BSR: Zimbabwe and Lancaster House’s faulty foundations


If the Lancaster House Agreement (LHA) was the foundation of the new nation-state of Zimbabwe in 1980, then it was a weak one with serious fault-lines that posed fundamental risks to the new State from the outset. It is arguable that some of Zimbabwe’s troubles in recent years can be traced to that founding document, hence its enduring significance and the necessity of understanding it.

The LHA emerged from the Lancaster House Constitutional Conference (LHCC), held at Lancaster House in London, with Britain, the imperial power, chairing it. The other parties were the Patriotic Front (PF), represented by ZANU (led by Robert Mugabe) and ZAPU (led by Joshua Nkomo); and the Salisbury delegation (led by Bishop Abel Muzorewa). Ian Smith, the former Rhodesian Prime Minister, was also there part of the Muzorewa delegation, but in reality, he was the man who wielded power, with Muzorewa as the front-man. Overall, the LHA was a package of agreements: the constitution, the transitional arrangements and the cease-fire, negotiated separately and in stages between 10 September 1979 and 21 December 1979.

The LHCC is certainly one of the landmark moments in the history of Zimbabwe and, therefore, it deserves serious attention. This explains the length of this particular BSR, specially prepared to mark Zimbabwe’s 36th independence anniversary on 18 April 2016.

Of course, it is easy to pass judgment from the position of an observer who is detached in time and space from the circumstances in which the negotiations took place. Those were heady days. A war was raging on between the negotiating parties back home and in neighbouring countries. The liberation armies, ZANLA and ZIPRA, were penetrating deeper into the country, and in Zambia and Mozambique, the countries that provided rear bases for the armies, bridges, roads and rail links were being blown apart by the Rhodesian security forces. Ordinary people were suffering. It was a long, bitter war with huge casualties that could have been avoided so easily.

So, when the men (they were all men) sat in the grand rooms of Lancaster House, they were negotiating a political settlement to end a war and deliver majority rule albeit qualified by strong protections for the white minority. Those were the overriding objectives.

Who won the war?

Contrary to popular liberation mythology, while the guerrillas had made several in-roads and may have been gaining the upper hand in a war in which the game of numbers assumed greater significance, the reality was that no single side had claimed total victory. Writing in his autobiography, The Great Betrayal, Ian Smith conceded that “the guerrillas were gaining support among the indigenous population” although he attributed this to the alleged use of violence and intimidation. But there was a stalemate. As Ibbo Mandaza wrote in 1986: “The Lancaster House Conference was called because the guerrilla war had produced a strategic stalemate and shifted the balance of forces against white settlerdom and imperialist interest, in favour of the liberation forces.”

Mandaza adds that, in any event, the manner in which the LHCC was conducted and the concessions that the PF had to make, “all tended to reflect a result less than that which might have been expected of a nationalist liberation movement had it won an outright victory on the battlefield”. This point is corroborated by Mugabe, as will emerge below. If the war had been won decisively by the liberation forces, there would have been no need for the heavy concessions made, some of which are discussed in this paper. What the war certainly did was to force the Smith regime to the negotiating table, but there were also other forces at play.

Therefore, the settlement reached at Lancaster House was a political compromise. In compromises, everyone involved invariably has to give up certain things which they cherish – you give some and lose some. Having participated in the constitution-making process leading to the 2013 Constitution, I’m fully conscious of the pressures that negotiators go through in these processes and the pain of having to concede issues because it is expedient to do so in deal-making. I often look at the 2013 Constitution, and while the spirit of collective responsibility dictates that I take my fair share of responsibility, I must confess that while there are things I like very much, there are also aspects that I detest with great intensity. Perhaps, one day, I shall write about this. Suffice to say I understand the challenges faced by the men who gathered at Lancaster House. These challenges must have been even more pressing than the challenges we faced, because there was a war going on and lives were at risk.

I have chosen two specific aspects of the LHA which form the basis of my critical analysis. The first aspect is that it laid very weak ground for a new, non-racial state by perpetuating a system in which racial classification remained predominant. The second is that it postponed the solution to a problem that would return to haunt Zimbabwe with devastating results: the Land Question.

