Together against the “Winds of Change”: Cooperation between South Africa, Rhodesia and Portugal during the Decolonization of Southern Africa

Category: Essay 0

With the end of the Second World War began the final stage of formal European colonialism – the age of decolonization. In the 1950s and 1960s, several states in Asia and Africa gained independence and European colonial empires began to crumble. By the mid-1960s, only Southern Africa seemed to have been forgotten by this development. In the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique as well as in Apartheid ruled South Africa and Britain’s ‘insurgent’ colony of Rhodesia (until 1964 Southern Rhodesia, today Zimbabwe) white minorities managed to stay in power. Fighting to preserve their privileges and influence the governments of South Africa, Rhodesia and Portugal joined forces and developed a close military and economic cooperation to withstand the so-called “Winds of Change”.

This article will examine how the transimperial cooperation between white minorities in Southern Africa developed from a mainly economic basis in the early 20th century into an informal military alliance designed to withstand decolonization of the subcontinent.

During the second half of the 19th century, European colonial powers were in fierce competition to establish extensive spheres of influence and formal colonies in Africa. Two important actors in the continent’s southern part were Britain and Portugal. While Portugal had created a foothold in what is today Angola and Mozambique in the early days of European expansion, British influence in Southern Africa began around the Cape in the early 19th century and expanded rapidly in the second half of the century. In the 1880s, the two colonial powers collided. British missionaries, traders and fortune seekers kept pushing northwards from the colonies in Natal and around the Cape displacing and constantly fighting local African populations. Meanwhile Portuguese elites and settlers dreamed of uniting Angola and Mozambique into a transcontinental colony that stretched from the Eastern to the Western shores of Southern Africa. In 1890, the plans to create a ‘rose coloured map’ (mapa cor de rosa) were finally crushed when the Portuguese government had to bow to political and economic pressure following an ultimatum set by Britain.[1]

(The Portuguese plans for a transcontinental colony across Southern Africa were illustrated by the ‘rose coloured map’ (mapa cor de rosa) like this example from 1886,Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo, ColecçãoCMP, Colecção de Mapas e Planos: 0015 Rolo 15 1870/1899,

To establish its colonial rule in South Central Africa, Britain fought several wars against autochthonous African states and the independent Boer republics created by settlers of European descent. In 1910, British influence was consolidated with the foundation of the Union of South Africa as well as the colony of Southern Rhodesia in 1923 and the establishment of the protectorates of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (today Zambia and Malawi) in 1911 and 1907.[2] At the same time, Portugal’s acceptance of the powerful British position in Southern Africa cleared the way to develop strong economic relations between the two colonial empires. While rich mineral resources had been discovered in the British territories, the landlocked colonies lacked an efficient access to world markets. Furthermore, the booming mining industry was in constant demand of cheap African labour. Angola and Mozambique on the other hand possessed suitable deep water ports and Portuguese colonial authorities saw advantages in the migratory labour of the African populations from their territories.

In 1890, a railway connected Southern Rhodesia’s mining districts with the port of Beira in Mozambique. The construction was mostly financed with British capital and several extensions and improvements of the line followed. To the south the independent Boer republics, that would be forcibly annexed to British ruled South Africa after 1902, had a similar interest in Mozambique’s maritime infrastructure. Cut off from the coastline by the British colonies in the south they were in dire need for a connection to international trade. Construction of a railway between Pretoria and Lourenço Marques (today Maputo) in Mozambique began in 1885 and the line was officially opened in 1895, providing the heartland of the South African mining industry with an efficient connection to the geographically nearest port. Finally, following its completion in the 1930s, Angola’s Benguela Railway enabled the ‘Copperbelt region’ of southern Congo and British ruled Northern Rhodesia to export their produce efficiently.[3]

(Network of the Beira Railway in 1927 connecting Southern Rhodesia with the port of Beira in Portuguese ruled Mozambique. See small box for the railway lines connecting Rhodesia with South Africa in comparison, FunkyCanute, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons,

