announced a part nationalisation of British Petroleum's assets. The OAU, meanwhile, declared the Patriotic Front to be the sole representative of the Rhodesian people.

At Lusaka

In Lusaka, Ramphal's agenda held the Rhodesia item back until the third day.31 By then, the Secretary-General hoped there would be sufficient camaraderie to avoid a flare-up. Nyerere launched the discussion on Friday 3 August and spoke calmly in outlining what he saw as the requirements for a solution: a democratic constitution, free and fair elections held after a ceasefire and conducted under international organisation and supervision, with the Commonwealth playing a role in election supervision and in the necessary interim arrangements. Thatcher followed with what Alan Griffith described as a 'very constructive, positive, forward-looking' speech.32 After criticising aspects of the Rhodesian constitution, she observed '(w)e surely have the basis from which to try to develop a solution which will command general international acceptance'. A six-member contact group, including Fraser, worked on a communiqué during the weekend with the idea of wrapping it all up on the Monday morning.

Ramphal and Duff did most of the drafting. They produced an accord which would become Holy Writ and, as befitted its status, would be portentously invoked and differently interpreted. In essence, the agreement outlined objectives and a process for achieving them. The aim was genuine black majority rule, a lasting settlement involving all the parties to the conflict, a democratic constitution, safeguards for minorities, and the cessation of hostilities and the ending of economic sanctions. The group accepted it was Britain's responsibility to grant legal independence. In exercising this responsibility, the British Government would call a conference to formulate an independence constitution followed by free and fair elections supervised by the British Government with Commonwealth observers.

The British Government had made a significant change to the proposals it brought to Lusaka. Thatcher and Carrington had already decided to call an all-inclusive constitutional conference. For domestic political reasons, and because Thatcher grieved for the much-abused Muzorewa, they did not want to make commitments about transitional arrangements and fresh elections. After a 40-minute session with Fraser and Peacock on the Saturday morning they, in effect, accepted the Australian argument, namely, that while Nyerere was amenable to many British-imposed conditions, the Frontline States needed a bargaining counter to convince Mugabe and Nkomo to enter any negotiations. Thatcher shifted on the issue of fresh elections though refusing to accept a communiqué which said too much on the subject.33

Everything had gone according to plan, until the Australian Prime Minister nearly brought it all undone. Fraser briefed the Australian press in advance of a formal approval of the proposed communiqué. He wanted to overcome the time zone difference to ensure the Australian public did not learn of the Lusaka breakthrough after everyone else. Mrs Thatcher heard of Fraser's pre-emptive strike while listening to an interminable sermon at a church service on the Sunday morning. She was furious, probably believing the Australians were trying to forestall a change of mind. They were actually playing for applause from their home crowd. The communiqué was formally approved at a tense, hastily-convened plenary session held at the scheduled Sunday evening barbeque hosted by Fraser. Some heads were grateful: Fraser's action allowed them to leave Zambia a day early. But the Thatcher–Fraser relationship never recovered.34

The Australian Government could rightly claim to have materially eased the Commonwealth through a potential crisis and contributed to a process for resolving the 'Rhodesian problem'. Its contacts with the African leaders helped convince them that Britain was genuinely seeking a settlement and that the 'old Commonwealth' supported their demands for Patriotic Front participation. The reference to fresh elections in the final communiqué opened the way for the Front's involvement, in turn essential for ending the war and achieving a lasting settlement. So, a primed and well-credentialed Australian media could report Fraser's 'key role' to a none-too-excited domestic audience. And Foreign Affairs had its own victory: CHOGM unanimously supported Australia's racism declaration, the final version changed only by drafting amendments.35

Yet nothing was guaranteed in August 1979. Although a process now existed, there was no inevitable outcome. The British Government, however, which had wanted endorsement for its role as ringmaster, had achieved its objective, unhampered by strict conditions. Not surprisingly, Mrs Thatcher and Lord Carrington left Zambia feeling quite pleased with themselves.36

The Lancaster House Conference

The Lancaster House Conference opened on 10 September. With Carrington in the chair and in charge, the Muzorewa Government and the Patriotic Front were each represented by 12-member delegations. Carrington and the FCO had devised a strategy to avoid a repetition of earlier mistakes where the parties were allowed to shout themselves into gridlock. They introduced in turn proposals for an independence constitution, the transitional arrangements and a ceasefire, requiring an agreement on the first before proceeding to the second, and on the second before taking up the third.

