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Colonial Experience and Administration in Southern Rhodesia

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Zimbabwe, formerly Southern Rhodesia has a unique colonial history. Phase one of it colonialism was conducted by a British charter company, and then British rule was consolidated by a settler economy regime, with an extremely racially marginalising rule. Southern Rhodesia experienced both regimes of mineral exploitation, and of direct rule under settler economies, without the direct involvement of the British government. This essay will outline its colonial progression till the 1940s, and analyse the administrative and institutional mechanisms used by the European settlers to dominate the indigenous population.

Privatized imperialism dominated Zimbabwe’s early days of colonialism, via rule of companies interested in exploiting the natural resources of the territories. The British South Africa Company [BSAC] is a unique example which maintained sovereign authority and establish ‘privatized hegemony’ over Rhodesia in state formation period .

British adventurer and capitalist Cecil Rhodes obtained mining and speculative rights from the local Ndebele leader in 1888 to search for diamonds and gold in what became Rhodesia. In the early steps of the phase of conquest- from 1890s to eve of World War – Rhodes was able to defeat the Ndebele in 1893 to move carefully chosen, influential white people into the area. In 1895 the land was renamed Rhodesia. Despite strong Ndebele and Shona uprisings against the occupation in 1896-97, the BSAC successfully occupied Rhodesia. Although an agent for colonization, the BSAC was not really a government, as Herbst points out: occupation does not equal administration. The formation of this colony was seen as a continuation of the British Empire’s plan to bring the whole of the “uncivilized worlds under British rule”, based on the notion of white supremacy and a paternalist attitude towards responsibility towards the inferior Africans.

As BSAC’s administration continued, European settlement in Rhodesia increased, and tensions between the BSAC and the settlers surfaced. The settlers demanded political and civil rights, which included prosperity, security and protection from the locals during uprisings . The BSAC was unable to provide an acceptable solution for the settlers, and they therefore began a movement to attain control over Rhodesia. By 1917, the BSAC was tired of administering Rhodesia- their efforts to mine gold had failed -not yielded expected returns-and they planned to end their rule in Rhodesia. The measures taken by the BSAC to develop alternatives to mining laid the basis for the political economy of white settler colonialism in Zimbabwe . Between 1917-1922 negotiations between the British Government, the European settlers and the BSAC continued to determine the future of Rhodesia: options included to either integrate with the South African Union, or become a crown colony under the British. In 1922, the predominantly white Rhodesian Electorate opted to become a responsible self-governing colony and in 1923the colony of Rhodesia was formed . Thus began the second phase of colonialism in Rhodesia, consolidation, which covered the 1920s.

The BSAC administration had been based on an economic regime centered on mineral exploitation, for Southern Rhodesia was considered mineral rich after the discovery of Witswatersrand . After 1923, the Southern Rhodesian climate had attracted many European settlers, and Rhodesia’s primary colonial economic activity and revenue generation became large scale farms owned by Europeans, e.g. tobacco and beef. A settler based rule was established and as Young predicted of such societies, the state became an intermediary between the settlers and the colonized . Settler rule refers to the type of colonialism in Southern Africa in which European settlers imposed direct rule on their colonies. In order to thrive in the colonies, settlers demanded special political and economic rights and protection. Security and prosperity for the settlers depended on economic exploitation and political oppression of the African population that vastly outnumbered the settlers . Consequently, settler rule was characterized by its harsh policies toward the indigenous African population

In this settler system, European settler farmers needed land and labour. To meet these needs, the colonial governments instituted unpopular policies that removed good farm land from the local population and forced men to work as labourers on European controlled farms.

The nature of the Southern Rhodesian colonial state is unique in that the British government did not contribute to it much. Despite disagreeing with the racialized aspect of settler rule, the British Government did not inhibit the growth of a segregated society – a fact that gave the settlers’ local internal autonomy in all aspects of administering the colonial state . The four main spheres in which the settlers set up institutions and administrative mechanisms to control the colonized population were land expropriation, urban control with pass laws, limited educational and consequently job opportunities in wage economies, and finally the exclusion of blacks from political life. Other means used to dominate the local population include the squatter system and the migratory labour system, but this analysis will focus on the above four only.

