The Lancaster House Conference, 1979: A review and analysis, 40 years on (Part 1)


This week marks 40 years since the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement. In retrospect the Conference appears to have been an easier victory for good sense than in reality it was – for, as Clarence K. Streit once said, “The most dangerous way to cross a chasm is one step at a time”. Curious about how various people seem to remember the complex negotiations, we decided to do a bit of research to create a chronology and develop an analysis of events in the context of the times. I aim to challenge the current amnesiac revisionism of today, laying out the facts as they were then. Just who was there and what happened – and why? What was said about land reform?


The fractious meeting held at Lancaster House, London, in the last months of 1979, which successfully manufactured a constitutional settlement of the “Rhodesian problem,” represented the political culmination of nearly 15 years of bitter and protracted military conflict which had stagnated one of Africa’s strongest economies, directly cost the lives of at least 20,000 people, and impacted at least a million more in many negative ways.

On November 11, 1965, the Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith and his ministers signed the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), a declaration that they would not accept Britain’s plan to establish black majority rule in Rhodesia. This set the stage for an increasingly intransigent, minority white-ruled regime to enter into an armed conflict with the nationalist movement, represented by the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) in order to achieve majority rule. These two political movements, and their armies, Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), fighting for ZAPU and ZANU respectively, were forced into a coalition as the Patriotic Front (PF) from 1978, in order to provide a unified front for their political and military campaigns — at least publicly.

The Conservative administration, led by Margaret Thatcher, came to power in May 1979, took a strong stand over “terrorism” (i.e. the liberation movements) and her pre-election statements suggested that she would be prepared both to lift sanctions and, in her own words, to meet “wide expectations that we would recognise the new Muzorewa Government” which had come to power in April 1979, after a sham election following the infamous Internal Settlement. Some African nations, notably Nigeria, threatened to expel Great Britain from the Commonwealth if moves were made to recognise the government of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. The Frontline States, the Commonwealth and several members of the UK government were determined that Thatcher’s hardline stance should be converted into supporting the peace process in Southern Rhodesia. In Thatcher’s own words:

… unpleasant realities had to be faced. Peter Carrington’s view was that it was essential to secure the widest possible recognition for a Rhodesian regime since that country held the key to the whole Southern African region. He turned out to be right.

Carrington and his Foreign Office team worked to ensure that their plan would be adopted by other governments and put forward as a Commonwealth initiative. The British, finally taking full responsibility for their role in decolonising Rhodesia, were now determined to make it all come together — and to their own, best advantage.

CHOGM in Lusaka and NAM meetings in Havana

The Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting, to be held in Lusaka, from August 1-7, came at the end of a four-nation tour of Africa by Queen Elizabeth II, who was tasked to officially open proceedings. Although Rhodesia dominated the discussions, it did so under a broader theme on racism and human rights. The Lusaka Declaration on Racism and Racial Prejudice tackled the issues of racism and egalitarianism within and between Commonwealth member states. The first article of the declaration demanded legal equality “without any distinction or exclusion based on race, colour, sex, descent, or national or ethnic origin”. It stated that no degree of respect for separate cultures could justify racial discrimination, and that the infamous policy of Apartheid was an “affront to humanity”, and that it was the duty of the Commonwealth to effect its “total eradication”. To compensate for the effects of past colonialism and racism, it was agreed that special provisions could be made to achieve social and economic redress. In addition to demanding respect and equality for indigenous peoples, the Lusaka Declaration also demanded equal respect for immigrant communities. More so than laying the foundation for an independent Zimbabwe, this is arguably the most important result of the meeting, stating unequivocally as it did the official position of Commonwealth countries regarding basic human rights.

The other Lusaka Agreement, that on Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, fully accepted not only Britain’s constitutional responsibility to grant legal independence to Zimbabwe, but also that “free and fair elections” should be “properly supervised under British authority”. There was also the rather bland statement that “it must be a major objective to bring about a cessation of hostilities”. “Many of the African and Asian Government leaders came to Lusaka in August 1979 prepared for a battle with Mrs Thatcher” wrote Brian Lapping (1985). “Her initiative surprised and impressed them.” The Rhodesia Herald, amazed at her volte-face, indignantly asked: “Is Mrs Thatcher really a Labour Prime Minister in drag?”

