By Jan Raath
IT was Ian Smith’s war-damaged left eye that drew people’s attention first: wide open, heavy-lidded and impassive from exp
erimental plastic surgery, it hinted at a dull, characterless nature. The other was narrow, slanting and slightly hooded. Being watched by it was an uncomfortable experience. Each eye could have belonged to a different person.
A Foreign Office official, in a biographical note to prime minister Sir Alec Douglas Home in 1964, caught the same contradictory appearances: “His pedestrian and humourless manner often conceals a shrewder assessment of a particular situation than at first appears on the surface, and he should not be underrated.”
The advice was not heeded. He held the attention of a fascinated world for more than 15 years with an outrageous rebellion against the British Crown; created a booming economy in the face of United Nations sanctions; and on a shoestring fought a counter-insurgency war that he came close to winning.
His ordinariness and lack of artifice helped make him an extraordinary leader. Farmer, sportsman and quiet-spoken church-going Presbyterian, he saw the world into neat packets of wonderful chaps, terrorists, communists and traitors.
His cold reserve served him both as a Spitfire pilot and in the face of a bawling Harold Wilson. His obstinacy led his personal secretary, Gerald Clarke, to pass on to him a British complaint that “once you have stated your position, they are unable to get you to move”.
Henry Kissinger perceived honour and courage in Smith when he delivered what were effectively the terms of Rhodesia’s surrender, and he wept. He was modest to a fault. He refused to press for the DSO and DFC he deserved after the war, but was not awarded through oversight.
Throughout most of his tenure at Independence, his official residence, anyone could walk down the driveway and knock on the front door.
He was the world’s perfect rebel. Wilson was warned there was a strong likelihood of a mutiny in the British armed forces if he ordered a military suppression of UDI. Former South African foreign minister Pik Botha said Smith could have won an election in South Africa in 1976 while Pretoria was secretly forcing him to accept black rule.
Smith will struggle to lose the image of the arch white racist. But black Zimbabweans after Independence admired him for his unbending, blunt criticism of President Robert Mugabe — giving voice to opinions they dared not utter. As economic decay set in, Mugabe would be haunted by the words of fellow blacks: “It was better under Smith.”
To dismiss his UDI as an attempt to impose a crude white supremacist state is a serious oversimplification. He never evinced the coarse racism of many of his colleagues. His was an anachronistic vision of a sovereign Rhodesia that embodied the traditions and values of an unchanging empire: he saw UDI as a short-term measure that would be quickly resolved, with Rhodesia independent but still closely tied to Britain through the Commonwealth.
The winds of change shattered his vision. By the time he became prime minister, he was up against a Britain that wanted not merely to introduce black rule, but to strip his government of the powers of self-rule granted by Whitehall in 1923.
With the brutality of post-independence Africa vivid in the minds of white Rhodesians, he persisted with “evolutionary, not revolutionary change”.
Thirty-five years after UDI, the racist bogey is less clear. But he remains condemned for ignoring the extreme disparities between blacks and whites, and his refusal to change the situation.
Ian Douglas Smith was born in the village of Selukwe (now Shurugwi) in central Rhodesia on April 8 1919, of a Scottish father, Jock, and Rhodesian-born mother, Agnes. He was educated at Chaplin school in Gweru with moderate academic achievement, captained the first XV and ran the 100 yards in 10 seconds.
He began a Bachelor of Commerce degree at Rhodes University in South Africa in 1938, establishing an impressive academic record and rowing for the university.
War broke out and in 1941 he joined the RAF Empire Air Training Scheme at Guinea Fowl in central Rhodesia. He was posted to 237 (Rhodesia) squadron in the Middle East, flying Hawker Hurricanes.
Taking off from Alexandria on a dawn patrol in 1943, his throttle malfunctioned, he lost height and clipped the barrel of a Bofors gun. He crashed and rammed his face against the Hurricane’s gunsight. He suffered severe facial injuries, broke his jaw, a leg and a shoulder and buckled his back.
