William Harper (Rhodesian politician)

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William Harper
A portrait of William Harper
Harper in 1968
Personal details
Born William John Harper
(1916-07-22)22 July 1916
Calcutta, Bengal Presidency, British India[1]
Political party
  • Dominion Party (1958–62)
  • Rhodesian Front (1962–68)
  • United Conservative Party (1974–76)
Spouse(s) Elizabeth[2]
Military service
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Years of service 1937–49
Rank Wing Commander
Battles/wars Second World War

Wing Commander William John Harper (born 22 July 1916) was a politician in Rhodesia during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and one of the signatories of that country's Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1965. Born in India during the British Raj, he served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, and emigrated to Rhodesia in 1949. He entered politics with the Dominion Party in 1958, became a Cabinet minister in the Rhodesian Front government in 1962, and over the next six years became noted as one of the party's most right-wing members, among other things calling for Rhodesia to adopt apartheid. An ambitious politician, The Spectator called him a "single-minded upholder of white supremacy".[3] He was one of the front-runners to replace Prime Minister Winston Field in 1964, and thereafter occasionally threatened Ian Smith's premiership until a sudden fall from grace in 1968.

Harper came from a long line of Anglo-Indian merchants and was deeply angered by Britain's granting of independence to India in 1947; he retained the opinion for years afterwards that British rule in the subcontinent should never have ended. He took a similar line on his adopted homeland of Rhodesia, reportedly claiming that it, South Africa and the neighbouring Portuguese territories would "be under white rule forever".[4] According to himself and British observers, he and his fellow right-wingers in the Rhodesian Front wielded great influence over Smith's political decision-making during the first few years of his premiership. In particular, Harper was instrumental in the Rhodesian Cabinet's rejection of the terms for Anglo-Rhodesian reconciliation set out by Smith and the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson aboard HMS Tiger in 1966.

Harper resigned from the Rhodesian Front in July 1968, soon after Smith dismissed him from the Cabinet, reportedly because Harper had had an extramarital affair with a British agent. He subsequently became a vocal critic of the Prime Minister, greeting each step Smith made towards settlement with black nationalists during the Bush War with public indignation and opprobrium. After six years outside politics, Harper set up the United Conservative Party to oppose Smith in the 1974 election, but failed to win a seat. By the time majority rule began in Zimbabwe Rhodesia in 1979, following the Internal Settlement of the previous year, Harper had left for South Africa.

Early life and military service[edit]

Harper was born on 22 July 1916 in Calcutta, British India.[1] The Harpers were an old and prominent Anglo-Indian merchant family which had been based in India for generations, working with the East India Company during the 18th and 19th centuries.[5] He grew into a short but tough man who spoke with clipped diction. Nathan Shamuyarira wrote of him in 1966 that "his tight mouth rarely relaxes into a smile, so ... he seems always on the point of losing his temper".[5]

Having joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) in July 1937, Harper served as an officer throughout the Second World War. He fought in the Battle of Britain in 1940,[6] and in September 1941 was seconded to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to command No. 453 Squadron RAAF, a fighter squadron then based in Singapore. No. 453 Squadron suffered high losses during the Japanese invasion of Malaya in December 1941 and January 1942, and was disbanded in Australia in March 1942. Harper then commanded No. 135 Squadron RAF in India from April 1942, and No. 92 (East India) Squadron RAF in North Africa from January 1943. He was transferred to England in September 1943 to command the University Air Squadron at Leeds, where he remained for about a year. He remained with the RAF following the end of hostilities.[1]

Harper was appalled when Britain made India independent in 1947; he believed that the British government had unnecessarily caved in to Indian nationalist demands and should have continued ruling India indefinitely. He retained this view for years afterwards.[5] He retired from the RAF in April 1949, keeping the rank of wing commander,[7] to emigrate to Southern Rhodesia, a British colony in southern Africa that had been self-governing since 1923. There he settled in the mining town of Gatooma, where he farmed, mined and set up an earth-moving contractor's business.[8]

