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CWIHP e-Dossier No. 35



By mid-1979 the Rhodesian war had reached a political and military stalemate, yet all parties in the conflict still believed they could win. Four alternative versions of an independent Rhodesia-Zimbabwe had emerged over the previous 18 months, against the backdrop of an increasingly vicious civil war. The British and American peace proposals – the so-called Owen-Vance plan - had been put to the Rhodesian government in September 1977, but its key terms were unacceptable to the Rhodesian Cabinet. (Its military leadership had already advised the Prime Minister, Ian Smith in August 1977 that the war could not be won, and even contacted London with a view to Britain resuming formal responsibility for its rebellious colony. The Labor government had refused to accept this approach.)  In combination with the continued vigorous prosecution of the counter-insurgency effort, Smith embarked on protracted negotiations with internal non-Marxist Rhodesian-Zimbabwean nationalist leaders. This culminated in the signing of the Internal Settlement between Bishop Abel Muzorewa's United African National Council (UANC), the Rhodesia Front, and Chiefs Chirau and Ndweni in March 1978. Despite American misgivings, British Foreign Secretary David Owen vainly attempted to expand the Internal Settlement to include the ZAPU leader, Joshua Nkomo through a series of clandestine diplomatic maneuvers in 1978, using the good offices of Nigeria. These British efforts to broker a coalition government for an independent Zimbabwe were designed to exclude the Marxist Robert Mugabe. However, this British initiative collapsed in August 1978, thanks to Julius Nyerere, the Tanzanian President's outspoken opposition when news of Nkomo's meeting with Ian Smith leaked out. Nkomo's willingness to participate in this British plan caused a profound rift in the Patriotic Front, and earned Mugabe's lasting suspicion, while the downing of two Rhodesian Viscount civilian aircraft in September 1978 and February 1979 by ZAPU, using new Soviet SAM weaponry, ensured lasting Rhodesian hatred.  

The Rhodesian election was held on 17-21 April 1979, under the terms of the Internal Settlement, to which the Conservative Party had sent a party of observers led by Lord Boyd. The poll was contested by four Rhodesian-Zimbabwean nationalist parties: the UANC, ZANU (Sithole), the Zimbabwe Democratic Party (ZDP) and New Front of Zimbabwe (NFZ). Bishop Abel Muzorewa became the new Prime Minister in a Government of National Unity. ZANU & ZAPU had refused to participate in the elections, and vowed to fight on. In Britain, Rhodesia's formal colonial power, the Conservative Party's victory on 3 May 1979 raised Rhodesian and GNU hopes of international recognition (the poll had been 64.7%), in particular as the Conservative manifesto had specified that the election of the government in Rhodesia, on the basis of a universal franchise, satisfied one of the key criteria for international recognition and the lifting of sanctions.  However, influenced by the new Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, and in defiance of a particularly vocal group of Conservative backbenchers who openly supported the new Muzorewa government – ZAPU and particularly ZANU were regarded as avowedly Marxist and Soviet puppets – Prime Minister Thatcher did not immediately announce British recognition. Aware that the issue of sanctions was due for Parliamentary discussion and renewal in November 1979 – and that the majority of the Conservative Party would vote for their removal – behind the scenes the British government renewed its energies to finding a British-led solution to the long running crisis. Against the background of a warning from the OAU Liberation Committee against recognition of new regime in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia on 25 May, a series of deputations were sent to Rhodesia and the Front Line States, and private soundings were conducted in South Africa, culminating in a tour of the region by Lord Harlech, himself a former member of the 1972 Pearce Commission, in June-July 1979.

Nonetheless, Mugabe's comments to Zhivkov reflect the common expectation that the British government would recognize the new Zimbabwe-Rhodesian government. At the same time, Bishop Abel Muzorewa had embarked on a drive for international recognition in South Africa and the United States, where a sizeable portion of Congressional opinion advocated the lifting of sanctions. This visit was conducted 8-12 July, but despite his best efforts in a personal meeting with Carter on 11 July, Muzorewa did not secure an immediate American announcement of support. In defiance of considerable Congressional pressure, led by Senator Jesse Helms, President Carter resolutely refused to lift sanctions – persuaded in part by Carrington's promise of a quid pro quo in the form of British backing for American policy on Namibian independence issue, and in part by the President's own profoundly anti-racial views and personal morality.

