Ian Smith

Ian Smith

Born: 8 April, 1919, in Selukwe, Rhodesia. Died: 20 November, 2007, in Cape Town, South Africa, aged 88.

WITH the death of Ian Smith, the embodiment of Zimbabwe's past is gone. As prime minister of what was then called Rhodesia, Smith put his country through treason, sanctions and war rather than submit to black majority rule.

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Smith, who vowed that Rhodesia and its whites, comprising just 4 per cent of the total population, would never submit to black rule, eventually did so in 1980, when the apartheid government of South Africa withdrew support for his Rhodesian Front government.

Smith gave way as prime minister to Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for the past 27 years as prime minister and president, creating the fastest declining economy on earth, with inflation at 15,000 per cent and rising. Women in Mugabe's Zimbabwe have the lowest life expectancy in the world, just 34 years and declining.

It is a moot point whether Smith's obduracy in declaring unilateral independence from Britain in 1965 created the monstrous abuser of human rights that is Mugabe, now 82, or whether he was right when he prophesied catastrophic economic decline under black majority rule. Smith, who never doubted that all he thought and did was right, later wrote in his memoir Bitter Harvest: The Great Betrayal: "I think I can correctly comment: I told you so. History records that my predictions have materialised ... I was proud of Rhodesia. I have difficulty saying I'm proud of Zimbabwe."

On the other hand, the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation said: "Ian Smith will be remembered for his racism and the deaths of many Zimbabweans."

Terence Ranger, emeritus professor of race relations at Oxford University, a leading expert on Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, said Smith's refusal to consider ceding power before 1980 "was a disastrous and destructive delay" that resulted in Mugabe's authoritarianism.

Ian Douglas Smith was born the youngest of three children in 1919 in Selukwe, a small town 200 miles south-west of the capital Salisbury, now Harare, based on cattle ranching and chrome and gold mining. His Scottish father had emigrated from Hamilton in 1898, establishing a small butcher's shop before becoming a cattle farmer on a 7,500-acre spread where he also bred champion racehorses.

Smith studied commerce at Rhodes University in South Africa, but on the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the British Royal Air Force and trained as a Spitfire fighter pilot. He crashed twice. On the first occasion he needed plastic surgery. The operation left his face lopsided and with a permanent stern expression.

On the second occasion, he was shot down over the Po Valley in Italy. He joined partisans as a guerrilla fighter before trekking across the Alps to reach Allied forces. He flew again over Germany and returned home a war hero.

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Smith became an MP with a relatively liberal party in Rhodesia's whites-only parliament, where for the first 16 years his contribution was insignificant. He was a dull speaker with a limited, repetitive vocabulary. But his astute tactical mind, remarkable tenacity and appetite for political battle became apparent when Britain attempted in 1961 to move Rhodesia - dubbed by Punch magazine as "Surrey with the lunatic fringe on top" - towards independence with a qualified franchise for blacks.

With the financial backing of a tobacco baron, Douglas "Boss" Lilford, Smith helped form the Rhodesian Front, designed to achieve independence for a white-ruled Rhodesia and thwart British efforts to establish black rule.

The Rhodesian Front quickly won widespread support from whites horrified by the slaughter of the civil war in the Congo in 1960 following the rushed departure of the Belgian colonialists. When Smith became prime minister in April 1964, his slogan, "No majority rule in my lifetime", became the motto of most whites, who described their leader as "good old Smithy".

After just four months as prime minister, Smith banned both of the main black nationalist parties, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) in the name of law and order. He sent their leaders, including Mr Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo and Ndabaningi Sithole, along with hundreds of others, to remote detention camps. Many remained there for a decade.

In his dealings with Harold Wilson's British government, Smith became increasingly intransigent. He set out to convince Rhodesia's whites they faced a stark choice between black rule and a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI). Rhodesian Front propagandists said Smith would keep their country in "civilised and responsible" hands for all time.

