Half a century ago, in a memorable gesture, a member of the Young Communist League tore down the flag of white Rhodesia from its High Commission building in central London. PETER FROST reminisces.
Just half a century ago white Rhodesians decided that, despite the fact they numbered less than 250,000 they had the God-given right to rule a country of nearly three million black Africans.
Rhodesia was named after Cecil Rhodes, the notorious British imperialist, businessman, mining magnate and politician based in British-ruled South Africa.
The British territory of Rhodesia in southern Africa had governed itself since 1923. The white population, some of British origin, some Dutch Boers, regarded it as an independent sovereign state.
This led to a protracted dispute between the British and white Rhodesian governments until in 1965 Rhodesia, led by its leader Ian Smith (below), illegally declared independence from Britain in an attempt to ensure white minority rule would last forever.
Smith and his racist cronies were terrified that black rule anywhere in Africa, and particularly in what they considered their own comfortable and profitable mineral-rich fiefdom, might lead to communism.
Rhodesia’s was the first unilateral break from the British empire by one of its colonies since the United States declaration of independence nearly two centuries before.
Britain, the Commonwealth and the UN all deemed Rhodesia’s UDI illegal. Economic sanctions — the first in the UN’s history — were imposed but many British banks and large oil companies like Shell and BP did what they could to circumvent them. They even established a oil pipeline to break the sanction on fuel.
In reality sanctions actually spurred industrial development to replace scarce imports and infrastructure. Heavy engineering companies like Risco now known as Ziscosteel were set up during the UDI.
The Rhodesian railways became the main artery of the economy bringing in illegal imports. The coal-fired Hwange power station, one of the biggest in the country, was established in 1972 at the height of sanctions.
Rhodesian products were exported to Britain, Europe and the US with their real origin disguised under South African labels.
In what was supposed to be international isolation, Rhodesia continued as an unrecognised state with the assistance of aparthied South Africa and the fascist president Antonio de Oliveira Salazar of Portugal.
One indication of just how lack-lustre was the British government’s opposition to the illegal government in Salisbury — the capital now renamed Harare — was the fact that just off the London’s Strand the Rhodesian High Commission was still open for business.
Worse, hanging high above one of the capital’s busiest streets was the hated green and white flag of the illicit Rhodesia government.
I have personal memories of this tumultuous time in the battle for liberation from colonialism in what had been part of the British empire. This flag had been flying triumphantly for far too long when on January 6 1969 I was at the Young Communist League (YCL) offices in Covent Garden.
At lunchtime the YCL international secretary of the time Jim Brookshaw popped out. None of us knew what he was up to, but by teatime we and the rest of Britain would know just what Brookshaw had on his mind.
It was just a few minutes’ walk from the YCL offices to the Rhodesian High Commission (below). Brookshaw walked in unchallenged and found it surprising easy to reach the roof five or six storeys up.
Once on the open roof it took no time to tear down the hated symbol of colonial oppression and throw it down into the Strand at the feet of the lunchtime crowds.
Amazingly the policeman on duty outside the renegade legation did no more than fold up the illegal flag and hand it back to the Rhodesian receptionist. Brookshaw was unceremoniously ejected from the building.
By the six o’clock news he and his heroic act were headline news that spread all across the globe.
His action would be just a small symbolic contribution to the struggle but several other factors would eventually bring an end to the illegal white minority government.
What defeated Smith and his racist administration in the end was the liberation struggle not half-hearted sanctions.
The key in this process was a seven-year guerilla war initiated in 1972 in which black freedom fighters wrested political power from the notorious Rhodesian security forces.
By 1976 the guerilla struggle had forced Smith’s administration into talks concerning a transformation to majority rule.
The first multiracial elections took place in 1979, although both Zanu and Zapu, the two organisations representing black Rhodesians, were banned from participating.
A new election was held in 1980, this time including the main two black organisations. Robert Mugabe’s Zanu won an overwhelming victory and the hated name of Rhodesia, so redolent of its shameful imperialist history, was changed to Zimbabwe.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 20 November 2015.