It was never easy. The Patriotic Front contested nearly every clause. Lt-General Peter Walls, the commander of the Rhodesian Security Forces, had to be persuaded that the guerrilla armies would not be advantaged after a ceasefire. The Muzorewa delegation, of which Smith was a member, kept threatening to return to Salisbury, though Smith's abrupt departure from London after being outvoted made it more amenable. Carrington had to convince the Conservative Party Conference in October to support a negotiated settlement rather than the Tory Right's demand to recognise the Muzorewa Government and to have no truck with 'terrorists'. In the meantime, the war dragged on, the killings continued at some 30 a day, Kaunda mobilised his forces for war against Zimbabwe Rhodesia (admittedly an inconsequential gesture), and the Rhodesian security forces launched several devastating cross-border raids.

Throughout, Carrington risked everything in acts of brinkmanship. At each stage after winning over the Muzorewa delegation, he would listen for a week or more while the Front argued, threatened to walk out and filibustered. Carrington would then issue an ultimatum: either the Patriotic Front acquiesced or he would reach a bilateral agreement with Muzorewa. Pushed by the Frontline States, Mugabe and Nkomo invariably capitulated.

The Australian Government was more than an interested observer. One official noted in mid-October how conference matters were treated with 'great sensitivity and urgency'; cables quickly found their way into the Prime Minister's office and produced demands 'for equally quick reactions'.37 More importantly, Carrington sought Australia's intervention as he applied pressure on the Patriotic Front. He wanted public approval or private commendation. Canberra's consistent response was to praise the progress being made while explaining that the Australian Government could not, in the absence of an all-party agreement, or of the certainty no such agreement could be secured, give its full backing to the British Government. Claiming that the Lusaka accord required an all-party agreement, it also operated on the premise that, to obtain peace, the warriors must be denied a reason or an excuse for making war. As late as 17 December, PM&C, Defence, Foreign Affairs and the Office of National Assessments (ONA) warned the Prime Minister against supporting a 'one track' or a 'one and half track' solution: that is, to back a deal with Muzorewa alone or a deal with Muzorewa and the more pliable Nkomo to the exclusion of Mugabe. Recalling how 'we' had asked to be consulted before any decision was made – the implication being that 'we' were not – the memorandum advised the Government not to be seen siding with the British Government against any element of the Patriotic Front.38

London had difficulty comprehending how Australia could move so close to the Front. Thatcher made this clear when responding to Fraser's letter written when proceedings had stalled over the transitional arrangements. Fraser had proposed that a joint Commonwealth group under British authority might monitor the transitional period to independence. He also offered an Australian contribution. It was a constructive if not original proposal which helped persuade the Front to drop its demand for a UN supervisory force during the election period. Thatcher's reply acknowledged Fraser's offer and then lectured him on wider issues.

Although Britain, she wrote, would exercise the 'direct responsibility' approved at Lusaka, it would not agree to arrangements 'which go well beyond what was agreed at Lusaka – still less to any attempts to re-interpret or re-formulate that agreement – or which would render the task of supervising the administration impossible for us'. So, Britain would not bow to the Front's demand for a longer transitional period. It would not administer Rhodesia beyond what was necessary for elections to take place. A British Governor, and not some all-party council as demanded by the Front, would be responsible for dayto- day administration. Basically, Thatcher told Fraser that the British Government was not negotiating solely with the Patriotic Front, and that it would be fatal to success if the Front were led to believe another plan could be implemented.39

Fraser's offer and his behind-the-scenes contacts with the Frontline States made him marginally influential to the success of Lancaster House. But Kaunda and Machel were the ones essential to the operation; while Smith's departure and an American offer of financial aid for land development proved useful. But the British Government could claim most of the credit when an agreement was formally signed on 21 December. The Patriotic Front had broadly accepted its proposals for the constitution, the transition and the ceasefire. It accepted 20 White seats in the Lower House (applying for a limited period and without the blocking power), a 10-year embargo on constitutional change, and vague promises of financial assistance for land resettlement. Carrington – at once seducing and cajoling – had succeeded in exercising colonial responsibility while divesting that responsibility as swiftly as possible. His strategy, his willingness to take risks, proved to be central.

