Specialist Subjects – The Politics of Partnership

The Politics of Partnership: the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland – Patrick Keatley (Penguin, 1963).

I was of two minds about doing this review. On the one hand it’s of a classic Penguin; on the other, it’s about the subject I wrote my PhD on, so I feel a double sense of obligation to nail this review. In the end it was the gravity of the situation that tipped the scales  (I’ll be here all night) – I just couldn’t face breaking my winning streak of regular blog posts. Having relatively recently written a 100,000-word thesis on Rhodesian history I will try and keep this a bit more concise. Funnily enough, my thesis examiners recommended I read this book in my report, so here we are…

Patrick Keatley’s The Politics of Partnership is an informative, readable account of the history and (when published) current affairs of the grand-sounding Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The federation was made up of three British colonies (present-day names in brackets): Nyasaland (Malawi), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). The book is part of the short-lived Penguin Africa Library series, something I encountered during my merciless pursuit of old Pelicans. The Penguin Africa Library was designed to fulfil a similar self-educative purpose to Pelicans, in the book’s own words:

Accurate information on Africa is not easy to find. The newspapers lack sufficient space and no single book can hope to present all the facets – historical, economic, religious, political – of an entire continent…

Designed to meet the needs of today’s serious newspaper reader, the series will explore what goes on behind the headlines and embassy hand-outs: it will present a complete, authoritative picture of the nations and peoples which now play a major part in world affairs.

The wonders of the pre-internet age! The series has a Pelican-like eclecticism in its subject-matter, and bizarrely a number of ‘missing’ titles (this book is #5, there was no #4, #8 or #9, with the list of titles in the back of the book leaping from #7 to #10). As the description notes, the 1960s were a time when Africa was emerging into the global spotlight after decades of colonial rule and centuries of general Western ignorance and mystery. In 1957 the Gold Coast became Britain’s first black African colony to gain independence (as Ghana), and in 1960 the then-British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously declared in a speech to the South African Parliament in Cape Town that the ‘wind of change’ was blowing on the African continent as colonial rule began to collapse in the face of African nationalist demands.

South Africa itself had chosen a different path to its northern neighbours. There, in 1948, the Afrikaner-dominated National Party had swept into power and began to implement its much-maligned policies of apartheid (Afrikaans for separateness). In essence, apartheid was designed to segregate the races and help bolster white control for the foreseeable future. Apartheid was maintained not only by social practices and an intricate and draconian legal framework, but by raw coercive force. Only a year after Macmillan’s speech, the world reeled in shock from the March 21 1961 Sharpeville Massacre, in which hundreds of black South Africans were killed or wounded (the true death/injury toll may never be known). Incidentally, two excellent books which deal with the violence of apartheid are Antjie Krog’s The Country of My Skull and Philip Frankel’s An Ordinary Atrocity: Sharpeville and its Massacre.

Between these two poles lay the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Created in 1953 and trumpeted as a halfway house between South Africa (the whites remained in control) and Ghana. The ‘partnership’ of the title was a supposed partnership between the races which was meant to be a bold new political arrangement on the continent. However, despite the PR (and there was a very concerted PR campaign involved), Patrick Keatley – then Commonweath correspondent for the Guardian newspaper – shows that the federation was really an attempt to increase white settler control rather than a genuine attempt at multiracialism.

The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland – note the proximity to Portuguese colonial Africa (cf: my blog about mercenaries).

To explain the present Keatley goes decades back into the past, and he spends a lot of time there. A LOT of time. He goes back to the early days of colonisation and sees the two spiritual “founders” of the colonies in the region as Cecil Rhodes and David Livingstone. This is a massive oversimplification but it serves as a good device to illustrate two potential ways the Federation could have developed. What is more, from a narrative perspective the life stories of the men, as told by Keatley, present a rather stark contrast. First we have Livingstone, presented as a man who lived humbly, despised slavery, and happily mixed with Africans. Keatley sees the Livingstone tradition alive and well in present-day Africa in the backgrounds of the often mission-educated African nationalist leaders across the three territories. On the other hand Rhodes was a rapacious freebooter obsessed with power, wealth, and his own cult of personality. Keatley describes, in great detail, how Rhodes connived to expand Britain’s imperial frontier for his own, and his cronies’ personal gain. Rhodes’ tradition lived on in the exploitative behaviour of wealthy settlers, seeking to acquire ever-more and keep Africans in ‘their place’.

Cecil Rhodes – all-round terrible man.

As I have noted Keatley spends a lot of time on the history of the Federation, particularly Rhodes’ adventures in Southern Rhodesia, because he believes that it is essential to explaining the then-contemporary dynamics of Federation politics. Namely, the fact that the original imperial expansion had been carried out in Britain’s name but not under Britain’s authority. A penny-pinching imperial government in London, its head turned by problems in Egypt and Ireland, decided to sanction Rhodes’ British South Africa Company to expand in the Queen’s name. Since then, Keatley notes, the British government had generally abrogated any responsibility for what happened in the colonies there despite its wider stated aims of holding them in ‘trusteeship’ for their black African citizens.

Throughout, Keatley is unstintingly critical of the British failure to intervene to protect its ostensible (African) subjects. He has a good grasp of the settler mentalities which seemed absolutely absurd even then to educated liberals such as Keatley and sound even weirder today. Keatley does a brilliant job of recreating for the reader the level of settler myopia whilst acknowledging that all such bizarre beliefs were sincerely held and that settler leaders such as Federal Prime Minister Roy Welensky and his predecessor Godfrey Huggins, were desperate to remove any vestiges of colonial control and gain settler independence as a sort of discount South Africa.


Sir Roy Welensky probably writing some of the papers that now take up 805 boxes in Oxford University…

Amidst all this hypocrisy and myopia, Keatley foresaw something that British governments from the 1890s to the 1960s apparently failed to see. Throughout, he sounds a grim warning about the bloodshed that would result if Africans were denied a greater role in the political process. Towards the end of the work he quotes African nationalist leaders saying that, if the settlers would not permit a legitimate outlet for their grievances, then they would be forced to turn to violence. Only years later this was precisely what happened in Southern Rhodesia (by then the only settler-held remnant, as Malawi and Zambia did ultimately gain majority-rule independence).

Keatley’s solution is a surprisingly sensible one, if perhaps a product of his time. He recommends that Britain’s experienced former colonial administrators from places like India and Ghana be brought in to help with a transition of power towards the African majorities, and also that Britain deploy troops to quell the (in Keatley’s eyes paramount) threat posed by the fact that the Federation possessed its own locally-recruited and maintained army and air force (small, but one of the best-equipped in Africa). This solution was something that could never be countenanced by the settlers, and the most stubborn of them managed to hold out in Rhodesia until its independence at Zimbabwe in 1980.

In summary, Keatley’s book is a highly readable account of a very significant episode in Africa’s colonial history. While I found it had dated significantly since its publication – inevitable in a current affairs book – it provides a fascinating snapshot of a time that is within living memory for many but feels like a world away to us today. I give it four ≠≠≠≠   “not equal to” symbols to represent the hollowness of the concept of partnership and the continuing inequality between the races in the Federation.



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