Surgeons at the Fifteenth Scottish Hospital in Cairo reconstructed his face and after only five months he rejoined his squadron in Corsica. He realised his dream to fly Spitfire Mark IXs, carrying out strafing raids and escorting American bombers. In mid-1944 Captain Smith was leading a raid on train of fuel tankers in the Po Valley when he made the mistake of going back for a second run.
The Spitfire was hit by an anti-aircraft shell, caught fire and he baled out. Within minutes of landing, a German patrol walked past his hiding place in a bush. He was soon picked up by the Partisani. The five months he spent with them near Sasello, learning Italian, reading Shakespeare and working as a peasant, he regarded as one of the best times of his life.
Near the end of the war, he and three other allied fugitives made their way through occupied Italy to the Maritime Alps. At one point the conspicuously tall, fair-haired Rhodesian strode unhindered through a German checkpoint. He led his tiny group over the mountains, walking barefoot on ice, until they reached an American patrol on the other side.
In 1946, Smith completed his final year at Rhodes where he was also elected chairman of the students’ representative council.
In 1948, he bought his farm, Gwenoro, in the plains of Selukwe, married Janet Watts and in elections in July, became the Liberal Party MP for Selukwe, the youngest MP ever in the Southern Rhodesian parliament.
Fundamental change shook southern African politics in 1960, when he was chief whip of the ruling Federal Party in the parliament of the Rhodesia and Nyasaland Federation.
Harold MacMillan’s tour of Africa ended with his “winds of change” speech in the South African parliament. Rhodesian whites saw from close up the bloody aftermath of Congo independence. The federation was breaking up and independence was inevitable for Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland as Zambia and Malawi respectively — but, to Smith’s bitter resentment, not for Southern Rhodesia.
At home, the voice of Joshua Nkomo was blowing a tide of black resistance with the hitherto unheard of demand for “black majority rule now”.
White opinion hardened. Smith was behind the formation in 1962 of the Rhodesian Front which easily won elections in December the next year, with Smith deputy prime minister and minister of finance.
He first encountered the Foreign Office at a meeting with foreign secretary Rab Butler at Victoria Falls in December 1963. Butler grandly declared that Britain was “very happy to agree” to independence for Southern Rhodesia, at least at the same time as Zambia and Malawi. No minutes were taken. Smith asked Butler for the undertaking in writing. Butler demurred with: “There is trust between members of the British Commonwealth.”
Smith wagged his finger at Butler, and said: “If you break that, you will live to regret it.”
The expression “perfidious Albion” was fixed in his vocabulary from then on.
In April 1964, Smith became the RF’s leader and prime minister. Almost immediately, he imprisoned the entire leadership of the black nationalist movement, and paralysed it for a decade. Wilson’s Labour victory in October that year was a drastic setback to Smith’s hopes.
He rebuffed Wilson’s opening approaches. It took Winston Churchill’s funeral in January 1965 to bring them together.
Smith attended the funeral, but was not invited to the lunch afterwards at Buckingham Palace. He was at his hotel when the Queen’s Equerry arrived, and expressed Her Majesty’s surprise at his absence.
Smith left immediately and was warmly received by the Queen and Prince Philip. Wilson also buttonholed him there and asked him to come to 10 Downing Street that afternoon.
Both men surprised each other at the absence of personal animosity, but their discussions were the first in 15 years of missed chances.
By October, it was becoming increasingly clear that Rhodesia was heading for a unilateral declaration of independence.
Smith — reinforced by a clean sweep by the RF in an election in May — held that illegal independence and “the maintenance of civilised standards” was better than the chaos that white Rhodesia believed would follow an African government.
The government was fully organised for the likelihood of sanctions. Fuel stocks were built up and other essential commodities distributed. Smith had secured the support of South African prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd and Portuguese president Antonio Salazar, for the continuity of Rhodesia’s trade routes through South Africa and Mozambique.