The Australians now implemented measures already approved in anticipation of an all-party agreement. The Liaison Office headed by Charles Mott, the Australian High Commissioner to Nigeria, quickly established itself in Salisbury, and just as quickly provided Canberra with well-informed analyses. A force of 152 personnel, consisting of commissioned and non-commissioned officers, had earlier joined British, Fijian, Kenyan and New Zealand contingents to monitor the ceasefire. Importantly, they were not there as peacekeepers or to maintain law and order.40 Lightly-armed, the Commonwealth Monitoring Force was mostly stationed at or near the assembly points set up around the country under the ceasefire arrangements and where more than 20,000 well-armed guerrillas would gather by early January. An 11-member national group of MPs, electoral and other officials also left Australia to observe the elections. An astute senior officer had advised the Prime Minister against including an academic among the observers: academics are 'probably too finicky and not attuned enough to the realities'. The same official also ruled out a former high flyer in Foreign Affairs as the Australian member of the Commonwealth Observer Group: he had become 'more bombastic' and 'self-opinionated'.41 'Mick' Shann was appointed instead.

The transition

Whereas during Lancaster House the well-wishers and the critics took aim at Lord Carrington, the focus shifted to the British Governor, Lord Soames, once the ceasefire came into operation on 28 December. The Frontline Presidents, the Commonwealth Committee on Southern Africa, the OAU, the UN Security Council, the Carter Administration, Mugabe's re-named ZANU (PF) party, Nkomo's party (now called the Patriotic Front), Muzorewa's UANC, Smith's Rhodesian Front, Peter Walls: all of them, as well as a host of interested minor parties and individuals, criticised, commended or commented upon the Governor's alleged favouritism or hostility towards the contending elements. The months of January–February were often unbearably tense. There were two botched attempts to assassinate Mugabe, disturbances in and around some assembly points, banditry and intimidation in the rural areas, occasional 'dirty tricks' practised by the security forces, and persistent rumours of a pre-emptive White-led military coup. Whatever Soames did or did not do was bound to infuriate someone or some organisation. But the Governor's office knew how to oblige while they juggled and dissembled.

The Australian Government believed it had a stake in the proceedings. For a start, there were well-founded fears for the safety of the Australian monitors, despite assurances from senior British Army officers about evacuation plans.42 In fact, the Australian monitors performed so well that, short of a general failure of law and order, the good relations established at their assembly points were probably sufficient protection.43

Canberra and the Liaison Office also had concerns about two of the key issues to arise during the transitional period: the involvement of the South Africans and the level of intimidation.

Walls had made it plain that his cooperation during the transition depended on the presence of a South African force at Beit Bridge on Rhodesia's southern border. It was needed to provide an evacuation corridor for the Whites in the event of a conflagration. The figures were kept secret, although numbers ranging between 500 and 1000 were occasionally leaked, and they did not include individual South African members of the Rhodesian forces. In mid-January the Australians learnt from British sources that the South Africans were also stationed across the border from Beit Bridge and on the Zambian border, and that a South African unit was attached to the Rhodesian Army.

As for intimidation, the British knew that some 5000 ZANLA guerrillas remained outside the assembly points with orders to prevent Muzorewa and Nkomo from campaigning in the eastern parts of the country. In early February Soames gave himself more powers to curb 'disruptive activities' and threatened to cancel the election in the affected areas. The Liaison Office saw 'an element of bluff': Soames did not want to exclude ZANU (PF) from the election, merely to make it comply with the Lancaster House agreement.44 While denying the undeniable, Mugabe could fairly claim that the security forces and Muzorewa's auxiliary army were acting in an unauthorised manner outside their barracks. Soames insisted he was entitled to employ them to maintain law and order.

Matters came to a head in mid-February. On good evidence, the Australians disputed British claims of a limited South African involvement, and of Mugabe's forces being almost totally responsible for the widespread intimidation. Fraser did contact Kaunda and Nyerere about intimidation,45 and the Australians also acknowledged the difficulties inherent in Soames' position. If he did not act, Muzorewa and Nkomo might withdraw from the contest; if he did act, Mugabe, the Frontline Presidents and their international supporters would accuse him of bias. But the Australians believed there was an 'inbuilt' British bias against Mugabe established by the decision to work through the Rhodesian administration and to deploy its security agencies. They also believed the British wanted Mugabe to lose – probably, by the end, what they really wanted was an acceptable election result; effectively a sunset clause.46

