The origin of the war in Rhodesia can be traced to the conquest of the region by the British South Africa Company in the late 19th century, and the dissent of native leaders who opposed foreign rule. Britons began settling in Southern Rhodesia from the 1890s, and while it was never accorded full dominion status, these settlers effectively governed the country after 1923.
In his famous "Wind of Change" speech, UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan revealed Britain's new policy to only permit independence to its African colonies under majority rule. But many white Rhodesians were concerned that such immediate change would cause chaos as had resulted in the former Belgian Congo after its independence in 1960.
Britain's unwillingness to compromise led to Rhodesia's unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) on 11 November 1965. Although Rhodesia had the private support of neighbouring South Africa and Portugal, which still owned Mozambique, it never gained formal diplomatic recognition from any country.
Although the vote in Rhodesia was constitutionally open to all, regardless of race, property requirements left many blacks unable to participate. The new 1969 constitution reserved eight seats in the 66 seat parliament for "Non-Europeans" only, with a further eight reserved for tribal chiefs.
Amidst this backdrop, African nationalists advocated armed struggle to bring about black rule, primarily denouncing the wealth disparity between the races. Two rival nationalist organisations emerged in August 1963: the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), after disagreements about tactics, as well as tribalism and personality clashes. ZANU and its military wing ZANLA were headed by Robert Mugabe and consisted primarily of Shona tribes. ZAPU and its military wing ZIPRA consisted mainly of Ndebele under Joshua Nkomo.
Cold War politics
Cold War politics played into the conflict. The Soviet Union supported ZIPRA and China supported ZANLA. Each group fought a separate war against the Rhodesian security forces, and the two groups sometimes fought against each other as well. In June 1979, the governments of Cuba and Mozambique offered direct military help to the Patriotic Front, but Mugabe and Nkomo declined. Other foreign contributions included from North Korea military officials who taught Zimbabwean militants to use explosives and arms in a camp near Pyongyang. By April 1979, 12,000 ZANLA guerrillas were training in Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Libya while 9,500 of its 13,500 extant cadres operated in Rhodesia. South Africa clandestinely gave material and military support to the Rhodesian government.
Backed by proxy by the United States and its Western allies, the Rhodesian Front (RF) took an uncompromising position against the communist ideology of the ZIPRA and ZANLA. Ian Smith further expounded this by portraying the conflict as primarily anti-communist in nature. The Rhodesian whites, and a percentage of well-off blacks, viewed the British demand for majority-rule as a direct attack on their way of life. Having previously witnesses the communist redistribution of resources after the Mau Mau Rebellion, Rhodesians refused to allow the majority-rule policy to come into effect. Much of the Rhodesian economy as well as the land was controlled by white Rhodesians, and, fearing total confiscation by either the ZIPRA or ZANLA, the RF elected to hold onto the unofficial minority-rule. In ignoring other contributing factors to the conflict, Smith and the RF were able to strengthen ties with the West, however, Britain remained neutral. The division between the communists and anti-communists caused the fighting to spill over the Rhodesian borders. Neighboring African nations, supported primarily by North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union, utilized communist material support to begin launching guerrilla attacks on the RF.
The United States took the official position that it would not recognize Rhodesia as an independent sovereign. However, many American soldiers who had seen combat in Vietnam quickly joined into the Rhodesian Front. The RF created advertising campaigns in order to attract soldiers from Western countries, and the RF amassed a force of nearly 1,400 soldiers that were highly trained in special forces and guerrilla warfare, bringing the total RF military force to over 10,000 men. Many of the professional American soldiers entering the RF directly into the force became de facto members of the Rhodesian government.
The Soviet Union became extremely invested in the Rhodesian Bush War. This was jointly in efforts to combat the push from the anti-communist West and to challenge the Chinese presence in the region. Soviet military technology quickly appeared in the Zimbabwean countryside and by 1979 the ZIPRA were utilizing SAM weaponry to target Rhodesian civilian assets and Viscount aircraft. Just as they had done in various other African countries and conflicts, the Russians supported opposition forces in weapons and formal training, however, the Russian assistance diminished significantly throughout the Bush war as the domestic Soviet economy began to fall apart. In addition to the physical assistance offered by the Soviet Union, Moscow launched a large propaganda campaign over-exaggerating British involvement in the conflict in order to boost support for intervention. While the Soviets were large suppliers of munitions and training, they refused to directly enter the conflict. The Chinese, on the other hand, were limited in their abilities to offer tangible aid to the ZANLA. Chinese influence throughout the conflict was primarily focused on small scale sabotage efforts and anti-western propaganda.
Inevitably, the Bush War occurred within the context of regional Cold War in Africa, and became embroiled in conflicts in several neighbouring countries. Such conflicts included the Angolan War of Independence (1961–1975) and Angolan Civil War (1975–2002), the Mozambican War of Independence (1964–1974) and Mozambican Civil War (1977–1992), the South African Border War (1966–1989), and the Shaba I (1977) and Shaba II (1978) conflicts.
The conflict was seen by the nationalist groups and the UK Government of the time as a war of national and racial liberation. The Rhodesian government saw the conflict as a fight between one part of the country's population (the Whites) on behalf of the whole population (including the Black majority) against several externally financed parties made up of predominantly Black radicals and communists. The Nationalists considered their country occupied and dominated by a foreign power, namely Britain, since 1890.
The British government, in the person of the Governor, had indirectly ruled the country from 1923, when it took over from the British South Africa Company and granted self-governing status to a locally elected government, made up predominantly of Whites. Ian Smith's Rhodesian Front party was elected to power in 1962 and unilaterally declared independence on 11 November 1965 to preserve what it saw as the self-government it had possessed since 1923.
The Rhodesian government contended that it was defending Western values, Christianity, the rule of law and democracy by fighting Communists, but it was unwilling to compromise on most political, economic and social inequalities. The Smith administration claimed that the legitimate voice of the black Shona and Ndebele population were the traditional chiefs, not the ZANU and ZAPU nationalists, whom it regarded as dangerous, violent usurpers.
In 1978–1979, the Smith administration tried to blunt the power of the nationalist cause by acceding to an "Internal Settlement" which ended minority rule, changed the name of the country to Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, and arranged multiracial elections, which were held in 1979 and won by Bishop Abel Muzorewa, who became the country's first Black head of government. Unsatisfied with this and spurred on by Britain's refusal to recognise the new order, the nationalist forces persisted.
The war ended when, at the behest of both South Africa (its major supporter) and the United States, the Zimbabwe-Rhodesian government ceded power to Britain in the Lancaster House Agreement in December 1979. The UK Government held another election in 1980 to form a new government. The election was won by ZANU. The new government, headed by Robert Mugabe, was recognised internationally, and the country was renamed Zimbabwe.