After the Second World War, British interest in the Portuguese railway infrastructure in Angola and Mozambique was renewed. Britain’s industry was in high demand for cheap raw materials from Southern Africa. Bilateral talks started in the late 1940s and British investments helped to modernize the railways that connected North and South Rhodesia with ports in Angola and Mozambique. In 1950, Portugal and Britain signed a treaty that guaranteed the use of the Mozambican port of Beira for Rhodesian import and exports in exchange for modernization of the infrastructure.[4]

Beside the exchange of goods, there was a constant movement of people between Portuguese ruled Mozambique, Rhodesia and South Africa. Since the early days of mining at the Witwatersrand in the 1880s, Mozambican migrant workers were an important source of labour for the industry. To secure and organize the flow of migrant labour, authorities in the Transvaal made a series of agreements with Portuguese colonial administrators. Migrant workers from the Portuguese colony played such an important part in the mining industry that in exchange for rights to recruit labour in Mozambique the government of the Transvaal guaranteed to send half of its railroad traffic to the port of Lourenço Marques. Even after the British conquest of the Transvaal following the South African War (1899–1902) the new authorities still preferred the port in Mozambique over the ports in the British colony of Natal to strengthen economic relations with the Portuguese and secure the supply of workers.[5] Facing similar high demands for African labour, Southern Rhodesia’s agriculture and mining industries recruited migrant workers from Mozambique as well. Portuguese colonial authorities welcomed labour migration because foreign currency earned by African workers helped to make up Mozambique’s constant trade deficit. Moreover, African workers were able to pay taxes with the money earned abroad and employment in South Africa and Rhodesia eased social tensions at home. The flow of migrant workers continued well into the 20th century. Before 1910, two thirds of foreign African workers at the Witwatersrand came from Mozambique. In 1955, according to official statistics 173,433 Mozambicans worked in South Africa while 178,780 Mozambican labourers were employed in Southern Rhodesia. Working conditions at the mines were hard and in the early days mortality was high. Living in closed compounds migrant workers were subject to racial discrimination, strict surveillance and low salaries. Because there were few alternative sources of income at home, whole communities became dependent on migrant labour. Meanwhile the absence of large numbers of men for a long time had a severe impact on Mozambican communities.[6]

Based on its mineral wealth and the exploitation of African labour South Africa became the economic power house of the region following the Second World War. Searching for new markets as well as development and investment opportunities the government in Pretoria and South African private companies became interested in the neighbouring territories. In the early 1960s, the Portuguese regime decided to open its colonial economies for foreign investments hoping to encourage development and growth to counter the social agenda of the anti-colonial movements. Soon South African companies began to play an important role in the Portuguese colonies. The Johannesburg based Anglo American Corporation for example held massive shares in Angola’s mining and railway sectors.[7] Lisbon and Pretoria agreed on several infrastructural projects to strengthen commercial ties. Improvements of infrastructure and the overall economic situation furthermore aimed to secure the model of white minority rule, which saw rising criticism as well as political and military challenges by the mid-1960s. Primary examples of bilateral development schemes are the construction of hydroelectric power plants in Angola and Mozambique in the 1970s.

1969 saw an agreement to build a hydroelectric power plant at the Cunene River that separated Angola and South African occupied Namibia. Aiming at an improvement of infrastructure and irrigation-based agriculture in the two territories, the first phase of the project was finished in 1973. Although the contract stated that the construction should be financed equally by both partners, South Africa had to cover most of the costs because the Portuguese side was unable to provide the necessary financial means. In exchange, the South African government gained full control of the project.[8]

