Pieter Kenyon Fleming-Voltelyn van der Byl, ID (11 November 1923 – 15 November 1999) served as the Foreign Minister of Rhodesia from 1974 to 1979 as a member of the Rhodesian Front. He was a close associate of Prime Minister Ian Smith. Throughout most of his time in government he opposed attempts to compromise with the British authorities and domestic opposition on the issue of majority rule. However, in the late 1970s he supported the moves which led to majority rule and internationally recognised independence for Zimbabwe.
After a high-flying international education, Van der Byl moved to the colony of Rhodesia to manage family farms. He went into politics in the early 1960s through his involvement with farming trade bodies, and became a government minister responsible for propaganda. One of the leading agitators for the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, Van der Byl was afterwards responsible for introducing press censorship. He was unsuccessful in his attempt to persuade international opinion to recognise Rhodesia as a new nation, but was popular among the members of his own party.
Promoted to the cabinet in 1968, Van der Byl became a spokesman for the Rhodesian government and crafted a public image as a diehard supporter of continued White minority rule. In 1974 he was made Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defence at a time when Rhodesia's one ally, South Africa, was supplying military aid. His extreme views and brusque manner made him a surprising choice for a diplomat (a Times profile in November 1976 described him as "a man calculated to give offence"). After offending the South African government, Van der Byl was removed from the Defence Ministry.
In the late 1970s Van der Byl was willing to endorse the Smith government's negotiations with moderate African nationalist leaders and rejected attempts by international missions to broker an agreement. He served in the internal settlement government in 1979. After the creation of Zimbabwe, Van der Byl remained involved in politics and close to Ian Smith, and he loudly attacked former Smith supporters who had gone over to support Robert Mugabe. He retired to South Africa when the Mugabe government abolished seats reserved for whites in Parliament.
After being demobilised, Van der Byl studied law at Pembroke College, Cambridge where his aristocratic manner stood out. 'P.K.' was always elegantly dressed and coiffured, and acquired the nickname "the Piccadilly Dutchman". He obtained a Third class degree in his Part II Law examinations in 1947. He went on from Cambridge to study at the Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration in 1947–1948, although he did not obtain a degree. He also studied at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa.
On 31 August 1979 he married (for the first time) Princess Charlotte Maria Benedikta Eleonore Adelheid von und zu Liechtenstein (thirty years his junior). She is the daughter of Prince Heinrich Karl of Liechtenstein, and a niece of Otto von Habsburg. The couple had three sons: Pieter Vincenz (P.V.) van der Byl (born 1980), Valerian van der Byl (born 1982) and Casimir van der Byl (born 27 July 1990).
One of the most conspicuous features of Van der Byl was his manner of speech. Although his ancestry was Cape Dutch and his early life was in Cape Town, South Africa, he had what were described (by the pro-Rhodesian Chris Whitehead) as "what he thought was an aristocratic English nasal drawl and imperial English mannerisms". Whitehead was of the opinion that Van der Byl had "adopted" this accent, in common with others who heard him.
This personal characteristic was intensely irritating to many people including South African government ministers, but Van der Byl's aristocratic mannerisms appeared uncontentious to many Rhodesian whites. They believed that his "nasal drawl" was the product of his time as an officer in the Hussars and his Cambridge education: William Higham described him as "a popular Minister of Defence who, despite his British upper crust accent – undoubtedly honed during his swashbuckling career as an officer in the hussars – hailed from a noble Cape family."
In 1957 Van der Byl was made a Director of the United Dominions Corporation (Rhodesia) Ltd, having already become an active member of the Rhodesia Tobacco Association. In 1956, he was elected by the members of the Selous Gadzema district to represent them on the Tobacco Association council. He was also Deputy Chair of the Selous Farmers' Association in 1957. His first involvement in government was in 1960 when the Rhodesia Tobacco Association made him one of their representatives on the National Native Labour Commission, on which he served for two years. In 1961, he also represented the Rhodesia Tobacco Association on the council of the Rhodesian National Farmers Union. He was recognised as a leading spokesman for Rhodesian tobacco farmers.
Dominion Party politician Winston Field had also led the Rhodesia Tobacco Association, and Van der Byl agreed with him on politics in general. He joined the Rhodesian Front when it was set up under Field's leadership. At the 1962 general election, Van der Byl was elected comfortably to the Rhodesia House of Assembly for the Hartley constituency, a rural area to the south-west of Salisbury.
