Détente: the release of nationalist leaders

The period from December 1974 to January 1976 is referred to as the détente – a period when the tension eased between states that had hitherto experienced hostility over the right to self-determination of the black southern African majority living under white minority rule.

Wilfred Mhanda
Wilfred Mhanda

Relations between the independent southern African countries that constituted frontline states, i.e., Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, Angola and Mozambique, and the southern African white minority regimes of Rhodesia and South Africa relaxed, largely due to a diplomatic offen¬sive by Rhodesia and South Africa with the support of the Western powers to offset the negative consequences of the collapse of Portu¬gal’s hold over its former colonies, Angola and Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique).

This development was triggered by the left-wing coup in Portugal in April 1974 that deposed the regime of Dr Marcello Caetano and the Estado Novo and saw independence granted to each colony in 1975. The coup not only deprived both Rhodesia and South Africa of an important ally, but, more significantly, also led to a seri¬ous exposure of their eastern and northern flanks that would facilitate increased infiltration by nationalist guerrilla insurgents.

Rhodesia, for example, already had troops in Mozambique fighting with the Portu¬guese army against both the FRELIMO and the ZANLA guerrillas. Clearly, the ascendance of FRELIMO, MPLA and SWAPO would have major geo-political consequences for minority white regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa.

Henry Kissinger

It should be noted that the events in Portugal took place at the height of the Cold War, which had a bearing on the balance of power in Africa between the West and its adversary, the Soviet Union. The United States had a strategic interest in the survival of the white regimes in southern Africa and President Nixon’s national security advisor, Henry

Kissinger, put forward the National Security Study Memorandum 39 (NSSM 39) that addressed the challenges in the region from an Amer¬ican perspective.

Of the five options, Option 2 was the one that the United States chose to apply to southern Africa, and Rhodesia in particular. The premise of Option 2 was:

The whites are here to stay and the only way that constructive change can come about is through them. There is no hope for blacks to win political power through violence, which will only lead to chaos and increased oppor¬tunities for the communists. We can apply selective relaxation of our stance toward the white regimes, encourage some modification of their racial and colonial policies and through more substantial economic assistance to the black states (a total of $5 million annually in technical assistance to the black states), help draw the two groups together and exert some influence on both for peaceful change. Our tangible interests form a basis for our contacts in the region, and these can be maintained at an acceptable politi¬cal cost.

This was the context in which the 1975 détente took place. Everything that happened fits neatly into the United States’ model of its coun¬try’s policy for the region. It accounts for the fate of progressive forces within the liberation movements during the second half of the 1970s, with the host states playing a part as described above.

Puppet regime

In practical terms, the minority regimes adopted a two-pronged approach within the framework of the American plan. One was to bring an end to the war in Rhodesia through cutting a deal with the frontline states and the other was invading Angola to install a puppet régime headed by Jonas Savimbi of UNITA, who opposed the Soviet-backed MPLA.

In Rhodesia, the deal involved the release of the imprisoned nation¬alist leaders in exchange for ending the guerrilla war. John Vorster, the South African premier, and Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s president, were the driving force behind the détente arrangements for Rhode¬sia. Zambia, which bordered all the countries at war – Mozambique, Rhodesia, Angola and Namibia – was strategic to the success of these intrigues.

The release of the nationalist leaders detained in Rhodesia was premised on the conviction that a) they were not communists and b) that their release would spark a power struggle within the liberation movements with the nationalists pitted against their external lead¬ers, who were perceived to be under the influence of the Soviet Union and Communist China. Furthermore, the nationalists released by the Rhodesian authorities were amenable to a settlement that fell short of majority rule, something that external nationalist leaders such as Herbert Chitepo could not countenance. As David Martin and Phyllis Johnson, known Mugabe sympathisers, wrote:

While the nationalists were demanding ‘immediate’ majority rule, in fact they were more flexible than the word implied. In an interview with The Times on 22 January, (1975) Sithole said that if Smith was willing to think of majority rule in three to five years time, that would put a different com¬plexion on the settlement negotiations.[4] South Africa and Zambia had in fact put forward a plan which included a common roll based on a qualified franchise. … Men like Sithole and Mugabe, seen by the Rhodesians as the most militant nationalists, were apparently prepared to consider a transi¬tion of that length in 1975. (1981:192)

Chitepo assassination

The Lusaka Unity Accord resulted in the proscription and de-registra¬tion of both ZANU and ZAPU within the frontline states through Acts that were formalised by both Zambia’s and Tanzania’s parliaments in terms of the provisions of the ceasefire agreement, with the Zambian government, for example, imposing a one-sided ceasefire on the opera¬tions of the liberation movements in an attempt to enforce it.

While ZANU and ZAPU were struggling to digest the meaning of these developments and consider how best to ensure the continuation of the liberation struggle, Herbert Chitepo, ZANU’s national chairman and head of its external wing, was assassinated. A strong opponent of the unity accord, he had queried the terms of the release of the nationalist leaders by the Rhodesians. ZANU was still reeling from the effects of the Nhari-Badza rebellion, which, in turn, presented a convenient reason for Chitepo’s murder to be attributed to the ZANU leadership. The actual circumstances were, however, far more complex.