In a general election in May 1965 Smith asked for a decisive vote of confidence to strengthen his hand in negotiations with Britain. He achieved a resounding victory. All 50 white seats - representing just 220,000 people - went to the Rhodesian Front. Smith's party did not contest 15 reserved black seats, for which only 11,000 members of the then four million black population were qualified to vote.

UDI followed on 11 November, 1965. The Proclamation of Independence was a strange document, drawn up in language intended to resemble the American Declaration of 1776. "We have struck a blow for the preservation of justice, civilisation and Christianity," said Smith.

For the black majority, Smith's rebellion, which brought severe international sanctions for Rhodesia, was a humiliating insult, and in December 1972 guerrillas launched an insurgency from neighbouring Mozambique and Zambia which would escalate into a bush war that took 30,000 to 40,000 lives.

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Many countries broke sanctions, and for a while Rhodesia's economy strengthened. Inflation was low and the currency stable.

But as the war intensified, Smith came under intense pressure from neighbouring apartheid South Africa, particularly from prime minister B J Vorster, to negotiate with the black nationalists. South Africa coerced Smith by withdrawing military support and intermittently cutting off oil supplies. Mr Vorster feared that Rhodesia's civil war would spill over into South Africa.

By 1979, the plight of many isolated farming communities was desperate. Guerrilla ambushes were so prevalent that every main road in the country was considered unsafe after dark and an exodus of the whites who had supported "good old Smithy" was in full flow.

Britain launched another initiative to end the rebellion, summoning Smith and the black nationalist leaders to negotiations at London's Lancaster House in September 1979. Smith was coerced to attend by South Africa's new prime minister, P W Botha, and Mr Mugabe was coerced by Samora Machel, president of newly independent Mozambique, where Mr Mugabe's ZANU had its military bases.

Against all odds, the conference stumbled towards agreement, as part of which Smith won concessions that allowed white farmers to retain huge swathes of property and postponed the issue of land redistribution for two decades. On 18 April, 1980, Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe after ZANU won 57 of the 80 black seats in the new parliament. Mr Mugabe became prime minister, but Smith continued to lead a block of 20 seats reserved for whites for the first seven years of independence.

The honeymoon of independence was brief. Within three years, Mr Mugabe's Shona-dominated army had begun the slaughter of some 30,000 people in the minority Ndebele ethnic group. Mugabe also began laying the foundations of a one-party state. In parliament Smith became perpetually gloomy, arguing constantly that Zimbabwe under Mr Mugabe was sliding towards Marxist dictatorship. Mr Mugabe, speaking in Shona, retaliated by threatening: "We will kill those snakes among us, we will smash them completely."

Smith left parliament in 1987, claiming he had been forced out illegally by Mr Mugabe. But he continued to lambast Zimbabwe's leader from his Harare home, looking out on a glorious lawn and fronted by an avenue lined with old jacaranda trees.

The site of his house was one of the best jokes in Harare. Unguarded, its front gate was left open and the front door unlocked, while next door the embassy of Cuba, which backed Mr Mugabe during the civil war, was - and is - guarded by armed men and hidden behind high walls topped with electric fencing. The wall dividing the embassy from Smith's property was swathed in Smith's bougainvillea. "They [the Cubans] are very nice," Smith told one visiting journalist. "I once said in an interview that I prefer them to Mugabe, and the ambassador has waved cheerfully ever since."

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From 2000 onwards, when Mr Mugabe began violently evicting whites from their farms, Smith was allowed to continue working the cattle ranch he inherited from his father. He continued to label Mr Mugabe a "communist gangster" while Mr Mugabe denounced him as a "racist criminal".

In 2002, as Mr Mugabe intensified his crackdown on the Zimbabwe population as a whole, black and white, Smith was stripped of his citizenship. He moved to Cape Town and two years ago entered a frail care home, where he died after a stroke with his widowed stepdaughter, Jean Tholet, by his side.

Smith married Janet Watt, a widowed South African schoolteacher, in 1948. She died in 1994, and their son, Alec, from whom Smith was estranged, died in 2006. Survivors include his two stepchildren, Jean and Robert, and six grandchildren.