Speaking in the Legislative Assembly on 12 August 1964 he attacked proposals for greater independence for broadcasters by referring to what he perceived to be the social effect in Britain:
By the end of 1964, Van der Byl and his Ministry had control of broadcasting in Rhodesia. Speaking in Parliament he described the aims of his Department as "not merely to disseminate information from an interesting point of view but to play its part in fighting the propaganda battle on behalf of the country". He defined propaganda as "simply the propagation of the faith and the belief in any particular ideology or thing", and also stated that the Department would seek the "resuscitation of the determination of the European to survive and fight for his rights".
The Rhodesian Front won a landslide victory, winning every single one of the 50 constituencies which had predominantly European voters. At the Rhodesian Front Congress of August 1965, party members strongly attacked the press for failing to support the government. A demand for it to be made compulsory for all political articles to be signed by the author met with Van der Byl's approval.
Van der Byl was greeted by a speech strongly critical of the Rhodesian government from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who supported the use of armed force to bring the Rhodesians in line with United Kingdom policy on decolonization. He responded by comparing the speech to "the tragic connivance at the destruction of Czechoslovakia in exchange for the useless appeasement at Munich in 1938". Van der Byl's response used the phrase "kith and kin" to refer to the ethnic links between the white Rhodesians and the people of the United Kingdom, by then. He saw no contradiction between signing a letter declaring "constant loyalty" to the Queen and declaring independence a few days later; the Rhodesian Government was careful at the time of UDI to state its continued loyalty to the British Crown, although it later declared a Republic.
Despite his belief in propaganda, Van der Byl was outraged when the BBC subsequently set up a radio station at Francistown in Botswana which broadcast for 27 months criticising UDI and urging the Rhodesians to revoke it. He was later to claim the station was inciting violence, although this was denied by those who had been regular listeners. On 26 January 1966 after the declaration of independence, Van der Byl was willing to be quoted saying that Rhodesian Army troops would follow a 'scorched earth' policy should the United Kingdom send in troops, comparing their position to that of the Red Army when Nazi forces invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. He was highly critical of Harold Wilson, describing him as a "highly dangerous, uninformed and conceited little man."
Internally, his policy was enforced through Ministry control of TV and radio and through censorship of newspapers. From 31 December 1965, the Ministry of Information expanded its brief and was renamed the Ministry of Information, Immigration and Tourism, which meant that it was also responsible for deciding whether to grant or revoke permits to visit Rhodesia. Several foreign journalists were expelled: John Worrall, correspondent for The Guardian, went in January 1969. The Rhodesia Herald, then in opposition to both the Rhodesian Front and UDI, frequently appeared with large white spaces on its news pages where censored stories had been placed. Stories and editorials personally critical of Van der Byl were immediately removed.
Censorship was tightened still further on 8 February 1966 when it was made illegal to indicate where material had been removed. The censor was also given the power to alter existing material or to move it around the newspaper. Dr Ahrn Palley, the lone white opposition MP, described the powers as "censorship gone mad", and insisted that there would no longer be any guarantee that anything published in the newspapers was authentic. Van der Byl responded by saying that the new measures were a reflection on the newspapers which had made such powers necessary In 1967 Van der Byl was reported by Malcolm Smith, the former editor of the Herald, as remarking that a high degree of self-censorship was required, and support for the government was essential.
The Herald (and the Bulawayo Chronicle) defied the restrictions, boldly printing blank spaces which identified removed material. Van der Byl personally visited the newspaper offices on the day the new regulations came in to warn the staff that if the paper was printed as proposed, they would "publish at your peril." However the papers continued to appear with identifiable censorship in defiance of the government, and in 1968 the regulations were scrapped.
Van der Byl's strategy seemed to work at home, with many Rhodesians remaining unaware until the end just how much was their country's vulnerability and isolation. The Times was later to describe him as a "skilled propagandist who believed his own propaganda." When sanctions on Rhodesia were confirmed in January 1967, Van der Byl compared their situation with Spain following World War II, saying that the isolation of Spain had not stopped it from becoming one of the most advanced and economically successful countries in Europe. However, the reality of the situation must have been brought home to Van der Byl in April 1966 when he made informal approaches to see if he might visit Britain 'for social reasons' during a tour of Europe. The Commonwealth Relations Office replied that he would not be recognized as enjoying any form of recognition or immunity. Other European governments refused to recognise his passport and expelled him from the country.