Unhappy players

I must point out that the key actors were not satisfied with the LHA, apart perhaps from Britain, which thought it had got rid of a problem child. Ian Smith thought it was a betrayal by the British and the South Africans, who he thought had sacrificed Rhodesia. He refused to attend the signing ceremony in London, saying he would not have wished to sign his “death warrant” or watch others do it on his behalf. Writing in his autobiography, The Great Betrayal, Smith thought the British government had “pandered to the terrorists…sacrificing their own loyal kith and kin” for what he called “short-term personal glory”.

Speaking on the television documentary End of Empire, Mugabe remarked, “Yes, even as I signed the document, I was not a happy man at all. I felt we had been cheated to some extent…that we had agreed to a deal which would to some extent rob us of the victory that we had hoped to have achieved in the field”.

In his autobiography, The Story of My Life, Joshua Nkomo, lamented: “Of course, the new constitution was not satisfactory. It was the result of muddle and compromise, reached in haste to stop the bloodshed.”

Muzorewa was probably the biggest loser: the LHA forced him to dissolve his government and relinquish his premiership less than 6 months after taking office on 1 June 1979. Thereafter, his political career was doomed.

Perpetuating racial divisions

A key feature of the LHC was a special provision which reserved parliamentary seats for the white minority. There would be 20 seats in the House of Assembly and 10 seats in the Senate, which were reserved exclusively for white candidates and voters. Zimbabwe was not the first country to have such a provision. However, the difference was that in Zimbabwe’s case, the electorate for those reserved seats would exclude black citizens.

The notion of reserved seats was quite obviously designed to protect the white minority, whose numbers would be overwhelmed by a larger black majority in a one man-one vote system. In her recent book, Unpopular Sovereignty, Luise White says it was invented as a “gentle social engineering, a way to ease tensions” for the white minority, which was giving way to the black majority under the new voting system based on universal adult suffrage. It would guarantee the white minority a stake in the political arrangements and it could even be used to block legislation. In the case of Zimbabwe, amending some constitutional provisions required a 100 per cent majority in the House of Assembly For this reason, the 20 seats operated as a blocking mechanism.

It was believed that this, along with protection of pensions and dual citizenship, would give reassurance to the white minority and encourage them to stay in the country. However, as Luise White points out, these reserved seats were also a way of perpetuating political parties that would otherwise drown in a system of universal adult suffrage. Indeed, the Rhodesian Front (later called the Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe) would survive the 1980 and 1985 elections by virtue of these reserved seats. Afterwards, when the seven year limit of reserved seats expired in 1987, the party’s future was doomed.

However, this notion of reserved seats was flawed and the ‘social engineers’ who invented it may not have anticipated the long-term effects of maintaining such racially demarcated divisions in a new and fragile state emerging from colonialism. Even if it had been used in other former colonies, Zimbabwe-Rhodesia was a different type of colony with an entrenched system of racism and segregation which needed to be dismantled rather than maintained by such constitutional provisions. What Zimbabwe needed at that time were policies that would bring races together, not keep them separate.  The division of the electorate between the white roll and the common roll did little to encourage racial integration but perpetuated the ‘them and us’ culture which had endured during 90 years of colonialism.

To his credit, Mugabe and his delegation voiced serious objections to this racial classification, arguing that it was imprudent and the war had been fought to dismantle the racial bias which the constitutional arrangements were promoting. Of course, he would pander to racial prejudices later in his career, but his argument at the time was sound. Reflecting upon it, Nkomo wrote: “It was dangerous to reserve 20 of the 100 seats in parliament for white members elected by a whites-only electorate.” According to Luise White, while not objecting to the notion of reserved white seats, Tanzania’s leader, Julius Nyerere, a key player in the settlement process, had also objected to the separate white roll, proposing instead the model which had been followed in his own country. There, he said, special seats reserved for European candidates were voted for by the broad electorate. Nyerere urged that this would help in the process of racial integration. But his suggestion did not receive the attention it deserved.