It was all about perception. If he believed the British were biased, and Mugabe lost the election, Nyerere could ensure that the result would not be acceptable internationally. At Fraser's request, Peacock put this view to Carrington in London five days before the common roll election was due to begin. The Foreign Secretary was unmoved. He conceded the British were dealing with 'raving mad people' among the Rhodesians yet they were nothing compared to what 5000 ZANLA guerrillas were doing outside the assembly points. ZANLA would simply take over should the Rhodesian forces be confined to base. As for Nyerere, he had no concept of a free and fair election. He wanted Mugabe to win; if he did not, the election was not free and fair. By now, the Foreign Secretary had wearied of all the helpful advice stacked upon him, and the Australians had done a lot of advising. So, when Peacock claimed he was speaking as 'a candid friend', Carrington probably recalled an after-dinner speech he had made three weeks earlier: there, he quoted George Canning, a distinguished predecessor from the early 19th century: 'But of all plagues, good Heaven, thy wrath can send, save, save, oh save me from the candid friend [sic]'.47

The mild admonitions handed to the British High Commission in Canberra became irrelevant, even as they were delivered.48 A relatively smooth final week and Mugabe's clear victory removed fears of international rejection. Nearly every observer group declared the election free and fair, concluding that the inability to campaign in some areas did not affect the overall result. Fairly or not, Mugabe had defied all predictions, and Western hopes for a Muzorewa–Nkomo– Smith coalition, by taking 57 of the available 80 seats. ZANU (PF) had captured the majority Shona population leaving the Bishop with just three seats in his former power base, a poor return for the five helicopters lent him by the Anglo-American Corporation. Nkomo, who believed he had been cheated of his inheritance, won just 20 seats drawn mainly from the Kalanga/Ndebele areas of the south-west. Elements of the Rhodesian Security Force were equally disappointed. Having failed to postpone the election, they planned to wipe out the ZANLA leadership and the guerrillas conveniently located in the assembly points. They needed one of two prompts: Mugabe's election defeat or a ZANLA victory spree.49


If the question is asked whether Australia's intervention in 1979–80 was either necessary or sufficient to resolve the 'Rhodesian problem', the answer in both cases is clearly 'No'. If it is re-phrased to ask whether Australia contributed to easing Commonwealth tensions, and whether Australia contributed towards Zimbabwe's independence in 1979–80, the answer in both instances is clearly 'Yes'. To argue that Fraser helped Robert Mugabe into power, and must share the blame for what followed, draws too long a bow between the Lusaka CHOGM and the independence elections. Rather, Fraser's enduring importance lies in establishing a special connection between Australia and Zimbabwe and with other parts of the African Commonwealth which has long outlasted his time in office.

Some, in hindsight, might question the Prime Minister's confidence in Robert Mugabe in 1980. Many White Rhodesians would have then foretold disaster. Yet they had to wait for some time before what they divined as inevitable came to pass. Significantly, in lashing about in their bitterness in 1980, they barely glanced at Australia, instead heaping their abuse on the British Government and on the one they dubbed 'Lord Carry on Selling the White Man Down the River'. They chose better targets for their immediate angst. What they failed to recognise was that Ian Smith, and their own blind support of his obduracy – the true source of the 'Rhodesian problem' – did most to create their nemesis.


I am especially grateful to the members of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the National Archives of Australia who assisted me with advice and in my research, and to Duncan Campbell, Jeremy Hearder, Di Johnstone, Alastair McKenzie, John Nethercote, Susan Sharpe and Nick Warner for their comments.