There followed a series of last-ditch shuttles. Smith went to London on October 5, but his talks with Wilson ended with a communique concluding that their positions were “irreconcilable”. Wilson went on television with his grave appeal to Smith: “Prime minister, think again.”
Ten days later Wilson was in Salisbury, with fresh proposals, which Smith rejected.
There was an unexpected personal understanding between the two men. They were on first-name terms, and Smith remarked afterwards “he was closer to us than he was to them” (Nkomo and Sithole whom Wilson met on this trip).
Wilson also betrayed his sympathies with his remark: “I don’t think Rhodesia is in a position to have one-man, one-vote tomorrow.”
On November 5, Smith declared a state of emergency. His cabinet met on November 10 to discuss final arrangements for UDI. At 7.30 pm British high commissioner Jack Johnstone was allowed to present the meeting with an appeal from Wilson. Wilson telephoned Smith at 8.30 the next morning, when the cabinet was about to take the final vote. For 30 minutes, Wilson pleaded quietly. Smith told him it had already gone too far.
He returned to the cabinet room and told them of his discussion with Wilson. He asked each of his 15 ministers in turn to say “yes” or “no.” It was a unanimous yes.
The declaration was signed in a nearby conference room, beneath a portrait of the young Queen Elizabeth, and for the first time since American independence in 1776, a British colony was in rebellion.
Smith delivered his radio address, telling a stunned and frightened nation: “So far and no further”. Then he went home to bed.
“I was immensely upset,” he wrote later. “There was within my whole system a very strong desire to preserve my links with the history and tradition and culture I had been brought up to believe in. It was a terrible decision.”
In December 1966, with Wilson’s forecast of UDI being “a matter of weeks rather than months” firmly buried, Smith, with British governor Sir Humphrey Gibbs, was in an RAF Britannia on its way to Gibraltar and the frigate, HMS Tiger, for the first contact with Wilson in over a year.
Smith was given a spell at the controls. For 25 minutes rebel prime minister was alone in the cockpit of a British aircraft with Her Majesty’s governor aboard, while the crew had a break. Aboard the frigate, Wilson tried to humiliate Smith. He took the admiral’s cabin and put the Rhodesians in non-commissioned quarters with a shared toilet.
In their first meeting, he shouted at Smith. Smith rose, stared out at the Mediterranean for interminable minutes and then told Wilson to behave himself. Back in Salisbury, his cabinet rejected the proposals.
Wilson and Smith next met in October 1968 aboard HMS Fearless. This time Wilson, on the advice of his secretary, Lady Falkender, treated Smith hospitably, but resolution remained elusive.
Edward Heath’s Conservative government in 1970 made far more progress with Smith and an agreement was ready for conclusion, pending only the approval of the black population. Unrest and overwhelming resistance greeted Lord Pearce’s mission to assess black opinion, and the bid failed.
The ensuing 70s ended the complacency of booming, peaceful UDI Rhodesia. Guerilla forces opened their long war against Smith with an attack on Altena farm in Mount Darwin in December 1972. In April 1974, the right-wing regime in Portugal was toppled in a coup. In October 1974, South African prime minister John Vorster launched his policy of “détente” with black Africa.
He demanded that Smith release the black nationalist leaders in detention. Smith gave in and agreed, and the relationship with his most important ally was suddenly undermined.
Without warning Smith, Vorster removed the contingent of South African police guarding the northern border against guerilla incursions. Smith was shocked. One could expect this from the British, he said, but now with the South Africans, “there was obvious deceit”.
Vorster kept on squeezing Smith. The supply from South Africa of fuel, munitions and aircraft spares for what was now a substantial war began to dry up. The Rhodesian war effort was severely curtailed.
Smith’s impotent anger was clear in his remark then: “I longed for those carefree days when I was flying around the skies in my Spitfire, saying to myself: ‘let anyone cross my path and he will have to take what comes his way’.” Vorster’s first attempt to bring Smith and the black nationalists together was in August 1975, in the majestic setting of South Africa’s luxury White Train parked in the middle of the bridge over the Victoria Falls.
