Commentary Magazine


The Welensky Story, by Garry Allighan

Case for the White Rhodesian

The Welensky Story.
by Garry Allighan.
Macdonald. 308 pp. 30 shillings.

This new biography of Sir Roy Welensky was written “with every possible assistance” from its subject, the Prime Minister of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Sir Roy would be less than human were he not pleased with the result, since it offers us a picture of him as statesman and visionary, a picture on the same heroic scale as that which Kipling gave us of that other unashamed imperialist, Rhodes. Here, Mr. Allighan would have us believe, is another “immense and brooding spirit.” “This man Welensky,” he tells us in the final paragraph of a book which spares few adjectives, “is engaged in a valiant endeavour to prevent the remaining light from the guttering candle of Western democratic civilization in Africa being extinguished.” To liberals of all parties in Britain and to Africans in his own country, this would be laughable, were the case one about which it is possible to be amused. As they see it, the “candle” has yet to be lit, and Sir Roy is a white supremacist all the more dangerous because he affects the enlightened disguise of “partnership.” Sir Roy’s notorious mask has been stripped off so frequently by now, however, that some of the features behind it have gone too. It is hard now to perceive what is really there. Mr. Allighan’s appallingly written, inflated, and evasive book gives us little assistance, and indeed only damages the interests it seeks so transparently to further.

Welensky was born in Pioneer Street, Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia in 1907, the youngest child of an unsuccessful jack-of-all-trades from Vilna in Russian Poland and an Afrikaans mother. In his first approved biography (1955) Welensky was half-Jewish, but in this one he has become only a quarter so. Although his father spent his declining years as wocher to the Salisbury community, and Roy in the early thirties was the victim of a certain amount of anti-Semitism, Welensky’s partial Jewishness seems to have been of no particular significance to him. The category into which he can most usefully be put is that of the white working class, a large and traditionally illiberal group which manages to combine the profoundest contempt for the capacity of Africans with the belief that their exercising of it would constitute a threat. It is to Welensky’s credit that he has outgrown the attitudes of this class which now makes up a large part of the white opposition to such modestly liberal measures as he sometimes attempts, but it was through it that he rose to his present position. As an engine driver in Northern Rhodesia he joined what is still the most intransigent trade union in the country, and while still working on the railways, became a member of the Northern Rhodesia Legislative Council where he made a name for himself as the champion of settler interests against Colonial Office “interference.” After the War he worked for the closer association of Northern Rhodesia with Southern Rhodesia, labors which were crowned with success in 1953 when the Federation of the two Rhodesias and Nyasaland was created. With Lord Malvern (formerly the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia) he is frequently described as the “architect” of Federation. The edifice over which he now rules is—with effective African governments imminent in two of its territories—in a very precarious state.

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The Federation consists of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, and Nyasaland. Southern Rhodesia, with a comparatively large white population of about 200,000 has enjoyed almost complete sovereignty since 1923, when the settlers took over from Rhodes’s Chartered Company which had been running the country as a kind of enormous private estate. Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, however, were (and still are in crucial matters) the responsibility of the Colonial Office, and settler interests there, while not in the least neglected, are not so deeply entrenched as those in Southern Rhodesia. In Southern Rhodesia, which sets the “tone” for the whole country, an all-white legislature used its power for thirty years to create a society—now belatedly changing—hardly distinguishable in law and custom from that which existed in neighboring South Africa. The movement for closer association between North and South sprang from settler interests in each territory. The Southern Rhodesians wanted a cut in Northern Rhodesia’s large revenues from its prosperous copper mining industry, and the Northern Rhodesians wanted to move away from a Colonial Office which could at any time be occupied by what Welensky calls “long-haired intellectuals” whose “half-baked” ideas might lead them to hand over the country to the Africans. In 1953, the British government made a deal with the settlers. They could have their Federation provided that they took in poor, populous, and very black Nyasaland, and provided that the federal government pursued a more liberal policy towards Africans. The Rhodesians agreed to this, though a large minority of whites in Southern Rhodesia were not at all happy at getting mixed up with all the extra Africans in “the black North,” or with the new talk of a “great experiment in race relations” and “partnership.” It was in the Preamble to the new Federal Constitution that this by now threadbare word was given its first official airing.