As it happened, the Rhodesian Front went on to dominate both elections that were held under this system, winning all 20 seats on the white roll in 1980 and 15 seats in the 1985 elections, a circumstance that led The Chronicle newspaper to write in a scathing editorial that the whites had ‘demonstrated their true colours’ and that they had spurned the hand of reconciliation. Mugabe himself felt slighted. The seeds of suspicion and mistrust that existed from the bitter colonial period were not eliminated by the divisions institutionalised by the LHC.

Postponing a solution to an existing problem

A second weakness of the LHC was not only its failure to deal adequately with the Land Question, but its blatant bias towards maintaining the economic status quo, which was defined by gross inequality and unfairness based on race. So much has been written about the Land Question and so much is now common cause that it is unnecessary for me to repeat the detail. It is an uncontested fact that, owing to colonial legislation permitting expropriation and racial segregation, the white minority population owned the bulk of the arable land while the black majority were restricted to poor and unproductive areas of the country. This racially-defined land ownership pattern was a product of laws such as the Land Apportionment Act of 1930 and, later, the Land Tenure Act of 1969. It was the law that had legitimised these gross inequities and it was the law that could have started the process of redressing this problem. Lancaster House would have provided a good starting point for this process.

Given what has happened in Zimbabwe since 2000, it is easy to get distracted and lose focus. But the seeds of the land problem were sown under the LHA. As I have stated before in my work on this issue, the problem could have been solved if the LHA’s framers had anticipated the challenges, given the issue adequate attention and devised a robust mechanism that did not pander to racial biases and prejudice.

Instead, the LHA perpetuated gross inequalities by creating a robust system for the protection of existing land rights, leaving the rights of the landless to the vagaries of the free market. This protection was achieved via the agency of Section 16 of the Declaration of Rights in the LHC, a provision for protecting property rights. Under this clause, the State could acquire underused land for purposes of resettlement − but only if it complied with certain specific requirements, including payment of “prompt and adequate compensation”, which, like pensions, could be remitted abroad. The acquisition of land was based on the willing buyer-willing seller principle –  a principle etched in free-market ideology.

This was compounded by the fact that provisions of the Declaration of Rights were entrenched for a period of ten years. This meant Section 16 of the Constitution could not be amended during the first ten years of independence, thereby providing an impregnable mechanism for protection of land rights during that period.

The purpose of that provision was plainly to protect existing white landowners and ensure that they enjoyed undisturbed ownership of the land. The LHC accepted the pattern of land ownership as it stood in 1979 as normal and legitimate, taking no account of how land had been acquired during the colonial period. This naïve and simplistic approach underestimated the weight of the problem among the landless people. Indeed, objections raised by the PF at the conference nearly derailed it, until the US intervened by proposing that funding would be mobilised together with the UK and other donors to support land reform in Zimbabwe. But, as I will discuss later in this article, this was an unspecified and unwritten undertaking which made it weak and unenforceable. But it worked as a way of forcing a compromise, leaving a huge gap which would later be exploited. It was a poor way to handle a critical issue. This much was acknowledged by the UK Parliament’s Africa All-Party Parliamentary Group, which wrote in 2009: “The feeling that justice on land was denied at Lancaster House is felt strongly today, both in Zimbabwe and throughout Southern Africa”.

I have chosen these two issues to advance my thesis that the LHA created serious problems for the new nation-state. But there are several other issues, such as the provision that prevented existing legislation from being challenged in court against the standards of the Declaration of Rights for five years. Together, such provisions allowed the State to inherit a raft of repressive legislation and institutions at a time when it needed to break away from the repressive past. There was also the continuation of the state of emergency, which also facilitated the continuation of the repressive State. But there is no space to deal with all these issues. I must move on to the next question: given the obvious inadequacies of these provisions, why did the liberation movements accept a deal that was so obviously unbalanced?

