Propaganda in the Rhodesian Bush War

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Poppies lain before the Cenotaph in Southampton, England. Rhodesian propaganda efforts targeting Britain often used such symbolism to stress Rhodesia's contribution on Britain's side during the two World Wars, and accuse the British government of betrayal.

During the Rhodesian Bush War, informational and political warfare was mounted by each of the involved factions: on one side, the Rhodesian government (led by Prime Minister Ian Smith of the Rhodesian Front); on another, the British government and the Commonwealth of Nations; on a third, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and its associated guerrilla army, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA); and, on a fourth, the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) and its armed wing, the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA).

Beginning in 1965, the Rhodesian government implemented a coordinated strategic information and public diplomacy campaign, which included propaganda, censorship, and psychological operations, aiming to maintain the support of the country's black majority in the face of infiltration and indoctrination of ZANLA and ZIPRA, as well as to appeal to the common British populace, which the Rhodesians hoped would begin to question British government policy regarding Rhodesia.

Information operations[edit]

Rhodesian propaganda efforts in the West[edit]

The Rhodesian government initiated white propaganda efforts—that is, propaganda which truthfully states its origin—in October 1965, with the publishing and dissemination of a pamphlet titled Rhodesia's Case for Independence, which was distributed within Rhodesia and exported to Britain. Rhodesia's Case for Independence was intended to counter the Whitehall claim that Rhodesia's government lacked legitimacy for independence under Britain's recently adopted no independence before majority rule policy. British readers were asked to "support Rhodesians in their hour of need."[1] When Rhodesia issued its Unilateral Declaration of Independence a month later, the very timing of the declaration was intended as propaganda: not only was the document signed on 11 November (Armistice Day), but the official telegram to London was wired at precisely 13:00 Salisbury time – 11:00 in London, the exact moment on Armistice Day when Britain begins the traditional two minutes' silence to honour the dead of the First and Second World Wars.

Specially printed air-letters were distributed to households in areas with high European-connected populations throughout Rhodesia, which they could post to friends and contacts abroad. The air-letters would include a pre-printed message in support of the Rhodesian government with space for the sender to include a personal note.[2] Leaflets were prepared alleging that the British Government and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) were involved in subversive broadcasts to Rhodesia through Zambian radio waves. A number of patriotic organisations including the Rhodesian Front party and the Candour League were encouraged to write to friends overseas and explain Rhodesia's position.[3]

In February 1966, the Rhodesian government expanded its efforts to the United States. They opened an Information Office in Washington and began disseminating bumper stickers displaying the slogan "Support Rhodesia."[4] When both the United Nations and the US government placed sanctions on Rhodesia, the Rhodesian Information Office continued to operate with support from front groups including "The Friends of Rhodesia" (a US-based lobby closely linked to the Rhodesian Information Office) and the "American Rhodesian Association" (a US-based pro-internal settlement force supported by the political Right).[5]

The RF also engaged in black propaganda efforts. Pamphlets purported to come from the "Tudor Rose Society for the Protection of the British Way of Life" (which was later found non-existent) but in fact prepared by the Rhodesians, were posted in England to electors. Some Royal Air Forces personnel in Zambia received copies of a circular letter purporting to come from an organisation called "the British Forces Friends of Rhodesia Association" and headed by a secret group of senior British officers. The letter warned against orders to go into action against "kith and kin in Rhodesia."[6]

Media censorship[edit]

As the Rhodesian government prepared for their autonomy from Britain, it began to limit foreign communication. It began with a weekly radio broadcast prepared by the Ministry of Information, the content of which was “selective and slanted reporting attempted to build up a black picture of the independent African states to the north, combined with an image of Rhodesia, South Africa and the adjacent Portuguese territories as havens of good government and fair play.“[7] The Rhodesian Broadcasting Corporation, a statutory body, was subjected to close Government control. By the end of 1964 Rhodesia Television, an independent commercial station, was taken over by the Government.