  1. National Archives of Australia (NAA): A1838, 190/10/1, part 27, f. 83.
  2. Barry Unsworth, Spectator, 5 March 2011.
  3. Philip Ayres, Malcolm Fraser: A Biography, Heinemann, Richmond, 1987, pp. 391–2.
  4. See for example, Hal Colebatch, 'You got him in so help kick him out'. Australian, 8 April 2008.
  5. Some of Australia's problems with the Centre in 1978–9 can be followed in NAA: M1281, 19; A1838, 190/10/2/10, part 31, ff. 123–122; A1838, 190/10/1, part 25, f. 17; and A1838, 190/10/1/3, part 8, ff. 208–204.
  6. See the briefing by Roger Shipton (Liberal) and Gordon Bryant (Labor) to the Joint Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee on 1 May 1979, NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, part 18, ff. 39–34. Andrew Young, the US Ambassador to the UN, clashed with members of Committee in Canberra on 8 May 1979, NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, part 18, ff. 20–15.
  7. See the memoranda of 7 February, late March (undated) and 4 April 1979, NAA: A1838, 190/2/1, part 58, ff. 35–28, 123–119 and 140–139.
  8. For a Department of Foreign Affairs summary of the meeting, see NAA: A1838, 190/2/1, part 58, ff. 51–50.
  9. Alf Parsons, a Deputy Secretary, Foreign Affairs, reporting after visiting Australia's missions in Africa in late 1978, NAA: A1838, 899/6/21/1, part 1, ff. 16–7.
  10. A Godfrey-Smith, NAA: A1838, 899/6/21/1, part 1, f. 112.
  11. NAA: A1838, 899/6/21/1, part 3, ff. 292–61.
  12. Submission No. 3135 and Decision No. 8175 (FAD), NAA: A12909, 3135.
  13. Robin Renwick, Unconventional Diplomacy in Southern Africa, St Martin's Press, New York, 1997, p. 27. The Front, it seems, had friends in unlikely quarters. Sir Ian (later Lord) Gilmour, the Conservative Lord Privy Seal and the FCO spokesman in the Commons, was dubbed 'the member for the Patriotic Front' in the FCO as he sought 'to offset the pro-Salisbury bias of a number of officials'. Ian Gilmour, Dancing with Dogma: Britain under Thatcherism, Simon & Schuster, London, 1992, p. 232.
  14. For accounts of this meeting and the marginal notes, see NAA: A1838, 190/2/1/1, part 1, ff. 66–62. For Griffith on the lead-up to the meeting and the meeting itself, see Griffith Papers, National Library of Australia (NLA), Acc 01.114, Box 4A. Griffith claimed he initiated, and persuaded Fraser to approve, this mission to London. The Fraser and Simons account implies that it was a Fraser-inspired initiative: Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons, Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, Miegunyah Press, Carlton, 2010, p. 503.
  15. A great-uncle had been a Governor of NSW, his grandfather had married the daughter of a NSW grazier, his father was born in Australia, and Carrington had been British High Commissioner from 1956 to 1959.
  16. Fraser to Thatcher, 19 May and Thatcher to Prime Minister, 5 June 1979, NAA: A1209, 1979/834, part 1 (no folio numbers).
  17. They disagreed to the point where neither liked each other's preferred draft communiqué for their meeting at the end of the June. The British Prime Minister thought it sufficient to say 'Rhodesia has been discussed'. She compromised by accepting a statement about the leaders working towards a solution which had 'the widest possible support in the Commonwealth and the international community'. Fraser did not like this formula because it did not require the support of those African countries most interested in the Rhodesian issue: NAA: A1209, 1979/834, parts 1 and 2 (no folio numbers).
  18. Decision No. 9066, 26 June 1979, NAA: A13075, 9066.
  19. NAA: A10756, LC2172, part 1, ff. 42–41. For a brief of questions prepared for Fraser and the note taker's list of 8 points, see NAA: A1209, 1979/834, part 2. Two points were removed from the final text. '7. At the end of the consultations, the consent of African States should not be unreasonably with-held'; '8. More discussions between Australia and the U.K. are needed especially about the arguments that can best be used at Lusaka and those that will lead the Africans up the wall.'
  20. See the Holdich memorandum of 17 July 1979, NAA: A1838, 190/2/1, part 66, f. 77.
  21. Transcript, NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, part 20, ff. 13–1.
  22. For material relating to the proposed racism declaration, see NAA: A1838, 899/6/21/3, part 2.
  23. NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, part 21, ff. 38–36.
  24. NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, part 21, ff. 35–34.
  25. Antony Duff, NAA: A1838, 190/2/1, part 66, ff. 68–66.
  26. Holdich to Geoffrey Yeend, Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 17 July, NAA: A1838, 190/2/1, part 66, f. 77.
  27. NAA: A1838, 899/6/21/1, part 8, ff. 197–196.
