Rhodesia Leading Up To The Bush War: An Overview

What we now know as Zimbabwe was Southern Rhodesia was one of three states merged in 1953 to form the British-administered Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (also known as the Central African Federation). This union was largely a marriage of convenience, as the British protectorates of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland were significantly less developed than self-governing Southern Rhodesia.

However, the Federation balkanized and dissolved in 1963 amid ethnic tensions, political instability, and deep cultural divides. Simultaneously, changing political winds in London favored a policy of rapid decolonization and majority rule. The collapse of the Central African Federation was viewed as proof positive that failing to quickly implement majority rule would result in the collapse of European-lead African governments. 

The reality was more complex. Western-style democratic republics require a certain level of social infrastructure in order to function as intended. While the white population of the Central African Federation carried western traditions with them from Europe, the myriad of African ethnic groups had long traditions of tribal organization along ethnic lines, with their own rivalries and blood feuds.

To address this, Southern Rhodesia had created the best educational system in Africa, spending enormous sums on literacy programs, primary and secondary schools, vocational education, technical colleges, and universities. On a GDP adjusted basis, Southern Rhodesia's expenditures on education were not just the best in Africa, they were world leading. By 1959 this approach yielded incredible results with roughly 85% native children enrolled in school, a trend that would only accelerate through the 60s. Similar initiatives had developed road and rail networks, the best healthcare system in Africa, modern water purification, and cheap, plentiful electricity.

The British governed protectorates of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland enjoyed little of this economic or social development. In these areas western ideas held no hope for the future and only served to destabilize traditional power structures. These communities, dominated by subsistence farming and rural poverty, contrasted sharply with the economic miracle happening just across the border.

Fresh from the bloody partition of India, English politicians failed to appreciate the likelihood of a similarly violent outcome in the push for immediate majority rule in their African colonies.

Amid intense pressure to solve Britain’s problems at home, the UK’s rush to divest its colonies created a power vacuum that China and the USSR were more than happy to exploit by funding, training, and arming the Marxist-nationalist ZANU and ZAPU groups in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

Southern Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence (known as "UDI"), from Britain, forming the state of Rhodesia in 1965. And almost in unison, the Bush War began.