Zimbabwe's last white ruler: The man who defied the world

Ian Smith, who died yesterday, established a style of obdurate rule in Rhodesia which made him a role model for his greatest rival and successor, Robert Mugabe. By Raymond Whitaker

Wednesday 21 November 2007 01:00

If anyone wants to understand how difficult it is to bring any international pressure on Robert Mugabe, one has only to look at his predecessor, Ian Smith, who has died at the age of 88.

Smith, like Mugabe, blamed Britain for everything that was wrong in his country. Smith, like Mugabe, defied near-unanimous international demands to change course. For two men from such different backgrounds, who loathed each other so cordially, it is astonishing how similar they were.

But unlike Mugabe, Smith was eventually forced to capitulate when South Africa pulled the plug on him. John Vorster, the South African president, had no quarrel with Smith's views on race, but decided that with his own country facing pressure because of apartheid, he did not have enough in reserve, politically or economically, to prop up the white minority north of his border as well. South Africa's current President, Thabo Mbeki, feels no such compulsion to act against his neighbour, and while that remains the case, Mugabe can do as he likes.

It must have been difficult for Ian Smith to understand how the world had changed when that bitter time came. When he was born in 1919 to Scottish immigrants in what was then Rhodesia, the map was coloured pink from the Cape to Cairo, in accordance with the vision of Cecil John Rhodes, the man for whom the colony was named. There was a certain snobbery in the mother country about Rhodesia – the saying went that it was a colony for other ranks, while Kenya was for the officer classes – but Smith, who took a commerce degree at Rhodes University in South Africa before returning to Rhodesia to farm, did not hesitate to enlist in the Royal Air Force when the Second World War broke out.

Unquestionably he had a good war. A fighter pilot, he suffered hideous scars when he was shot down in the Western Desert, and had to undergo plastic surgery which left the right-hand side of his face immobile, giving him the slightly sinister, unsmiling appearance so relished by cartoonists. After he was shot down a second time over Italy, he spent five months fighting with the Italian partisans against the Germans.

That record served him in good stead when he entered politics back in Rhodesia, where a quarter of a million whites took it for granted that they were entitled to remain in power over five million blacks in perpetuity. They did not believe that Harold Macmillan's 1960 "wind of change" speech in Cape Town, which signalled Britain's withdrawal from its African colonies, could possibly mean majority rule in their territory – surely their ties of "kith and kin" to Britain were too strong. But when it became evident that independence would mean just that, they looked for a leader who would go it alone, and "good old Smithy" became Prime Minister in 1964.

One of his first acts was to imprison Mugabe for 10 years, calling him a "terrorist" intent on turning the country into a one-party dictatorship. In November 1965 he issued his Unilateral Declaration of Independence, bringing down international isolation and United Nations sanctions.

If white "Rhodies" seemed not to understand what was happening in the world, there was equal incomprehension in some quarters in Britain. The arch-fixer Harold Wilson and the obdurate Smith were utterly different personalities; after their negotiations aboard HMS Tiger and HMS Fearless, each felt the other was the most duplicitous man he had ever met. The Liberal Party leader of the time, Jeremy Thorpe, incurred ridicule in southern Africa by calling for Rhodesia to be bombed.

Smith rejected a succession of British proposals designed to lead eventually to majority rule, and drew up his own constitution, which envisaged a gradual increase in black representation until it halted at 50 per cent, with the whites retaining the other half permanently.

The Rhodesian economy even expanded for a time, with the help of South Africa, foreign immigration and "sanctions-busting" companies, many of them British. But in the early 1970s the black majority rose up in armed rebellion – Chimurenga, or struggle, in the Shona language – and in five years more than 40,000 people had died. The insurrection gained strength after neighbouring Mozambique became independent from Portugal in 1975, and the economy began to falter, along with white resolve.

Even Smith's only son, Alec, lost faith in his father's cause, deserting from the Rhodesian army and settling in Europe, from where he supported majority rule in his homeland.

But even after South Africa had told Smith he had to come to a settlement, and he had paved the way for a "unity" government led by Bishop Abel Muzorewa, he could not bring himself to accept that the whites could no longer remain in control. The result was that the bush war intensified; four-fifths of white Rhodesian deaths were in the final three years of the conflict, from 1977 to 1979.

Finally the Lancaster House agreement ended UDI, free elections were held in 1980 and Robert Mugabe triumphed, dashing Smith's hopes that a coalition could be formed against him.

Smith deserves some credit for persuading whites to accept the election result, nipping in the bud a plan by some white elements to stage a coup against Mugabe. There was a grudging respect between the two men, which endured even after Smith called his successor "mentally deranged" in 2000 and Mugabe threatened to have him prosecuted for genocide.

The threat was not carried out; Smith, unlike many other whites, remained in Zimbabwe after his retirement. When his farm was invaded, police evicted the squatters. He stayed on even after claiming that Mugabe had stripped him of his Zimbabwean citizenship in 2002, but ill health finally forced him to live with his widowed stepdaughter, Jean Tholet, in Cape Town, where he died yesterday.

The titles of Smith's two books, The Great Betrayal, and Bitter Harvest, sum up his attitude to the events over which he presided. "Prior to our declaration of independence, the British government had always told us that we were the model of the Commonwealth in Africa," he wrote in the former, published in 1997. "The day after we declared our independence we were suddenly the greatest evil on earth."

He was also fond of recalling of his father, a Scottish butcher who had arrived in Rhodesia in 1898: "He was one of the fairest men I have ever met, and that is the way he brought me up. He always told me that we're entitled to our half of the country, and the blacks are entitled to theirs."

The problem was that Ian Smith's notions of fairness and integrity seemed strictly limited to those who looked and thought like him. During his years in power Rhodesia, a land where the harshness of apartheid as practised in South Africa did seem to be mitigated by some sense of fair play, became an armed camp where dissidents were jailed, exiled or assassinated and the press was censored.

In the end his stubbornness prevented a settlement which might have saved thousands of lives and, possibly, created a different political outcome to the one Zimbabwe suffers now.

In struggling so long to ensure that the whites in Zimbabwe clung on to everything, Smith finally ensured that they lost everything, and bequeathed his country an example of obduracy in the face of the world that Robert Mugabe seems happy to emulate. In that sense he is a worthy successor to Zimbabwe's last white ruler.

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