Anxious not to antagonize international opinion further, South Africa also formally withheld diplomatic recognition (Rhodesia had maintained an Accredited Diplomatic  Representative in Pretoria since 1964), but was now providing substantial financial and military support for the prosecution of the war which was costing Rhodesian $1million per day. Pretoria's own determination to establish a non-communist constellation of neutral states prompted SADF negotiations with the Rhodesian white military commanders, leading to the signature of the Total National Strategy document (TNS) 1 of 27 March 1979 between Rhodesia and South Africa. This military alliance was confirmed by the incoming Government of National Unity of Bishop Abel Muzorewa in April 1979 and incorporated the new Zimbabwe-Rhodesia  into South Africa's security perimeter which now lay on the Zambezi, rather than the Limpopo. It also involved the presence of two South African battalions in the Beit bridge area, thus protecting the vital road and rail crossing between South Africa and Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, and three further SADF battalions in the remote north Eastern area of the country.[1] The presence of South African troops was well known to ZANLA commanders, although their exact numbers were not.

Nominally united as the Patriotic Front, the two radical nationalist movements ZAPU and ZANU continued their armed struggle. Despite the establishment of the Patriotic Front (brokered by the Front Line States in October 1976 in the run up to the abortive Geneva conference, and encouraged by the OAU Liberation Committee and the USSR which wished to see improved cooperation between the two organizations), each nationalist movement maintained its military autonomy. Robert Mugabe's ZANU movement, and its military wing ZANLA, continued its own guerrilla infiltration of Rhodesia from rear bases in Mozambique, and was actively backed by FRELIMO.  Robert Mugabe's assertion to Zhivkov of unity and collaboration with ZAPU and ZIPRA was wide of the mark. Indeed, by 1979 a three way contest had developed between ZIPRA, ZANLA and the Rhodesian security forces, with repeated clashes and firefights between nationalist groups' on the ground. In this document, Mugabe admits to internal differences within ZANU as a political movement. ZANU/ZANLA had indeed been racked by ideological infighting in 1974-5, leading to the formation of ZIPA (the Zimbabwe Independent People's Army) by young left-wing cadres in Mozambique who were frustrated at ZIPRA and ZANU inactivity in Zambia. ZIPA represented a youthful ideological challenge to the older and less well educated generation of ZANLA guerrilla commanders; it was subsequently brutally suppressed and its leaders incarcerated. (The detainees were only released after British sponsored elections in February-March 1980).

ZANLA rear bases and training camps continued to be the target of sustained attack from the Rhodesian security forces, most notably at Chimoio and Tembue in 1977 where over 6,000 combatants and their families were killed. The movement's political and military wings maintained an uneasy truce – Mugabe had only emerged as the undisputed political “spokesman” for ZANLA in 1977 - but there was general agreement on the prosecution of a “people's war,” following Maoist techniques of infiltration, indoctrination and control.[2] The People's Republic of China remained their primary external source of training and weaponry, although from 1977 ZANLA fighters were also the recipients of training in Ethiopia, support from Romania and Yugoslavia. Mugabe first met Todor Zhivkov in Luanda in 16-19 October 1978 on the latter's tour of Southern Africa,[3] two years after Sofia's decision for a 12 million BGN, five-year plan for arms delivery to the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO), the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and the Lebanese Communist Party. [4]