Invitations to the Conference were issued on August 14, barely a week after the conclusion of CHOGM and all sides accepted. For Abel Muzorewa, the Internal Settlement had brought a majority of black representatives into both Houses of Parliament but did not devolve real political power, which remained vested in minority hands. The White minority still had veto rights on legislation and remained in full commercial control. A compromise constitution that would satisfy all stakeholders and bring the war to an end was desperately needed. There was a desire on Muzorewa’s part to secure international recognition for any peace agreement, necessary for the lifting of sanctions and the return of international investment. As Neuhaus (2015), it was the CHOGM meeting that set the stage:

Without the Commonwealth Conference, it is probable that Britain would have called a constitutional conference which the Patriotic Front would have boycotted. The independence of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia would have been recognised, the guerrilla war would have continued, and Britain’s relations with Africa would have been in tatters. Following the Conference, relations with Africa on the other hand were at a new high and the future for a negotiated settlement looked more promising.

“From a British government perspective, convincing Mugabe and Nkomo directly [to attend the conference] was not an easy task due to lacking a history of diplomatic contact between them and the government” (Brailsford 2016, parentheses added). The Patriotic Front, led by Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe, tried to have the Lusaka Declaration condemned at the Non-Aligned Movement’s Summit in Havana between September 7-9, although they had officially accepted the invitation on August 20. As Yorke (1996) relates, directly quoting Robert Mugabe, “the Front Line states said we had to negotiate, had to go to this conference”.

Mugabe was the most reluctant of all to attend the conference, instead wanting to prolong the war and attempt to win it outright, no matter the cost in human lives. Zambian president, Kenneth Kaunda’s words summarised the atmosphere at this NAM summit, mentioning that, “We had a job to convince both Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo to go to London. They were saying … they were going to continue to fight. In fact … we turned on the freedom fighters in Cuba … we said ‘give the British Government a chance to prove that they are sincere in what they are saying to us’”. The other leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement declined to condemn the Lusaka Agreement, and the stage was set for a stormy showdown in London.

Political and Military Background to the Conference

External factors were a deciding factor in cementing the commitment of all parties participating in the peace process. For Muzorewa’s government the increasingly parlous state of the economy was a major driving force. The war they were fighting to preserve economic interests and social privileges was rapidly eroding these selfsame stakes, being further drained by global recession, sanctions and emigration of skilled personnel. Additionally South Africa indicated it was tiring of supporting Rhodesia. The war was not going well for the Rhodesians. As Henrik Ellert (1989) wrote:

Units of both Zipra and Zanla, in their respective operational sectors, were by now openly parading and showing military authority in rural areas which had long since fallen under their effective control. By … 1979 the security forces were confined in mine-protected vehicles moving by day in heavily armed convoys. Rural base camps were often subjected to attacks by night with mortar, rocket and small arms fire.

In addition the number of civilian and military casualties was increasing exponentially, an indication that the war was only going to get more bloody, with no true end in sight (Yorke 1996):

In 1977 a total of 1759 guerrillas and 197 members of the security forces died inside Rhodesia as well as 1055 civilians, of whom 56 were white. By the summer, casualties were running at the rate of 100 a week compared with the average of three a week in the first five years of hostilities. In the year preceding the Lancaster House meeting the fighting had been most intense. This year alone [1979] accounted for over one-third of the total casualties sustained since the guerrilla war proper had begun in December 1972. (parentheses added)

The PF on the other hand was being pressured by Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique to enter into negotiations. Melancholic about the war and its dramatic negative impact on their economies, the Frontline leaders saw the Conference as a plausible and honourable way out for themselves and the PF. Crucially, Mozambican leader Samora Machel was tiring of the war, whilst also beginning one of his own because the Rhodesian CIO-created force, Renamo, began to wreak havoc in the internal politics of the country. Added to this was the Rhodesian’s military strategy of violently taking the war beyond their own borders. The threats of the Frontline States to withdraw logistical, financial and moral support for the PF would play a major role in the months to come. Added to this was the real possibility of the new UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, would recognise Muzorewa’s Government, granting it full legal status and international recognition, thus by-passing the liberation movements, the existence of which she regarded with distaste. This became known as the “second-class solution” and it remained an option until the day the ceasefire was accepted.