A similar scheme on an even larger scale was planned in Mozambique. Portuguese colonial administrators had developed the idea to dam the Zambezi River, Africa’s fourth longest stream, at Cahora Bassa in Mozambique’s Tete Province. To realize this project Portugal needed foreign know-how and investments, attracting attention in South Africa. 82 percent of the electricity produced at Cahora Bassa’s hydroelectric plant would be delivered to South Africa, mostly to be used in the mining industry. Moreover, Pretoria welcomed Lisbon’s plan to tighten its colonial control in Mozambique with a massive infrastructure project. Portuguese and South African public corporations joined forces with private companies from several European countries (among them many from the Federal Republic of Germany and France). When the Swedish electrical engineering company ASEA backed off due to political concerns South African government funds enabled Siemens from Germany to fill in. Construction began in 1970 and soon became a flashpoint of Mozambique’s war of decolonization due to the importance of the project and the international attention. The dam was only finished in late 1974 a few months after the Carnation Revolution in Lisbon and shortly before Mozambique gained full independence.[9]

The large-scale economic cooperation after the Second World War was flanked by a close political and military relationship that developed between Portugal, South Africa and Rhodesia beginning in the late 1950s. Facing severe international criticism of their authoritarian colonial societies the three regimes had the common interests of keeping minorities of European descent in power and the ideas of African nationalism and decolonization out of their spheres of influence. This formed a perfect basis for political and military cooperation.[10]

Between 1945 and the early 1960s, most of Asian and African colonies gained independence either through wars of decolonization or negotiated settlements. Considering the recent conflicts in Indochina and Malaya as well as Algeria and Kenya the governments in Pretoria, Salisbury and Lisbon became increasingly worried that a violent decolonisation would hit them next. To coordinate their efforts and share information Portuguese and Rhodesian police and military officers first met in Salisbury in 1958. They were joined by South African intelligence officers shortly after and in the early 1960s established regular meetings to exchange security information and intelligence reports.[11]

When the tensions between Salisbury and London about majority government and independence intensified in the early 1960s, Portuguese officials made clear to their Rhodesian counterparts that they would support the Salisbury regime even after a possible independence from Britain, knowing that Rhodesia depended economically on the railroad connection to Beira. On the eve of Rhodesia’s unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) in 1965 economic and logistic cooperation intensified and the Portuguese support for Rhodesia strained Lisbon’s relations with Britain.[12] The escalating conflict between London and Salisbury led to fears in Portugal and South Africa that the British military might attack their territories in order to reach Rhodesia.[13] Instead, London tried to block the Mozambican port of Beira for any oil shipments destined to Rhodesia. But due to concerns about the relationship to the fellow NATO member Portugal the British Royal Navy did not effectively enforce the UN embargo on oil imports. Lisbon’s decision to stand by its colonial neighbour at the expanse of the relationship with Britain was key to enable the Rhodesian regime to survive. The Rhodesian UDI not only put Salisbury in conflict with Britain, the United Nations and several independent African states but also set the stage for an escalating guerrilla war between the Rhodesian government and security forces and African nationalist movements for the next 15 years.[14]

Meanwhile the Portuguese colonies in Africa were facing severe security challenges of their own. Since 1961, African liberation movements had started to challenge colonial rule in Angola, Guinea and Mozambique with military means. In the second half of the 1960s, Lisbon had to fight three guerrilla wars with limited financial and military resources. Feeling abandoned by its allies in North America and Europe Lisbon called its colonial neighbours for help. In the mid-1960s South Africa began to supply the Portuguese forces with financial support, ammunitions and infantry weapons and sold helicopters and armoured cars on very favourable conditions. When the military situation deteriorated further in the late 1960s, Pretoria’s minister of defence Pieter Willem Botha assured the Portuguese minister of foreign affairs Alberto Nogueira that South Africa would be ready to intervene militarily in the neighbouring territories if necessary.[15]

South Africa had a concrete interest of its own in securing a white minority government in Rhodesia as well as Portuguese colonial rule. Since 1948, the National Party led government in South Africa had installed the apartheid system based on segregation and white supremacy, meeting broad resistance by the disfranchised African and Asian descended population at home and drawing criticism from abroad. In the early 1960s, state repression forced the domestic opposition underground or into exile, from where liberation movements initiated the armed struggle. At the same time, Namibian nationalists launched a guerrilla war against the South African occupation of the former German colony. Pretoria saw the Portuguese colonies and Rhodesia as an important factor for its own security creating a buffer zone against the armed opposition in exile and the independent African states hostile to the apartheid system.[16]