British response[edit]

When the British became aware of the propaganda being mailed to their citizens from Rhodesia, they began a counter-campaign. The Rhodesia Political Department of the British Commonwealth Relations Office wrote a paper titled "Rhodesia: The Regime's Propaganda Machine and its Operations.”[8] The paper outlined how in May 1964, even before their official declaration of independence, the Rhodesian Government appointed a South African propaganda specialist named Ivor Benson. Benson became a special adviser within the Ministry of Information and it was his task to develop an effective propaganda machine.[9]

Political warfare in the Bush War[edit]

In early 1972 ZANLA, the military branch of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by Robert Mugabe and ZIPRA, the military branch of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) led by Joshua Nkomo, rose up against Smith's minority government. ZANLA and ZIPRA forces began infiltrating Rhodesia, committing acts of murder and terrorism against farmers. The Rhodesian Front received intelligence that ZANLA fighters were operating out of the Chiweshe Tribal Trust Area. Tribal trust areas were large tracts of land prescribed by law to be used and occupied exclusively by the black population of the area.

In response to the violence perpetuated by the ZANLA fighters in the Chiweshe Tribal Trust, the Rhodesian Front created protected villages. Smith's government attempted to relocate 45,000 people and their houses, belongings and livestock, but they were unable to mobilise.[10] Protected villages quickly proved insufficient, forcing people to live without access to food (stores and grinding mills were closed), clean water, or toilets. Shelter was limited and as the cold season arrived, people continuously died from exposure.[11] The Smith government asserted that these conditions were forced by the violence of the ZANLA forces, and that the lack of adequate accommodations was simply caused by their inability to build the infrastructure quickly enough.

ZANU and ZAPU announced a joint "Patriotic Front" and together began infiltrating Rhodesia, committing murder and acts of terrorism against Rhodesians, particularly in the protected villages, with many of the forces living in these protected village as a form of cover. ZANLA and ZIPRA violence escalated to include murder, rape, abduction, torture, beatings, robberies, and cattle-maimings.[12] This escalation in violence and subsequent civil war became known as the Rhodesian Bush War.

Restricted media[edit]

The Rhodesian government again employed tactics of censorship. Rhodesian cameras were banned from protected villages. At the same time, propaganda was being circulated to discourage Rhodesians from talking about conditions inside of the country. Brightly coloured stickers were distributed throughout the country and posted in restaurants and bars.[13] They consisted of a series of slogans focused around self-censorship including:

"Your Tongue Could Pull a Trigger. Think about national security, don't talk about it." Others included "Women's Lib is One Thing, Women's Lip is Another," "What You've Said May Blow Up a Truck," and "An Open Mouth Makes a Big Target. Think about national security, don't talk about it."[14]


In an effort to make the facts known to the outside world, particularly the West, the Rhodesian Government published a series of booklets offering photographic evidence of the terrorist methods used by Patriotic Front military forces:

Massacre of the Innocents[edit]

A pamphlet released by the Rhodesian Ministry of Information proclaims the strength of the security forces and the benefits of the protected villages. “Today, many thousands have taken grateful refuge in protected villages or live in communities protected by the security forces and the para-military wing of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.”[15] It states that the terrorists are scared of the government forces, and therefore are pursuing "soft targets". The piece goes on to reiterate criticism of the British government for not providing support. “Tragically, the villagers are dying in a war they do not want, waged to further a political creed they do not understand or care about.”[16]

Red for Danger[edit]

The Rhodesian Ministry of Information published a booklet titled "Red for Danger". Hundreds of thousands of copies were dispatched to many different countries and it ranked as a best seller.[17] It identifies ZANU and ZAPU political parties as cover organisations for Communist expansion and was an attempt to elicit the help of Western countries actively pursuing containment. The book drew parallels between the Chinese push for Communism in Vietnam, their success in other African countries, and their pursuit of the same goal in Rhodesia through monetary support and training of the ZANU terrorist forces. “The terrorists who have recently been shot or captured in Rhodesia were all thoroughly indoctrinated with the communist ideology. They carried the literature of Mao Tse Tung and more important, they were armed with modern automatic rifles and machine guns of communist manufacture as well as explosives, grenades and powerful bazookas. In fact, recent Australian visitors have been surprised to find that the weapons being used against Rhodesia are of the same pattern as those being used against Australians, New Zealanders and Americans in Vietnam."[18] To make the case for Western involvement, the booklet continues: "Should Rhodesia, Mozambique and Angola succumb to communist domination, the southern coast of Africa would follow and the lifeline between the Western powers and the Far East would be cut.”[19]

Anatomy of Terror[edit]

Anatomy of Terror was a booklet published by the Rhodesian Ministry of Information and circulated by the Rhodesian information office in Washington, D.C. The booklet offers a short summary of the crimes perpetrated by "Communist-trained thugs"[20] followed by a "Chronological Sequence of Terror" which details brutal attacks committed against black Rhodesians from December 1972 to May 1974 and corresponding photographs.