Chitepo was killed by a car bomb at his Lusaka home on the morn¬ing of 18 March 1975. Twelve years later, Ken Flower, head of the Rhodesian CIO at the time of Chitepo’s death, said:

We learnt that Chitepo had presided over some aspects of the [Nhari- Badza] purge, which could only exacerbate the fast-deteriorating relations between him and Kaunda. Kaunda’s bias towards ZAPU, his annoyance with ZANU for allowing Zambia to become a battleground for ZANLA in-fighting and his impatience with the ZANU leadership’s opposition to unity and détente indicated some sort of showdown was likely. CIO contin¬ued to feed disinformation to the Zambian Special Branch and we soon learnt from our contacts in that organisation that they were ready to take action against ZANU.

For the CIO and many interested parties [my emphasis], Chitepo now became the prime target. As ZANU’s most dedicated protagonist, CIO considered him the biggest obstacle to ending the war and, in the circum¬stance then prevailing in Zambia, it became clear to us that if Chitepo were to be eliminated the blame could be laid at any number of doors. Accordingly, CIO gave the ‘green light’ to a carefully prepared physical and psychological operation. (1987:147)

Richard Woods, a former Rhodesian intelligence officer, responding to a question by David Moore on the Chitepo assassination during the oral history conference held at MONASH University in Johannesburg on 30 January 2009, said:

frankly I believe that the CIO [of Rhodesia] was responsible and I believe that… Alan [Taffy] Bryce killed him. So I think it was a Rhodesian. I have no proof apart from what Bryce told me, but I think the Rhodesians were trying to sow this [confusion] within the ranks of ZANU/ZANLA, and I think they succeeded for quite a period.

But I have no concrete evidence, and I have always wondered why … this idea swirled on. After all, Ken Flower admitted to it in his memoirs in round about ’82/83. So why? Was it somehow [a] politically nice thing to play with, within the ranks of the African nationalists? I never understood it, but Taffy Bryce did all sorts of things in Zambia and I didn’t think it was a targeted assassination. Jason Moyo was also taken out.

Unity Accord

The reality is that after the unity accord was signed, all nationalist leaders imprisoned within Rhodesia were released by the Smith regime and continued to live in the country as as free men, whereas their exter¬nal counterparts – Herbert Chitepo and J.Z. Moyo, for example – were not allowed to return to Rhodesia because the Smith regime regarded them as communist agents. Mugabe left Rhodesia for Mozambique a free man: his only crime was border jumping.

At the time, we asked ourselves why, if Smith regarded the nation¬alist leaders as terrorists, did he then feel it was safe to release them? Even now, it seems to me more than a coincidence that the external leaders of the two liberation movements and their respective com¬manders, Josiah Tongogara and Nikita Mangena, did not live to see an independent Zimbabwe, whereas all the nationalists originally released by the Smith regime returned home unscathed.

It should be noted that Mugabe crossed into Mozambique in April 1975, i.e., just a month after Ndabaningi Sithole had been re-arrested in Rhodesia for plotting the assassination of other nationalist leaders3 and just two weeks after Chitepo’s assassination. Is it not ironic that the Rhodesian authorities allowed Mugabe safe passage, only for him to lead a war against them?

Mac McGuiness, the former head of the Rhodesian Special Branch who Mugabe seconded to South Africa at independence in 1980 to take charge of CIO operations there, had this to say about the ZANU leader Sithole:

He [Mugabe] was not the kingpin among the nationalists in detention. The big names then were Joshua Nkomo on the Ndebele-speaking side and among the Shona it was Ndabaningi Sithole or ‘Rubber Dinghy’ as we called him, who I eventually sent to jail as a convicted prisoner for three years for trying to assassinate Ian Smith. Sithole had a young woman visit¬ing him in the detainees section who was actually a plant of mine. He would give her instructions about arms and ammunition for use in the plot and she would bring his plans straight to me. I had everybody who was anybody in the nationalist movement locked up under my watchful eye at some time or other. It was my job to know exactly what they were doing and thinking, and there wasn’t much that escaped our informers.

This statement seems to conclusively prove that it was McGuiness who masterminded Sithole’s arrest, and that this, in turn, led to the trial that gave rise to the coup against Sithole by Mugabe. (For whom was McGuiness paving the way by setting a trap for Sithole?) It is my con¬tention that these same forces facilitated Mugabe’s escape to Mozam¬bique after Sithole had been rearrested and Chitepo assassinated.

The Rhodesians perceived Chitepo, a brilliant lawyer and the first director of Public Prosecutions in Tanganyika who had successfully defended many nationalists, to be a hardliner opposed to the terms of the Lusaka Accord; they would have preferred him out of the way (Flower, 1987:147). Kaunda, the driving force behind the Accord, described Chitepo as a ‘black Napoleon’ for his vehement opposition to the terms of the accord,4and at his burial he said, ‘he who lives by the sword dies by the sword’. As discussed, Chitepo’s death came after Sithole had been re-detained in Rhodesia on charges of terrorism. Mugabe, still free in Salisbury, could have attended Chitepo’s funeral, and presumably Sithole would have wished him to do so, but he chose not to.

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