Based in Zambia, and backed by the Soviet Union, ZAPU/ZIPRA under Joshua Nkomo's political leadership had broadened its guerrilla activities after the formation of the Patriotic Front, and had also elaborated an ambitious plan for conventional military intervention, code named "Operation Zero Hour." Following Nkomo's meeting with Nikolai Podgorny, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, in Lusaka in 1977,[5] this involved securing substantial quantities of Soviet weaponry, supported by Soviet and Cuban training of 2,000 ZIPRA fighters in two-month shifts at Luena (formerly Vila Luso), in Eastern Angola, for a formal invasion of Rhodesia using regular troops. Professor Vassily Solodovnikov, the Soviet Ambassador in Lusaka was particularly important in facilitating Soviet support for ZAPU, and in improving Moscow's relations with Lusaka. The Soviet Union also sent a military delegation to Zambia who were formally attached to the Ministry of Defense to coordinate this substantial military assistance program to ZIPRA. (To the later surprise of the Rhodesian armed forces, this plan also envisaged ultimate military collaboration with Salisbury against ZANLA forces.[6]) As this document makes clear, Nkomo had immediately followed Todor Zhivkov's visit to Southern Africa in 1978 with a personal request for Bulgarian military assistance and logistical support.

By 1979, therefore, in terms of weaponry, capability and training,  ZAPU/ZIPRA troops formed the superior nationalist military force and could claim to be operating in 50% of the country. However, in terms of activity, ZANLA guerrillas had achieved a greater numerical presence and impact through the use of guerrilla “violence as a political language” – even though the Rhodesian security forces had scant respect for their capabilities.

By the summer, the new Rhodesian-Zimbabwean Government of National Unity was under considerable pressure. As Mugabe remarks to Zhivkov, white emigration was indeed accelerating, driven by the privations of the war and the extension of national service, which was taking its toll on economic production and activity. By this point, white Rhodesians were being required to serve "6 weeks in, 6 weeks out,” and the call up age range had been extended to 59 years; the white political and military leadership remained adamant that compulsory national service should not be extended to black Rhodesians-Zimbabweans. However, in terms of its military capability, the Rhodesian state remained undefeated – indeed, a raid on Joshua Nkomo's headquarters in Lusaka on 12-13 April 1979, intending to assassinate the ZAPU leader, very nearly succeeded, and external operations against ZANLA bases in Mozambique were resumed in June 1979.[7] The Rhodesian security forces maintained their air supremacy over Rhodesia, as well as neighboring Zambia and Mozambique. Yet ending the war remained vital. One of the key arguments put forward by Muzorewa's UANC was that a general amnesty for ZANLA and ZIPRA guerrillas (announced on 15 March 1979) would be overwhelmingly successful, and would fundamentally undercut the radicals' power base and appeal. However, this did not prove to be the case; similarly, the Government of National Unity's plans for accelerated agrarian reform were stymied by the continuing bush war. The GNU's recruitment of 16,000 African auxiliaries (the so-called “Pfumo reVanhu,” or “Spear of the Nation,” funded by South Africa), to bolster the white-led security forces, was both controversial and counter-productive due to lack of training and the auxiliaries' ill-disciplined and often abusive behavior towards the rural population.

By this point, the Rhodesian conflict had become a cockpit of the Cold War in Southern Africa. In May 1979, R. V. Vivo of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, informed Manasov, the Counselor at the Soviet Embassy in Havana, of his recent trip in Southern Africa. He had been tasked by Fidel Castro “to convey to J[oshua]. Nkomo [leader of the Zimbabwe African Political Union, ZAPU] and R. Mugabe [leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union, ZANU], that Cuba is unable to satisfy their request to send pilots for the repulsion of air attacks on the training camps for the Patriotic Front armed forces; to clarify the possibility of unified action between ZAPU and ZANU; to lay out before their leaders and the leadership of the front-line governments the Cuban plan for the creation of a provisional government in Zimbabwe.” Vivo underscored “the policy of Cuba and the Soviet Union with regard to southern Africa should … be coordinated” (as in Angola), and “laid out the essence of the Cuban plan”:

