Smith the survivor casts his cold eye on a cruel world

Seventeen years after losing power, Rhodesia's last white leader talked to James Roberts about politics and betrayal
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The Independent Online
"Nelson Mandela has shown so much compassion, forgiveness, understanding, wisdom ... he's a great chap ... a phenomenon."

Few people would take issue with this judgement, but the words are a little surprising, some might say rich, coming from Ian Smith, regarded by many in the West during the Sixties and Seventies as a racist madman, and by many in Africa as the personification of all evil.

Last week, he was in London to promote his memoirs, The Great Betrayal. The very title speaks of seething resentment, of a man who cannot forgive the world for some act of craven and spineless appeasement. And indeed, Mr Smith, now 78, wearing his RAF tie and resting his leg on the coffee table - he is still plagued by the injuries he received when he jumped from a burning Spitfire over Corsica in 1944 - insists: "Appeasement is a terrible thing".

The targets of his resentment, however, are a little surprising. Not Henry Kissinger, for example, but Lord Carrington - who, he says, betrayed the terms of the Lancaster House agreement of 1979 by turning a blind eye to intimidation on a vast scale by the Zanu (PF) forces of Robert Mugabe in the 1980 elections. When Lord Carrington was forced to resign over the Falklands fiasco two years later, Mr Smith and his friends raised a toast. Nor is Harold Wilson vilified. South Africa's John Vorster, however, sacrificed Rhodesia in the belief that that would persuade the rest of Africa to accept apartheid: "Those chaps [South Africa's Afrikaners] had strange ideas."

Ian Smith himself was brought up in the small community of Selukwe with a near-mystic belief in Britain, "the mighty Atom that civilised half the world", embodied for him in such Victorian values as "fair play". African culture, however, was "not really recognisable as such", and the mission of the whites was to try to "bring them up to the standards of Western civilisation".

These certainties, which led him to declare UDI in 1965, did not exactly prepare him for the outside world. Wilson told him at one point in their tortuous negotiations that he would have to sell any agreement to the rest of the international community, and in particular the Organisation of African Unity. "That bunch of communist dictators!" was Mr Smith's robust retort. "You cannot divorce yourself from the world we live in," Wilson reminded him. Kissinger, while "conceding the justice of my case" had to tell him: "The politics of convenience has little to do with truth and logic, Mr Smith." Lord Soames, he says, told him: "I am afraid, Mr Smith, that the principles and standards which you and I were brought up to believe in are no longer part of this world."

After 15 years rather than the few weeks Harold Wilson had originally predicted, and a vicious bush war that claimed thousands of lives on both sides, Mr Smith, a self-styled representative of Western civilisation in Africa, had to hand the reins of power to a "terrorist" who represented the dark forces of communism. So how did they get on, these two men who for years had regarded one another as the lowest form of humanity?

For a year after independence, Mr Mugabe appeared to be keen on reconciliation and economic development. Mr Smith, while opposing him in parliament, hoped the game could still be played according to Western rules. But then Mr Mugabe "suddenly got out of bed one morning" and declared there would be a one-party state.

In the Smith vision, everything he warned of has come true: the "communists" inflicted wilful destruction on the economy, while trampling on the tiniest shoots of opposition. Although he has not been touched personally, he describes the secret police as "equal to the Gestapo".

But could Mr Smith not have prevented the "communist" takeover by bringing in moderate black leaders much earlier? "Yes. That's a fair question and should be answered. But" - and he slips back into a groove - "you must remember that intimidation is a very powerful force." He insists there were considerable difficulties, not of his own making - not least the fact that black leaders might be putting their lives at risk if they were seen to associate with him.

Rhodesia was lost "partly through the luck of the bounce" - he uses sporting metaphors frequently. If Reagan had been there and not the disastrous Carter, if Thatcher had been more entrenched and not so vulnerable to the wiles of Carrington, if Josiah Tongogara, Mr Mugabe's charismatic and pro-Western Number Two, had not died in a mysterious car crash in Mozambique (assassinated on orders from the very top, according to Mr Smith), then everything might have been different.

Mr Mugabe, he says, is a racist. "I think that has been instilled in him through his communist education ... that he was persecuted because he was black. Maybe part of it is convenience as well ... but I'm quite sure he did believe it and he's not allowing himself to become confused with the facts. He dare not change now. What's he going to say? 'Oh, I was wrong, and it's all a lot of rubbish.' Politicians don't do that."

Does he think of himself as a politician when he says this? Mr Smith gives no hint that he does.

Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe have not spoken to each other for several years. Since then both men have lost their wives - to whom, as far as outsiders can tell, they were devoted. Sally Mugabe died in 1992, Janet Smith in 1994. Surely this, if anything, could have provided an opportunity for the two men to meet on a human plane, rather than as prisoners of their separate ideologies. Had there been an exchange of messages?

Mr Smith wipes his hand across his face and speaks slowly, apparently in deep reflection. "No. No, we never communicated." He sounds tired, suddenly extremely weary. Then just as quickly, he slides back into the groove again. "I tried for a long time. For about three years, my secretary every month had a note on her pad. She used to phone Mugabe's secretary and say 'Any hope of that interview for Mr Ian Smith?' She always got the same answer - 'Oh, we've got him on the list' - so after about three years I said, 'Oh, just skip it'."