Political compromise

As pointed out earlier, the LHA was a political settlement that necessarily involved compromises between negotiating parties. The overriding objective of the liberation movement was to gain political power and this would be achieved through the guarantee of universal adult suffrage − one man one vote. Previous efforts at getting a settlement had failed partly because the franchise for the blacks was almost always qualified, often in very complex ways. The 1961 Constitution for example, was dismissed by the National Democratic Party because the voting qualifications placed black voters and candidates at a severe disadvantage. The 1971 proposals were also rejected on similar grounds, among others. Even the Internal Settlement in 1978 failed partly because of objections to the constitution, which left the white minority with a strong parliamentary blocking power that would frustrate majority rule. The guarantee of one man-one vote and political independence was an important gain, which was traded for the other concessions.


The prospect of gaining political power was also an incentive for the political elites who were negotiating at Lancaster House. As Mandaza has pointed out: “The major concern of all concerned was less about the nature of the agreement they had just signed than about who would win political power at the general elections”. Therefore, the prospects and momentum of elections caused them to look beyond a weak agreement, hoping that they would use their political power as leverage to make changes once in charge. Mandaza argues that to the new political elites, the LHC provided opportunities to find: “fulfilment for their class aspirations as they enter the arena that was hitherto restricted and confined largely to the white classes”. For the political elites in the liberation movements, it was an opportunity gain political power and to fulfil their own individual aspirations. As a result, they were prepared to overlook the concessions and focus on winning political power. Nevertheless, once they had gained power, they simply slipped into the comforts of the former oppressors.

Frontline States

There was a lot of pressure from the leaders of the Frontline States − Samora Machel, Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere − to end the war, which was becoming a huge burden on their fragile economies. Three Frontline States, Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania played the most critical role in the liberation war, providing rear bases for ZANLA and ZIPRA, from where they trained guerrillas and launched attacks into Rhodesia.

According to Mandaza: “Zambia and Mozambique had taken such a hammering at the feet of a dying horse that they were now more inclined to pressurise the Patriotic Front into an agreement that would bring some kind of peace for the sub-region and political independence for Zimbabwe”.

Similarly, Meredith states: “Neither Zambia nor Mozambique could afford to sustain the war for much longer. Each month that passed brought greater dislocation to their economies … So embroiled in the war had Zambia and Mozambique become that Kaunda and Machel were ready to seize any opportunity for a peaceful agreement. Nyerere, too, though with less conviction, lent his weight to the plan”.

The Granada TV documentary, End of Empire reveals that when Mugabe threatened to walk out, the British Government called on Samora Machel for help. Fernando Honwana, Machel’s assistant who was in London at the time conveyed the messages. He says in the documentary: “I had to convey a message to the PF that we the Mozambican government did not feel that there were any issues at stake at that stage of the conference which would justify the breaking of the conference … The message was that if they were not going to take those plans, then things were not going to be as they had been before”. At that point Mugabe who was preparing to fly to the United Nations to make representations had to abandon his flight and accepted the agreement.

Even as the talks were on going, there were several raids into Zambia and Mozambique, which left them vulnerable and shaken. It was more important than ever to reach a settlement, particularly in the case of Zambia, a landlocked country which, because of the bombings on bridges and rail links, was now utterly dependent on Rhodesia. Pressure on the Frontline States meant more pressure on the Patriotic Front to settle. The leverage that the leaders of the Frontline States had over Mugabe and Nkomo meant they could not walk out of the talks. Meredith also reports that when the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit was held in Cuba in August 1979, the Frontline leaders had impressed upon Mugabe and Nkomo what was expected of them at the Lancaster House conference. This pressure on the Patriotic Front by the Frontline States is widely acknowledged as a factor that contributed to the successful conclusion of the Lancaster House talks.

Apart from the economic cost, the Frontline leaders also had a vested interest in the agreement as they were party to its formulation. While focus is often placed on what transpired at Lancaster House, the reality is that the deal had long since been cobbled together in Lusaka at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. There, a small group of countries that included the Frontline states, Jamaica, Nigeria and Australia, got together and came up with the Lusaka Agreement, which according to Luise White, became the basis of the agreement at Lancaster House. They had played a key role in shaping the draft that would form the final agreement and they wanted it to succeed, whatever the misgivings of the liberation movements.