The declaration of a provisional government in Zimbabwe is realized not in exile, but in a part of the liberated territory of the country; J. Nkomo is proposed for the post of president of the country, R. Mugabe for prime minister; the program platform of the provisional government provides for the realization of a series of social-economic transformations, secures the interests of those countries which recognize its government; the rights of the white part of the population are guaranteed, elections are planned for the legislative organs of the country; constitutional guarantees are proclaimed, etc. …J. Nkomo and R. Mugabe have agreed with this plan, as have the leaders of the front-line states. The provisional government, in the estimation of the Cuban side, would possibly be recognized at first by 30 countries. The active interference of England in the affairs of Zambia may ensure the victory of the puppet government, which would possibly lead to a conflict between ZANU and ZAPU if the unity of their actions are not achieved … He reported that the armed forces of the ZANU and the ZAPU include in total 24 thousand people (12 thousand in each organization), but unfortunately, these forces are as yet inactive. In the ranks of mercenaries there are 3 thousand blacks and 2 thousand whites. R.V. Vivo briefly set forth the content of his discussion with the Soviet ambassador in Mozambique. According to his words, during the discussion of the situation in southern Africa, our ambassador noted that according to the theory of Marxism-Leninism, it is impossible to accelerate events in a country where there is not a revolutionary situation and where there is not civilization. "To that I responded in jest to the Soviet ambassador," said R.V. Vivo, "that if comrades L.I. Brezhnev and F. Castro decide that our countries will take part in the operations in Rhodesia, then we will participate in them."[8]

This then formed the immediate background to Robert Mugabe's visit to Sofia on 29 July 1979. The Commonwealth Heads of Government were due to meet in Lusaka, Zambia, on 1 August, 1979. The issue of Rhodesia-Zimbabwe was top of the agenda, and it was widely expected to be another bruising encounter for Britain[9]. (Unknown to the Commonwealth Secretary General, Sir Sonny Ramphal, the British Foreign Secretary had already persuaded Prime Minister Thatcher to agree to all-party negotiations on the Rhodesia question. This was only announced at the conclusion of the CHOGM meeting on 5 August 1979.) Mugabe's courteous tone to the Bulgarian leader belied the urgent need of his guerrilla organization for substantial weaponry, training and logistical support, if it was to expand its campaign beyond the rural areas. Mugabe's faith in the need for, and ultimate inevitability of military victory, contrasts markedly with the private opinion of Josiah Tongogara, the ZANLA military leader, who was increasingly persuaded of the need for negotiation and compromise. As this document shows, Mugabe himself remained convinced of the ultimate possibility – and desirability – of outright military victory. Mugabe's remarks and attitude also contrasts markedly with Zhivkov's cautious response despite the latter's solidarity with the “anti-imperialist” struggle, and willingness to consider Mugabe's request "with care and attention." Zhivkov also warns Mugabe of the Front Line States' "economic and political interests" in Zimbabwe, which he cannot ignore, and cautions the ZANU leader "not to mention socialism," following Nicaragua's example.

The words “Monroe's Patriotic Front” in paragraph 8 are undoubtedly a mistake in the original note of the meeting. President Samora Machel of Mozambique had been a leading advocate of the PF, hence the significance of the meeting in Maputo of the Coordinating Bureau of the Non-Aligned Movement to which Mugabe refers. The Non-Aligned Movement was scheduled to meet in Havana in September 1979, at which the Patriotic Front had been granted equal rights of representation. It is particularly striking that throughout this document Mugabe bids for support for ZANU/ZANLA separately – by implication as an “authentic”[10] and legitimate nationalist movement -  whilst Zhivkov sternly reiterates the need for “unity of all revolutionary forces.” In the interests of “international solidarity,” Bulgarian assistance would only be to the Patriotic Front. Given the limited development and resources of the Bulgarian economy, Sofia's determination to support the global “anti-imperialist” struggle is particularly striking; it underlines the substantial contribution of the socialist bloc in Europe to the nationalist liberation struggle in Southern Africa, the importance the CPB attached to international solidarity, and the prestige it would accrue within the socialist movement.

Much of the subsequent discussion revolves around Mugabe's attempts to present an ideological united front, and personal bond between the two Zimbabwean political leaders. It strongly suggests that he has realized his mistake in arguing ZANLA's particular case, rather than the Patriotic Front's united cause, and is keen to remedy his error. Mugabe attempts to present Joshua Nkomo, who certainly regarded himself as the father of Zimbabwean nationalism and its rightful leader, as “making the issue of leadership central for the revolution” – itself an important ideological failing. Nkomo is also identified as “unwilling” to establish military unity, in contrast to Mugabe's declared commitment. Both arguments, which were indeed accurate, were designed to undermine Nkomo in Marxist terms. Mugabe's use of language admirably reflects his Jesuitical education and Marxist outlook. It is both a reflection of the man, and also tailored to his audience.