In politics he assumed the position of hard-line opponent of any form of compromise with domestic opponents or the international community. He made little secret of his willingness to succeed Ian Smith as Prime Minister if Smith showed even "the least whiff of surrender," and did his best to discourage attempts to get the Rhodesians to compromise. When Abel Muzorewa had his passport withdrawn in September 1972 after returning from a successful visit to London, the government did not attempt to counter the rumor that it action was taken following Van der Byl's personal order.
In April 1972 Van der Byl sparked a row over the agreement which Rhodesia and the United Kingdom had made in November 1971. Under this agreement, Rhodesia had agreed to certain concessions to African nationalism in return for the prospect of recognition of its independence; however, implementation of the agreement was to be delayed until the Pearce Commission reported on whether the settlement proposals would be approved by the people of Rhodesia. Van der Byl insisted that Rhodesia would not implement any part of the agreement unless Rhodesia's independence was first acknowledged, regardless of the answer from the Pearce Commission. When the Pearce Commission reported that the European population of Rhodesia were in support but the African population were opposed, the agreement was ditched. Many outside and inside Rhodesia had hoped that the government would implement some of the agreement even if Pearce reported against it.
His derision of working class British Labour politicians also caused problems. When, in January 1966, three visiting Labour MPs were manhandled, kicked and punched while attempting to address 400 supporters of the Rhodesian Front, Van der Byl blamed the three for refusing an offer from his Ministry to coordinate the visit, and pointed out that they were breaking the law which required government permission for any political meeting of more than 12 people.
The propaganda circulated by his Ministry (typically including references to "happy, smiling natives") was considered laughable. Visiting British journalist Peregrine Worsthorne, who knew Van der Byl socially, reported seeing a copy of Mein Kampf on his coffee table. His propaganda strategy became increasingly unsuccessful abroad, where Van der Byl alienated many of the foreign journalists and politicians that he came into contact with. Max Hastings, then reporting for the Evening Standard, described him as "appalling" and said that he and Smith "would have seemed ludicrous figures, had they not possessed the power of life and death over millions of people"; Van der Byl had him deported.
Conservative MP Douglas Hurd described Van der Byl, as the "most ignorant and offensive person in authority whom I have ever met. A false Englishman in the manner of von Richthofen. Against elections, against everything except intrigue and condescension."
While still popular with the Rhodesian Front members, he was criticised at the 1972 Party Congress for his lack of success in improving Rhodesia's image around the world; however, he retained the confidence of Ian Smith and was kept on in a government reshuffle on 24 May 1973. That winter saw him promote a new Broadcasting Bill to transfer control of the monopoly Rhodesian Broadcasting Corporation. Allan Savory, then the lone white opposition MP, criticised the Bill for the composition of the proposed board, which was dominated by strong supporters of the Rhodesian Front. Van der Byl insisted, somewhat unsuccessfully to foreign observers, that the government was not trying to take over broadcasting.
PK promoted aggressive measures against the insurgents who were seeking to overthrow Rhodesia. In so doing, he also sought to raise his own political profile. Clad in an immaculately tailored battledress, he would fly by helicopter to a beleaguered army outpost. Wearing dark glasses and sporting a swagger stick, he would deliver a rousing speech for the benefit of the troops and the TV cameras - before returning to Salisbury in time for dinner. He also drew heavily on Winston Churchill for some of his inspiring speeches, as for example when he told the Rhodesian army "If the battle should wax fiercer, there can be no question of surrender. We shall contest every river, every crossroads, every village, every town and every kopje."
Also, "... it is better to fight to the last man and the last cartridge and die with some honour. Because, what is being presented to us here is a degree of humiliation ..." PK, commenting on a British peace plan.
As Minister of Defence, PK was known to join army counter-insurgency operations while armed with a hunting rifle ("I'd like to bag one of these chaps ..."). He would regularly visit army positions and entertain the troops with his own generous supply of "scotch whisky and fine wines." Such behavior endeared him to many in Rhodesia. He was far more popular with the troops than his predecessor as Minister of Defence, "Slippery Jack" Howman. However, PK did not endear himself to senior members of the South African and Rhodesian governments.