Political career[edit]

Dominion Party[edit]

Harper entered politics when he won the Gatooma seat in the 1958 general election, running for the opposition Dominion Party (which called for full dominion status), and became the town's Member of Parliament. Holding strongly conservative views, he soon became seen as the voice of the party's right wing. He was elected president of the Dominion Party's Southern Rhodesian arm in October 1959, and by 1960 he was the official Leader of the Opposition in the Southern Rhodesian parliament. The Federation with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland was looking ever more tenuous at this time amid decolonisation, the Wind of Change and Britain's new policy of "no independence before majority rule", and Harper called for Southern Rhodesia to abandon the Federation and "go it alone".[9] When black nationalist riots broke out in the townships in October 1960, he condemned Prime Minister Sir Edgar Whitehead and the governing United Federal Party (UFP) as too lenient on the protesters, and argued that giving concessions following political violence would make blacks believe that "trouble pays dividends".[10]

Rhodesian Front[edit]

Ian Smith became Prime Minister in 1964. Harper was touted by pressmen as a possible replacement for the next four years.

In 1962 Harper was a founder member of the Rhodesian Front (RF), an alliance of conservative voices that roughly comprised the Dominion Party plus a number of ex-UFP politicians. The party's declared goal was independence without radical constitutional change or majority rule. After the RF won a surprise victory in the November 1962 general election, Harper was made Minister of Water Development and Roads in the new government, headed by Prime Minister Winston Field.[11] Over the next few years, Harper became one of the main agitators in the Cabinet for a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI); equating Southern Rhodesia to India, he saw this as a way to prevent a repeat of "the same mistake".[5]

When the RF grew dissatisfied with Field during late 1963 and early 1964 because of his failure to win independence from Britain on Federal dissolution, Harper was one of two frontrunners to replace him; the other was the Deputy Prime Minister Ian Smith, formerly of the UFP, who was also Minister of the Treasury. Harper, described in The Spectator as "an ambitious politician and single-minded upholder of white supremacy", was generally considered the more radical choice, and the man more likely to go through with UDI.[3] When the Cabinet forced Field to resign in April 1964, it was Smith who was nominated by the ministers to become the new Prime Minister. Accepting the premiership, Smith reshuffled the Cabinet a few days later, moving Harper to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.[12] Harper was deeply disappointed not to have succeeded Field.[13]

As Minister of Internal Affairs, Harper oversaw the indaba (conference) of chiefs and headmen at Domboshawa in October 1964, at the end of which the tribal leaders unanimously announced their support of the government's line on independence.[14] He continued to be linked with the premiership. During Smith's negotiations with the British government, each breakdown or setback was accompanied by speculation in Rhodesia ("Southern" was dropped in late 1964) that Harper might step up to take his place.[15] As the dispute with Britain intensified and white Rhodesians clamoured for independence, Harry Franklin reported in The Spectator in August 1965 that if Smith proved unwilling to go through with UDI, "it is widely believed that ... Harper will emerge from the wings, no longer an understudy, to dare what Mr Smith dare not".[16] Harper was one of four ministers chosen by Smith to accompany him to London for talks in October 1965; the others were John Wrathall (Finance), Desmond Lardner-Burke (Justice) and the Deputy Minister of Information, P K van der Byl.[17] Agreement was not reached, and a month later, on 11 November 1965, Smith and his Cabinet declared Rhodesia independent.[18]

At the time of UDI, Harper reportedly kept a map of southern Africa on the wall of his office, on which he had coloured South Africa, South-West Africa, Rhodesia, Mozambique south of the Zambezi and Angola red; he told visitors that "the red area will be under white rule forever".[4] He insisted that Rhodesia would continue regardless of the general international condemnation that had greeted UDI, and publicly demonised the UK government, describing it in January 1966 as "an enemy ... [that] must be brought down".[19] He also vilified black nationalist guerrilla fighters opposed to the Rhodesian government, calling them "gangs of terrorists" and "criminals".[20] Comments such as these helped to cement Harper's reputation as a hardline right-winger and rival to Smith's leadership in the years immediately following UDI.[20][21] The strong personalities of Harper and other ministers such as the Duke of Montrose (popularly known in Rhodesia by his former title Lord Graham) were perceived by the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his compatriots as a great influence on Smith's political decision-making, an opinion also expressed by Harper himself.[22]

