Ian Smith warned the world that black rule would be the downfall of Rhodesia, which he had left as one of the few shining stars in Africa’s poverty stricken, disease infested, despot ruled history.
His recent death has caused his words to come back hauntingly to all those who believed (and the always diminishing few who still believe) that black Africans have the ability to rule themselves civilly.
By Graham Boynton
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 22/11/2007
Ian Smith only once doubted the wisdom of his decision to declare UDI and lead Rhodesia into a 15-year civil war to protect white rule.
That moment of doubt occurred in April 1980, during a meeting with Robert Mugabe, who the previous day had taken office as the first Prime Minister of Zimbabwe.
Mugabe had summoned Smith to Government House and Smith was surprised to be greeted with a warm handshake and a broad smile; after all, the country’s new Marxist leader had promised his people that, come liberation, he would have Smith publicly hanged in Harare’s main square.
At that meeting, Mugabe told Smith he was acutely aware that he had inherited from his old adversaries, the whites, a jewel of a country, and he praised its superb infrastructure, its efficient modern economy, and promised to keep it that way.
Smith, completely disarmed, rushed home in a state of excitement, and, over lunch, told his wife, Janet, that perhaps he had been wrong about a black government being incapable of running his beloved Rhodesia.
As he told me years later: “Here’s this chap, and he was speaking like a sophisticated, balanced, sensible man. I thought: if he practises what he preaches, then it will be fine. And for five or six months it was fine…”
The simple, trusting banality of Ian Smith’s words may, in fact, offer more clues to the catastrophe that has been Rhodesia/Zimbabwe over the past half-century than any number of political or academic tracts.
The point is Mugabe was not the sophisticated, balanced, sensible man Smith had briefly hoped for. Even as he was shaking Smith’s hand, he was plotting the destruction of another group of political enemies, the Matabele, and was soon to send Korean-trained troops into Matabeleland to conduct a campaign of torture and murder that has still to be fully exposed.
It is estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians were murdered and as many again disfigured and tortured in what the Matabeles call the gukuruhundi, the washing away after the storm.
The sensible chap, in fact, turned out to be the type of African leader that “good old Smithy”, as his supporters called him, had campaigned against throughout the UDI years. He became the embodiment of corrupt, violent, amoral African dictatorship – just as Smith had warned his supporters.
Let us not forget the context of Smith’s determination to hang on to white rule in the 1960s.
At the time that he claimed to be defending “civilised standards”, Rhodesians had already witnessed the flight of Belgian refugees from the Congo; Idi Amin had trashed Uganda, and Mobutu Sese Seko was about to introduce an even more brutal and dysfunctional regime in neighbouring Zaire; immediately to the north of Rhodesia, Kaunda’s Zambia was in a mess, riddled with corruption and economically mismanaged, and Malawi was being similarly misruled by the eccentric despot Hastings Banda. So why, Smith argued, would Mugabe be any different? Why, indeed.
Smith was a simple man and it was his rather humourless, one-dimensional Rhodesian-ness that at once made him a hero among his own people and a figure of derision among his enemies. I spent hours interviewing him for a book I was writing in the early 1990s and he never once smiled or told a joke. He was the same dour, Calvinistic character whom I had so strongly opposed as a young white liberal growing up in Rhodesia, and who at the time represented all that was wrong about white minority rule in Africa.
At our meetings, he spoke endlessly about how Rhodesians had been more British than the British, how Churchill – had he been alive – would almost certainly have emigrated from corrupt, liberal England to Rhodesia, and how this small community of decent, fair-minded whites had been betrayed by, well, just about everybody he could think of – the Tories, Labour, the Afrikaners, the OAU, the UN. Not surprisingly, he called his ponderous autobiography The Great Betrayal.
It was easy to mock Ian Smith, but he was right – both about the betrayals and about the quality of most African politicians.
He has particular resonance this week, as heads of the Commonwealth convene in Uganda, a country with an interesting democratic history.
However ponderous, however humourless and unsophisticated he was, Smith had run a successful emerging African country and, although the whites were the main beneficiaries, there was increasing prosperity among the black population.
Above all there was a sound, intelligently managed economy, free from the post-colonial blight of corruption.
Today, Zimbabwe is a failed state with a non-functioning economy, a once-flourishing agricultural sector now moribund, and a population on the brink of starvation. According to a UN Development Programme index, life expectancy there today is one of the lowest in the world. So much for liberation.
Although the first 20 years of Mugabe’s rule saw a slow, somewhat even-paced decline, the calamitous collapse has been achieved in little more than half a decade, an extraordinary feat of self-destruction when one considers that it took more than a century for Ian Smith’s white antecedents to carve a modern, functioning, European-style society out of raw African bushveld.
But that has been the story of post-colonial Africa and, although this week’s obituaries will largely dismiss Smith as a colonial caricature, a novelty politician from another age, if you were to go to Harare today and ask ordinary black Zimbabweans who they would rather have as their leader – Smith or Mugabe – the answer would be almost unanimous. And it would not be Mugabe.
It is perfectly ironic that Mugabe’s deputy information minister, Bright Matonga, when told of Smith’s death this week, described him as a man “who brought untold suffering to millions of Zimbabweans”. Those words surely apply more to his own leader than to Ian Smith.
Ian Smith has sadly been proved right, By Graham Boynton