Rhodesia's strategic position underwent a fundamental change in June 1975 when the Portuguese government suddenly withdrew from Mozambique which bordered Rhodesia on the east. Mozambique now came under the control of a Soviet-allied government which was supportive of black nationalist forces in both South Africa and Rhodesia. This created a delicate situation since Rhodesia's main road and rail links to the outside world were via the Mozambican ports of Beira and Maputo. Initially, the new Mozambican government allowed the Rhodesians continued use of these links. This was so even while ZANU guerrillas were allowed to base themselves in Tete province adjoining north eastern Rhodesia.
There were rumors in February 1976 that Soviet tanks were being unloaded in Mozambique to help in the war. Unluckily for Van der Byl, the British Foreign Office minister was David Ennals, one of those who had received rough treatment in 1966. Ennals announced that in the event of a racial war breaking out in Rhodesia, there would be no British help. Van der Byl responded by claiming this indicated Britain accepting Rhodesia's independence. He attacked Abel Muzorewa for supporting President Machel, saying that "being a good churchman and a Bishop there is a very strong possibility he might be a communist".
Following the example of Mozambique, the Zambian and Botswana governments permitted guerrillas to establish bases from which they could threaten and infiltrate Rhodesia. Van der Byl told a newspaper reporter that this had to be expected. As infiltration grew, he declared at the beginning of July that the Rhodesian Army would not hesitate to bomb and destroy villages that harboured guerillas.
In 1975 and 1976 The South African government conducted delicate negotiations with neighboring states. The South Africans wanted to encourage those states to maintain economic relations with South Africa and Rhodesia while limiting the activities of the ANC, ZANU and ZAPU. However, increasingly aggressive actions by the Rhodesian army outside its own borders resulted in the failure of this conciliatory approach.
A cross-border army raid inside Mozambique in August 1976 ('the Nyadzonya Raid') killed over 1,000 people, with PK insisting that the government had irrefutable proof that the raid had targeted a guerrilla training camp. PK was unwilling to disclose the nature of the proof. The raid produced a high body count and a major haul of intelligence and captured arms. But many of the people killed appeared to be camp followers or innocent civilians. International opinion generally condemned the raid as a massacre.
Although cross-border raids into Mozambique had been approved by the Rhodesian cabinet, the depth and severity of the August incursion was greater than had been intended. PK had sanctioned the incursion largely on his own initiative. Although a tactical success, the incursion caused a final break with Zambia and Mozambique. The South African government was greatly displeased that its earlier diplomatic efforts were compromised and made this clear to Ian Smith. Smith appeared to consider this "the final straw" as far as PK's defence portfolio was concerned.
Gradually the South Africans grew unwilling to help Rhodesia. The remaining 200 South African policemen transferred to help in the guerrilla war were removed suddenly in August 1975, a move which appeared to precede even more disengagement. Van der Byl responded in a speech on 8 August which asserted that "The terrorists who are trained and equipped outside our border and who invade our country with the willing help of other governments are here for a much wider purpose than the overthrow of Rhodesia. They are here to represent a force which sees Rhodesia as just one more stepping stone to victory over South Africa because they see South Africa as a vital key to the security of America, Europe and the rest of the western world."
When the Rhodesian government held talks with the African National Council on the railway bridge across the Victoria Falls in August 1975 (the train in which the talks took place was strategically in the middle of the bridge so that the ANC were in Zambia while the Rhodesians remained in Rhodesia), Van der Byl was not a member of the Rhodesian delegation. This was a curious omission given his position. He did however participate in talks with Joshua Nkomo that December.
Van der Byl's habit of referring to the African population as "munts" (he asserted that "Rhodesia is able to handle the munts") led to extreme unpopularity with the South African government, and he did not attend talks with South African Prime Minister John Vorster in October 1975. This was interpreted as being connected to a personal dislike. When, on 26 August 1976, the South African government announced the withdrawal of all its military helicopter crews from Rhodesia, Van der Byl was outspoken in his criticism and Vorster was reported to have refused to have anything to do with "that dreadful man Van der Byl." Smith decided "clearly I had no option" and on 9 September 1976 a sudden cabinet reshuffle ended Van der Byl's tenure as Defence Minister. Smith said the South African dislike of Van der Byl was partly motivated by the memory of his father who had been in opposition to the National Party.