The Duke of Montrose (Lord Graham), one of Harper's main allies in Cabinet

While Harper was considered an intelligent and capable minister by peers and reporters—a 1965 report in The Economist called him "by far the best brain" in the Rhodesian Cabinet[23]—his views were often perceived as overly radical.[21] He led a phalanx of far-right voices within the RF calling for the introduction of South African-style apartheid in Rhodesia,[24] and while the party line was gradual advancement of black political representation, Harper called not only for the cessation of such moves, but for the removal of blacks from parliament altogether.[22] He thus became something of an obstacle to an Anglo-Rhodesian settlement. Indeed, when Smith brought a working document back from the HMS Tiger talks with Wilson in October 1966, it was Harper who led opposition to the terms in Cabinet, contributing to its ultimate rejection.[22] Harper considered himself to have been overlooked when Smith gave the office of Deputy Prime Minister (which had been absent since UDI) to the more moderate Wrathall the month before the Tiger conference. The South African newspaper Die Beeld reported in December 1966 that the RF's right wing was poised to oust Smith in favour of Harper,[25] but this did not occur.[22]


On 4 July 1968, Harper resigned from the Cabinet at Smith's request; it was Smith's first ministerial dismissal.[22] The government released a statement explaining that Harper had been removed "for reasons entirely unrelated to differences of opinion over constitutional or other political issues",[22] and saying simply that Harper had been deemed "a security risk". Harper publicly claimed that he had been fired for political reasons and because of the threat he posed to Smith's leadership.[26] According to the memoirs of Ken Flower, then the director of Rhodesia's Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), Harper's downfall was the result of an extramarital affair with a young secretary in the Rhodesian Public Service who was discovered by the CIO to be an agent for British intelligence.[27] Flower informed Smith of this on 3 July and the Prime Minister demanded Harper's resignation that afternoon; Harper acquiesced the next day. Because this was kept secret (presuming it is true), Harper's sudden departure from the Cabinet was interpreted by many observers at the time as the culmination of the personal and political rivalry between Smith and Harper, or the result of disagreements over what should be in the new constitution.[22]

Harper officially resigned his parliament seat and left the Rhodesian Front on 11 July 1968. Wilson publicly welcomed his departure as a "step in the right direction",[28] prompting a retort from Smith that he did not appoint or sack ministers to please the British government. The Prime Minister claimed that Harper was not as right-wing as he was often depicted, and denied that the former minister had been obstructing a settlement.[28] All the same, Smith later said that he had been glad to be rid of Harper, whom he described as underhand and devious.[29] Len Idensohn promptly offered Harper the leadership of his ultra-right-wing Rhodesian National Party (RNP), but the ex-minister ignored this.[22] Montrose, Education Minister A P Smith and Phillip van Heerden, the Minister of Mines, Lands and Water Development, briefly threatened to follow Harper out of the government, but backed down within a few days. After disputes over the new constitution continued, Montrose resigned on 11 September 1968 in protest against Smith's proposed constitutional and racial policies, which he deemed too liberal.[30] In the by-election held in Gatooma to fill Harper's former seat on 18 September 1968, the RF's Albert Mells handily defeated his RNP opponent, Commander Chris Phillips, by 870 votes to 65.[31]

United Conservative Party[edit]

Harper re-entered politics in July 1974, when he formed the United Conservative Party (UCP) to oppose the RF in that month's general election. The RF won all 50 European roll seats, denying the UCP any representation in parliament; Harper himself lost decisively in Hatfield. He subsequently reacted with revulsion to Smith's moves towards settlement with black nationalist groups. In December 1974, he described Smith's announcement of a ceasefire in the run-up to the Victoria Falls Conference as a "ghastly capitulation";[32] two years later, when Smith announced his acceptance in principle of one man, one vote, Harper accused the Prime Minister of "selling us out".[33] "The mind boggles at the enormous impertience and audacity of this man Smith," he said.[33]

