Lancaster House revisited

By Phyllis Johnson
December 21, 2009

ZimbabweTHIS is the first in a series of eight articles on the events of late 1979 and early 1980.

Thirty years ago, on December 21 1979, an agreement was signed in London that set in motion a series of events that put Zimbabwe on the course to where it is today.

The signatures appended reluctantly to that agreement beneath the chandeliers and subterfuge of Lancaster House ended the war in a place that some called Rhodesia and signalled a different route to independence for a country that the majority called Zimbabwe.

The 103 days of pressure and posturing conducted by the adroit Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, Lord Carrington, from September 10 until December 21 1979, were notable by the avoidance of the main issue in a 90-year-old dispute.

The parties simply agreed to disagree on the core issue of land and went on to reach agreement on all surrounding matters, including the sensitive question of a ceasefire and a brief return to British rule before elections and independence.

Land was discussed instead at strategic meetings on the sidelines and concluded at one such meeting convened at the Hill Street residence of the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Sonny Ramphal.

His deputy (and successor as Secretary-General), Chief Emeka Anyaoku, said in his memoirs (The Inside Story of the Modern Commonwealth, Evans 2004) that: “The two leaders of the nationalist movements (Mugabe and Nkomo) strongly objected to the proposal that the future government of the country should commit itself to paying full compensation to the white farm owners on a ‘willing seller/willing buyer’ basis.

“For them, this amounted to mortgaging the future resources of Zimbabwe to buy back land that had been forcibly taken away from their people in the first instance.

“They argued that the land ownership structure was unacceptable to them, and that their people had taken up arms to fight the liberation war in order to regain the land.

“They certainly were not prepared to pay to recover what has been ‘stolen’ from them, as the land had not been paid for when their people were forced off it.

“I took the point and reported these conversations and my impressions to Sonny Ramphal, while updating him on how far I was able to persuade them to go along with certain elements of the proposals,” Anyaoku said.

“Sonny Ramphal then made approaches to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and President Jimmy Carter of the United States, both of whom indicated that they would be willing to provide assistance to independent Zimbabwe that would enable the new government to buy back land from white farmers on a ‘willing seller/willing buyer’ basis.

“The British and American offer was conveyed to the nationalist leaders and, on the basis of this, it became possible to move the negotiating process forward.”

Anyaoku also says that President Samora Machel of Mozambique played an important role “and swung his influence behind the Lancaster process”.

Neighbouring countries in the person of the chairman of the Front Line States, Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, President of the United Republic of Tanzania, urged the Patriotic Front leaders to settle, advising them that they could deal with the land issue after they formed the government of an independent Zimbabwe. Tanzania operates a successful system of long leases for land use, with bankable leases.

Carrington was clear on where British interests lay and that the nationalist forces fighting for independence had the upper hand.

“The war had strained Rhodesia’s economy and society to the limits, and inspite of a good many local successes for government forces and some skilful military operations, it was not being won.

“It was exhausting Rhodesia, and in this context that meant it was particularly exhausting the white Rhodesians.”

Although “Margaret Thatcher had not particularly bent her mind to Africa”, Carrington said, “we were sure that the British interest demanded settlement of the Rhodesian issue and needed such a conference if it could possibly be attained.”

Thatcher’s education was advanced by Carrington and also by Machel who anticipated her election as British prime minister and had a ready strategy to engage her on Rhodesia.

On hearing confirmation of her election in early May 1979, Machel told his astonished cabinet that “this woman will bring us settlement in Rhodesia”.

Among the rumbling of discontent from his colleagues, Machel dispatched a history lesson about the Right in power, giving examples of French president Charles de Gaulle granting independence to Algeria, US president Richard Nixon opening up to China, and British prime minister Harold Macmillan announcing the “wind of change” towards independence from colonial rule in Africa.

Carrington also commended the role of President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia at the Commonwealth Summit held in July 1979 in Lusaka, where the plans firmed for a conference.

He described “how the prime minister’s fears of personal animosity proved largely groundless and how she at once blossomed in the warmth of Kenneth Kaunda’s friendly personality, dancing with him enthusiastically as she did at the first party”.

In his memoirs (Reflections on Things Past: The Memoirs of Lord Carrington, Collins, 1998), Carrington described the many weeks at Lancaster House as a “tempestuous and testing time” and said he was not optimistic at the outset. But he added that he “was struck by the normality and poise of both Nkomo and Mugabe after their very long periods in gaol (jail)”.

“The agreement set out a simple sequence — simple in concept, likely to be troubled in execution. There was to be a ceasefire: the guerilla forces were to stand down, move to assembly points, accept disarmament.

“There was to be a reversion to the constitutional situation before the Unilateral Declaration of Independence by Smith; and then there were to be elections in Rhodesia, based on universal suffrage, with all parties permitted to take part and with independence and recognition of a balanced constitution granted by the British Crown thereafter.”

Senior British officials later admitted that a secret of their successful closure to the negotiations was placing electronic listening devices in the rooms of all of the principal players.

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