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date: 27 June 2022

South Africa and Rhodesia/Zimbabwelocked

South Africa and Rhodesia/Zimbabwelocked

  • Alois MlamboAlois MlamboDepartment of Historical and Heritage Studies, University of Pretoria


This article traces the relations between South Africa and Southern Rhodesia/Rhodesia/Zimbabwe from the end of the 19th century until the present with respect to politics; economic, military, ideological, and cultural activities; as well as foreign policy. The conflicted relationship between the two countries went through varying periods of close cooperation and also of tension, especially given the difference in power between the much larger and more economically prosperous South Africa and the smaller society and economy of Southern Rhodesia. Other important factors include the dominant influence of the Afrikaners in South Africa, from the creation of the Union in 1910 onward, and the apprehension felt by a predominantly English-speaking white population of Rhodesia, which arose from a fear of being swallowed up by Afrikaner-dominated South Africa. During the Zimbabwean liberation struggle from the early 1960s onward, South Africa gave military support to Rhodesia, at least in the early part of the conflict; it changed its policy in the mid-1970s and began to advocate for negotiations between Rhodesia’s warring parties. Between Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 and the democratic transition in South Africa in 1994, relations between the two countries were fraught with tensions because the Zimbabwean government persistently condemned the apartheid regime and hosted representatives of South African anti-apartheid movements, although Zimbabwe was careful not to allow these movements to launch military attacks on South Africa from its soil, for fear of reprisals. On its part, the South African government conducted a sabotage campaign against its northern neighbor and exerted economic pressure on it. Despite all these tensions, however, South Africa remained Zimbabwe’s major trading partner throughout this period. The tension between the countries lessened when Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, but new tensions arose because of Mandela and Robert Mugabe’s rivalry over the leadership of Southern Africa. On coming to power in 1999, Thabo Mbeki tried to diffuse tensions by adopting a different style of foreign policy that, in Zimbabwe’s case, was known as “quiet diplomacy”—a policy that came under much criticism from Western countries and some sectors in Southern Africa. Mbeki’s successors continued this diplomatic policy toward Zimbabwe, even following a militarily assisted political transition in November 2017, which saw the overthrow of Mugabe and his replacement by Emerson Munangangwa.


  • Southern Africa

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