Later life[edit]

Smith and non-militant nationalists agreed what became called the Internal Settlement in March 1978, and in January the following year, whites backed the new majority rule constitution by 85% in a national referendum. Multiracial elections were held in April 1979 with the country due to be reconstituted as Zimbabwe Rhodesia afterwards. The Guardian reported just before the election that Harper was "already settled in South Africa".[34]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Gillison 1962, p. 167
  2. ^ Wood 2008, p. 473
  3. ^ a b Kyle, Keith (10 January 1964). "Waiting for the Crisis". The Spectator (London): 6. Retrieved 21 November 2013. 
  4. ^ a b "Rhodesia melting pot of white-black troubles". The Leader-Post (Regina, Saskatchewan): 27. 23 April 1976. 
  5. ^ a b c d Shamuyarira 1966, p. 210
  6. ^ Wood 2008, p. 23
  7. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 38599. pp. 2159–2160. 3 May 1949. Retrieved 16 July 2013.
  8. ^ "Southern Rhodesian Cabinet: Careers of Ministers". East Africa and Rhodesia (London: Africana) 40: 662. 23 April 1964. 
  9. ^ Creighton, I. R. M. (28 July 1960). "Congo Nerves". The Spectator (London): 5. 
  10. ^ "Rhodesia Uneasy as More Troops Called Up". The Age (Melbourne): 4. 17 October 1960. 
  11. ^ "All-White Cabinet Named in S. Rhodesia". Saskatoon Star-Phoenix (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan): 1, 5. 17 December 1962. 
  12. ^ "Rhodesia Cabinet Is Reshuffled". The Morning Record (Meriden, Connecticut): 30. 16 April 1964. 
  13. ^ Wood 2005, p. 210
  14. ^ Wood 2005, pp. 243–246
  15. ^ Baron, Leo (6 November 1964). "As You Were". The Spectator (London): 5. 
  16. ^ Franklin, Harry (19 August 1965). "Rhodesia: Coming or Going?". The Spectator (London): 6. 
  17. ^ Smith 1997, p. 91
  18. ^ Wood 2005, p. 471
  19. ^ "Rhodesia 'Holding Her Own'". The Glasgow Herald (Glasgow, Scotland): 1. 26 January 1966. 
  20. ^ a b MacSween, Joseph (27 August 1966). "Rhodesia tightens screw". The Leader-Post (Regina, Saskatchewan): 18. 
  21. ^ a b Young 1969, p. 551
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h Wood 2008, p. 472
  23. ^ "Rhodesia's future" (pdf). Rhodesian News Summary (New York: National Student Christian Federation Committee on Southern Africa): 67. December 1965. 
  24. ^ "Crisis in Rhodesia". The Leader-Post (Regina, Saskatchewan): 19. 18 July 1968. 
  25. ^ "Smith Meeting Opposition From Rhodesian Cabinet". The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington): 10. 12 December 1966. 
  26. ^ "Rhodesia Hit By Guerrillas". The Age (Melbourne): 2. 22 July 1968. 
  27. ^ Flower 1987, pp. 85–86
  28. ^ a b Wood 2008, p. 474
  29. ^ Wood 2008, p. 541
  30. ^ Wood 2008, pp. 473, 512
  31. ^ Wood 2008, p. 517
  32. ^ "Cease-fire in Rhodesia as Smith seeks talks". The Glasgow Herald (Glasgow, Scotland): 1. 12 December 1974. 
  33. ^ a b "Blacks to Take Over Rhodesian Government Within Two Years". Middlesboro Daily News (Middlesboro, Kentucky): 1. 25 September 1976. 
  34. ^ Ellman, Paul (3 April 1979). "As black rule approaches Smith's warriors begin to withdraw". The Guardian (London).