For all the parties, little outweighed the credits of Independence, international recognition and peace. Britain saw a honourable way out of the Rhodesian imbroglio with minimal commitment on their part while the PF recognised they could gain political control of the country through internationally-supervised elections. Muzorewa’s government gained a clear shot at the lifting of sanctions and international legitimacy as well as an end to the war.

The Rhodesians flexed their military muscles before the conference began, starting the first of many large-scale cross-border raids into the neighbouring countries of Zambia and Mozambique. This was the beginning of a new strategy where, instead of just attacking PF bases (alleged or actual), the Rhodesians targeted the civilian infrastructure of these countries, arguing that its destruction would hamper the efforts of the freedom fighters. This had the added advantage of heaping pressure on these States to force the PF to negotiate quickly and decisively in London. It became the pattern throughout the conference that when the PF baulked, a devastating raid would happen, making this an effective negotiating manoeuvre.

Both sides profoundly distrusted each other and the British. Neither believed the peace conference would succeed but neither, as Davidow (1984) said, was willing to “abdicate the field of negotiation to the other”. The military commanders for both sides, Peter Walls for Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and Josiah Tongogara and Lookout Masuku for the PF, recognised that the war had reached stalemate and both recommended a political solution as infinitely preferable to continued bloodshed. The delegations all believed they enjoyed majority support amongst the black electorate and were willing to allow elections to settle the matter. Additionally both delegations were seriously divided coalitions: Muzorewa’s included often antagonistic white and black members, while the PF was best described as a strategic negotiating vehicle for two politico-military movements long divided by personal and ideological hostility. They all wanted a quick end and total victory.

The First Day

Many former “dependent territories” (i.e. colonies) of the UK, including Kenya, Nigeria, Malaysia and Uganda, successfully made the transition to independent statehood on the basis of constitutions agreed at Lancaster House. The organisers probably hoped that the formal atmosphere and magnificent surroundings would have a calming effect on the notoriously wilful and stubborn parties involved in the negotiations for Zimbabwe-Rhodesia.

The conference began on September 10, 1979 and on the first day it was a matter of getting bodies into seats, followed by the opening statements by the leaders of the delegations. Lord Carrington’s speech was upbeat:

When inviting you here we appealed to you, in the interests of the people of Rhodesia, to approach these negotiations in a positive spirit and to seek to build up areas of agreement. We hope thereby to lay the foundations for a free, independent and democratic society in which all the people of Rhodesia, irrespective of their race or political beliefs, would be able to live in security and at peace with each other and with their neighbours. The act of coming together is important. It is now up to us to build on that… I would like to hope that there is a difference between this meeting and those which have preceded it. This is a constitutional conference, the purpose of which is to decide the proper basis for the granting of legal independence to the people of Rhodesia.

He stated that Britain would set the tone at the Conference but would be prepared to entertain alternative formulations if agreed to by all sides. Bishop Muzorewa repeated his assertions that Zimbabwe-Rhodesia should be granted international recognition as it was now a democracy with majority rule thereby meeting former UK Prime Minster Harold Wilson’s six principles. Joshua Nkomo, speaking on behalf of the PF, was cautiously optimistic:

The Patriotic Front, deeply conscious of the need to bring an end to racism and colonialism which continue to plague the people of Zimbabwe, welcomes the British Government’s stated aim to assist in this task of decolonisation… For us our presence here is by itself an act of immense sacrifice. The scarce material resources we have had to divert and the manpower we must of necessity tie down in London for the duration of this Conference should be enough evidence of our seriousness and good faith. We have always said that we will leave no stone unturned in our struggle for the total liquidation of colonialism in Zimbabwe.

Nkomo emphasised their physical control over a large swathe of the country but stated firmly that the PF would not compromise on essential issues. They adjourned for the day, attending a small but social party in the evening before ostensibly getting down to work the next day. Previously, the PF had provided Carrington a golden opportunity to stamp immediately his authority on the Conference by haggling over the seating arrangements. The PF demanded that Muzorewa’s delegation, placed opposite them, should be seated with the British, claiming the PF was there to negotiate with Britain as the decolonising power and not the “illegal regime”. Carrington demurred and forcefully stated such procedural haggling would be taboo. His blend of authoritarian control and willingness to compromise would be an essential factor in the tedious days ahead.