Path dependence

If the LHC was skewed towards preserving the status quo and offered disproportionate protection to the rights of the white minority, it was only a reflection of the historical path set by previous settlement negotiations. All these settlements had been based on the centrality of one principle: the protection of white minority interests in any new dispensation. This continued right up to Lancaster House and had a major influence on shaping the LHA. But as I argue, it laid a very fragile foundation for the new nation-state, perpetuating as it did the racial fault-lines originating from colonialism. To illustrate the point, I must provide a brief summary of these efforts at settling the political question in Rhodesia.

Since 1961, as the winds of change began to sweep across Africa, as famously acknowledged by then British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, there had been a number of efforts to reach a political settlement in Rhodesia, but on terms that were different from the rest of Britain’s colonies. The 1961 Constitution itself was the product of a constitutional conference to which the African political party of the day, the National Democratic Party (NDP), was invited. Although initially accepted by Joshua Nkomo, the draft constitution was rejected at the instigation of the NDP leaders on the grounds that it disproportionately favoured the white minority and would delay black majority rule for several decades. After the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1965, there were two serious efforts to reach a settlement between the British Government and the illegal Smith administration, both aboard British battleships: HMS Tiger (1966) and HMS Fearless (1968). Both ended in failure, but the terms were increasingly favourable to the white minority and the exclusion of black nationalists showed a belief that a settlement could be reached without the need to include them.

In 1971, the Sir Alec Douglas-Home reached an agreement with Smith, but the proposals were rejected after the Pearce Commission tested opinion among both white and black Zimbabweans. There was a series of other talks, including those on the Victoria Falls Bridge in 1975, Geneva in 1976 and Malta in 1978. They all failed, but at least these talks now involved the African nationalists. In 1978, after accepting the principle of majority rule but only in order to dilute it, Smith reached an Internal Settlement with the internally-based African politicians – Muzorewa, Sithole and Chief Chirau. It was doomed from the start and never gained legitimacy because it excluded the parties that were waging the war and failed to stop it. Furthermore, the constitution never gained international recognition because it was regarded as a deceptive instrument that masked white minority control under the pretence of black majority rule. Although it was a regarded as a defective constitution, the view was that it could be modified by reducing or diluting some of the more blatant clauses.

I have made reference to these abortive efforts at reaching a settlement to demonstrate that the Lancaster House talks did not take place in a vacuum. Rather, they were part of an historical path which followed a particular pattern and I argue that this also had an impact on the direction and contents of the LHA. The common denominator between all these settlement efforts was the centrality of the principle of protecting the interests of the white minority in any political settlement and constitution. In fact, this was regarded as normal so that when the black Africans rejected proposals during the Pearce Commission in 1971, it prompted Des Frost, chairman of the Rhodesian Front, to remark: “Twice in ten years the white man has held out the possibilities of progress to Africans and twice the hand of friendship has been rejected. The African must realise that there are limits to how far the tolerance of the whites will stretch.” The RF could not understand why blacks had rejected settlement proposals which gave the white minority more privileges and protections.

Therefore, the document that was signed at Lancaster House was not new. Rather, it was a product of negotiations, changes and improvements over a long period of time. The only difference is that in the previous efforts, the protection of these interests was supposed to be guaranteed by retention of State control through white minority rule. In later efforts, including Lancaster House, the focus had changed to providing guarantees for the white minority under black majority rule, the inevitability of which had since been accepted.

Therefore, if Lancaster House Agreement contained heavy concessions that favoured the white minority, this might be explained by the theory of historical path dependence. It was easier to continue with the same formula of protecting white minority interests, even when conditions might have called for another way of dealing with the challenges. As it happened, my criticism of this approach is that although it responded to the fears of the white minority, it also perpetuated and institutionalised racial divisions, exacerbating suspicions and failing to lay foundations for proper nation-building.