  28. These extensive briefings can be found in NAA: A1838, 190/2/1, part 65, ff. 168–133 and 191–171.
  29. Peacock to Fraser, late July, NAA: A1838, 190/2/1, part 67, ff. 61–56.
  30. Allan Griffith provided the Prime Minister with a good initial contact. Griffith had established a personal friendship when he entertained Obasanjo in Canberra at the behest of the Staff College where the then Colonel was taking a course. Griffith Papers, NLA, Acc 01.114, Box 4A.
  31. For cables and commentary on CHOGM, see NAA: A1838, 899/6/21/1, part 10.
  32. Griffith Papers, NLA, Acc 01.114, Box 4A. As Griffith reported their subsequent exchange: 'I thanked her for her speech as we walked out'. She grabbed his arm and said 'Oh, thank you, thank you'.
  33. Draft Record of Conversation, 4 August 1979, NAA: M1356, 11. For Renwick's estimate of the change, see Unconventional Diplomacy, p. 27.
  34. This point was acknowledged in Fraser and Simons, pp. 513–4. Thatcher wrote later of being 'none too pleased with Malcolm Fraser': see Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years, HarperCollins, London, 1993, p. 76. In her other principal reference to Fraser she wrote disparagingly of him making 'a thoroughly "eminent person" of himself' as part of the 'Eminent Persons Group' which sought to influence the South African Government in the mid-1980s: ibid., p. 519. See also Chris Ashton, 'Peace in spite of Fraser', Bulletin, 18 March 1980. Ashton's FCO sources believed Fraser's action came within 'a hair's breadth' of wrecking the agreement. Carrington was kinder: 'His activities, exceptionally well-intentioned, had a way of being untimely'. Lord Carrington, Reflect on Things Past: The Memoirs of Lord Carrington, Collins, London, 1988, p. 296.
  35. For a shortened summary of the declaration, see Africa Research Bulletin, Political, Social and Cultural Series, August 1979, 5361A.
  36. Carrington, Reflect on Things Past, p. 295; Thatcher, The Downing Street Years, pp. 74–7.
  37. Alan Edwards to Ross Burns, 16 October 1979, NAA: A1838, 190/2/1, part 80, ff. 273–272.
  38. NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, part 25, ff. 14–9. For British attempts to influence Australia, and the Australian responses, see NAA: A1838, 190/10/2/10, part 24, ff. 182–177, 191–189, 204–203, 218–217; NAA: A1838, 190/10/2/10, part 29, ff. 62–60; NAA: A1838, 190/10/2/10, part 30, ff. 141–140; NAA: A1838, 190/2/1, part 72.
  39. For the Fraser–Thatcher exchange, see NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, part 24, ff. 45–43 and 26–23.
  40. Curiously, in Fraser and Simons, p. 513, the authors wrote: 'Australia sent peacekeeping troops' after the ceasefire, yet Fraser was party to a decision which expressly excluded any peacekeeping role. In the same paragraph the authors referred to the Lancaster House Conference beginning in October and lasting 12 weeks: it began on 14 September and extended for nearly 15.
  41. NAA: M1268, 69, ff. 8–6.
  42. NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, part 26, f. 2; NAA: A1838, 190/2/1, part 82, ff. 27–24; NAA: A13952, 10, ff. 5–2.
  43. Mott's assessment, 6 March 1980, can be found in NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, part 27, ff. 93–91.
  44. NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, part 26, ff. 18–16.
  45. NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, part 26, ff. 49–45 and f. 117.
  46. NAA: A1838, 190/2/1, part 82, ff. 115–12; NAA: A1838, 190/2/1, part 83, ff. 3–1. There were uncorroborated reports of Walls saying that everyone was working to keep Mugabe out of government. When it became clear that Mugabe would win, Walls at the last moment, approached Mrs Thatcher asking her to intervene and postpone or cancel the election. He believed he had her promise that she would step in.
  47. Record of Conversation, NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, part 26, ff. 222–216. For a copy of Carrington's speech, see A1838, 190/2/1, part 84, ff. 23–17. There are slightly different forms of the Canning quotation: the one used here is the Carrington version.
  48. Some of the exchanges, including those between Fraser and Sir Donald Tebbit, the British High Commissioner to Australia, can be found in Record of Conversation, 19 February 1980, NAA: A1838, 190/10/1, part 26, ff. 139–138, 149–147 and 253–251.
  49. For these plans, see R Allport, Operation Quartz,; and Peter Godwin and Ian Hancock, Rhodesians Never Die: The Impact of War and Political Change on White Rhodesia, c.1970–1980, OUP, Oxford, 1993, pp. 269–75. On the morning of 4 March, just before the results were formally announced, an ONA report did not rule out a White-engineered military coup: NAA: A13952, 11, ff. 3–2.
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