The Official Delegations
•Lord Peter Carrington (Chairman)
•Sir Farhan Miah
•Ian Gilmour
•Sir Michael Havers*
•Lord Harlech* •Richard Luce
•Sir Michael Palliser
•Sir Antony Duff*
•D M Day •R A C Byatt* •Robin Renwick •P R N Fifoot •Sir Nicholas Fenn •George Walden •CD Powell •PJ Barlow •RD Wilkinson •AM Layden •RM J Lyne •MJ Richardson* •CRL de Chassiron* •AJ Phillips* •MC Wood
•Joshua Nkomo •Robert Mugabe •Josiah Mushore Chinamano •Edgar Tekere •General Josiah Tongogara •Ernest R Kadungure •Dr H Ushewokunze •Dzingai Mutumbuka •Josiah Tungamirai •Edson Zvobgo •Dr S Mubako* •W Kamba •Joseph Msika •T George Silundika* •AM Chambati •John Nkomo* •L Baron* •SK Sibanda* •E Mlambo* •C Ndlovu* •E Siziba •Bishop Abel Muzorewa •SC Mundawarara •EL Bulle •F Zindoga •DC Mukome* •GB Nyandoro* •Rev Ndabaningi Sithole •L Nyemba* •Chief K Ndiweni •ZM Bafanah* •Ian Smith •DC Smith •R Cronje •C Andersen •Dr J Kamusikiri •G Pincus* •LG Smith •Air Vice Marshal H Hawkins •Dr E M F Chitate •D Zamchiya •S V Mutambanengwe •MA Adam •P Claypole
*Replaced by Sir J Graham, SJ Gomersall, Gen M Farndale, R Jackling, Col A Gurdon, Col C Dunphie and B Watkins for some sessions *Replaced by W Musarurwa, D Dabengwa, A Ndlovu, R Austin, R Mpoko, R Manyika and L Mafela for some sessions *Replaced by AR McMillan, DV M Bradley, Gen P Walls, K Flower and PK Allum for some sessions

The Negotiating Strategy

The British team had decided many elements of the conference in advance:

  1. An emphasis of British centrality in the negotiating process which mandated other governments to the periphery;
  2. A strong, almost dictatorial style of conference management;
  3. A step-by-step approach to build momentum.

Their decision to employ a solo approach was dictated by the failure of other peace negotiations as a result of competing national and international interests. The Frontline States, the USA and South Africa had always proved unhelpful in the past. In addition to the numerous failed attempts since 1966, the crucial lesson of not repeating the chaotic and unfocused aims of the 1976 Geneva Conference was not forgotten. The British did, however, acknowledge that outside help would be critical on certain issues and were prepared to include international partners at that individual stage.

As Thatcher later observed, Carrington also deliberately “arranged the agenda to take the most difficult questions last, so that the first item to be agreed was the new constitution; only then would come the question of the transitional arrangements; and finally the calling of a cease fire”. Thus the least controversial issues would be dealt with first and the objectives of the conference were clear to all.

The fact that the British decided on a “Constitutional” and not a “Peace” Conference was explained in an interview given by Robin Renwich, a member of Carrington’s negotiating team:

The attainment of majority rule was what the war was supposed to be about. If it was possible to achieve an independence constitution which indisputably, provided for that, the conflict would be reduced to the dimensions of a struggle for power; and the pressure would be greater in the parties for that competition to be settled by other means.

Due to the enormous gulf between the parties on almost all the issues, the British decided that traditional negotiation measures of establishing an opening position and then trading concessions would not work. Carrington took the initiative, always offering an outline plan and allowing discussion to amend it before presenting a final detailed proposal.

The Initial Constitutional Proposal

Carrington distributed a 13-page summary on September 12, aimed at modifying the offensive elements of the 1979 Constitution. The first version of this draft had been prepared just days after the Lusaka meeting and contained elements from several other independence constitutions granted by the UK during the decolonisation process of the 1960s. Among other proposals it contained clauses for a constitutional head of state, with a Prime Minister as head of government, a bicameral Parliament, as well as sections dealing with the security forces, judicature and finance.