Beginning with Land Expropriation: According to I.R. Phimister, prior to the establishment of an elite Capitalist agricultural sector, African peasant production was the main supplier of food to the colony, especially the mining industry . Within a few years of occupation, the settlers had taken over the fertile land owned by locals, constructing road and train networks to facilitate development of their mining and agricultural industries . The locals were moved to small, distant reserves with deplorable conditions on which cultivation and even mere survival were difficult . The division of land in Rhodesia was formalised in 1930 with the Land Appropriation Act. This act divided the land into European and African areas. Even in African areas, the Europeans retained mineral rights on land allocated to the Natives . No African was allowed to hold or occupy land in European area except “under condition that he would supply labour to such [European] owner or occupier” . Not only was this segregation of land, but also a racial segregation of the people.

Another form of political domination of the locals was through urban controls. In 1897, Southern Rhodesia Native Regulations Act was promulgated, establishing the structure for administering the African population . Under these regulations the policy of direct rule was implemented throughout the African areas by the Native Affairs Department. The Native Affairs Department also administered the pass laws which required certain members of local population to get passes to enter and move about within urban centers.

A 1902 act required all adult males to register with native commissioner upon reaching the age of 14 and to carry a registration certificate at all times. The Native Registration Act of 1936 augmented methods of urban control and required that in addition to the registration certificate, also called the situpa, Africans in towns needed to carry at least one pass . The settlers dominated the locals by monitoring and restricting their movements in the urban centers.

Since mining and crop farming had become important to the Rhodesian settler economy, in addition to land, plentiful supply of cheap labour was needed -characteristic of any settler economy. The settlers heavily taxed the locals to have them contribute to the settler’s revenue base. This practice of taxing locals began a few years after the BSAC’s conquest of Southern Rhodesia, but the amount of tax due had substantially increased during settler rule. This provided locals with incentives to discontinue their peasant production and join the wage economy . Because wages offered were very low and conditions deplorable, African reluctantly joined the wage economy.

However, the whites could not allow blacks to compete with them in the wage sector, and so legislation was introduced to protect white worker rights by severely limiting the job opportunities open to blacks, and their scope for progress. The Industrial Conciliation Act of 1934 prohibited Africans from entering skilled trades and professions, thereby controlling access to employment opportunities . The term ’employee’ was defined to include only white workers and thus, Africans were completely excluded from the terms of the act. Additionally, the ICA also guaranteed white control over scarce skills by preventing Africans from learning new skills. It also instituted the practice of ‘equal pay for equal work’, which resulted in the Africans getting only unskilled, poorly paid work. To compensate, in the 1930s, the government also formulated the ‘two-pyramid’ or parallel development policy.

This claimed that Africans could reach any professional heights within their own parameters. Simultaneously, however, regulations on training and education barred the African from learning skills to be a doctor, lawyer, priest etc. This kept the monopoly of skills in white hands and thus ensured white political control. A further development secured this control. The Public Services Act of 1931 completely restricted all government administrative jobs to white candidates, limiting nonwhites to menial jobs outside the government sector . Thus, blacks were completely excluded from political life and political representation.

All these show the attempt to completely exclude the blacks from political life in Southern Rhodesia. But it also demonstrates an economic basis for the colonialism of Southern Rhodesia, for the sustenance of the European settler economy. This supports Mahmood Mamdani’s view that there was an overwhelming economic motivation behind Africa’s colonization . However, evidence from this essay shows Young’s argument about the extent of the use of force involved in the colonizing of Southern Rhodesia to be accurate. It is true that the colonial state managed to assert ‘a powerful hold on subject society’, whether through the physical force of the BSAC or the force through legislation intended to politically dominate the population. In conclusion, the former British colony of Southern Rhodesia provides a unique look into the formation of its colonial state and also colonial administration.


Bowman, Larry W., Politics in Rhodesia: White Power in an African State, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973 pg 1-21

Herbst, Jeffrey, “The Europeans and the African Problem” in States and Power in Africa, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000, chapter 3

Phimister, I.R., “Peasant Production and Underdevelopment in Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1914” in African Affairs, 73(291) April 1974, pg 217-228

Utete, C. Munhamu Bostsio, The Road to Zimbabwe: The Political Economy of Settler Colonialism, National Liberation and Foreign Intervention. New Jersey: University Press of America, 1979, chapters 1 & 2

Wetherell, H. Iden, “Settler Expansionism in Central Africa: The Imperial Response in 1931 and Subsequent Implications” in African Affairs, 78(311) April 1979, pg 210-227

Young, Crawford, “Constructing Bula Matari” in The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective, Yale: Yale University Press, 1994, pg 95-140

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