At this conference, which was jointly organized by the United Kingdom and United States, Van der Byl rejected the idea of an interim British presence in Rhodesia during a transition to majority rule, which was identified as one of the only ways of persuading the Patriotic Front to endorse a settlement. Ultimately, on 7 January 1977 he announced the rejection of any agreement that the conference might come to.
Later that month, Van der Byl was finding pressure put on him by more moderate voices within Rhodesia and hinted that the government might amend the Land Tenure Act which restricted the amount of land which Africans could own. He also remarked that Bishop Abel Muzorewa "can be said to represent the African in this country", which indicated the direction in which the Smith government was hoping to travel: an accommodation with moderate voices within Rhodesia was likely to be a better end than a capitulation to the Patriotic Front. Van der Byl was prepared to support this strategy and did not go along with the 12 Rhodesian Front MPs who formed the Rhodesian Action Party in early 1977 claiming that the Front had not adhered to party principles.
Although Van der Byl was now prepared to say that he supported the transition to majority rule, he was quick to put restrictions on it when interviewed in April 1977. He insisted that majority rule would only be possible on a "very qualified franchise--that's what the whole thing is about", and also said that any settlement must be endorsed by a two-thirds majority of the existing Legislative Assembly (which was largely elected by white Rhodesians). Over the summer of 1977 he continued to warn that insistence on capitulation to the Patriotic Front would produce a white backlash and put negotiations back.
However, the Rhodesian government was forced to put its internal settlement negotiations on hold during a joint US-UK initiative in late 1977. Van der Byl's public comments seemed to be aimed at ensuring this mission did not succeed, as he insisted that it had no chance of negotiating a ceasefire, described the Carter administration as "mindless", and the joint mission as being "Anglo-American-Russian". When a plan was published, he described it as "totally outrageous" and involving "the imposition of unconditional surrender on an undefeated people who are not enemies".
In May Van der Byl greeted news of massacres in Zaire as "a blessing in disguise" because they might ensure that warnings about Soviet penetration in Africa were heeded. He denounced the British government the following month for refusing to recognise that a massacre of Elim missionaries was perpetrated by the Patriotic Front. As the date for the full implementation of the internal settlement grew nearer, Van der Byl's profile decreased, but he remained active in politics: he was elected unopposed for the whites-only Gatooma/Hartley seat to the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia House of Assembly. He handed over power to his African successor on 1 June 1979, and became instead Minister of Transport and Power and Minister of Posts in the new government.
According to Ian Smith's memoirs, Van der Byl organised a meeting between Ian Smith and Lieutenat-General Peter Walls, Commander of the Rhodesian Army, shortly before the first Zimbabwean elections in February 1980, where they agreed a strategy to prevent Robert Mugabe winning. They met again on 26 February the day before polling began in the Common Roll election. The consensus at this meeting was that Abel Muzorewa's interim government would win enough seats, when put together with the 20 seats reserved for whites which were all Rhodesian Front, to deny Mugabe victory. However, the early election results in March dented this confidence.
Smith asked Walls for details of his plan ('Operation Quartz') for using force to prevent ZANU-PF taking power (whether or not it won the election). Walls insisted that ZANU-PF would not win the election. When it did happen, both Smith and Van der Byl believed that the Army should step in to prevent Mugabe taking over. Walls took the view that it was already too late, and while the others wished for some move, they were forced to concede to this view.
Parliamentary seats reserved for whites were abolished in 1987. Van der Byl made his last speech in Parliament on 10 September, in which he praised Robert Mugabe for the "absolute courtesy" he had shown since independence. He noted that he was the last surviving member of the 1965 government remaining in Parliament, and declared he hoped "I would have been cherished .. as a sort of national monument, and not flung into the political wilderness". His speech loudly denounced the former Republican Front and Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe members who had gone over to the government, describing them as "dreadful souls screaming in agony". The government minister Dr Edson Zvobgo responded with an ironic poem referring to the number of Africans killed by troops under Van der Byl's command.
Four days after his 76th birthday, Van der Byl died at Caledon. In his obituary, Dan van der Vat wrote "The arrival of majority rule in South Africa made no difference, and he died a very wealthy man. UDI had been a bit of a lark, to be enjoyed while it lasted and shrugged off when it failed. Despite the deaths of thousands of Africans at the hands of white Rhodesian troops and police resisting the inevitable, Van der Byl, no less than Smith and their atavistic cronies, got clean away with it."
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