In the early 1960s, as the winds of liberations swept the African continent, white settlers in former Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe) decided to buck the trend, clinging onto power to fight an escalating guerilla war following the 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence.
This decision would have a number of far-reaching consequences, shaping the lives of Africans all over the region.
This summer, while travelling through Tanzania and landlocked Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia) researching the Tanzania Zambia Railway (TAZARA), I had the fortune of meeting a number of these Africans.
TAZARA itself was a direct result of this conflict. Zambia’s political leadership needed a new route to the sea for its rich copper reserves — to avoid benefitting the white minority regime in Rhodesia — and Tanzania was looking to play its part in the liberation movements.
It is on this train I met Percy Nswana, a Zambian whose father has been employed by TAZARA for several decades. As a result of his father’s work, Percy spent half his childhood in Dar es Salaam, the port capital of Tanzania and the tail end of the railway.
He is of a minority of Zambians able to attend university, speaks fluent Bemba, Swahili and English and knows the route intimately, including where to pick up the best grilled chicken from the entrepreneurial young women on the platforms.
In the back of a shop in the dusty transportation hub of Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia I met Uncle Shapi, a 40-something white Rhodesian who fought Zimbabwean guerillas in the late 1970s.
When the Lancaster House Agreements of 1979 completed the transition to a majority-rule nation, white Rhodesians fell from power and Uncle Shapi became a politically marginalized minority.
Despite the 10-year delay on official land reform pushed by the British government, a number of white Rhodesians were forced off their farms by impatient war veterans and thugs over the next 20 years.
Uncle Shapi left his overrun sixth-generation farm in 1984 to move north, and now drinks away his days in the company of other men of misfortune far from his Zambian son and ex-wife.
The Zambian capital, Lusaka serves as a Cosmopolitan hub of stability and growth in Southern Africa, and businessmen come from the war-torn nations of Angola, Mozambique and the Congo to conduct regional trade.
It is here that I met Indian-Zambian trucking businessman Ankith, whose family history underlines the incredible complexity in the multiethnic region.
His ancestors came with caravans of white settlers in the late 1800s from South Africa, setting themselves up as local businessmen and forming some of the first political parties.
During the Cold War years, he was part of the Zambian effort to aid South Africans in Angola helping the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA, later publically supported by President Reagan) rebels fight the Cuban-supported People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).
At the same time, Ankith«s brother patrolled the Rhodesian border, attempting to plug any spillover from the Rhodesian conflict, which was becoming another proxy war — this one between the South African-supported whites and black African guerillas supported by Zambia, Tanzania and China.
While South Africans sabotaged a fair amount of Zambian infrastructure, Ankith insists they never killed civilians and that majority rule has only led to the downfall of the Zimbabwean economy.
Zimbabweans, especially from the persecuted areas around the southern city of Bulawayo, have fled to the liberal, booming nation of post-Apartheid South Africa in search of jobs and stability.
Thus, the attempt of the minority Rhodesian government to hold onto power led to the construction of the TAZARA railway and the downfall and exile of its own population.
Perhaps most importantly, it ensured the political domination of Robert Mugabe, whose independence credentials and murderous political machinations have ensured him 33 years (and counting) on the throne and the loss of over a million black and white Zimbabweans.