Smith laid down his position, the nationalists barked demands and they broke up in a muddle after about an hour.
His trip to Pretoria on September 18 1976, to meet United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger, signalled the final stage of his rebellion. A few months before he had made his famously regrettable statement: “I don’t believe in black majority rule ever in Rhodesia, not in a thousand years.”
The trip began inauspiciously. At a rugby test match between the Springboks and the All Blacks, Vorster had the Rhodesian delegation shunted to the side of the VIP stand, well away from his own group. “We were on our own,” Smith said.
The meeting in the American embassy in Pretoria was an event of great emotion for both the Rhodesian farmer and the world’s most powerful diplomat. Kissinger proposed black majority rule in two years, and any subsequent proposals would be infinitely worse.
As he spelt out the situation, he was wiping tears away from his eyes. “This is the first time in my life I have asked anyone to commit political suicide,” he told Smith. “You have no alternative. I feel for you.”
Smith was sunk in despair, but awed by Kissinger. “He spoke with obvious sincerity and there was great emotion in his voice. For a while words escaped him,” he said.
Kissinger’s ultimatum was “the coup de grace”, he said. “We were rudderless after that.”
In September 1977, Smith did the unthinkable. Without consulting his cabinet, he flew to Lusaka in the private jet of Lonrho chairman Tiny Rowland, for a day’s talks with Kenneth Kaunda, a few kilometres from a major guerilla base. The Zambian president “couldn’t have been kinder”, but the initiative failed.
Smith again tried to settle without the rest of the world and pursued a settlement outside the military alliance between Nkomo’s and Robert Mugabe’s Patriotic Front. On March 1978, he signed the “internal agreement” with Bishop Abel Muzorewa, the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole and two tribal leaders.
The country’s first one-man, one-vote elections in April 1979 drew a 63% turnout, were won by Muzorewa’s United African National Council and the country became Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. Nearly no-one recognised it and the war continued. Smith vacated his office and Independence for Muzorewa on May 31 1979 and moved into a plain double-storey in the suburbs.
Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative victory in May finally resulted in the Lancaster House constitutional conference in London under foreign secretary Lord Carrington.
Smith was irrelevant at Lancaster House, raging fruitlessly against the “treachery” of almost everyone from Carrington to members of his own delegation. When they voted in November on the proposed constitution, Smith was the only dissenter.
He boycotted the post-agreement party, and went to dinner instead with former RAF colleagues and Douglas Bader. He refused to attend the “nauseating” signing ceremony on December 19. On March 2 1980, near the end of vote counting in the just-ended election, it was clear that Zanu PF was heading for an overwhelming victory. Smith was surprised to receive a call to meet Mugabe at his house.
Mugabe assured Smith he would adhere to a private enterprise economy and to retain the confidence of the whites. He referred to the country as “this jewel of Africa”.
Smith went home in astonishment and told Janet he hoped he had not been hallucinating. Mugabe “behaved like a balanced Western gentleman, the antithesis of the communist gangster I had expected,” he said.
Zanu PF won 57 out of the 80 black seats created by the new constitution, but the RF won all 20 white seats, with Smith still the party leader. For the Independence celebrations on April 18, he went on holiday to South Africa, telling Mugabe it would be “the tactful thing to do”. The two men met several times, until in 1981 Smith criticised his plans for a one-party state. Mugabe stopped the meetings.
In December 1982 Smith was briefly arrested, his Harare and Gwenoro homes were searched and he was forced to surrender his passport. To Mugabe’s chagrin, Smith was returned to parliament in the 1985 elections, but a year later was suspended for denouncing black majority rule, and again in 1987 for dismissing Mugabe’s threats of sanctions against South Africa as “a waste of time”. Before he could return, the constitutional provision for 20 reserved white seats was abolished.
Smith leaves behind two stepchildren, Robert and Jean, from Janet’s previous marriage. His and Janet’s own son, Alec, died of a heart attack in London last year, to Smith’s deep grief.