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Blacks had no voice in 1922 referendum



SOUTHERN Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – rejected joining the South African Union in a historic referendum in October 1922.  

Voters had to choose between establishing self-government, joining the Union of South Africa or continuing under the British South Africa Company (BSAC). The BSAC had governed Southern Rhodesia since October 1889 when it was granted a mining exploration charter by the British government.

Its founder Cecil John Rhodes was given permission to explore the area north of the Transvaal with unlimited powers. In 1890 the BSAC founded the town of Salisbury (now Harare) and named the territory Rhodesia in honour of Rhodes. From 1890 the company operated as the government of Southern Rhodesia until 1923. In 1898 a governing body called the Legislative Council was established with members of the BSAC dominating the body.

In 1910, the Union of South Africa was formed, bringing together former Afrikaner Republics and the Cape Colony. South Africa was granted self-governing status as a colony within the larger British empire.

This resulted in the division of opinions for settlers in Southern Rhodesia. As early as 1914 the Legislative Council considered the question on whether it was prudent for the BSAC to continue as governing body of the colony, or should the colony join the Union of South Africa.

This was postponed as a result of the outbreak of the First World War. After the elections in April 1920, there was strong push for the need to decide on whether for Southern Rhodesia should become a British colony with self-governing status or merge with the union.

In May 1920, the Legislative Council pushed for resolution of the issue. A commission was established by the British government under the leadership of Earl Buxton. Some representatives from Southern Rhodesia visited Cape Town to consult the Jan Smuts-led government on terms which they could be admitted to the Union of South Africa.

Other representatives went to London to push for self-government and negotiate the terms. This culminated in a referendum on 27 October 1922 where the white settler minority overwhelmingly voted against merging with the union. In 1923 Southern Rhodesia became a crown colony with self-governing status limited to white settlers.


AS already stated previously, black Africans had no real electoral say in the 1922 referendum.

In his seminal work An Ill-Fated People: Zimbabwe Before & After Rhodes, Lawrence Vambe analyses what the post-First World War Southern Rhodesia meant to the black African. He argues that while the war had been devastating, it ushered a new age for whites in Rhodesia in which a rosy future beckoned.

He thus states: “The most immediate effect of this was the increased flow of white immigrants who came to swell the ranks of those already in the country. This was a most welcome turn of events for the tiny white minority. The new immigrants brought in greatly needed skills, capital and other valuable assets.”

As regards Africans, Vambe writes: “But for the African people, white immigration and the growing confidence that it engendered among the earlier settlers tipped the scales even more against their shaky position…once the white man felt secure in the company of his own kind, he almost inevitably became arrogant and intransigent, and his capacity to make the black man feel insecure became correspondingly greater. These were the ugly realities that the decade of the 1920s ushered in for my people.

“As early as 1915 the VaShawasha people had heard vague rumours that white people were entertaining the idea of dividing the country more precisely into black and whites areas. These rumours came in the wake of the appointment of the Native Reserve Commission in 1914 to make final recommendations on the allocation of land for African communal occupation.”

The commission largely ignored African opinion. It entrenched segregation based on the claim that whites men were mischief makers who were busy violating black women.

Vambe adds: “Indeed, this process was already in evidence in the crop of coffee-coloured children that had been and were being born everywhere where white men and black women had come into close contact. For another the white men had plenty of money and could soon buy up all the land leave Africans landless.”

The Land Commission report worsened the African condition. It recommended the reduction in the size of land that was held by Africans. It assigned the best land to Europeans. 

Vambe says that in this case, the Shona were the chief victims. These recommendations which were officially described as ‘the final’ settlement of the land question were accepted by both the British and the Rhodesian governments.

But it was a lie to say that this was the ‘final’ settlement. When responsible government came into effect, it appointed the infamous Morris Carter Commission to go into the same subject, which went about the country ‘consulting’ African and European opinion on the matter. This was obviously another bluffing attempt at convincing the African people and the British Government that justice was being done to everyone. But I am old enough to know that the white settlers, through their government, knew exactly what they wanted and needed no African opinion to enlighten them on the system they were evolving. All the same, they went through the motions of sounding out African public opinion on a process whose basic intentions were directed at reducing black people to the state of permanent political, economic and racial inferiors,” he says.

The Carter Commission resulted in the enactment of the obnoxious Land Apportionment Act of 1930. It was upon this legislation that “white Southern Africa was to build its citadel of supremacy”.

To be continued…

*About the writer: Advocate Tererai Mafukidze is now a member of the Johannesburg Bar. He practises with Group One Sandown Chambers in Sandton, Johannesburg. His practice areas at the Bar are: general commercial law, competition law, human rights, administrative and constitutional law.

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