Whites in the country reacted vocally to these proposals, fearing a complete erosion of their interests. They ignored entrenched clauses of the constitution made in their favour such as reserving a percentage of seats for whites for a set period of time and the inclusion of a Bill of Rights enshrining Western freedoms. The PF immediately argued that special provisions for whites would enshrine existing racism but the main British concern was to ensure a smooth handover of power which meant keeping the largely white civil service intact; anything less would prompt a massive exodus and, potentially, a collapse of the economy.

Two days later Muzorewa’s delegation tabled the existing constitution for the country, arguing it fulfilled all British requirements as laid down by Harold Wilson and British successive governments. On September 17, after his team had evaluated the constitution, Carrington explained that it was unacceptable due to the powerful white veto and the character of the public service and other commissions it had created. The PF had tabled their own proposals for the new constitution on September 14. It included an Executive President and Cabinet, an Upper House with strictly limited delaying powers, universal adult suffrage, and restricted provisions for adult citizenship.

Carrington played the grand strategy of divide and rule. Initially ignoring the PF delegation’s proposals, he concentrated on winning over Muzorewa’s delegation which was badly divided. Former Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith was determined to hold firm and reject any proposals in light of apparent renewed support for Zimbabwe-Rhodesia from the Tory right wing and members of the US Congress who were promising the removal of sanctions. Playing to Muzorewa’s desires and the PF’s fears, Carrington stressed that no settlement, second-class or otherwise, would be possible without their acceptance of the drawing up of a new Constitution. Thus on September 21, Muzorewa cleverly called a vote on the matter amongst his delegation. The result: 11-1 in favour of the new constitution, with Ian Smith the lone nay.

Sensing they were perhaps losing the initiative, the PF reiterated their original demands that the conference should begin with a discussion of the transition to independence followed by constitutional talks. When this was politely declined by Carrington, the PF withdrew into obdurate silence, punctuated by press conferences restating their original demands or making threats. In the Herald of September 22, Eddison Zvobgo, the official PF spokesman said: “This conference is about a transfer of power to the people of Zimbabwe. Anything short of that will mean an escalation of the war – which we are winning”. Carrington persisted and finally on September 24, the PF reluctantly accepted the principle of a whites-only 20% block of seats in Parliament. This was a major concession on Robert Mugabe’s part because he recognised the whites could cast themselves in the role of “kingmaker” in any independent government. Nkomo was comparatively untroubled seeing potential allies in a coalition after elections. The PF thereafter refused to budge after this gesture and plenary sessions only resumed on October 2.

Will They, Won’t They? The Patriotic Front in October, 1979

Carrington used the downtime to allow his team to refine the draft Constitution and to have private talks with the principles on either side. On October 3 he presented the final draft of the Constitution and gave both sides five days to make a decision. The draft revealed that while the PF had been debating grand policy with the British, the Salisbury delegation had pressed for further advantage. For example, and importantly, it was enshrined in the Bill of Rights that any compensation received for property would be freely remittable out of the country. Property was defined to include pensions thereby converting them from a reward for services rendered to a ‘right’. In addition to this the Bill of Rights prohibited the future government from preventing anyone establishing a private school or sending their children to a school of their choice. In addition the Constitution entrenched white seats for seven years and the Bill of Rights for 10. These advantages may explain why, on October 5, Muzorewa’s delegation announced their acceptance. They may have been gambling on the PF’s withdrawal, leaving the way open for the “second-class solution”.

The PF continued with delaying tactics. On October 8, they offered a “maybe,” at the same time criticising the provisions on land rights and compensation. Carrington replied that he respected their tactical move to “agree-to-disagree-and-move-on”, but that he had to consider it as a threat to his procedure and thus had to demand a formal answer by October 11. The deadline arrived and in the face of PF reserve, Carrington immediately adjourned the Conference pending a positive answer. Both adopted a tough public posture, hoping to convince the other alternatives were available. As the Guardian of October 10 reported, Mugabe said on behalf of the PF:

If this London Conference reaches no decisions, we will despatch our military men back to Africa. This means intensification of the struggle. We can win without Lancaster House. That is a certainty. Of course we would welcome a settlement. But we can achieve peace and justice for our people through the barrel of a gun.”

