20 JANUARY 1961, Page 5

Wounded Buffalo

By T. R. M. CREIGHTON rTIHE Southern Rhodesian Constitutional Con- ference which resumed this week in Salisbury faces formidable difficulties. The real protagon- ists—Prime Minister Sir Edgar Whitehead, for the colony's European population, and Mr. Joshua Nkomo, National Democratic Party leader for the overwhelming majority of Africans—approach the conference from alarm- ingly divergent points of view.

Sir Edgar still believes—or professes to—that its object is to negotiate the removal of Britain's remaining, but never used, powers over Southern Rhodesia and consummate the colony's indepen- dence so that it may preserve its own 'way of life' in Federation with the liberalised. Northern territories—a way of life, though Sir Edgar does not say so, that is white-supremacist. He has let it be known that he does not contemplate any significant liberalisation of the nearly all-white franchise; the concessions he is prepared to make would simply perpetrate the old formula of nominal representation without influence.

Mr. Nkomo, on the other hand, is out for universal suffrage and though he is too sensible to refuse a qualified franchise as a transitional measure, will certainly not accept less than a considerable African majority in the electorate. In this he will merely be following the Monckton Report, which insisted that `no new form of [Federal] association is likely to succeed unless Southern Rhodesia is willing to make drastic changes in its racial policies'; and he should emerge as the moderate, realistic and, ironically enough, Federalist politician in face of Sir Edgar's extremist demands for white supremacy, which must make impossible any form of Fed- eration with Nyasaland, where an African majority is promised, and Northern Rhodesia, where an equitable constitution seems likely.

It will be a miracle if these points of view can be reconciled. But, then, it is almost a miracle that the Southern Rhodesian Prime Minister is prepared even to sit down and begin negotiating about the colony's constitutional future with African leaders. Such a concession would have appeared out of the question for the foreseeable future when Congress came into being under Mr. Nkomo's presidency in 1957; when it was banned, and all its leaders arrested two years later; or even when Sir Edgar brusquely dis- missed Mr. Nkomo and the Rev. N. Sithole from his London delegation a few weeks ago.

Still, it would be foolish to attribute this tremulously hopeful situation to a change of heart on the part of the present European leaders or electorate. They have been confronted with the still unpalatable but inescapable facts of African discontent and African political unity; but very few yet realise that the only way out is to extend the franchise to an African majority. Most remain white-supremacist; they have faltered into consenting to talks with African nationalists only through the pressure of events they do not understand, of British Ministers they do not wholly trust, and of a British public opinion they despise—rather than through the enlightened diplomacy of a few liberals of both races in the Central Africa Party. Their reactions at the present juncture are about as predictable as those of a wounded buffalo.

Mr. Sandys will consequently need to use all his blandishments and all his own and Britain's authority as well, and the Central Africa Party all its mediating diplomacy if the conference is not to break down. It simply cannot be allowed to break down; the consequences would be far too grave, not for the Federation—a reconstituted Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland can get along very well together and extend their links with other States to the north—but for Southern Rhodesia itself. Mr. Michael Faber, in an article in the South African Journal of Economics this month, argues that for Southern Rhodesia to go it alone would be economic disaster of the direst kind. There are those who do not agree with him on purely economic grounds; but a perpetuation of white supremacy in the colony would certainly spell catastrophe, and inaugurate a decade or more of inter-racial bitterness, violence and strife.

Mr. Sandys's strongest and most hopeful point of argument with the local Europeans will be the appeal to self-interest. If he can help them to see that to grant political rights to Africans now is the only way to preserve all they hold dear; that Mr. Nkomo is anxious to guarantee them a secure place in the country under an African majority (which his embittered successors might not be); that to withstand the reasonable demands of Africans now will be to unleash an uncon- trollable and annihilating tempest on their heads in the future, the conference may succeed. Reason, right and logic are all on Mr. Sandys's side; and it is a pity that Sir Edgar is insisting on opening the conference under his own less adept chairmanship before Mr. Sandys arrives; one can only hope that he will not have time to do the kind of irreparable damage he has shown himself capable of in the past.

Mr. Nkomo has been addressing African political meetings 20,000 strong in the past few peeks and has thus disposed of the European argument that the National Democratic Party is a small, unrepresentative group thriving only on 'intimidation.' To recognise this should hasten Sir Edgar's conversion, however grudging, to a more liberal and realistic point of view. The danger remains, of course, that even if he is sensible enough to give ground the European electorate may refuse to support him, and bring in the segregationist Dominion Party to lead the country to ruin. But the signs are that the Euro- pean population is at the moment sufficiently confused and perplexed to accept the first firm lead that is given it, even in the direction of an African majority. Perhaps the best service Sir Edgar could do would be to resign in favour of someone able to give such a lead. Even in his own party there are one or two who might.