‘The wind of change is blowing through this continent’
British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan
The turning point in my identity came early in life. I was eight years old and living in a small house in a suburb for not-so-well-healed new immigrants in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia. The suburb, being eight kilometres southwest of the city centre, was imaginatively called Southerton. It had a very English feel to it. Our neighbours, like us, had come mostly from Britain, some via a stay in South Africa; there was a smattering of Italians and Portuguese.
My Dad had been attracted to the notion of getting out of mid-1950s, damp, rationed Manchester, where I had been born into lower middle class coziness. He had been on Crete as a 20 year old soldier in the Second World War and had come to love the sunshine and space. He wanted more of it.
He, among many other post-war Brits, had been attracted by adverts like this one.
“Land and property . . . in Southern Rhodesia – a country of vast potentialities and rapid development – are investments which increase in value and yield handsome dividends. Whether you are interested in the town or in the country, we are able to advise you on all transactions to your advantage.”
Or perhaps he was walking along the Strand in London and paused to be enthused by the poster in the window of Rhodesia House extolling the virtues of the far away colony.
But it was not to be all milk and honey.
In that British way of Empire, fawning to those in power, Rhodesia had been named after Cecil Rhodes, the expatriate Englishman making a fortune from South African diamonds. Like so many Victorians, he had a lust for empire building, and was a meddler in politics as sometime prime minister of the Cape Province. Ironically, Rhodes himself had suggested the country be named Zambezia. Salisbury had been named after the late Victorian Prime Minister of Britain when a hardy group of fortune hunters had raised the Union Flag over a dusty patch of ground in 1892, which, for want of imagination, they called Cecil Square. Both namings summed up Southern Rhodesia. On the surface and amongst its white community it was profoundly British. Though self-governing since 1923, in 1960 it was still quintessentially an outpost of Empire. Its political leaders had been bestowed with imperial honours; hence British born and raised Sir Godfrey Huggins, later to become Viscount Malvern, Sir Roy Welensky, Sir Garfield Todd and Sir Edgar Whitehead, prime ministers all.
Without the cut and thrust of a major cosmopolitan city like London shaping the nation’s culture and mores, Southern Rhodesia was insular and old-fashioned. Its total population was just over there million people, of which just 7 per cent, or 223,000 were white. The white population’s values were those of World War II, Dunkirk, The Blitz. Courage and fortitude in adversity. The Battle of Britain assumed great significance because Ian Smith, the renegade prime minister from 1964, had been a Spitfire pilot in the Royal Air Force. Never surrender. Don’t show weakness in the face of the enemy, which many interpreted to be the black masses, unreasonably hungry for a share of the wealth.
In early 1960, into this cozy cocoon flew the patrician British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. He was on an extended tour of Africa, visiting Ghana, Nigeria and other British colonies in Africa.
No serving British prime minister had visited Africa before Macmillan. He travelled in a slow turboprop Britannia aircraft and was away from London for six weeks. He joked his only purpose was escaping the British winter.
Maybe so, but he had three goals for British Africa on his trip. Firstly, he wanted to set out a clear pathway for a steady march towards black African majority rule, as it was called back then. These days it’s usually called full democracy. Decolonisation was in its infancy. In the British sphere of influence, only Ghana had secured independence, in March 1957. So many others were waiting.
Secondly, he wanted to resolve the difficulties in the Central African Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, set up under Britain’s guiding hand in 1953. The two northern partners, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, rejected entrenched white domination by the stronger Southern Rhodesia. And thirdly, he wanted to nudge the South Africans, with their calvinist regime of fierce racial segregation, characterised as apartheid, back to what the rest of the world considered morally acceptable.
On January 5th, 1960 he briefed the Queen at Sandringham on the forthcoming trip and set off with his wife Dorothy, his valet, his wife’s maid and a full cast of officials in support.
His first stop was newly independent Ghana, where he was greeted by large and enthusiastic crowds, then to Lagos in Nigeria. He arrived in Salisbury on 18th January, where he gave a speech in support of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and had a tetchy meeting with its prime minister, the former railway union official Welensky. Though fiercely pro-British, his father was a Lithuanian Jew and his mother a ninth-generation Afrikaaner. There was no doubt little cultural affinity or shared interests between the two men that might have oiled discussions. Macmillan made side trips to Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland before returning to Salisbury and another niggling meeting with Welensky at which no sense of an agreed future for the region was reached. Both leaders came away frustrated.
He then took off on a sight seeing tour of Bechuanaland, Northern Transvaal, Johannesburg, Swaziland, Durban, Bloemfontein and Basutoland. He arrived in Cape Town, the seat of South Africa’s parliament, on 2nd February. He seemed ill, but in fact he was suffering from a severe attack of nerves ahead of what was to be one of the most important speeches of his career, and certainly the best-remembered by posterity.
The next day, my eighth birthday, he announced the end of British colonisation of Africa to South African Prime Minister Henrik Verwoerd and the assembled members of the South African parliament.
