Ian Smith was prime minister of Rhodesia for 15 turbulent years. During that period, his government illegally declared independence from British rule and fought a guerrilla war against factions of the majority black population.
His supporters considered him a political visionary. His detractors called him a racist who stayed in power for too long. It was a struggle he eventually lost, paving the way for the country’s independence as Zimbabwe.
Born in the then British colony of Rhodesia in 1919, Ian Douglas Smith was educated at Rhodes University in South Africa, a real son of the soil and a crack sportsman.
The colony of Southern Rhodesia was still ruled by a tightly-knit white community of fewer than 250,000.
The country’s black population, numbering some five million, had no say in its political or economic life. Most white Rhodesians could claim British descent and Rhodesia looked to “the Mother Country” with reverence.
During World War II, Smith served as a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force. Shot down over the Western Desert, he underwent plastic surgery to his face, which some later believed was responsible for his unsmiling demeanour as a politician.
Later in the war, he was shot down again, this time over Italy and, for five months, fought alongside the Italian partisans behind German lines.
At the war’s end, Ian Smith returned home and rose to become a government minister in the right-wing Rhodesian Front administration of Winston Field.
By the early 1960s, following Harold Macmillan‘s watershed speech on the “winds of change” in Africa which presaged Britain’s withdrawal from the continent, white Rhodesians thought their hold on their country need never loosen.
So-called “Rhodies” wanted their nation to be granted independence, but without any promise that black leaders would take over. In April 1964, Ian Smith came to power and pledged to fulfil their wish.
On 11 November 1965, he made his Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Rhodesia had cast itself adrift from Britain and the Commonwealth. The British response was to dismiss the PM and his cabinet, but the illegal regime did not seem to care.
The world community refused to recognise Rhodesia and the United Nations applied economic sanctions, but many international companies secretly broke them – and apartheid South Africa seemed especially keen to chip in.
Rhodesia’s economy actually strengthened in parts during this time of isolation, and Ian Smith appeared to relish his position. “I don’t believe in black majority rule over Rhodesia,” he defiantly proclaimed at the time, “not in a thousand years.”
In the end, he had to. But it was not British diplomacy which eventually wore him down but armed black opposition and, decisively, Pretoria’s decision to withdraw support for his government.
Attacks on white border farms started in 1972. Five years later, the guerrilla war was costing Rhodesia an estimated half a million pounds a day. John Vorster’s South African government, distracted by this expensive sideshow, pulled the financial plug on its neighbour.
Forced to the negotiating table, Ian Smith took part in the talks at Lancaster House in London which were to set a new path for what would become Zimbabwe.
Following independence in 1980, Ian Smith remained a key player in Zimbabwean politics. His presence in parliament, which only ended with the scrapping of white-reserved seats in 1987, was a comfort to the white minority and a source of constant irritation to the government of Robert Mugabe.
During the crisis surrounding Zimbabwe’s general election in June 2000, in which a number of white farmers were murdered in a bloody dispute over land rights, Ian Smith remained unbowed. His farm was invaded by squatters, in an incident which he described as “not serious”.
When Robert Mugabe threatened to put Smith on trial for genocide, the former Prime Minister welcomed the move. “We had no atrocities,” he claimed.
Ian Smith himself felt betrayed, by Britain, by South Africa, by the Commonwealth. And, as Zimbabwe staggered into economic and political crisis, he honestly believed his way was best. “We had the highest standard of health and education and housing for our black people than any other country on the African continent,” he reflected.
“That was what Rhodesians did. I wonder if we shouldn’t be given credit for doing that.”
Smith died in 2007 at a clinic near the South African city of Cape Town, where he spent his final years. He was 88.