The British South Africa Police (BSAP) was, for most of its existence, the police force of Rhodesia (renamed Zimbabwe in 1980). It was formed as a paramilitary force of mounted infantrymen in 1889 by Cecil Rhodes' British South Africa Company, from which it took its original name, the British South Africa Company's Police. Initially run directly by the company, it began to operate independently in 1896, at which time it also dropped "Company's" from its name. It thereafter served as Rhodesia's regular police force, retaining its name, until 1980, when it was superseded by the Zimbabwe Republic Police, soon after the country's reconstitution into Zimbabwe in April that year.
While it was in the main a law enforcement organisation, the line between police and military was significantly blurred. BSAP officers trained both as policemen and regular soldiers until 1954. BSAP men served in the latter role during the First and Second World Wars, and also provided several support units to the Rhodesian Bush War of the 1960s and 1970s. During the Bush War, the BSAP operated several anti-guerrilla units, most prominently the Police Anti-Terrorist Unit, which tracked and engaged nationalist guerrillas; the Support Unit, which was a police field force, nicknamed the "Black Boots" because of their distinctive footwear; and the Civilian African Tracking Unit, composed mostly of black Rhodesian trackers utilising the traditional skills and techniques of the Rhodesian Shangaan people.
By 1980, the BSAP comprised about 46,000 officers in all; 11,000 regulars (about 60% black), and the remainder reservists (almost all white). The organisation's rank structure was unique, with different levels of seniority existing for black and white officers respectively. Until 1979, black officers could rise no further than sub-inspector, while the commissioned ranks were all-white. Limitations on black aspirations were removed in 1979, when the country was reconstituted into black majority-ruled Zimbabwe Rhodesia, but white officers still retained most of the top ranks a year later, when Zimbabwe was formed. Under Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwe Republic Police immediately adopted a policy whereby senior whites were retired at the earliest opportunity and replaced by black officers.
The organisation was formed by the BSAC in 1889 as a paramilitary, mounted infantry force in order to provide protection for the Pioneer Column of settlers which moved into Mashonaland in 1890. The unit played a central role in both the First Matabele War (1893) and the Second Matabele War (1896/97). Until 1896 the force was called the British South Africa Company's Police. The BSAP operated originally in conjunction with the Southern Rhodesia Constabulary (SRC), the town police force for Salisbury (now Harare) and Bulawayo, but amalgamated with the SRC in 1909. As a paramilitary unit, the BSAP fought in the Second Boer War and in Tanganyika during World War I, while some members were seconded to the Rhodesia Native Regiment. From 1923, Southern Rhodesia was a self-governing colony of the British Empire, but the BSAP retained its title and its position as the senior regiment of the Southern Rhodesian armed forces. One of the first casualties of the BSAP in World War II was Keppel Bagot Levett, born in 1919, who died in active service with the BSAP in March 1941.
A Criminal Investigation Department was founded in 1923; a Women's Section in 1941, and a Dog Unit in 1945. From 1957, the Police Reserve also had an airborne wing.
Between the World Wars, the Permanent Staff Corps of the Rhodesian Army consisted on only 47 men. The BSAP were trained as both policemen and soldiers until 1954.
Prior to the use of motor vehicles, extended rural patrols were carried out on horseback, and right up until the Force was renamed all white male officers were taught equitation as part of their basic traíning. Selected officers were retained in Morris Depot after "passing out" and tasked with training remount horses for future use by recruits and on ceremonial duties. Mounted Escorts were provided for occasions such as the state opening of Parliament. Generally speaking, the force was the 'Senior Service' and performed ceremonials such as those allocated to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police today. As such discipline, presentation, and parade drill were of a very high standard.
The BSAP's name remained unchanged by the Unilateral Declaration of Independence, although following the declaration of a republic by Ian Smith's government in 1970, the crown was removed from the BSAP's badge.
During the period of the Rhodesian Bush War in the late 1960s and 1970s, the BSAP formed an important part of the white minority government's fight against black Communist guerrillas. The force formed a riot unit; a tracker combat team (later renamed the Police Anti-Terrorist Unit or PATU); a police field force Support Unit (who were distinguished by wearing black boots), an Urban Emergency Unit, a Police Reserve Air Wing or PRAW, and a Marine Division, and from 1973 offered places to white conscripts as part of Rhodesia's national service scheme. At independence, the force had a strength of approximately 11,000 regulars (about 60% black) and almost 35,000 reservists, of whom the overwhelming majority were white. A former BSAP officer, Daniel Carney wrote a book titled Whispering Death about the BSAP in anti-terrorist operations which was later made into the film Albino.
