A barren mistress: American rhetoric in the Rhodesian illegal declaration of independence

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Graves Neil


This month marks the fortieth anniversary of the Lancaster House Agreement on 21 December 1979 which officially ended the Rhodesian Bush War and led directly to the creation of the Republic of Zimbabwe five months later. One immediate effect of the signing of this agreement was the nullification of the illegal Rhodesian Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) that on 11 November 1965 had declared Rhodesia free from British colonial control. This was only the second UDI in history - the first being the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 – and superficially the context of the two declarations appear similar, a circumstance that motivated the authors of the Rhodesian UDI to model their Proclamation on Thomas Jefferson’s illustrious American original in an attempt to generate international sympathy for their cause. However, the extent of the relationship between the two documents, their linguistic modelling, rhetorical effects and political philosophies, remains largely unexplored. This paper dissects the rhetoric of the Rhodesian UDI in the light of the lexis, structure, syntax, physical context and ideology of its American predecessor. What is apparent is that the American model provides only a thin veneer of respectability, with the suppressed dissimilarities between the two documents revealing the repugnance of a racist Weltanschauung that underpins the Rhodesian government’s claims for independence. This is ultimately contextualised by a chronologically mediating text, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestselling C19th novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which addresses the central issue of the responsibility of a white Western government towards its black African citizenry.

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