To legitimize white minority rule all three regimes presented themselves as defenders of Western values against a growing communist encroachment in Africa under disguise of nationalism and decolonisation.[17] This common ground as well as the multiple conflicts and thousands of kilometres of common borders led to the necessity to cooperate in security matters. As the conflicts intensified so did military operations and coordination between Portugal, South Africa and Rhodesia.

In 1967, guerrillas of the African National Congress (ANC) and Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) launched joint operations in Rhodesia. South Africa sent paramilitary police units northwards to support Rhodesian forces. Pretoria tried to justify the intervention by claiming that the 2,000 policemen would defend the Northern border and help to fight the ANC guerrillas that were originally from South Africa. The strained Rhodesian security forces welcomed South African support, which lasted until 1975. At the same time, Portuguese authorities gave Rhodesia’s forces green light to pursue guerrilla fighters across the border into Mozambique and stay for lengthier operations if necessary.[18] In 1970, Portugal and South Africa extended their military cooperation by establishing a joint control centre in Southern Angola, to coordinate air force operations in the region. Furthermore, the South African Defence Force (SADF) placed six helicopters under Portuguese command, effectively doubling the number of helicopters available to Lisbon’s forces in the area.[19]

To improve coordination of their military efforts Lisbon and Pretoria decided to put the cooperation on a steadier basis. In October 1970, they launched Exercise ALCORA (Portuguese Exercício ALCORA, Aliançia Contra as Rebeliões em África – Alliance against rebellions in Africa) a secret and informal military alliance, joined by Rhodesia shortly afterwards.[20] The first meeting of the ALCORA top level committee in May 1971 set up a number of working groups to deal with different topics such as intelligence and logistics, as well as developing joined defence plans in case of a conventional military attack. The establishment of Exercise ALCROA was heavily influenced by recent developments of the global Cold War and the degrading military situation in Portugal’s colonies, especially in Mozambique’s Tete province. Pretoria, Salisbury and Lisbon felt more and more endangered by growing Soviet and Chinese support for African liberation movements, hoping that recent changes of government in the US and Britain would lead to improving relations with the West. Furthermore, South Africa had major economic and strategic interests in the Cahora Bassa project and Rhodesia wanted to put an end to cross border attacks of African guerrillas operating from northwestern Mozambique. The explosive situation in Tete rapidly changed Exercise ALCORA from a planning staff for future conventional conflicts to a coordination centre for South African, Rhodesian and Portuguese military operations on the ground.[21]

It is striking that Exercise ALCORA was entirely based on agreements reached by military elites without signing an official document for a formal military alliance. At the same time, a further integration of military cooperation was hampered by ongoing disputes about operations, national reservations and particular interests especially in the field of diplomacy.[22] Nevertheless, the three partners set up a permanent planning committee in early 1974 and agreed on establishing a joint headquarter. Only a few month later Portugal’s Carnation Revolution not only ended Europe’s longest lasting dictatorship but also set the course for decolonization in Angola and Mozambique abruptly ending Portugal’s military and economic cooperation with Rhodesia and South Africa. While Portugal’s African colonies would become independent states, Rhodesian and South African officials continued their joint intelligence work at least until 1975.[23]