Carrington announced that he would enter into bilateral talks with Muzorewa’s delegation on the transition period. This was a clever move, heaping pressure on the PF to accept the Constitution or face exclusion from future decision-making.

The PF raised objections to the provisions made on the army, police, public service, judicature and – most importantly, land development and settlement. They were worried about the fact that civil servants were being overly-protected which would make it difficult to replace them in an independent government, as well as saddling them with a huge fiscal burden in the form of generous pensions. They were also concerned about the loyalties of the civil service and armed forces, police and army, to any new government and wanted everyone to retake an oath of allegiance after Independence. The main sticking point proved to be land reform. In Section 16, the draft constitution contained a standard clause on property, which was a guarantee against the deprivation of property without the payment of prompt and adequate compensation. It was within the tenets of international governance and used in United Nations conventions, but what it signalled to Mugabe and Nkomo was the belief that the British were working at maintaining the unequal status quo on land.

Land Rights and Reforms Concerns

The British government had appreciated the importance of land to African nationalism since the dissolution of the Federation in the early 1960s. One of the original five demands put to Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front government by Harold Wilson before UDI was that there should be the repeal, or at least the liberalisation of the Land Apportionment Act. Earlier peace talks, notably those held by David Owen in 1977, had also discussed the issue of land, acknowledging the need for its redistribution but within a structured framework that guaranteed property rights. This was at odds with the aspirations of the nationalist movement who had made promises of land to motivate their troops and supporters. In his autobiography Joshua Nkomo wrote that:

the new constitution of Zimbabwe should permit the government to expropriate farmland if it was not being properly used. The British said fine, so long as we paid the full market price. But we knew that vast acreages were lying idle, unused and therefore without a market price, in the areas formerly reserved white ownership. To buy areas adequate for resettling the many land-hungry African farmers who had been confined within the former tribal trust areas would be beyond the financial capacity of the new state.

In the October 11, plenary session Carrington acknowledged PF concerns and proposed that the British government would “pay for settlement schemes and development projects”. In private discussions, Joshua Nkomo had suggested a figure of £55 million for dealing with the land question; Nyerere ‘considered this was very reasonable (and)… wanted to suggest (the British government) should take Nkomo up on his figure’ (Brailsford 2016). He also proposed that the British Government obtain international assistance for land purchase projects through an Agricultural Development Bank. Carrington’s statement read in part:

We recognise that the future government of Zimbabwe, whatever its political complexion, will wish to extend land ownership … Any resettlement scheme would clearly have to be carefully prepared and implemented to avoid adverse effects on production. The Zimbabwean government might well wish to draw in outside donors such as the World Bank. The British government recognise the importance of this issue to a future Zimbabwe Government and will be prepared, within the limits imposed by our financial resources to help … The costs would be very substantial indeed. Well beyond the capacity, in our judgement, of any individual donor country, and the British Government cannot commit itself at this stage to a specific share in them.

A Whitehall official later said the land fund was “an olive branch the PF chose not to accept”.

The next day, three Frontline Presidents, Samora Machel of Mozambique, Kenneth Kaunda from Zambia and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, expressed solidarity with the PF over their delay in acceptance of the constitution because of the land issue and the British approach to the solution. Two days after this, Nkomo reiterated that the main stumbling block was the land issue and compensation for the whites. To this Carrington replied that the UK would be happy to donate to a fund to buy “under-utilised land” from whites. Additionally, Carrington sent a letter to Nyerere promising that “we would help… with technical assistance for land settlement schemes and capital aid… we shall also be ready to help the new government obtain international assistance for these”. He undercut this offer with the announcement that the talks would now continue on a bilateral basis until the PF accepted the final British draft, which of course made no mention of who was to pay for land reform projects and the amounts involved.

As Sue Onslow (2017) recounts, Carrington’s insistence on ‘willing-buyer-willing-seller’ schemes for land redistribution in Rhodesia, was founded on a need to reconcile the admitted developmental needs of a future Zimbabwean state, with the priority to keep white farming expertise and public administration skills in place for a smooth, if lengthy transition (in 1980 there were 62,000 civil servants in the country). The UK government and Parliament would never agree a compulsory land purchase programme that failed to recognise property rights, and which went against past precedents of constitution making. Therefore, in Onslow’s (2017) words:

the British decision to aim at a voluntary land transfer scheme was influenced by a combination of political, ideological, financial and practical motives. It was not simply a question of not wanting to pay. Carrington was determined neither to pay compensation nor to make any open-ended commitment.