Threat of a Muzorewa deal

Another factor that pushed the Patriotic Front to a settlement was the threat of a settlement with Muzorewa and the potential for its international recognition. This is what Lord Carrington, the chair of the Lancaster House talks referred to as the second-class solution, the first-class solution being one where all parties would reach an agreement. An agreement without the Patriotic Front would be the weaker of the two, but it would be acceptable and perhaps even preferable because it would exclude the hard-line elements among the African politicians. According to Martin Meredith, the threat of a deal with the Muzorewa delegation was a key bargaining chip during the negotiations as it forced the Patriotic Front into compromises when they would otherwise have fought harder. The fear of the nationalists over a Muzorewa deal was motivated by the events around the Internal Settlement and the elections of 1979, after which Muzorewa became Prime Minister. Although it had failed to gain international recognition and legitimacy, it was thought that the Internal Settlement constitution would be acceptable with minor improvements.

Further, the strategy adopted by Lord Carrington made the task more difficult for the Patriotic Front, who were opposing parts of the constitutional draft. Carrington’s strategy involved holding separate sessions with the negotiating parties, but he would always secure agreement with the Muzorewa delegation before negotiating with the Patriotic Front, who often raised objections. This was noted by Nkomo, who wrote in his autobiography: “This meant that we found ourselves confronted with some deal worked out between Carrington and Muzorewa and when we argued against it we would be told that altering the terms would mean the conference breaking down. By dealing with each side separately, Lord Carrington put himself at the centre of a spider’s web, of which he alone could pull the strings”. This strategy left pressure on the Patriotic Front, as no-one wanted to be blamed for the breakdown of the conference.

In fact, as Luise White has shown, Lord Carrington was already aware that the Mugabe and Nkomo could not afford to walk out as the Frontline States leaders had leverage over them. On two occasions, Lord Carrington threatened to carry on without the PF. The PF were apprehensive about this prospect since they also knew they could no longer be guaranteed perpetual support from the Frontline States in their war effort. As Mandaza has explained, although the 1979 elections which ushered Muzorewa into a sham premiership were widely regarded as a farce, at the relevant time they had “sent shivers through the Patriotic Front ranks and made the idea of the Lancaster House Conference not unacceptable”. The Thatcher administration had shown an inclination to recognise the Muzorewa administration until pressure was exerted on Thatcher at the Lusaka Summit. After investing so much time, so many resources and lost lives in the struggle for independence, the PF leaders were not prepared to let Muzorewa sneak in and take their place. This would happen if they rejected the deal and Muzorewa accepted. The threat of a Muzorewa deal with Britain made it harder for the PF to maintain opposition to the political compromise.

Tongogara factor

Josiah Tongogara, commander of ZANLA, ZANU’s military wing, played an important role in the successful conclusion of the conference. Writing in his autobiography, A Lifetime of Struggle, Edgar Tekere recounts a conversation he had with Tongogara. “The war is painful,” said Tongogara, before adding, “The comrades have suffered enough”. Tekere says at the time, he was taken aback by Tongogara’s remarks, but he also knew that the man cared for his fighters.

Tekere’s worries were compounded by the fact that Tongogara had taken to a routine of embracing Smith each day before the start of business at Lancaster House talks. In his own book, Smith himself describes his first encounter with Tongogara at Lancaster House. It was at a social event when Tongogara walked across the room and extended his hand to Smith, introducing himself as Tongogara. This gesture made an impression on Smith given the frosty relationship that existed between the negotiating parties. “From what I had heard and read about the man, there had been built up in my mind a picture of aggressive ruthlessness,” says Smith. “By contrast, I was impressed with his maturity and ability to make reasoned contributions to the problem before us”.

Tongogara was born in Shurugwi, where Smith’s parents owned a farm and according to Meredith, during that first encounter, Tongogara recounted his early days on the farm and afterwards asked after Smith’s mother, remarking that she had been a kind woman. “Over the short period of the conference, we developed a cordial relationship and he gave me the impression of being a man with whom one could not only reason, but who could also be trusted,” wrote Smith. In short, Tongogara was open to engagement with the former enemy and was more prepared than most on his side to accept a settlement.