The article could show that transimperial cooperation between Portugal, South Africa and Rhodesia began in the late 19th century due to economic reasons. At first cooperation was fuelled by economic self-interests, but quickly developed into a mutual dependence. When decolonization began to change the political map of Africa in the 1960s Pretoria, Salisbury and Lisbon became more and more isolated on the international stage. Due to disputes about decolonisation and the political future of the governing white settler communities South Africa and Rhodesia even cut their political ties to the former colonial metropolis, remaining as ‘independent’ colonial relicts and influential regional economic and military powers. The three white minority regimes faced security challenges by armed African opposition movements and doubted the reliability of their partners in Europe and the West. Therefore as well as due to the common interest to preserve white minority rule in Southern Africa, cooperation was extended to the military field. Eventually these efforts proved fruitless and transimperial cooperation ended suddenly in 1975 when Portugal’s colonies gained independence. In 1980, Rhodesia became the independent state of Zimbabwe, following a political settlement and general elections, leaving South Africa’s apartheid regime as the continent’s last white minority administration which would last until the 1990s.

Further Reading:

William G. Clarence-Smith: The Third Portuguese Empire 1825–1975: A Study in Economic Imperialism, Manchester 1985.

Luís Sargento Freitas: Portugal’s Estado Novo Regime and Apartheid South Africa. Two Dictatorships and Their Diplomatic Exchanges, in: Portuguese Journal of Political Science/Revista Portuguesa de Ciência Política 11 (2019), pp. 35–47.

Pedro Aires Oliveira: Os Despojos da Aliança. A Grã-Bretanha e a Questão Colonial Portuguesa, 1945-1975, Lisbon 2007, pp. 60–70.

Felipe Ribeiro de Meneses, Robert McNamara: The Origins of Exercise ALCORA, 1960–1971, in: The International History Review 35/5 (2013), pp. 1113–1134.

Felipe Ribeiro de Meneses, Robert McNamara: Exercise ALCORA: Expansion and Demise, 1971-1974, in: The International History Review 36/1 (2014), pp. 89–111.

Nils Schliehe: Deutschlands Hilfe für Portugals Kolonialkrieg in Afrika. Die Bundesrepublik Deutschland und der angolanische Unabhängigkeitskrieg 1961–1974, Munich 2016.

[1] William G. Clarence-Smith: The Third Portuguese Empire 1825–1975: A Study in Economic Imperialism, Manchester 1985, p. 9.

[2] A.E. Atmore: Africa on the Eve of Partition, in: Roland Oliver, G.N. Sanderson (eds.): The Cambridge History of Africa. From 1870–1905, Vol. 6, New York 1985, pp. 10–95, here pp. 83–91. Furthermore in the same volume: Shula Marks: Southern Africa 1867–1886, pp. 359–421 and Shula Marks: Southern and Central Africa, 1886–1910, pp. 422–492.

[3] John Lunn: The Political Economy of Primary Railway Construction in the Rhodesias, 1890–1911, in: Journal of African History 33 (1992), pp. 239–254, here pp. 242–243 as well as Clarence-Smith: The Third Portuguese Empire, pp. 70, 100, 154–155 and Simon E. Katzenellenbogen: South Africa and Southern Mozambique: Labour, Railways and Trade in the Making of a Relationship, Manchester 1982, Chapter 2.

[4] Pedro Aires Oliveira: Os Despojos da Aliança. A Grã-Bretanha e a Questão Colonial Portuguesa, 1945-1975, Lisbon 2007, pp. 60–70.

[5] R. Mansell Prothero: Foreign Migrant Labour for South Africa, in: The International Migration Review 8/3 (1974), pp. 383–394, here pp. 384–385 and Clarence-Smith: The Third Portuguese Empire, pp. 108–109.

[6] Prothero: Foreign Migrant Labour, pp. 386–392 and Clarence-Smith: The Third Portuguese Empire, p. 154.

[7] Wiliam Minter: Portuguese Africa and the West, Harmondsworth 1972, pp. 129–131.

[8] Nils Schliehe: Deutschlands Hilfe für Portugals Kolonialkrieg in Afrika. Die Bundesrepublik Deutschland und der angolanische Unabhängigkeitskrieg 1961–1974, Munich 2016, pp. 114–115.

