When Robert Mugabe was recently forced out of office after 37 years of increasingly brutal rule in Zimbabwe, he had been in the job so long that few recall how he got there. Fewer still remember that it was Henry Kissinger, of all people, whose negotiations to achieve black majority rule in Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe, helped to facilitate Mugabe’s ascent.
President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger judged 1975 to be a pivotal moment as a new front in the Cold War threatened to open up in the mineral rich nations of Southern Africa. In 1974, a left-wing coup in Portugal spurred the demise of its colonial domination of Mozambique, where an indigenous Marxist group rapidly gained power. Almost concurrently, an insurgent group in Angola quickly expanded it influence with significant Soviet military aid and what would ultimately amount to some twenty thousand Cuban combat troops. Through Washington’s Cold War lens, two important coastal nations in Southern Africa, Angola on the west coast and Mozambique on the east, were fast falling under Soviet and Cuban influence.
A Soviet-sponsored Cuban alliance with African Marxists alarmed Kissinger and Ford as well as many leaders of newly decolonized African nations in this region such as Tanzania and Zambia, not to mention the white regimes of Rhodesia and South Africa. Even if the prime targets of such guerrilla groups were the white-ruled regimes, their spread to neighboring countries, such as Zambia and Tanzania, could destabilize and even overthrow such fragile “host” governments. US inaction could cede dominant influence over this mineral-rich region to the Soviets, suggesting a post-Vietnam loss of national will.
Beyond classical geopolitics, there was widespread discussion of a coming “race war” in Southern Africa, especially in Rhodesia. Apart from alarmist talk in popular circles, the normally sober diplomat George Kennan raised the specter of “some form of genocide” for whites and “a cost in bloodshed so appalling as to rock the stability of international life.”
Along with South Africa and Zaire, the Americans launched covert military actions to counter the communist presence in Angola. When news of the US initiative inevitably leaked, the Congress, scarred by the just-ended Vietnam War, promptly blocked it.
Therefore, motivated by a combination of Cold War, democratic, and humanitarian interests, Kissinger switched gears from covert and military to overt and diplomatic. In effect, he offered a deal to Tanzania, Zambia, and the other “Frontline” African states that bordered the minority-ruled regimes in the region. If the Frontline states would keep out foreign troops—Cuban, Soviet, or any other—Kissinger would embark on an intensive negotiation campaign to achieve black majority rule in Rhodesia.
This was a formidable negotiation challenge, one that the British had repeatedly failed to meet once Rhodesia had unilaterally broken away from London, its former colonial master. Here’s why: in Rhodesia, some 270,000 whites had ruled over six million black Africans. Then-Prime Minister Ian Smith had confidently asserted: “The white man is master of Rhodesia. He has built it, and he intends to keep it.” On March 20, 1976, Smith was categorical: “I don't believe in black majority rule ever in Rhodesia, not in a thousand years.”
Yet scarcely six months after his unequivocal declaration, capping Kissinger’s negotiations in the region, Ian Smith stunned his white countrymen—and a world audience—with a televised announcement that accepted the principle of majority rule in Rhodesia, to take effect within two years.
More surprising was how Kissinger had engineered Smith’s abrupt reversal. He spearheaded a shift in US policy away from quietly backing white minority governments and toward active support of black majority rule. He gained British support and delicately worked with leaders of both moderate and radical black African states. Kissinger ultimately persuaded a reluctant South Africa—that “citadel of apartheid” and crucial backer of Rhodesia—to apply powerful pressure to Rhodesia to abandon white minority rule within two years.
Remarkably, South Africa agreed to coerce its neighbor despite the plain fact that, if Rhodesia capitulated, anti-apartheid forces would—and later did—shift their main energies toward South Africa, the major remaining white-ruled state in the region.
In the course of writing a book that seeks lessons from Kissinger’s distinctive deal-making career, Nick Burns, Bob Mnookin, and I have pieced together the twists and turns of this neglected story, which Kissinger described as “by far the most complex” negotiation he had ever conducted. It involved challenging encounters such as recruiting a suspicious Julius Nyerere—Tanzanian President and leading figure in the “non-aligned movement” of developing countries—to help build a supportive African coalition to pressure the Rhodesians. In his uneasy alignment with the American Secretary of State, Nyerere wanted “the two greatest sources of power on our side: God and Kissinger.”
Kissinger’s power in this initiative, however, did not derive from military or economic sources, though his global standing was extremely high after his diplomatic successes negotiating the US-China opening, détente and arms control with the Soviets, and disengagement accords among Egypt, Israel, and Syria after their 1973 war. To induce South Africa—a vital military backer of Rhodesia and the sole conduit for much of Rhodesian trade—to pressure its regional ally, Kissinger shrewdly played on South Africa’s increasingly painful international isolation, its sanctions-weakened economy, as well as the rapidly mounting costs of its military operations in the region. Kissinger stressed how playing a visibly constructive role vis-à-vis Rhodesia promised to improve South Africa’s global image and reduce its military expenditures.
Perhaps most persuasively, Kissinger made the case that rapidly increasing guerilla activity in Rhodesia—where black Africans held a 22-1 edge over whites—would inevitably impose militant black majority rule on the country. If South Africa pressed Rhodesia now for a more rapid and peaceful transition to black majority rule, Kissinger argued, the odds of relatively moderate black leadership (under Joshua Nkomo) were much higher than if South Africa continued its present course.
At the final stage of this complex multi-party process, with a supportive US-UK-African coalition and his appeal to a range of South African interests, Kissinger induced John Vorster, South Africa’s Prime Minister, to compel Rhodesia to accept black majority rule within two years—or in Ian Smith’s words, to “throw us to the wolves.” Smith lamented that, at this point, he was “confronted by the one country in the world [South Africa] that controlled our lifeline . . . leaving us no alternative.”
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.
James K. Sebenius is a professor at Harvard Business School, director of the Harvard Negotiation Project at Harvard Law School, and co-author, with Nick Burns and Bob Mnookin, of Kissinger the Negotiator (Harper Collins, forthcoming May 2018).