Barely six months earlier, Rhodesia’s leader had defiantly declared that black majority rule would not come for “a thousand years.” Kissinger’s colleague William Schaufele wryly calculated that the US-led negotiations had “reduced this period…by 98.9 percent.”
For Smith’s Intelligence Chief, Ken Flower, this reversal “turned the world upside down for most Rhodesians.” Bishop Abel Muzorewa, a prominent opponent of the white regime, proclaimed that Smith’s broadcast “electrified the world.” Time magazine’s cover story on October 11, 1976 lauded Henry Kissinger’s “dazzling diplomatic foray into Southern Africa” that “raised the possibility that Rhodesia — as well as much of the rest of southern Africa — might be poised on the brink of peace instead of a race war that was once thought inevitable.” Global press reaction largely followed suit; for example, the British Observer gushed that this intricately choreographed process represented “a staggering diplomatic coup” in a “seemingly intractable crisis.”
Yet these accolades soon faded from public consciousness. Though Ian Smith’s about-face proved to be a turning point, black majority rule in Rhodesia did not actually come on Kissinger’s watch. His Southern Africa initiative had become a galvanizing issue in the US presidential primaries, inflaming US conservatives such as Ronald Reagan, who accused him of “preparing a bloodbath in Rhodesia;” others condemned Kissinger’s “intended betrayal of fellow whites” in Southern Africa. Soon after Smith’s announcement, a wounded Gerald Ford lost the 1976 presidential election. Kissinger became a lame duck secretary, effectively ending his role in the Rhodesia negotiations, which stalled, triggering an upsurge in guerilla fighting.
Majority rule in Rhodesia only became a reality with a 1979 agreement that largely followed the Kissinger blueprint, forged under British leadership at London’s Lancaster House. Against the hopes of South Africa and the United States for relatively moderate leadership, newly independent Zimbabwe soon elected Robert Mugabe its first president. The pride and anticipation that greeted his first term, however, evolved into despair and resignation as Mugabe’s lengthy reign turned despotic and economically catastrophic.
It is impossible to forget the worldwide celebration and 1993 Nobel Prize when Nelson Mandela with F.W. de Klerk ended apartheid in South Africa and launched black majority rule in that country. Yet few recall Kissinger’s remarkable diplomatic push some seventeen years earlier to achieve majority rule in neighboring Rhodesia.
Perhaps this is because Kissinger did not finish the job. Perhaps his controversial actions in Cambodia, Chile, and elsewhere have obscured his Southern Africa negotiations, which for many people would seem wholly out of character. Certainly, the shadow of Mugabe’s disastrous reign has eclipsed that long-ago moment of hope when democratic principle triumphed over white minority rule in Rhodesia.
This mostly forgotten episode certainly reminds and instructs us about the potential for creative and strategic negotiation to overcome what many regard as impossibly high barriers. It also underscores how those on high may soon recant their ironclad declarations. Less than two years before resigning, Mugabe, like Smith (“not in a thousand years”) before him, unequivocally proclaimed: “I will be there until God says come, but as long as [I] am alive I will head the country . . .”And looking back to history in order to gaze into the future, we see the painful lesson that negotiating virtuosity plus the election of a charismatic leader hardly suffice for a prosperous and democratic outcome.
By James K. Sebenius . This article was first published by Harvard International