[9] Schliehe: Deutschlands Hilfe, pp. 116–117. For further information see Allen Isaacman, Barbara Isaacman: Dams, Displacement and the Dillusion of Development. Cahora Bassa and Its Legacies in Mozambique, 1965–2007, Athens (Ohio) 2013.

[10] Luís Sargento Freitas: Portugal’s Estado Novo Regime and Apartheid South Africa. Two Dictatorships and Their Diplomatic Exchanges, in: Portuguese Journal of Political Science/Revista Portuguesa de Ciência Política 11 (2019), pp. 35–47, here p. 41.

[11] Felipe Ribeiro de Meneses, Robert McNamara: The Origins of Exercise ALCORA, 1960–1971, in: The International History Review 35/5 (2013), pp. 1113–1134, here pp. 1115–1116 and Felipe Ribeiro de Meneses, Robert McNamara: Parallel Diplomacy, Parallel War: The PIDE/DGS’s Dealings with Rhodesia and South Africa, 1961–74, in: Journal of Contemporary History 49 (2014), pp. 366–389, here pp. 367–368.

[12] Oliveira: Os Despojos da Aliança, pp. 329, 331, 337, 343.

[13] Freitas: Portugal’s Estado Novo Regime and Apartheid South Africa, p. 42.

[14] Alois Mlambo: A History of Zimbabwe, New York 2014, pp. 149–194.

[15] Ribeiro de Meneses, McNamara: The Origins, p. 1122–1123. See Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces in Angola to the Chief of Staff of the Portuguese armed forces: Alteração no Dispositivo de Quadrícula, N° 1795/69, 12th July 1969. Arquivo da Defesa Nacional: Fundo 02, Secção 1, Serie 68, Caixa 253, N° 4.

[16] John Daniel: Racism, the Cold War and South Africa’s Regional Security Strategies 1948–1990, in: Sue Onslow (ed.): Cold War in Southern Africa. White Power, Black Liberation, London 2009, pp. 35–54.

[17] Ribeiro de Meneses, McNamara: The Origins, pp. 1115.

[18] John Daniel: Racism, the Cold War and South Africa’s Regional Security Strategies, pp. 39 as well as Ribeiro de Meneses, McNamara: The Origins, p. 1116 and Felipe Ribeiro de Meneses, Robert McNamara: Exercise ALCORA: Expansion and Demise, 1971-1974, in: The International History Review 36/1 (2014), pp. 89–111, here p. 97.

[19] Estado-Maior do Exército: Resenha Histórico-Militar Das Campanhas de África 1961-1974, Vol. 6, Aspecto da Actividade Operacional, No. 1 Angola, Pt. 2, Lisbon 2006, pp. 364–367.

[20] Ribeiro de Meneses, McNamara: The Origins, pp. 1126-1127. For a detailed study of the emergence of Exercise ALCORA see here as well as Ribeiro de Meneses, McNamara: Exercise ALCORA: Expansion and Demise, 1971-1974.

[21] Ribeiro de Meneses, McNamara: Exercise ALCORA, pp. 90–91 and 96–98.

[22] Ibid, pp. 100–101.

[23] Ribeiro de Meneses, McNamara: The Origins, p. 1114.

Author profile

Nils Schliehe is a PhD candidate at the University of Hamburg. He completed his MA studies with a thesis about the military, economic and political cooperation between West Germany and Portugal against the backdrop of the Angolan war of decolonization. He worked as a research and teaching assistant at Hamburg University’s Department of Global History and currently finishes his thesis about African soldiers of the Portuguese military during the wars of decolonization. His research interests include the History of sub-Saharan Africa, Decolonization, War and Conflict Studies and the Cold War.


Latest publications:
Deutschlands Hilfe für Portugals Kolonialkrieg in Afrika. Die Bundesrepublik Deutschland und der angolanische Unabhängigkeitskrieg 1961-1974, Allitera Verlag, Munich 2016.
West German Solidarity Movements and the Struggle for the Decolonization of Lusophone Africa in Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais, Vol. 118, May 2019, p. 173-194.

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