At an emergency meeting of the Frontline States on 16 October Tanzanian Premier Julius Nyerere said: “The only real problem is the issue of who provides the money for compensation to the settler farmers when their land is redistributed by a future Zimbabwe government. This is not a constitutional question but a simple policy question”. As the Frontline leaders saw it, the British insisted the future Zimbabwe government would pay compensation while the PF insisted the UK be responsible. They could not offer any solutions though, nor contribute money of their own, given the parlous state of their economies at the time. Commonwealth Secretary-General, Sir Shridath Ramphal secretly contacted the US ambassador in London, Kingman Brewster, and asked him to get US President, Jimmy Carter, to promise money to pay white farmers for their land. The following day, the USA said it would be willing to contribute to an international fund aimed at agricultural and economic development in an independent Zimbabwe. As was the norm, no actual figures would ever be stipulated by the main Powers during the Conference. Later that week, the US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance agreed to privately contact the Frontline States in order to agree on a US-backed multi-donor effort to assist agricultural compensation and development in Zimbabwe, contingent on the success of the constitutional conference.

In the week of October 22, Time Magazine carried a report stating that US President Carter was considering developing an aid programme of between US$1-2 billion for Zimbabwe-Rhodesia and neighbouring countries. The State Department insisted, however, that the money was for broad-based agriculture and development fund and not a “buy-out-the-whites” scheme. Other details of the intended beneficiaries were sketchy but considering the article contained a quote from Nkomo on land reform in Zimbabwe it is probable that the bulk of this money would have gone towards purchasing land.

On October 18, the Herald carried a story on discussions the previous day and reported: “Informed sources said the fund would have a target of £1,000 million, funded by Britain, the USA, EEC and Commonwealth countries. America is expected to contribute 60 per cent of the cash”. By the tone of this article it is clear that this was an anticipated amount. Indeed, the next day, Under-Secretary in the British Foreign Office, Robin Byatt claimed the reports were incorrect and that Britain would only contribute an initial, unspecified amount to an agricultural development scheme. Years later, when asked in an interview whether this lack of detail was not a cause for concern, Sonny Ramphal, then Secretary-General of the Commonwealth replied:

No, I don’t think so. You are dealing with the government of the United States, the government of Britain. Solid assurances were recorded in the documents of the conference and notified to all Commonwealth countries. It wasn’t a little thing. It didn’t specify a sum, but specifying a sum would have been very difficult in the context of Zimbabwe. What farms? How many of them? What cost?

He also confirmed that there was never any mention of the Zimbabwean government being expected to contribute money towards any necessary compensation. The alleged billion-pound target was probably overly-generous at the time given a similar fund for Kenya which, according to Roger Lewis (1980), had needed £33 million initially and, as research by Sue Onslow has shown, only cost £50 million in total, when the scheme ended in 1979.

A “fog of half-promises”

As Davidow (1984) said, the PF “were compelled to accept undoubtedly sincere but still vague” promises regarding funding. Nevertheless the PF drew up a statement, on the basis of which they would go back into the conference. They intended to publicly record the personal assurances on funding for land reform that they had received. They met with the Foreign Office and showed them the statement that Nkomo read out the next morning when the conference resumed.

They also distributed the statement to the members of the Southern Africa Committee because they wanted there to be no doubt in anybody’s mind that this was the basis on which they were going back to the table. This they did on October 18, and according to the Financial Times of October, 19, stating that they had been assured of “a multi-national financial donor effort to assist in land, agricultural and economic development programmes”. The following day the PF’s acceptance of the Independence Constitution was announced. Yet continuing suspicions about the alleged forthcoming money was expressed by Eddison Zvobgo when he said that PF would seize land without paying compensation from State coffers if they won the elections. Robert Mugabe was even more forthright, as the minutes of a meeting on the topic relate, where it was reported (Doran 2017) that he said:

The distribution of land in Rhodesia was thoroughly inequitable. Africans had been deprived of property by arbitrary Government actions without compensation over a period of many years — why should the new ‘owners’ receive compensation if the Government wanted to restore it? The British proposal sought to entrench a historic situation of grave injustice. If the PF were to accept the idea of guaranteed compensation, which was repugnant in principle, how did the British side propose that they should raise the money?

