It is one of the purposes of this article to test the validity of the assumption of an interaction between economic base and superstructure in explaining the historical development of Rhodesia, and in interpreting recent political events there. To this end the economic base of the Rhodesian social system before World War II is analyzed and related to the coexisting set of socio-political events and attitudes. In and after World War II external stimulants induced a process of development which altered the economic base and saw the emergence of an African proletariat and a manufacturing capitalist class. But this process of development was subsequently interrupted because of the resistance of those classes who owe their economic and social status to the superstructure of the old production relations. In the light of this analysis some conclusions about the present political conjuncture are drawn.

The most important single element determining the nature of economic and political development in Southern Rhodesia, was the British South Africa Company’s overestimation at the end of the 19th century of its mineral resources, and the persistence of this overestimation for roughly 15 years. The reasons behind such a misconception can be partly detected in the political interruptions which characterized the early period of colonization (Jameson Raid, Matabele and Mashona rebellions, Boer War). The costs incurred in the meantime increased the stake of the Company in the country and led to additional heavy development investment particularly in railways. The over valuation became apparent when, eventually, the Rhodesian gold fields failed to yield deposits comparable to those of South Africa. For example, even in 1910 against a profit of close to £7 million from the eleven leading Johannesburg gold mines, the ten leading Rhodesian mines yielded a profit of only £614,000. Large-scale workings were uneconomic because the deposits were scattered and the ore itself often of a low quality.

The desire to recover the original heavy outlays induced the Chartered Company to foster the formation of a white rural bourgeoisie which, by developing the country would raise the value of its assets in the area—viz. the railway system, the mine claims, and especially land.

Settlement gathered momentum after 1902 when small workings of mine claims on a royalty basis were extended. ‘The influx of peoples, European and African, to the mining camps brought about a derivative demand for other products. Between 1901 and 1911 the European population doubled from 11,000 to over 23,000. Farmers began to settle and to feed the growing population and commercial undertakings became established in the growing towns af Salisbury and Bulawayo.’footnote1 Thus a cumulative process was started leading to a class structure which crystallized during the depression of the 1930’s.

Within this class structure the white rural bourgeoisie was the foundation of the capitalist sector of the economy. This bourgeoisie consisted largely of both owner-workers of small and medium-sized mines and farmers who were economically committed to the development of the country. This national character of the white rural bourgeoisie, even at that time, distinguished Southern Rhodesia from practically all other African colonial territories north of the Limpopo and South of the Sahara, where exploitation of resources was carried out by large-scale international capitalism. In these other territories, where exploitation was based on large-scale mining or plantation or monopoly trade, capitalist interests in the economy were not permanent but lasted until, for example, deposits were exhausted or the raw material was substituted in the industrial process overseas or some more economic source of supply was found.

In inter-war Rhodesia about a third of the Europeans gainfully occupied belonged to the rural bourgeoisie, but to assess the full strength of this class, it is important to take into account the would-be agriculturalists. In fact ‘even the civil servant, business and professional man, miner or railway employee looked forward to retiring to a plot of land.’footnote2International capitalism was represented mainly by the British South Africa Company which, apart from its control over the railways, the bulk of gold production and coal mining, also owned land in part exploited for productive purposes (maize, cattle, citrus, etc). In accordance with its interest in encouraging the growth of the white rural bourgeoisie, it also experimented with new crops.

Large estates had been given to companies and syndicates for certain interests acquired by the British South Africa Company.footnote3Other big companies were already dominating asbestos and chrome mining.footnote4 Control over tobacco production was exercised indirectly through monopsonistic practices by the United Tobacco Company which, in Huggins’ view, ‘was aiming at becoming the country’s sole tobacco buyer, and managed to draw the best experts out of the government service’. A third class consisted of craftsmen engaged in manufacturing, whose activity was totally dependent on the rural bourgeoisie and big international capital, mainly the British South Africa Company. It was typically a petty bourgeoisie and, indeed, the Colony’s official Year Book of 1932 does not even mention the manufacturing industry.