William John Harper

Rhodesian politician William John Harper (1916–2006) served as a fighter pilot during World War II, and his dismay at Britain's treatment of colonial India prompted him to move to the British Crown Colony of Southern Rhodesia. After embarking on a career in politics, Harper served as a cabinet minister in Rhodesia and was a signer of that African country's Unilateral Declaration of Independence.

A British subject born in India, William John Harper served as a cabinet minister in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) from 1962 to 1968. During his early career, Harper worked as a general contractor for the mining and farming industries, and he served as a fighter pilot in both the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Australian Air Force during World War II. As cabinet minister in 1965, he signed Rhodesia's Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), which freed the country of being a settlement of Great Britain. During his later political career, Harper was a controversial leader, advancing apartheid (racially discrimitatory) measures at the same time that Rhodesia's government was moving toward independence.

Early Life

Central Press/Getty Images

Central Press/Getty Images

Harper was born in Calcutta (Kolkata), British India, on July 22, 1916. His family, on both his father's and mother's side, were prominent Anglo-Indian merchants whose roots stretched back several generations, to the time of the East India Company in the 18th century. Harper enjoyed the advantages of his station, receiving a good education in Darjeeling, India, and Windsor, England. In 1937, he joined the RAF and became a commissioned pilot officer in early September of that year. Known to be a stern and serious man, he rose through the officer ranks during World War II, distinguishing himself as a flying officer in No. 17 Squadron. Given command of “A” Flight, he participated in the Battle of Britain (July 10–October 31, 1940), one of the great aerial conflicts in the history of modern warfare. Shot down in August by the German Luftwaffe, he crashed in Suffolk, England, but returned to his command within weeks. As one of “The Few” —a name coined by the press to describe RAF airmen and based on British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's comment “Never, in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few” —Harper also saw action in southeast Asia, India, and North Africa while assigned a command with the Royal Australian Air Force. He eventually achieved the rank of wing commander.

After the war ended in 1945 and amid the political upheaval that followed, Harper was dismayed when British India achieved independence in 1947, believing that the British government essentially surrendered to Indian nationalists’ demands. Following his retirement from the RAF two years later, Harper left India to live in Southern Rhodesia, then a British colony, where he worked as a contractor for the mining industry and eventually entered politics.

Entered Politics in Southern Rhodesia

Now comprising modern-day Zimbabwe, the self-governing colony of Southern Rhodesia had been established in 1923 and had an economy based on tobacco and chrome. Referred to as Rhodesia after 1965, this colony occupied lands near the Zambezi river, where British colonist and entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes acquired mineral rights from local leaders. As leader of the British South Africa Company, Rhodes oversaw the exploration and exploitation of a large region of southeastern Africa, and was not popular with native Africans. Southern Rhodesia became a colony of the British Crown in 1923.

Southern Rhodesia's history from 1923 to its establishment as the Republic of Zimbabwe in 1980 was contetions, with internal factions based on race and ideology even taking up arms against one another. Becoming a citizen there circa 1950, Harper entered politics eight years later, embracing a conservative ideology. His first success was winning a seat in parliament representing Gatooma. His lengthy and often controversial career led him to a position as Minister of Internal Affairs, where he served until 1968.

Signatory of Rhodesian Universal Declaration of Independence

With a strong allegiance to the British Crown, Harper was a founding member of the far-right faction Rhodesian Front, a party that desired independence from Great Britain while retaining Anglo (white) control over the region. Under Prime Minister Winston Field, he was made Minister of Irrigation, Roads, and Road Traffic in 1972, a year the first black members were elected to South Rhodesia's parliament. Hoping to avoid the results in neighboring Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Malawi, which in the early 1960s gained independence and had black majorities in their parliaments, the Rhodesian Front realigned. Rather than become Prime Minister, a position that went to deputy Prime minister Ian Smith, Harper was appointed Minister of Internal Affairs. On November 11, 1965, Smith, Harper, and other members of the Southern Rhodesia government, signed the Universal Declaration of Independence (UDI), thereby declaring the region a sovereign state independent of Great Britain. This was the first time a Crown colony had broken with Great Britain since the Americans revolted in 1776, and neither Great Britain or the United Nations recognized Rhodesia as a political entity.

The UDI was designed to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual and gave right of access to the courts by someone who felt that provisions had been denied. It specifically provided a right to life (except for court-sentenced executions) and to personal liberty as well as freedom from slavery or forced labor (except where labor is required by court order, or while in detention, or while in a military force in the interests of discipline) and freedom from inhumane treatment (no torture or degrading punishment except where reasonably justified to prevent escape from custody or where the punishment is inflicted in terms of any existing law). Among citizens there could be no deprivation of property (except when and where required in the public interest under any law) or violation due to arbitrary search and entry (except where reasonably justified in the public interest). The right to a fair trial was asserted, as well as the personal right to freedom of conscience, ensuring that every individual enjoys freedom of thought and religion. Freedom of expression was ensured, except where restriction was necessary in the interests of defense, public safety, the economy, morality or public health, as was freedom of assembly and association (with similar restrictions). Most importantly, the government would grant freedom from discrimination.

While the UDI was applauded by those within Rhodesia who desired independence, others recognized the advantages of being a British settlement, including Africans who viewed colonial rule as a way of avoiding tribal conflict and economic malaise. African nationalists were opposed, however, their ultimate goal being African rule of the region.

A Controversial Leader

After the UDI was signed, Rhodesia continued under the leadership of Prime Minister Smith, and Harper coninued his role within the cabinet. Unfortunately, his years of service to the country were overshadowed by his increasing insistence that, as was quoted in Regina, Canada's Leader-Post in 1976, the southern part of the African continent would “be under white rule forever.” Outspoken, he labeled the black nationalists “terrorists” for resorting to violence in their quest for black representation, and viewed Great Britain as weak and an enemy, perhaps magnifying his dismay of the Crown over its granting independence to his native India. Harper was increasingly seen as a disabling element within right-wing circles, particularly when he contested the elections of black members of parliament. According to his family, he was misunderstood and maligned by the right; meanwhile, the left despised him and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson pressured Smith for his ouster.

In 1981, Harper was the subject of a Contempt of Parliament motion. Although the contempt motion failed, his racially tinged efforts to thwart the young and not-yetvalid government of Rhodesia caused his colleagues to distance themselves from him, and Harper resigned his position in parliament on July 3, 1982, partway into his second five-year term. With his political career tainted by his apartheid comments, Harper left government, later commenting that he “deeply regretted” his remarks and was “haunted by his embarrassing his country.”

Died after Long Illness

In 1979, Harper moved to South Africa, where he remained until his son died in 1996. Returning to Rhodesia, he established a home in Salisbury and lived a quiet life, outside of the political and public spotlights. He refused requests from the press for interviews and declined invitations to state events, even though he was invited. He even declined an offered membership in the Order of Rhodesia.



International Legal Materials, January, 1972, “United Kingdom: Proposals for a Rhodesian Settlement,” pp. 185–205.


Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation News online, https://forum.nationstates.net/ (July 27, 2013), “Harper Dies Aged 96.”❑

(MLA 8th Edition)