Interestingly, Onslow (2017) argues that it was President Mugabe’s decision to postpone rapid land reform in the 1990s which was key to exacerbating the later crises over land:

At Commonwealth Secretary General Chief Emeka Anyaoku’s urging, Mugabe deferred an accelerated land transfer scheme in Zimbabwe because of the perceived potentially damaging effect on South Africa’s transition negotiations, which were at a critical stage.

Could the violence and anarchy that characterised the land grabs of the early 2000s been avoided in Zimbabwe if land reform had been allowed to proceed in the 1990s, when the Zimbabwean government still retained a modicum of professionalism and respect?

Lancaster House Conference: a timeline: September-October, 1979
Sep 10 Lancaster House Conference (LHC) officially opened
Sep 12 Conference agenda agreed
Sep 14 Muzorewa’s delegation and the Patriotic Front (PF) presented their proposals for discussion
Sep 17 British Government declare 1979 Rhodesian Constitution unacceptable
Sep 18 PF maintain their demand for talks on transition first then constitution
Sep 19 – Oct 1 No plenary sessions held; bilateral talks between the parties continue
Sep 21 Muzorewa’s delegation accept the Constitutional proposals
Sep 24 PF agreed to proposal that 20% of parliamentary seats be reserved for whites
Oct 2 Plenary sessions resumed with PF restating many of their previous concerns in the constitution
Oct 3 Chairman tabled a detailed version of the Constitution
Oct 5 Muzorewa’s delegation accepted Constitution
Oct 8 PF tabled detailed response to British proposals, demanding clarification of certain aspects
Oct 11 LHC adjourned as PF unable to give unqualified acceptance to Constitution
Oct 15 Chairman announced that he would start discussion of transitional arrangements without PF’s acceptance
Oct 16 Britain and Muzorewa’s delegation start discussion on pre-independence arrangements
Oct 18 PF announced that assurances from British Govt about multinational fund for land reform had met their requirements
Oct 19 Agreement reached on Independence Constitution


ANC – African National Congress

AP – Assembly Point

BANTA – Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement

CHOGM – Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

CMF – Commonwealth Monitoring Force

LHC – Lancaster House Conference

NAM – Non-Aligned Movement

NDP – National Democratic Party

OAU – Organisation of African Unity

PF – Patriotic Front

RF – Rhodesian Front

UANC – United African National Council

UDI – Unilateral Declaration of Independence

USSR – Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

ZANLA – Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army

ZANU – Zimbabwe African National Union

ZAPU – Zimbabwe African People’s Union

ZIPRA – Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army

A note on sources:

The bulk of the British and Zimbabwean archives covering the Lusaka Conference and subsequent Lancaster House Conference stored in the British National Archives remain access-restricted, or “embargoed” to use the archival term, until at least 2029. From 2009, parts of the relevant archives stored in South Africa and elsewhere in the UK have been declassified and made available to the public. Importantly, these include Margaret Thatcher’s papers and those of Peter Carrington for the late 1970s. As researchers delve into these documents, I fully expect that the story of the conference is likely to be changed and expanded beyond the traditional, triumphalist mythos which has been created to explain the negotiation for Zimbabwe’s Independence.

Despite my repeated enquiries, it remains unclear if any of the primary documents relating to the Lancaster House Conference are currently stored in the National Archives of Zimbabwe. Perhaps some are within the Ian Smith Cabinet Papers, returned there from Rhodes University, South Africa in 2018, although still unavailable to researchers for obtuse reasons. The Herald (Harare), the Observer (UK), and The Chronicle (Bulawayo) for the months September to December provide the bulk of the chronological information presented in this paper. All direct quotes from the protagonists are drawn from The Herald, unless otherwise attributed.


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*Paul Hubbard is an independent researcher based in Bulawayo

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  1. Please assist with the information about lancaster house the key personnels and all the wars in between in Zimbabwe

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