Ian Smith, who led the last settler government in what was then Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe, was a man of great physical courage, modesty, and historical and political blindness.
Smith, a hero to conservatives in Britain and America, came to global attention in November 1965, when he declared Rhodesia to be a free-standing country, independent of Britain. But despite sympathy from conservatives around the world, Rhodesia was immediately isolated and subjected to United Nations sanctions. And the conditions that led to the bitter “bush war” of independence were set in motion.
I knew Smith and I did not like him. I thought he was wrong and was leading his Rhodesian Front Party into catastrophe. But I admired him.
Smith’s World War II record was exemplary. He learned to fly in the Royal Rhodesian Air Force and was transferred to the Royal Air Force, operating out of a base in Wales. Smith’s first test was when his plane crashed on takeoff; his face was severely burned and primitive plastic surgery left part of it rigid. But he went back to war. When a Spitfire he was piloting was shot down in Italy, he parachuted to safety, landing behind enemy lines. Partisans helped him get back to Allied forces.
But the Britain for which he had fought so boldly was a post-war disaster for the young Rhodesian. It was a land of strikes, socialism and class warfare. What a pleasure it must have been for Smith to return to his homeland: a halcyon place of hope, order, and the values that had obtained in Britain before the two world wars.
The big year in Smith’s life was 1948. That was the year that the returning war hero bought the farm that was to be his home and refuge in Selukwe, a small farming and mining community where his father, a butcher from Scotland, had settled in 1898. The early Rhodesians were soldiers, miners and farmers: working men and women looking for a place in the sun.
Nineteen forty-eight was also the year that Smith married and entered politics as a Liberal. The colony was prospering and attracting many tax refugees from Britain. These new arrivals were well-to-do, well-educated, often aristocrats, and they gave Rhodesia its upper-class British flavor. They founded and joined clubs, played polo and, using local labor, lived in a way that their families had lived until the great convulsions of two world wars.
The new Rhodesians treated their central African home as they would have treated an estate in England. They imported everything they could from London, sent their children to school in Britain, and had very little interest in the indigenous inhabitants. They also had little interest in people like Smith, who spoke with a different accent and had no aristocratic pretensions. And they had the option of returning to Britain, if the political situation changed.
In 1948, and through most of the 1950s, the idea that white dominance might be challenged seemed decades–if not hundreds of years–in the future. But forces outside of the comprehension of the 240,000 white Rhodesians were building in London, Washington, Moscow and Beijing. Why, the settlers asked themselves, would anyone interfere with the little Eden that was Rhodesia? It was more prosperous than any country in black Africa, and more egalitarian and just than South Africa. Democracy? It was there for anyone who wanted it—black or white. If you wanted to vote, you could do so by qualifying through property ownership and proficiency in English. It was the same franchise that Cecil John Rhodes had offered in Cape Colony nearly 100 years earlier. The standards were too onerous for the majority and too comforting for the minority.
As other white leaders before him, Smith saw his moral and political duty as securing total independence for the colony from Britain. The British government saw its duty as protecting the black majority and establishing back rule.
In November 1965, Smith declared unilateral independence from Britain. Over the next 15 years he negotiated–often in bad faith–with the British. He became a master of broken promises and prevarication. Smith had no intention of capitulating to black demands.
In the early 1970s, guerrilla war began to escalate with attacks on remote farms, indiscriminate murder met with brutal reprisals, until it was clear that 5 percent of the population could not hold onto power much longer. Yet, Smith was slow to sue for peace. The last two years of the bush war were the most brutal with the most casualties–and the most avoidable.
In the end, Smith was forced to negotiate with an uncompromising British government in London and an outlandishly unreasonable black coalition, led by Robert Mugabe. The result was the Lancaster House Agreement in December 1979, which gave the nationalists everything they wanted and entrenched Mugabe in power. Soon Mugabe turned on his allies in the southern part of the country, and slaughtered tens of thousands of them—something Smith ought to have known would happen.
Smith showed his extraordinary courage in continuing to live on his farm and participating in national politics until 1987, when protected white seats were abolished. The most unbecoming thing about Smith was his propensity for blaming other people for the bad outcome in Rhodesia. He blamed Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in the United States; Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson in Britain; and above all, he blamed South Africa. Somehow he thought South Africa would overtly come to his aid. In fact, South Africa had gone as far as it could go in covertly breaking the sanctions, keeping Smith’s Rhodesia afloat, and trying to persuade the Rhodesian leader to settle with Britain. South African leaders could see the writing on their own wall and did not want to take on an additional race-based fight.
Those who opposed Smith also got it wrong: I was among them. I wrote against him in newspapers in America and Britain. But the school of thought that liberal Rhodesians subscribed to was flawed: We simply believed that a multi-racial democracy had a chance.
In the 1980s and early1990s, it looked as though we were right. Then Mugabe began his march into insanity; destroying everything that he had inherited, making life impossible for the remaining whites and most blacks, and sanctioning lawlessness on a grand scale.
The question that will always hang over Smith’s legacy is whether his intransigence created Mugabe.