The Rhodesian Legacy: Expanding the Lost Cause Myth

The popular image of Rhodesia is one which will draw precisely nothing from the conscience of most. It has long been forgotten by those throughout the Anglophone world, particularly the younger generations. Rhodesia should have been content to rest in its desecrated, lost grave. However, the “state’s” existence has been increasingly justified through either comparison to its successor state of Zimbabwe or through the spreading of misinformation about the apartheid which the nation engaged in. Just like how the history of the Confederacy was rewritten to be a “noble” and “righteous” cause against injustice, some today view Rhodesia to be some sort of crusader against the wave of the West who abandoned them and the communists who besieged them. In this way, the Lost Cause myth no longer confines itself to the borders of the American South. Instead, far-right supporters of the myth have chosen to use Rhodesia as their new Confederacy because of its unknown nature and the contrast between white and Black rule. 

 For those unfamiliar, Rhodesia was an unrecognized white ethnostate ruled by a white minority in what today makes up Zimbabwe. It unilaterally declared independence from Britain in 1961 after fearing they might fully enfranchise Africans, and it eventually was destroyed in 1979 as a result of an 15 year guerilla campaign waged by its Black citizens. As opposed to the extremely explicit racial divide in South Africa, Rhodesia was more nuanced in its approach to discrimination. It held a unicameral parliamentary system which granted seats to both white and Black citizens of Rhodesia, but the split between white and Black seats in the houses was 50 to 15, despite the population split being more akin to 6.5 percent white to 92.8 percent Black even at the highest ratio of white Rhodesians to Black Rhodesians. This split was decided based on the amount of tax income obtained from each group, which itself was dependent on how wealthy each group was. Now, as to who had the wealth, Rhodesia was a state that had just come out of colonialism, and thus white people were overwhelmingly wealthy compared to their Black counterparts. Rhodesia used this fact to vastly overrepresent white people in every facet of the Rhodesian government.

Rhodesia is but the most glaring example in the recent mass of former states whose existence has gained a cult, right-wing following that inevitably aims to wash white-dominated states of their misdeeds. This following justifies and glorifies Rhodesia not by trying to defend its racial hierarchies but by providing historical half-truths to a viewer to make it appear as though the apartheid was gentle and benevolent or perhaps even nonexistent. Then, once Rhodesia still seems deplorable but not so admonishable as South Africa or the Confederacy, they move on to speak to the economic success and prosperity of Rhodesia. There is a huge focus on the oppressive autocracy which followed the restoration of Black rule, as well as the shocking levels of inflation in modern Zimbabwe. Ignoring the fact that Rhodesian “success” largely, though not exclusively, meant white success within the nation, this vast oversimplification which Rhodesian supporters so doggedly employ ultimately rests on the logic of  “the ends justify the means.” While some may forward this logic as valid, the Rhodesian “ends” were, at best, moderate success for those in the minority and a small group of the majority at the expense of the rights and freedoms of over 90 percent of the Rhodesian population. 

By cleansing Rhodesian history and comparing superficial success under Rhodesia to ruin under Zimbabwe, Rhodesian supporters purposely misinform their readers. They imply that white minority rule, which ultimately only benefited the white minority in any notable way, was somehow preferable to the opportunity for self-governance of Zimbabweans. Undoubtedly, Robert Mugabe, who took power shortly after the fall of the Rhodesian government, was a horrific autocrat, but so too was Rhodesia under their only prime minister, Ian Smith. Although he may have maintained an even keel and was admittedly competent in many ways as a politician, we cannot forget that he also brutally enforced a racial hierarchy over his citizens. Apartheid is inherently oppressive and autocratic, and oppressing over 95 percent of your population is certainly not so “free.” We cannot allow Rhodesia to be dressed up as some sort of preferable state to Zimbabwe because that narrative lends credibility to Rhodesia’s legacy. It’s only really possible to glorify Rhodesia if one solely focuses on the effects of Rhodesia on white Rhodesians, who were clearly the minority. 

One might ask, “But why is it that Rhodesia has so suddenly been kicked back into relevance?” The answer is quite simple. Rhodesia can be, in many ways, seen as more defensible than the Confederacy. The obscurity of the state means that many do not have any solid idea as to how they should feel about it, unlike the Confederacy. Thus, for many of those on the far-right, Rhodesia is an easy state to build a defense for. It is an easy case to employ to convince others of the greatness of white nationalism or to argue against underprepared opponents. If one knows nothing about Rhodesia, they might be inclined to take those who defend the state at their word. On a less interpersonal level, the mere facts of Rhodesia are far more convoluted than the Confederacy, and it is within that ambiguity that fringe ideas thrive. Rhodesia obviously did not integrate slavery, yet the state of modern Zimbabwe is often argued to be far less desirable than old Rhodesia, and some even argue that to call Rhodesia an apartheid state would be misleading because politics were ostensibly based on wealth, not race. Thus, if one were to accept all of the pro-Rhodesian propaganda without critical thinking, they would see it as a little more than a prosperous nation which was destroyed by a clamor for Black rule, rule which “ruined” the country. It is unbelievably easy for a person who fails to do their due diligence to fall into the trap of having some sort of respect for the Rhodesian state, even if they see that it was a racist state at its core. 

Rhodesia, just as every other ethnostate, should be viewed with disgust, not reverence. Rhodesian glorification rests on abusing both the trust and the laziness of others to present an arguably economically successful ethnostate as a preferable option to the failures of a Black-governed state in financial ruin. Just as the glorification of the history of the South must be denied at every turn, the history of Rhodesia must remain dirty with its faults and failures. When history is taught poorly, there are real, palpable impacts. The glorification of Rhodesia is almost exclusively racial. The continued glorification of white ethnostates is tantamount to the glorification of white rule and the demonization of non-white rule. So long as these views of history exist, politics in the modern day will continue to suffer from the racist perceptions of those who “take lessons” from the past without considering what there really is to be said.