Alec Smith

Unlikely reconciler in Zimbabwe


Alexander Douglas Smith, farmer: born Gwelo, Rhodesia 20 May 1949; chaplain, Zimbabwe National Army 1980-87; managing director, Black Aces 1991-96; married 1979 Elisabeth Knudsen (one son, two daughters); died London 19 January 2006.

Alec Smith was an unlikely hero. The son of the former Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith, he was a pale, slow-walking, slow-talking man with watery eyes and a gentle sense of humour. There was nothing overtly animated about him. He was a will- o'-the-wisp: you never knew quite where he'd come from or where he was going. He was certainly not the sort of person you'd think had been instrumental in averting a military coup. But this is what he did, and, in so doing, helped change the course of his country's history.

Few Rhodesians will fail to remember that day in April 1980, when, after the long years of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence and bloody guerrilla warfare, Ian Smith broadcast to the nation asking them to trust the newly elected prime minister, Robert Mugabe, and give his regime a chance. Their shock can only have been matched by Mugabe's astonishing inaugural speech on the eve of independence promising a policy of reconciliation. There would be no reprisals against whites, he said. The ills of the past must finally be laid to rest. What on earth had happened to make both men so radically change their stance?

The night before the election, at the instigation of Alec Smith and a black colleague, the two men had been persuaded to meet secretly, after dark, at Mugabe's home - a last-ditch attempt to prevent a threatened military coup by the white Rhodesian army should Mugabe beat his rival Joshua Nkomo at the election. The armoured tanks were already positioned in the streets of the capital, Salisbury, later Harare, just waiting for the moment.

In the event this turned out to be the first of many private conversations between the two leaders, and their unexpected rapport calmed the nation. Advised by the Governor, Lord Soames, the army quietly slid away.

For Alec Smith that meeting was the culmination of years of dangerous underground work building bridges of communication between the guerrilla fighters in the bush and white Rhodesians. The day after the meeting, the deputy prime minister, Simon Muzenda, called Smith into his office. Thanking him, he said throughout the war the guerrillas had been watching out for his little yellow car, protecting him as he travelled.

The only child of Ian Smith and his wife Janet, Alec Smith was born in the city of Gwelo (now Gweru) in Rhodesia in 1949. He spent most of his early years cultivating his image as a rebel, removing himself as far as possible from everything his father stood for. He was 12 when they moved into the prime minister's residence and his parents, preoccupied with matters of state, hardly noticed him. He described his mother in these days as "a trace of perfume on the air". Free from parental supervision, Alec concentrated on having fun.

By the time the swinging Sixties finally reached Rhodesia they were almost over, but Alec Smith was ready and waiting for them. He became the country's most famous hippie, politically radical and permanently stoned. A lemming, he said later, hell-bent for the sea.

But a profound religious conversion experience in his early twenties changed his life completely and forever. He was later to say, "For me, God is not a matter of faith, but of fact." The depth of his convictions won him unlikely friends among the black leadership, most significantly Arthur Kanodereka, treasurer of the ANC. A passionate nationalist, Kanodereka had been brutally tortured by the white regime and for him the only good white man was a dead white man. But meeting Alec Smith changed his perceptions. Kanodereka profoundly affected Smith's thinking, helping him understand the depth of black suffering, and exposing his own culpability.

You could say that the beginning of the end of white rule took place over a pot of tea when Smith finally took Kanodereka home to meet his father. Ian Smith, who abhorred all that the freedom fighters stood for, had never met a black nationalist socially. Nor had a black African ever set foot in the Smiths' home for a purely social event. Afterwards Ian said to his son, "If all black nationalists were like him, I'd have no trouble handing over the country tomorrow."

After independence Alec Smith, though not ordained, became a chaplain in the army. His task was to unite these former enemies - the black freedom fighters and the white Rhodesian army - into one coherent force.

Smith's strength as a reconciler lay in his abilities to see beyond the views being expressed to the complexities of the man expressing them. He believed political and social reconciliation was not possible unless individuals were reconciled in their personal lives. An angry marriage could make an angry man. This "whole person" approach, which might have been viewed more cynically in the West, met a deep resonance within the African community which had not lost its understanding of the interconnectedness and interdependence of human beings.

During the Eighties and Nineties he spoke at conferences on conflict resolution and reconciliation across the world, meeting privately with Zimbabwean political leaders who trusted his opinion and integrity. Even though ultimately disillusioned by Mugabe and his regime, he never lost hope in the people, sure that in the end they would make the right choices for their country's future.

Surprisingly for a man so unhurried, Alec Smith was passionate about football. He founded and managed the "Black Aces", the first fully professional football club in Zimbabwe, organised a series of international charity matches to assist famine relief in Mozambique, and was himself a rugby referee.

His most endearing eccentricity was his collection of newspapers, piled floor to ceiling - which at the time of his death had spread to three rooms, some dating back to the Eighties. He always meant to get round to reading them some time.

Smith could, on occasion, be extremely irritating. He blew casually into your life like a dandelion seed expecting you not to mind that he was several hours late. His enigmatic life style made the more cynical sometimes wonder if he actually did anything at all. But to his children's friends he was a "cool dad" who always had time for them. He described himself as a farmer and spent much of the last decade managing his father's farm in central Zimbabwe. Long since reconciled, father and son were deeply committed to each other. Ian referred to him as "my rock".

Alec Smith would always have been his own man, whatever happened, but his life was enriched and supported by the woman who, from the moment they met, gave him "a sense of peace and belonging". His wife Elisabeth shared his faith and his vision, and her courage and humour set him free to be fully himself.

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