Psychological operations[edit]

Propaganda: Operation Split-Shot[edit]

As the war progressed and the Rhodesian government's control diminished, the 1st Psychological Operations Unit of the RF implemented "Operation Split-Shot." Leaflets were distributed to engender fear among the Rhodesian population. The campaign was focused around the theme of "Terror and death is the way of the communist terrorists in Rhodesia."[21] Leaflets depicted ZANLA/ZIPRA recruiters forcing black Rhodesians into training camps, raping women in front of their children, spreading sexually transmitted diseases, and killing defenceless civilians. These leaflets also depicted military recruits being mistreated and killed by opposition forces.

Propaganda efforts backfired when Rhodesians who voluntarily joined the opposition forces returned to their villages unharmed. According to senior members of the 1st Psychological Operations Unit, the unit was creating their propaganda based on false intelligence.[22] The Rhodesians began to realise that the information presented in the leaflets was false and therefore began to mistrust their government.

As a final effort, PSYOP forces resorted to reporting messages from the spirits to gain credibility with rural tribes. “Mhondoro, your tribal spirit, has sent a message to say that your ancestral spirits are very dissatisfied with you. As a result of this, there has been no rain, your crops have died and there could be great famine. It is only the Government which can help you, but you have to realize your obligation to help the government also."[23] Efforts were unsuccessful, as the source of the propaganda had already lost all credibility.


  1. ^ SGM Herbert A. Friedman, PSYOP 1965–1980 Paragraph 8
  2. ^ British National Archives: Dominions Office ref: 207/220. "Rhodesia: The Regime's Propaganda Machine and its Operations." Rhodesia Political Department, Commonwealth Relations Office; 16 March 1966.
  3. ^ SGM Herbert A. Friedman, PSYOP 1965–1980 Paragraph 9
  4. ^ SGM Herbert A. Friedman, PSYOP 1965–1980 Paragraph 8
  5. ^ Holly Sklar "Trilateralism: the Trilateral Commission and Elite Planning for World Management" p.393-394
  6. ^ SGM Herbert A. Friedman, PSYOP 1965–1980 Paragraph 111
  7. ^ British National Archives, Dominions Office ref: 207/220. "Rhodesia: The Regime's Propaganda Machine and its Operations." Rhodesia Political Department, Commonwealth Relations Office; 16 March 1966.
  8. ^ British National Archives: Dominions Office ref: 207/220. "Rhodesia: The Regime's Propaganda Machine and its Operations." Rhodesia Political Department, Commonwealth Relations Office; 16 March 1966.
  9. ^ SGM Herbert A. Friedman, PSYOP 1965–1980 Paragraph 41
  10. ^ Rhodesian Army Association. "The Start of the Protected Village Program. Paragraph 4 and 10
  11. ^ SGM Herbert A. Friedman, PSYOP 1965–1980 Paragraph 29
  12. ^ Rhodesia Ministry of Information, "Anatomy of Terror." Government Printer (Salisbury): 1974. p. 2
  13. ^ SGM Herbert A. Friedman, PSYOP 1965–1980 Paragraph 67
  14. ^ SGM Herbert A. Friedman, PSYOP 1965–1980 Paragraph 67
  15. ^ Rhodesia Ministry of Information, "Massacre of the Innocents" Government Printer (Salisbury): 1978. Paragraph 4
  16. ^ Rhodesia Ministry of Information, "Massacre of the Innocents" Government Printer (Salisbury): 1978. Paragraph 3
  17. ^ Rhodesian Ministry of Information, "Red for Danger." Paragraph 1
  18. ^ Rhodesian Ministry of Information, "Red for Danger." Paragraph 21
  19. ^ Rhodesian Ministry of Information, "Red for Danger." Paragraph 23
  20. ^ Rhodesia Ministry of Information, "Anatomy of Terror." Government Printer (Salisbury): 1974. p. 2
  21. ^ SGM Herbert A. Friedman, PSYOP 1965–1980 Paragraph
  22. ^ SGM Herbert A. Friedman, PSYOP 1965–1980 Paragraph
  23. ^ SGM Herbert A. Friedman, PSYOP 1965–1980 Paragraph

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