Normblog today quotes an interview with former British Cabinet Minister and MP Tony Benn, talking about visiting Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during WW II:
When I was there, there was no democracy at all: all the good land had been stolen and given to white farmers, no African had votes, it was a criminal offence for an African to have a skilled job; and now we lecture Zimbabwe on democracy – total hypocrisy.”
First, as so often with Benn, rhetorical effect takes priority over truth. The franchise in Southern Rhodesia was not based on race, but on age, property ownership, income, and a test of English literacy. Despite the inherent bias of these conditions (made worse by the use of a definition of “property” which excluded cattle, the main traditional form of black wealth), some black Rhodesians qualified to vote from the granting of self-government in 1923. Of course, the number of black voters enrolled was tiny (in 1948, 248 non-whites to 48,000 whites enrolled), but even 248 is not zero. Such a system allowed many white Rhodesians to convince themselves their electoral system was not racist. The electoral situation in Rhodesia was undemocratic enough without Benn having to exaggerate it.
Second, the fact that any non-whites had the vote at all was due to British government insistence against the wishes of most of the Rhodesian white population, from 1898 onwards (see West 2002). Benn’s statement jumps from a description of Southern Rhodesia in WW II straight to Zimbabwe in 2009, ignoring the campaigns for majority rule in the 1950s and 1960s, the international struggle and sanctions against the illegal UDI regime of Ian Smith, the British-sponsored negotiations leading to British-led peace-keeping forces, majority rule, and independence in Zimbabwe in 1980, and the political, technical, moral and financial support given by Britain for the newly-elected democratic Government of Robert Mugabe. It is Mugabe and his ZANU-PF henchmen, not Britain, who have failed to honour the standards of democracy. Like Norman Lamont in his deplorable support for the Chilean murderer Augusto Pinochet, Tony Benn seems to apply one standard to elections in Britain and another standard elsewhere. As with Lamont, let me ask Benn: Would it have been OK for John Major to have terrorized and murdered his opponents and refused to leave office when he lost the British election of 1997? If not, then why is it OK for Robert Mugabe to do so? Such a double standard strikes me as treating black people differently to white people.
The advisory Legislative Council established by the ruling British South Africa Company in Southern Rhodesia in 1898 had 6 appointed and 5 elected members, who were, from its creation, chosen under a non-racial franchise (see Walker 1953, p. 104). This franchise was that in force in the Cape Colony, which itself dated from a Municipal Ordinance of 1836, which created a conditional, but colour-blind, franchise for some local governments based solely on ownership or rental of fixed residential property above stated monetary values. Other tests, such as literacy in English, were added later to the conditions. Indeed, the history of white rule in southern Africa in the 19th century can be seen as a fight between liberal, often colour-blind policies imposed from the Colonial Office in London but opposed by far-less-often liberal settlers, particularly those of Afrikaaner origin, who repeatedly left the area under British colonial jurisdiction to establish their own settlements further inland.
Michael O. West : The Rise of an African Middle Class: Colonial Zimbabwe 1898 – 1965. Indiana University Press.
Eric A. Walker : The franchise in Southern Africa. Cambridge Historical Journal, 11 (1): 93-113.