Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

Mediation in Zimbabwe 1965-1980

Quakers were heavily involved in mediation and relief work in Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia) during the war for independence and majority rule (1965-1979).  They acted as election observers during the first free and fair election in 1980 and afterwards continued to work on race relations issues.

Rhodesia had been a British colony.  In 1965, Prime Minister Ian Smith made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, effectively cementing white minority rule and triggering a guerrilla war.  By 1979, the war had been going on for fourteen years, the country was throttled with economic sanctions and the two sides appeared entrenched.  Yet in 1980, the first free and fair elections were held and there was a peaceful transfer to black majority rule.

During much of this time, Quakers, along with other religious groups such as the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and Moral Re-Armament, had been working in the background to achieve a peaceful settlement. Ron Kraybill, an experienced mediator for the Mennonites, described the Quaker involvement as “a unique phenomenon: a travelling reservoir of unconditional and uncomplicated goodwill.”

Quakers in Salisbury (now Harare) and Bulawayo had long been working on building relationships between the black and white communities in Rhodesia. For example, in 1967, Roy and Linda Henson had set up Hlekweni, a multi-racial centre, on a farm purchased with the aid of British and local Quakers.  However, direct Quaker involvement in the peace process can be considered in four phases: in Geneva in 1976, in Southern Africa during 1978/9, at the Lancaster House conference in London 1979 and during the elections in Salisbury in 1979/80.

During the peace talks that took place in Geneva in 1976, Quaker representatives George Loft and Lyle Tatum held meetings with delegates in Quaker House.  Although the peace talks were ultimately unsuccessful, this non-formal diplomacy formed the basis of relationships that were to help future mediation efforts.

In Southern Africa during 1978/9, there was a growing refugee problem in neighbouring States, as people fled from the growing violence.  Quakers took part in the relief efforts in Zambia and Mozambique.

At the same time, Adam Curle was shuttling between London and Africa, speaking with the regime in Salisbury, with the two main liberation groups, ZAPU in Lusaka and ZANU in Maputo, with neighbouring governments in the so-called ‘Frontline States,’ and with the British Government in London.  He also had several valuable meetings with the International Red Cross. Outside of the diplomatic core, no other group maintained such a broad range of contacts.

Quakers sought to influence liberation leaders towards constructive action – for example, warning ZANU leaders about the deep fears held by white Rhodesians and urging them to make public their views on a positive future.

After the British election in 1979, Curle found a change of attitude in the British government, particularly with the appointment of Lord Carrington as Foreign Secretary. Not long after that, negotiations began at Lancaster House, London that led to independence and majority rule in Zimbabwe.  A special desk at Friends House was maintained for the duration of the negotiations. Quakers Walter Martin and Lyle Tatum again worked behind the scenes – identifying sticking points and helping to find a way past them.

“Our motivating power is reconciliation, not advocacy,” Martin said afterwards.

Finally, before and during the elections (1979/80), British Quaker Peace Service representatives Tony and Eirene Gilpin acted as elections observers and a QPS Friendship Centre was set up in Salisbury. After the elections, Quakers were encouraged by members of ZANU to maintain a role in Zimbabwe, focusing on race relations.

Although Quakers had failed in their efforts to set up meetings between senior leaders, their contribution to the peace process in Zimbabwe can perhaps be summed up by one ZAPU official, who said: “You Quakers kept alive in our minds the idea that a negotiated settlement was possible at the darkest times, when there was only war.”

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Further Reading and Credits

  • “Transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe: the role of religious actors”, Ronald Kraybill – from Religion, the Missing Dimension in Statecraft, Douglas Johnston & Cynthia Sampson, (eds), 1994