Besides, Tongogara was well aware of the perils of war and the plight of his fighters, much better than the political leaders who might have been more stubborn. As Tekere later concluded: “I believe he genuinely wanted the war to end”. Tongogara also warned the political leaders over the loss of rear bases in the Frontline States if the constitutional conference did not work out. According to Meredith, “His [Tongogara’s] influence over ZANLA was stronger that Mugabe’s and his willingness to use that influence in the cause of peace was one of the factors that eventually led to the agreement at Lancaster [House]”. He may have been ruthless, but he was pragmatic, adds Meredith, and he had assessed that there would be no total victory for several more years and, therefore, he preferred a political settlement to the suffering that was going on. “We just have to have a settlement. We can’t go back empty-handed,” he is quoted as having said in Andre Astrow’s book, A Revolution That Lost Its Way.

An umpire with vested interests

Mandaza is critical of the very fact of having the imperial power as the arbiter. Since Britain had retained the role of guarantor of the rights of black Africans in the country after self-government was granted in 1923, the assumption was that it would play a fair role. Indeed, its No Independence Before Majority Rule (NIBMAR) policy was in this spirit. Nevertheless, in practice, it had done nothing to stop legislation such as the Land Apportionment Act which promoted racism and segregation. Indeed, Meredith attributes the initial weaknesses of the African nationalists’ efforts in the 1960s to an “inordinate faith in Britain’s willingness to come to the rescue”. Mandaza argues that there was bias at the Lancaster House talks, too, writing: “The Lancaster House Constitution provided imperialism with the opportunity to be an ‘umpire’ in a ‘match’ in which it had a vested interest. That is, imperialism tried to resolve the problem it had created in its own favour”. There was, he argues, a clear effort “to entrench the interests of their kith and kin in the new Zimbabwe”. There was a widely held view among the African nationalists that this kith and kin issue had motivated Britain’s failure to intervene more aggressively when Smith declared UDI in 1965. Writing on 26t May 1979, The Economist stated, “…it has always been the aim of British policy (and of American policy too, since the Americans have had one) to bring Rhodesia to independence in a way that keeps a place for the white community. This requires a transition that will reassure white as well as black”.

Yet, for all the fears of bias, Britain’s role as the decolonising power was also acknowledged by the African nationalists and more importantly, by the Frontline leaders who impressed upon Britain the importance of discharging its colonial responsibilities in Rhodesia. This was particularly so in August 1979, when the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in Lusaka pushed Margaret Thatcher’s new government to resolve the problems in Rhodesia. Several authors, among them historian Anthony Verrier, point out that before the Lusaka Summit, Thatcher had demonstrated an inclination to recognise the Internal Settlement and lift sanctions, particularly if minor modifications were made. The Conservative Party election observers at Rhodesia’s 1979 elections had returned a favourable assessment of those elections.

Was Lancaster House a fraud?

One strategy was to get the Frontline States to buy into the draft constitution well before the Lancaster House talks. So, according to Luise White, when the invitations for the conference were sent on 14 August 1979, just a couple of weeks after the Lusaka Summit, the draft constitution was also included. Therefore, the draft constitution was not suddenly made available during the conference, it was already there and the Frontline leaders gave their comments on it.

Luise White goes so far as to say that the LHA had been decided long before the conference in London. In her words, the Lancaster House Conference was “stage-managed” by the Commonwealth heads of State, the Frontline States’ leaders and the Britain. This meant that by the time the Lancaster House talks began, there was no room for bargaining and manoeuvre. This is a plausible argument. Indeed, while the conference went back and forth for more than three months, nothing of significance was changed in the draft constitution. White’s theory might also explain why the Frontline leaders were so keen to make sure the conference succeeded; and why at the NAM Summit in Cuba, they invested so much effort into directing Mugabe and Nkomo on how they should conduct themselves at Lancaster House. The theory also finds support in Meredith, who points out that the draft constitution presented by Lord Carrington at the beginning was in the end accepted “virtually unchanged”.

Therefore, if there were compromises, they were beyond Mugabe and Nkomo by the time Lancaster House talks were held because the draft constitution had already been shaped by their allies, who had so much leverage over them. They had no room to bargain or to walk away. Indeed, none of their objections actually gained significant traction. The objection over the protection of property rights was resolved through a verbal − but ultimately hard-to-enforce − undertaking by the US and Britain that they would provide funding for the land reform programme.  Meredith says the sum promised was unspecified and the purpose was left vague. If the objection had been taken more seriously and the PF had succeeded, that undertaking would have been more specific and in writing. Indeed, one of the reasons why it has been dismissed is precisely that it was not quantified or in writing. I intend to do an article on this particular issue in future.

Strategic blunders

Meredith also thinks that the Patriotic Front made a strategic blunder when, after initial objections, it conceded on the first issue of reserved white seats in parliament. Agreeing on that issue so early before considering others made their objection to the secondary clauses more difficult to sustain. This is because after that, no-one was prepared to let the negotiations fail because of disagreement on what were regarded as minor issues. These issues included land, citizenship, pensions and the presidency. But to regard an issue such as the Land Question as minor was very short-sighted. But it seems the Frontline States were also of the view that it was a minor issue which could not be allowed to break the conference.


I have written at length in order to recall and analyse one of the landmark moments in our history. When I started researching on the LHA some years ago, my interest was confined to the legal issues. But I realised very quickly that these legal issues had to be understood in the broader political context. To understand why the LHC had the type of property protection clauses it contained, you had to understand the politics that informed it. To understand the conflicts over dual citizenship, you have to understand the politics that informed that debate at Lancaster House and before it. In all these issues that confront us today, the weight of history cannot be ignored. Indeed, one of the reasons dual citizenship is now permitted for citizens by birth is because of this research, which enabled us to argue persuasively that the issues that informed opposition to dual citizenship in 1979 no longer held the same relevance in this day and age. To do that, it was necessary to articulate the historical contestations over dual citizenship and why it was necessary to change the existing government policy. Opponents were fighting a war that had since passed. Th dynamics had changed and they required Zimbabwe to embrace dual citizenship, not to continue opposing it.

I have no doubt that negotiating the LHA was a hard task, and that the parties had very little room to bargain given the forces that weighed in favour of agreement, whatever the weaknesses of the deal. But these issues discussed in this article, and others demonstrated that the LHA had serious fault-lines that did not bode well for the new Zimbabwe. Indeed, we are still living with the consequences of that faulty deal.

I close with the words of Tongogara, the military giant who to the surprise of many at Lancaster House, charmed an old nemesis, Ian Smith but never lived long enough to see the new Zimbabwe to which he had dedicated his adult life. When asked in a television documentary what he was fighting for during the war, his answer was typically clear, forthright and stated with disarming conviction: “What some of us are fighting for is to see that this oppressive system is crushed. I don’t even care whether I will be part of the top echelons. I’m not worried. I’m dying to see a change in the system, that’s all … that’s all! I would like to see the young people enjoying together – black, white – enjoying together in a new Zimbabwe – that’s all!”

Sadly, five days after the close of the Lancaster House conference, tragedy struck as Tongogara was killed in car crash in Mozambique, on his way to deliver the news to his fighters. He never set foot in the new Zimbabwe. Nor, it seems, has his vision. It is a pain that we must live with that the great commander will never make it to the new Zimbabwe, but the hope is that his vision, articulated so eloquently in those few words, will one day be realised – if not in our generation, then perhaps not long after us.

Not to be published without the author’s express authority.

In writing this article, I have relied on a number of sources which I must acknowledge:

Luise White Unpopular Sovereignty – Rhodesian Independence and African Decolonisation The University of Chicago Press 2015

Ibbo Mandaza Zimbabwe: The Political Economy of Transition 1980-86 Codessria Books

Anthony Verrier The Road to Zimbabwe  Jonathan Cape 1986

Edgar Tekere a Lifetime of Struggle Sapes Books 2007

Joshua Nkomo The Story of My Life Methuen 1984

W.H. Morris-Jones, From Rhodesia to Zimbabwe – Behind and beyond Lancaster House (1980)

End of Empire (Chapter 14) Granada TV (1985) also available at