Dr Sue Onslow is the co-Head of the Africa International Affairs Programme at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics, and on the Editorial Board of Cold War History. She is a leading oral history historian, and has published extensively on Southern Africa in the Cold War era. She is preparing a monograph on South Africa and the Rhodesian UDI period.



[Click titles to view documents in CWIHP's online Digital Archive. See also the related documents in CWIHP's Cold War in Africa collection.]


"Stenographic Notes on the Meeting between Comrade Todor Zhivkov and Robert Mugabe"
[ 29 July 1979]


“Secret BCP Politburo Resolution for Military Aid supply to Certain National-Liberation Movements and Communist Parties”
16 July 1976


"Statements of Agostinho Neto, Samora Machel and Mengistu Haile Mariam on the political situation in Zimbabwe”

26 October 1978


“Memorandum of conversation between Minister-counsellor of the Soviet Embassy in Havana M. Manasov and Cuban Communist Party CC member Raul Valdes Vivo, from the journal of M, A, Manasov”

May 24 1979



[1] Onslow, S,  “Noises Off. South Africa and the Lancaster House Negotiations 1979-1980,” Journal of Southern African Studies (July 2009). See also Onslow, S, “Documents on Zimbabwean-Rhodesian Independence,” Cold War History 7.2 (May 2007).

[2] Rhodesian Military Intelligence compiled a detailed briefing book of Maoist guerrilla techniques, gleaned from the captured notebooks of political commissars attached in ZANLA units. This document was deemed so secret that only one typed copy was prepared, by a secretary attached to the Prime Minister's office; it was sent onto South Africa in 1979. Brian Oliver interview with Sue Onslow, 9 May 2008. Rhodesian Forces Oral History Project, University of the West of England Archives.

[3]CWIHP Digital Archive, "Statements of Agostinho Neto, Samora Machel and Mengistu Haile Mariam on the political situation in Zimbabwe,” 26 October 1978, Central State Archive, Sofia, Fond 378-B, Record 1, File 505

[4]CWIHP Digital Archive, “Secret BCP Politburo Resolution for Military Aid supply to Certain National-Liberation Movements and Communist Parties,” 16 July 1976 Central State Archive, Sovia, Fond 1-B, Record 64, File 478. 

[5] Vladimir Shubin, “There is No Threat from the Eastern Bloc” with Marina Traikova, The South African Democracy Education Trust (SADET), Road to Democracy: International Solidarity, Volume III Part 2 . The USSR supported collaboration of Southern African liberation movements, backed by Soviet training and military hardware, dating back to the ANC-ZAPU Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns in Rhodesia in 1967-1968.

[6] Peter Petter Bowyer, Winds of Destruction

[7] A Rhodesian external raid into Mozambique in October 1979 caused over $11m damage to infrastructure and seriously setback ZANLA's hopes of an overall military victory. Rhodesian-Zimbabwean air attacks into Zambia in October 1979 thwarted plans for Operation Zero Hour through the destruction of key infrastructure and communications. The Rhodesian Air Force's encounter brought the sharp realization of the dramatic improvement in ZIPRA's fighting capacity. Peter Petter Bowyer, Winds of Destruction.

[8]CWIHP Digital Archive, “Memorandum of conversation between Minister-counsellor of the Soviet Embassy in Havana M. Manasov and Cuban Communist Party CC member Raul Valdes Vivo, from the journal of M, A, Manasov,” May 24 1979. Source: TsKhSd, f.5, op.76, d.834, II.82-84. 

[9] Prime Minister Thatcher wore dark glasses on leaving the plane at Lusaka Airport as she fully expected acid to be thrown in her face.

[10] Despite ZANU's earlier shift to armed struggle in 1963, which had been the source of the split with ZAPU, the latter was subsequently recognised as one of “the Authentic” African liberation movements.  

This e-Dossier has been made possible by generous support from the Blavatnik Family Foundation. 



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Sue Onslow

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