Ian Douglas Smith, who defied world opinion for 13 years as the head of the white minority regime in Rhodesia, died yesterday in South Africa at the age of 88.

As Zimbabwe seems as far as ever from resolving its troubles, Smith deserves to be remembered as the man who did more than anyone to shape its destiny.

Rhodesia was a self-governing British colony, much like the Australian colonies before 1901, when Smith’s Rhodesian Front defeated the more moderate government of Roy Welensky in 1962. Smith became prime minister in 1964, and the following year unilaterally declared Rhodesia’s independence.

Rhodesia’s government was theoretically non-racial, being based on property and educational qualifications, but the intent and effect of it was to exclude the blacks, who made up about 95% of the population, from political power. Smith vowed that majority rule was unacceptable in his lifetime, and successfully resisted British and UN sanctions against his regime. As the New York Times puts it, he was “committed all the while to an unshakable belief that Africa without whites would not work”.

Eventually, growing armed resistance and pressure from South Africa forced Smith to back down, and an international conference in 1979 led to a new constitution and ultimately the election of Robert Mugabe in 1980. It’s impossible to fully recapture the mood of the 1960s, but the experience of self-government in the rest of Africa at the time lent some plausibility to Smith’s views. The fact that Mugabe’s regime is now about the worst Africa can display is itself a sign of progress.

Opponents of black rule took Mugabe’s subsequent record as evidence that Smith was right all along. But the truth is that intransigence breeds intransigence: leaders who come to power as a result of civil war are likely to behave differently from those with more peaceful histories, and Smith deserves most of the blame for starting the war in the first place.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Smith’s career was post-1980: unlike many other whites, he stayed on in Zimbabwe, first as an opposition MP, then in retirement, and became an increasingly courageous critic of the Mugabe government. Despite the criticism and his past, Mugabe left Smith unmolested, and only in the last few years, in failing health, did he move to live with his stepdaughter in Cape Town.

Intransigent and unrepentant, Smith and Mugabe were well matched.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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