The Support Unit (known as the "Black Boots" due to their footwear) was a Police field force staffed by about 30-40 white and 300 black regular and national servicemen. Their additional training consisted of a four-weeks long Counter-Insurgency (COIN) training, small-arms and driving courses amongst others. Their primary task was to patrol the long distances in the Tribal Trust Lands, to maintain and reinstate order in the kraals (native villages).
In the late 1970s a Civilian African Tracking Unit (C.A.T.U.) was added, to relieve the professional trackers in the pursuing of the enemy infiltrators into Rhodesia. Their tracking methods were based on the traditional skills and techniques of the Rhodesian Shangaan tribe. Their formations were called 'sticks', and consisted of a couple of white Rhodesian 'Patrol Officers', or 'Section Officers', and six to eight black Rhodesian trackers. Police Reservists and regular police officers organised in a similar way were called the Police Anti Terrorist Unit or PATU.
Police of all ranks to chief inspector, were obliged to perform PATU secondment on a regular rotation basis, and deployed to operational areas. Riot standby units were also maintained to deal with urban civil disorder on the same basis. Counter insurgency and advanced weapons training were mandatory by 1970s in anticipation of PATU and district duties.
A district (rural) police station with a strength of anything from a dozen to forty personnel was often required to 'fly the flag' over an area comprising several hundred sq. kilometres.
Until the late 1970s, black Rhodesians were prevented from holding ranks higher than Sub-Inspector in the BSAP, and only white Rhodesians could gain commissioned rank. This changed after moderate black leader Bishop Abel Muzorewa won in the 1979 elections. After Robert Mugabe took power, the force followed an official policy of "Africanisation", in which senior white officers were retired and their positions filled by black officers.
The rank structure was unique, black policemen (known colloquially as 'Mapolisa') were Constables, Sergeants, Senior Sergeants, Sergeants Major, and Sub Inspectors.
The Caucasian police (known colloquially as 'Majoni') ranks began at Patrol Officer (Single gold bar on each shoulder), proceeding to Senior patrol officer (Two gold bars), Section Officer (Three gold bars), and thereafter to Inspector, Chief Inspector and commissioned ranks etc., as per UK police rank structures. There was also a training depot rank designation of Staff Lance Section Officer (also denoted by Three gold bars).
On December 18, 1978, Equitation Squad 14/78-the first multi-racial Patrol Officer recruit squad-began training at Morris Depot in Salisbury, now Harare. Prior to this date, Black recruits were trained at Tomlinson Depot, while White Patrol Officers were trained at Morris Depot. Included in this historic intake was Patrol Officer Sinclair Roberts, the first mixed race Police Officer accepted to the BSAP since its inception in 1889, a span of 89 years.
White officers were assigned separate mess facilities to the black police, and were obliged to employ indigenous civilian 'batmen', whom the white officers -not the government- paid. The batmen were skilled at the presentation and maintenance of several police uniform 'dress orders' worn throughout any given day, all of which were expected to be immaculate at all times.
The responsibilities of these Caucasian police officers, once trained, were broadly the same as those of UK police officers. Black officers engaged in operational police work worked alongside their white colleagues on investigations and patrols, necessarily acting as interpreters with the indigenous population, as well as patrolling alone and conducting their own crime investigations or as otherwise directed. Black "ground coverage" officers acted as undercover plain clothes intelligence gatherers in both rural and urban areas.
- Cramer 1964, p. 235
- An Armorial of Zimbabwe and Rhodesia, Council of the Heraldry and Genealogy Society of Zimbabwe, 2001
- History of the BSAP Gibbs/Phillips 2000
- Brown, Robert K.: American mercenaries in Africa - How to be a Soldier of Fortune in Rhodesia, SOFMAG, 1976.
- Jack Lott: "Run the bastards down!" C.A.T.U. tracks terrorists - Rhodesia's civilian tracking unit. - SOFMAG July 1979
- Cramer, James (1964). The World's Police. London: Cassell.
- Scouting on Two Continents, by Major Frederick Russell Burnham, D.S.O. LC call number: DT775 .B8 1926. (1926)
- Radford, M., 1994. Service Before Self, privately published.
- Gibbs, P., & Phillips, H., 2000. The History of the British South Africa Police, Something of Value Publications, Victoria, Australia.
- Kent Rasmussen, R., & Rubert, S. C., 1990. Historical Dictionary of Zimbabwe, Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, N.J., USA.
- Brown, Robert K.: American mercenaries in Africa - How to be a Soldier of Fortune in Rhodesia, Soldier of Fortune Magazine, First ever issue 1976.
- Lott, Jack: "Run the bastards down!" C.A.T.U. tracks terrorists - Rhodesia's civilian tracking unit. - Soldier of Fortune Magazine July 1979
- The Regimental Association of the British South Africa Police
- Blue & Old Gold - The History of the British South Africa Police 1889–1890
- Leopard - Land Mine Resisting Vehicle (Used by the BSAP)
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