British author and journalist Anthony Sampson, who attended the speech as the London Observer newspaper’s correspondent, reported that it was widely expected to be congratulatory since the occasion coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the Union of the four provinces of Cape Province, Natal, Orange Free State and Transvaal into South Africa. The streets of Cape Town were decked out with celebratory flags. Macmillan addressed the joint houses of parliament in the Old Assembly dining room, which had served as the chamber of the Cape parliament until 1910, where Cecil Rhodes had plotted and planned the takeover of Africa. Macmillan was seated in front of a large oil painting of Lord de Villiers, one of the architects of reconciliation between Boers and British, making the case for Union to the Cape parliament. The backdrop of Union with Britain’s intimate involvement, remained an irritant around the dark shadow of Afrikaner nationalism.
Macmillan duly began with fulsome acknowledgment of the significant anniversary. He paid tribute to the fruits of South African nationhood, in particular its immense material and scientific progress. While recognising South Africa’s independence, he laid stress on its mutual interdependence with Britain in trade, investment, and in times of war.
All this was a lengthy prelude to Macmillan’s pragmatic recognition of the unstoppable forces of African nationalism that were making themselves felt in Africa. Slyly, he reminded his hosts that they ‘understand this better than anyone’:
You are sprung from Europe, the home of nationalism, and here in Africa you have yourselves created a new nation. Indeed, in the history of our times yours will be recorded as the first of the African nationalisms, and this tide of national consciousness which is now rising in Africa is a fact for which you and we and the other nations of the Western World are ultimately responsible.
He spoke for 50 minutes, long even by the standards of the age. Most of the speech was wrapping paper; inside were two messages. The first was the celebrated claim that ‘the wind of change is blowing through this continent’ and ‘whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it.’
There is now some dispute about how his comments were received by those present. British reporter Peregrine Worsthorne thought the speech ‘something of an anti-climax’ because the underlying message was ‘so wrapped up with polite waffle that few in the audience got it’.
Verwoerd’s ultra-loyal private secretary, Fred Barnard, did get it and was enraged, partly because he was not provided with the customary advance copy. He regarded the speech as an insult. It ‘occupied nearly ten pages; ten pages of silken, smooth-tongued, cold and calculated insults of courteously phrased, remorseless condemnation of the country whose guest he was’.
Those excluded from the day’s events may have taken a more generous line. Despite Macmillan’s declining to meet African National Congress leaders, Nelson Mandela thought the speech was ‘terrific’; he specifically recalled it in a 1996 speech to the UK Parliament. Then ANC leader Albert Luthuli noted that Macmillan had given African people ‘some inspiration and hope’. Some in the rank and file may have been more sceptical. A group of peaceful demonstrators – black women who had somehow evaded the police – stood vigil outside the South Africa parliament, one carrying a placard declaring ‘Verwoerd is not our leader.’
Yet most Afrikaners seemed pleased to have got off lightly, with no threat of a real souring of relations, especially economic, with the U.K.. British financial investment in South Africa had increased steadily since the war. In 1960 the country accounted for almost 10 per cent of total British overseas direct investment, comparable to British holdings in the United States, Australia and in Canada. Moreover, the rate of return on British direct investments in South Africa was an unusually healthy 10.3 per cent. Macmillan did not wish to jeopardise this, at a time when the British Labour Party was calling for a boycott of South African goods.
Nor was Verwoerd moved by Macmillan’s silky words of camaraderie. He was an academic, with a record of high achievement, up to and including a Ph.D. At the age of 35, he was appointed as Professor of Sociology and Social Work at the University of Stellenbosch, the pre-eminent Afrikaans language university. Three years later he became editor of Die Transvaler, a newspaper that was a strong supporter of Afrikaner nationalism. Perhaps unusually for so gifted a scholar, he had once declared that he was never troubled by any doubts that he might be wrong. And nor was he on this occasion.
Verwoerd’s reply was simple and direct. While accepting there were honest differences of opinion, he thanked the British prime minister for his forthright remarks and drew attention to their respective countries’ shared ideals and interests. Almost as if he had his academic cap on, his language was coolly instructional rather than defiant. He insisted that ‘there must not only be justice to the black man in Africa, but also to the white man’: white South Africa was a bulwark against communism; its mission in Africa was grounded in the values of Christian civilisation. Besides, there was no other place for whites to go because although whites called themselves ‘European’ they were themselves African and had established themselves in their motherland before the advent of the ‘Bantu’. He suggested that Britain’s policies might prove counter-productive to its very objects.
The Afrikaans’ press trumpeted the reply as that of a strong man, and undoubtedly it strengthened his hitherto somewhat shaky hold on power.
Yet as much as to Verwoerd, perhaps even more, Macmillan’s message was addressed to settler opinion in Kenya and Southern Rhodesia and, crucially, their supporters on the Conservative Party back benches at home. And unsettle the white community in Salisbury, it certainly did. It was seen as betrayal by the kith and kin back home.