Review: A Brutal State of Affairs 

Source: Review: A Brutal State of Affairs – South of the African Equator


The genesis of “A Brutal State of Affairs” lies in Henrik Ellert’s original work “Rhodesian Front War”, but it is a vastly improved work in which Henrik is co-authored by Dennis Anderson. Both men were tangled in the murky world of intelligence as operatives in Ken Flower’s Central Intelligence Organisation (as members of the BSA Police, Special Branch). They present a narrative that possibly may not endear the authors to die-hard, old Rhodesians, because they show that some of their iconic heroes perhaps faltered, that they were always on borrowed time, and much was not well when the Rhodesian edifice fell.

Ellert, a Dane, grew up in Kenya and joined the BSA Police in 1964, a short while after arriving in the country. His exposure to the growing insurgency as a young detective and his cutting out of a career in both civil and military intelligence work stands him in good stead as author of this book. Henrik is a Portuguese linguist and frequently found himself, back then, in liaison roles at the highest level with Portuguese authorities in Mozambique.  Anderson, a Londoner, joined the BSA Police in 1956 and was soon involved with intelligence work in the sixties as the Nationalist struggle began to unfold. He held intelligence command positions at Sub-JOCs[1] and the main JOC Thrasher (Manicaland) and later JOC Hurricane. Dennis served at Special Branch Headquarters where he worked on the Terrorist Desk and was later a member Combined Operations Command (COMOPS).

Ellert and Anderson, in the day, had access to politicians and military chiefs and they were privy to knowledge that your common citizen may never have enjoyed. They also had access to the recollections and papers of a strong network of ‘regimental’ colleagues during the writing of this book. The authors take a look at the Rhodesians and who they were. From the first occupation of Mashonaland through to the finals days, they show the shaping of a privileged society and its class hierarchy; seemingly of importance to Rhodesians, apparently predicated on notions pertaining to when they first arrived.

Inevitably, the manuscript heads in the direction of the two principal conflicts that Rhodesians suffered. They were plunged into isolation and sanctioned by the international community following the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain, simultaneously, along with the fomenting struggle of indigenous people. The book outlines the rise of nationalism and the armed struggle.

A Brutal State of Affairs” sets aside chapters on some the key units, including Special Branch, and those very closely associated with it, that fought the Rhodesian bush war: the British South Africa Police, the Central Intelligence Organisation (the dual command of Special Branch), and then the Selous Scouts (that was actually the creation of Special Branch and with which SB was deeply involved).

Two nations were fundamental in their support of the struggling Rhodesians: South Africa and Mozambique. The authors dedicate chapters to these nations and their involvement in Rhodesian affairs, particularly the war and sanctions busting. Ellert presents new material on Mozambique, a country which itself succumbed to a bitter bush war; that it was fast losing when the April 1974 Portuguese coup d’état changed the face of history in Southern Africa. Rhodesia suddenly became the more vulnerable party in the conflict and the South Africans soon closed their doors to the floundering nation, at the behest of US Secretary of State, the manipulating Henry Kissinger.

Oddly, much of Rhodesian history is written by the vanquished, but few authors question why Rhodesians agonised with their bush war, merely accepting the Rhodesian Front narrative of the time. In some respects this is perhaps a good thing, with the proclivity towards the often not entirely honest revisionism by the victors. Yet Rhodesians involved in the conflict may never admit to the failings of their regime, their privilege and segregationist attitudes.

No matter how efficient, dedicated or professional, undoubtedly, were Rhodesia’s brave fighting forces and units, they were hamstrung by the clear absence of political strategy. The Rhodesian Front (RF) repeatedly rejected a negotiated path to moderate black majority rule, sticking to its main agenda of keeping the country in the hands of a minority.  The end game was political defeat. Rarely is an insurgency quelled without political solutions or change.

In the aftermath of World War II and the era of decolonisation, the future of Rhodesia, and it is fair to say South Africa, was equally determined by demographic imperatives. With UDI, the clock starting ticking ever faster. Honestly, what chance did the Rhodesians have when their population was a mere 3-4% of the total (at its height) in the early 1970s? Was there ever going to be another outcome, bearing in mind the collapse of white rule in South Africa just fifteen years on?

A gullibility prevailed. Many Rhodesians thought they were in the know and knew what was going on, but they simply did not, often obfuscated by RF speak. The collapse of white rule eventually surprised and devastated them all and they were found wanting as to why and maybe were asking what went wrong. Ellert and Anderson’s book seems to fill the vacuum here, and serves well to broaden the perspective of where Rhodesians were. Perchance, it may enlighten or help them understand why Zimbabwe is as it is today. It is not an unreasonable reflection of the Rhodesians and their struggle and perhaps ‘compulsory’ reading for true Zimbabwean historians.

A Brutal State of Affairs” is probably one of the best works on Rhodesia’s spy game genre since Flower’s “Serving Secretly”, but it is not a definitive history of the intelligence service.

[1] Joint Operations Command (JOC) established in all defined operational areas.

A Brutal State of Affairs: The rise and fall of Rhodesia
Authors: Henrik Ellert and Dennis Anderson
Publisher: Weaver Press, Avondale 2020
ISBN 978-1-77922-373-9