Thirty Nine and a half years ago I was in that country that was still called Rhodesia, to write features on the colonial regime's final days: Ian Smith's government had struggled to survive twelve years of sanctions for its Universal Declaration of Independence from the British Crown but now faced transition to majority rule engineered by the British government. Thirteen years earlier, an impassioned speech I made to the London Liberal Party denouncing Ian Smith's UDI in November 1965 brought me invitations to stand as a Parliamentary Candidate: I did so in the following year's General Election.
Rhodesia was stamped on my CV from that point and when I made my first journalistic safari to Africa in 1973, I had hoped to go there. Instead, I stared across the Victoria Falls at it from Livingstone, Zambia and became the only journalist to provide a story on the shooting of some Canadian tourists by Zambian troops. (I gave the story to two other reporters--from Reuters and the Johannesburg Star in order to protect my hosts. The two were expelled from Zambia).
Rhodesia remained in the news, a bête noir to liberals world wide. I made my name writing exclusives from South Africa and East Africa on human rights topics for the Guardian. In 1978, with introductions in place, I made my long planned trip to Rhodesia.
I found a nostalgically English time warp from WW2 where melodies from South Pacific played by a string trio in the Meikles Hotel dining room were the sound track: a country divided by age and generation as much as by race and tribe.
The old made the politics, but it was the young who fought the bush war. Like characters from Neville Shute's novel. "On the Beach", they danced in Salisbury's downtown disco to their favourite song " I'm Singing In the Rain" but their world was ending. Many told me they did not believe in the war: they wanted to drink in the bars with their African friends not shoot them. Others felt bitterly towards the British. The older generations who had made this confrontation into an echo of the WW2 in which many had fought for Great Britain, felt let down by the mother country: they clung to their British ways: church services on Sunday were a fragmented link with Queen and Country. Air Rhodesia did a fine job of patching up their old Viscount passenger planes; buses and cars were kept running with spare parts coming in via South Africa. Rhodesian beef was driven over the border to Botswana and flown to Lusaka to feed Zambia where farming had collapsed after independence. Young Africans of the different tribal groups watched, and hoped for a future of democratic freedoms and prosperity: now forty years older, many of these are demonstrating their wish to end Mugabe's regime.
It could have been better had Harold Macmillan who spoke of "The Winds of Change" not lost power after the Profumo scandal, had the minority Wilson government that followed Alex Douglas Home's short lived government, had more comprehension of the hopes of both sides. But the hoped for negotiated transition to majority rule had failed during Roy Welensky's Federation of the two Rhodesias and Nysasaland (which became Zambia, Southern Rhodesia and Malawi). Black faith in political promises faltered. Positions--UDI on the one hand, armed guerillas financed by Marxist states--hardened due to political weakness in London. Leaders in waiting, Joshua Nkomo, for the Ndebele; Bishop Muzorewa, moderate Shona leader, head of the Transitional Government, Mugabe the exiled Catholic Marxist; Ian Smith the departing man of history; I interviewed all except Mugabe but it was my interview with Ian Smith that was syndicated around the world. The disappointed but still obdurate leader who had been terribly scarred when his WW2 Hurricane fighter crashed in Egypt, fascinated the world.
At the start of that, my third long journalistic safari to Southern Africa I interviewed Nadine Gordimer for my political column in Harpers and Queen. The article with the opening phrase, "Every writer needs a war," (headlined "In Black and White") can be read on Google. Rhodesia's struggle was my 'writer's war'. I could have wished it a more successful outcome.
Soon after, in 1979, I returned to the UK where I fought as Liberal Candidate for North Wales in the first European Parliamentary Elections. No one believed me when I told them the vote meant the start for a democratic Europe.
How right they were. But, another cycle, another future is beginning: for both Zimbabwe and Europe, let's go on hoping and working for democracy' renewal.