It is around this word that a great deal of the debate about the Rhodesias has turned. Welensky’s critics argue that “partnership” is a sham. They can point to the ill-advised remarks of Lord Malvern about its being a partnership of “the rider and the horse” or about its being “forced on us by the British Government.” They can sustain their case by listing many examples of discrimination and of European privilege. They can demonstrate convincingly that the few Africans who sit in the Federal House are Welensky’s “stooges.” They can point to the large membership of African Nationalist movements in all three territories to prove beyond question that Welensky rules without the consent of the governed. They can show that, from the beginning of his tenure of office in 1956, Welensky was less concerned with winning African confidence (“I don’t believe in gestures”) than with pursuing his abiding aims—reducing interference from Britain and extending settler power. Indeed, his first major act as Prime Minister in the spring of 1957 was to persuade the British government “to recognize the existence of a convention” whereby it “would not amend or repeal any Federal Act.” Soon after this he passed a Constitutional Amendment Act which Mr. Allighan describes as a “massive advance in democracy.” He forbears to mention that it caused the resignation of the African Affairs Board—an independent watchdog body set up to guard African interests—which deemed it “discriminating.” All this—and a great deal more later—in a society that was to be an example to the world.

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Has Welensky got any kind of a case? Having lived among them, I find the dilemma of the white Rhodesians a poignant one. They settled the country at the end of the 19th century at a time when popularized Darwinism combined with Samuel Smiles to demonstrate that there was only one moral order and that the white man was high in it. Strong in moral conviction, industrious and severe in judgment, they confronted natives who appeared backward, superstitious, smelly, and indolent—almost custom-built to match the prejudices the Europeans brought with them. And when the Europeans began to build their new country, the attitudes derived from this encounter (and from the savagery they witnessed when their numbers were decimated in the Rebellions of 1896 and 1897) were frozen into what they made. They built up the artifacts and institutions of a European society from scratch (“then” and “now” is a theme to which Mr. Allighan and Sir Roy are both prone to return) and set it down between themselves and the landscape. Africans served this society but were not invited—indeed hardly wanted—to share it. More importantly—until quite recent times—the outside world did not seriously question the propriety of what the settlers did. Their reluctance nowadays to share the currently accepted world view about matters of race—which they see as a post-war phenomenon not unconnected with the competing liberalisms of the Cold War—has made them the villains of the political stage, the victims of a double standard of judgment which sees bad behavior from Africans as the result of circumstance and environment, from settlers as the expression of a pre-scientific wickedness. Their old position is of course obsolete, but we should temper the severity of the criticisms we make now with the understanding that historically no group of people would have behaved much differently from the way the white Rhodesians did. In demanding rapid and fundamental changes from them too, we should remind ourselves of what we are asking them to do. We are asking them to perform a surgical operation on themselves for which there is no successful precedent and from which the patient-surgeon might die.

All this can be offered only as a plea in mitigation. It does not make much of a “case.” This, the Federal government’s and Sir Roy Welensky’s view, is adumbrated at great length and with a marked absence of criticism by Mr. Allighan. We are to understand that Sir Roy believes in the civilizing mission of Britain, of a Britain somehow greater and wiser than the real Britain with whom he finds himself so frequently at odds. To this end the vote must be kept in the hands of “civilized” and “responsible” (to whom?) people who will see to it that decent “standards” (this term is used to mean both British standards of probity in public affairs and European standards of living) are maintained. The alternative to this is a number of black states in which something like dictatorship will be the mode of government, and in which Communist influence will be strong and possibly dominant. Sir Roy does not invoke Plato to support his argument, but he could well do so. He genuinely believes that with the “guardians” to direct them, the slaves will find their way to Larissa. He is probably genuine too (though from his treatment in much of the British press one would find it hard to believe) in wishing to admit Africans into a fuller share of the national life, and some legislation has been passed which lays the groundwork for this. But he wants the “civilized” to determine the speed of this admission. The test of “civilization” is a franchise qualification based on income and property which Europeans, however uncivilized, tend to pass, and which Africans, often because they are Africans, do not. It is on this deception that a case in which half-truth and falsehood are curiously intermixed fundamentally rests.

In Welensky’s defense it can be argued that the white electorate to which European politicians in the Federation are responsible gives them little room to maneuver. The kind of dramatic changes which were required in the early days of federation in order to win African confidence would hardly have been acceptable, and the white politician who attempted them would have been replaced by somebody more conservative. It is difficult not to suspect however that Welensky has at times welcomed this constriction for the negotiating strength it has given him with Britain. Tragically, he is the only man in Central Africa with the stature and the political adroitness to have pushed the Europeans to their limit without destroying himself. It seems to be too late to attempt this now. White Southern Rhodesians have recently approved, urged by Welensky and their territorial Prime Minister, a new Constitution which admits Africans—fifteen of them—into their legislature for the first time. In terms of their 19th century traditions this represents a tremendous step forward, and to the South African electorate with whom they are often unfairly lumped together, it would be inconceivable. And yet as a gesture—it is no more than that because effective power is still in European hands—it is eight years too late. Africans are not interested, and are not bothering to register in reasonable numbers on the Voters’ Roll. The white Rhodesians, of whom Welensky is so completely the type, are changing, but they and he are doing so at a pace which cannot enable them to catch up with the events around them.

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