Pledge has echoes of the past
Rhodesia’s white supremacists appealed to the white electorate by taking a stand against African liberation. Similarly, Donald Trump appealed to white Americans
ONALD Trump’s bleak inauguration speech has attracted attention for, among other things, employing the phrase “America first”. The term was popularised by aviator Charles Lindbergh and is associated with anti-Semitic and Nazi sympathisers who sought to keep the US out of World War II.
But Lindbergh and the America First Committee are not the only 20th-century white nationalists to use the term. The small band of racist whites in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, employed a version of it as protest against the onset of decolonisation and the spread of black rule across Africa.
In the 1950s, William J Harper, who was also known for his daring aviation exploits in World War II, made waves by using the slogan “Rhodesia first, last, and always.”
Harper struck one of the most dramatic blows for white supremacy as a signatory to Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence. He served as minister of Internal Affairs in the first cabinet of prime minister Ian
DSmith. Smith vowed that the white minority would rule for 1 000 years. But when Harper popularised the slogan, he was leading the opposition Dominion Party. The party sought full independence from British rule.
The term was controversial as Southern Rhodesia was then governed within the larger Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. This also included contemporary Zambia and Malawi.
By advocating for Southern Rhodesian primacy, Harper made it clear that he was not only opposed to majority rule, but also to the federal structure of governance to which Southern Rhodesia was constitutionally bound.
The slogan prompted a split in 1960 between the territorial branch of the Dominion Party, of which Harper was the leader, and the federal branch, led by Winston Field, who became Southern Rhodesia’s prime minister two years later. Field was booted aside in 1964 for being too moderate.
Harper and his far-right allies sought to appeal to the white Rhodesian electorate by taking a stand against African liberation. Similarly, Trump has appealed to an American electorate that feels overwhelmed by the forces of globalisation. His administration’s skeptical approach to aid in Africa and antagonism of China is a throwback to the Dominion Party’s protest against providing social services for Africans and its strident warning of a communist onslaught in newly independent countries.
The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was inaugurated in 1953 with the encouraging, albeit vague goal of promoting racial partnership enshrined in its constitution. The same year, the moderate, albeit paternalistic missionary Garfield Todd became prime minister of Southern Rhodesia’s territorial government.
The country’s violent liberation struggle of the 1970s, which saw about 20 000 deaths as the whites refused to accept majority rule, was a distant prospect at the time.
But the Federation dissolved in 1963 and the southward march of independence, particularly the chaotic transfer of authority in the Belgian Congo, rapidly radicalised the small white population.
Much as Trump promised his followers the security of a wall on the Mexican border, whites in southern Africa saw the Zambezi on Zimbabwe’s northern border as a fortress to protect “responsible government” and “civilised standards”.
In 1962, the Dominion Party merged with smaller conservative parties to form the Rhodesian Front. In elections that December, the Front, like Trump, defied popular predictions and emerged to form the next government.
The Front increased its stranglehold on the government and widely censored the media.
In 1962, Rhodesians made their historic decision to stand and fight on the Zambezi; this was in contradistinction to existing trends of surrender and appeasement to the evils of pan-Africanism.
In 1965. the small band of Rhodesians defied world trends and declared their own independence from British rule. Harper, Smith and 10 other white men signed the declaration. Its opening lines contained many similarities of both syntax and content to that of the US’s. Both referred to an “entitlement of separate and equal” rights that were in reality only accorded to a minority.
While Trump may not be directly inspired by white Rhodesian political strategy, many white American nationalists are. The Charleston church shooter, Dylann Roof, a young white supremacist, posed for pictures wearing apparel with the Rhodesian flag. He owned a website with the url lastrhodesian. com. According to the historian Gerald Horne, hundreds, if not thousands of white Americans, served as mercenaries in the Rhodesian military in the 1970s.
Harper and Trump’s political careers share another crucial similarity. Both were dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct.
As Trump tweets with the hashtag #AmericaFirst, he may not be aware of the Rhodesian antecedent of the term.
But his campaign tone is not out of line with the sentiments of Harper and Rhodesia’s white nationalists. – The Conversation
Brooks Marmon is a PhD student, Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh