The Age (Melbourne), November 22, 2007
Ian Douglas Smith, Rhodesian leader
April 8, 1919–November 20, 2007
Ian Smith, an ardent advocate of white rule in Rhodesia, who unilaterally declared independence (UDI) from Britain in 1965 and governed as an uncompromising prime minister for more than a decade, has died, aged 88.
For 15 turbulent years following UDI, Smith’s government fought an increasingly bitter war against African nationalist guerillas, which cost up to 40,000, mainly black, lives. It was a struggle he eventually lost, paving the way for the country’s independence as Zimbabwe.
To his supporters—white Rhodesians and many in Britain—Smith was a political visionary, a simple farmer who had stepped forward reluctantly to defend his country against communism. To the left, he was as abhorrent as the leaders of apartheid South Africa.
The context of Smith’s declaration of UDI was the deep distrust among Rhodesia’s 200,000-strong white minority of Britain’s motives in Africa following Harold Macmillan’s 1960 “winds of change” speech that presaged Britain’s withdrawal from the continent.
To Smith and his supporters, it seemed the West was only too willing to overlook military dictatorship, violence and corruption in black Africa while condemning Rhodesian society which, whatever its shortcomings, offered relative security for its citizens.
The West, Smith argued, no longer had the will to stand up to communism; Rhodesia was the front line, and the whites were not engaged merely in a battle for their existence but for civilised values.
To begin with, despite UN-imposed economic sanctions, Rhodesia’s economy actually strengthened under UDI, and Smith appeared to relish his position as an international pariah. Many international companies secretly broke the sanctions and Rhodesian businesses and farmers diversified to fill the gaps.
Smith managed to convince white Rhodesians that they could continue to defy world opinion indefinitely. “I don’t believe in black majority rule over Rhodesia,” he proclaimed, “not in 1000 years.”
The tide of white emigration from Rhodesia was reversed as thousands of whites, mainly from Britain and South Africa, came to enjoy the advantages of white supremacy.
Smith, the first native-born Rhodesian to lead his country, seemed a simple man, blunt, unemotional and lacking a sense of humour. He was awkward socially and disliked publicity. His craggy, rough-hewn image concealed an astute tactical mind and a talent for political infighting which his opponents tended to underestimate.
The Northern Rhodesian trade unionist and statesman who helped found the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Sir Roy Welensky, once remarked that “dealing with Smith is like trying to nail jelly to a wall. Make no mistake, Smith is a ruddy ruthless man”.
British negotiators found that he constantly changed the goalposts in negotiations. He denied being a racist, yet almost in the same breath would insist that separate development and racial discrimination were essential ingredients of Rhodesian society.
But in the end it was not diplomacy that wore down Smith but armed black opposition and, decisively, South Africa’s decision to withdraw support. UDI galvanised black nationalist feeling and, by 1972, guerilla armies led by Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo were leading regular attacks on white border farms. From then on they conducted their activities from bases in Mozambique and Zambia, and Smith countered with vigorous retaliatory measures by the Rhodesian armed forces.
Smith took part in the talks at Lancaster House in London, which were to set a new path for what would become Zimbabwe. The final result of UDI was that the white Rhodesians were landed with a deal that removed all traces of their political influence and, after the country’s first democratic elections held in 1980, brought about the one thing Smith had promised them they would never have—a black Marxist government run by the man they most abhorred, Mugabe.
Smith was born at Selukwe, Southern Rhodesia (now Shurugwi, Zimbabwe), the son of a Scottish-born butcher and cattle dealer who had emigrated in 1898. He attended local schools at Selukwe and nearby Gwelo, then read commerce at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. There he met and married Janet Watt, the widow of a South African rugby player, whose views on race were more hard-line than Smith’s.
He interrupted his studies in 1939 to join the RAF (No. 237 Rhodesia Squadron). In 1943, during the North Africa campaign, his Hurricane crashed on take-off at Idcu, near Alexandria, smashing his head against the instrument panel. Smith’s face had to be surgically rebuilt, an operation that left him with a somewhat menacing stare.
The following year, after his Spitfire was shot down over the Ligurian Alps, he spent five months with the Italian partisans before escaping over the Alps into France, where the Allies had just landed. He finished the war in Germany with No. 130 Squadron.
Smith’s war experiences left an indelible impression on him, and the fact that Rhodesia had done much to help the mother country would become central to his sense of betrayal by postwar British governments.
After completing his studies, Smith was elected to the Southern Rhodesian Assembly in 1948. He joined the right-wing opposition Liberal Party and stood as a candidate for Selukwe. Initially he opposed the plan for federation between Southern Rhodesia and the territories of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi). But later he came to realise the potential economic advantages for Rhodesia, and joined the governing Federal Party when the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was formed in 1953.
By 1958, Smith had become chief government whip under the premiership of Welensky. But when, in 1961, the federalists supported a new constitution allowing limited representation for black Africans in parliament, Smith was instrumental in founding the Rhodesian Front, committed to negotiating independence from Britain with a government based on the white minority.
In December 1962, shortly before the break-up of the federation, the ruling United Federal Party was defeated by the RF, and Winston Field became prime minister with Smith as deputy prime minister and treasury minister. At the end of 1963 the federation was dissolved, and Southern Rhodesia reverted to its former status as a colony.
After succeeding Field as prime minister in April 1964, Smith moved quickly to show he meant business. His first official act was to authorise the arrest and banishment of four black African nationalist leaders. The disorder that followed was suppressed vigorously by the police.
To keep moderate white opinion on side, Smith was careful to emphasise that he wanted a settlement with the British. To his supporters on the right, however, he asserted he would never compromise on the fundamental issue of white supremacy.
On December 21, 1972, guerilla forces operating from neighbouring Mozambique attacked an isolated white homestead in Centenary district, ushering in a period of increasing guerilla activity, with frequent murders and terrorist attacks. In 1975, Nkomo and Mugabe joined together as the Patriotic Front and prosecuted a punishing guerilla war.
After years of political contortions and external pressure from the British and US governments, free elections were held in early 1980 in which Mugabe’s Zanu-PF swept to victory, winning most of the seats in the new parliament. Nkomo’s Zapu held on to its Ndebele strongholds and formed the opposition. Smith’s Rhodesia Front claimed all 20 reserved seats in a reflex vote by the white electorate.
At first it seemed that Smith’s dire predictions about the future might prove to be ill-founded. Despite Mugabe’s inflammatory rhetoric, whites kept their land and foreign investment was encouraged. Smith continued to excoriate Mugabe as a Marxist dictator, but was seen as an increasingly irrelevant figure.
In 1987, he was expelled from parliament for 12 months after criticising sanctions imposed on neighbouring South Africa. By the time his suspension was lifted, the whites had lost their seats in parliament.
During the 1990s, as Mugabe’s regime became increasingly corrupt and violent, Smith took a grim delight in seeing his predictions come true. “It helps lift my depression that the majority of black people are saying it is time to get rid of this bunch of corrupt gangsters,” he said.
In his memoirs, The Great Betrayal (1997), he put the blame for Rhodesia’s collapse on almost everybody except himself. “During UDI we had the greatest national spirit in the world, a fantastic country, great race relations, the happiest black faces in the world … if our friends hadn’t betrayed us, we’d have won,” he wrote.
Smith’s wife, Janet, died in 1994. They had two sons and a daughter.