In its obituary The New York Times, reliably enough, calls him a white supremacist. The London Times was more balanced in its appraisal, citing the complexity of the land he ruled. The question that will always hang over the memory of Ian Douglas Smith (1919-2007), the eighth and last Prime Minister of what was officially known as Southern Rhodesia, was whether he was a bigot. Proclaiming that “the white man is master of Rhodesia. He has built it, and he intends to keep it,” tends to suggest a rather unenlightened view on race relations. Yet Barry Goldwater said: "We need more men like Ian Smith, I think, in the world today. We have too few leaders and I'd like to see him multiplied a little bit, and spread around." Henry Kissinger, who escaped from Nazi persecution, wept as he told Smith that the United States would force him to accept black majority rule.
Settled in the final years of the nineteenth century by the British, Rhodesia was named in honour of the legendary imperialist Cecil Rhodes and encompassed, at one point, areas of what is now Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Southern Rhodesia was created as a self-governing colony in 1923. From its inception the stark demographic and economic fact of the young state's existence was that its tiny white population's - 5.5% at its height in the early 1970s - controlled most of its land and wealth. Ian Smith's father, an immigrant Scottish butcher, was fond of remarking that "we're entitled to our half of the country and the blacks are entitled to theirs." The black "half" was often its poorest and least fertile lands. While shocking to modern sensibilities the Rhodesia that Smith was born into in 1919 had many similarities to the frontier societies of Canada, Australia, the United States and Latin America. The meeting of technologically and politically advanced societies, with those scarcely out of the stone age, produced similar inequities everywhere it happened. It was the hard luck of 'old Smithy,' as he was fondly known to white Rhodesians, to lead a frontier European society in the age of de-colonization and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In 1960 the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, visiting Cape Town, gave his "Winds of Change" speech, advising his audience of the inevitability of independence for Europe's African colonies. For most British possessions on the continent this was to be largely straight forward process, at least from the perspective of the Colonial Office in London. British rule in India was a Byzantine, quasi-federal structure, from which, somehow, a new nation state was to emerge in a matter of little more than a dozen months. The problems confronting Whitehall in Africa were simpler, its rule more recent and the natives' pre-existing political structure mostly tribal in nature. There were small white settler populations in, mostly, Southern Africa.
In Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania these were little better than a scattering. Rhodesia and South Africa were the exceptions. White populations had achieved an economic and social critical mass, they had developed an advanced First World society in the midst of poorest areas of the Third World. It was, in the wake of Macmillan's speech, the fond hope of Whitehall that Her Majesty's white African subjects would accept the new realities quietly and sensible. As early as 1948 South Africa had embarked on a policy of Apartheid, sensing the potential loss of power to an increasingly political aware black population. While Rhodesia never adopted policies as draconian as Apartheid, the fear of being "overwhelmed" by the black population was acute and came to a head in 1965. Britain would only countenance granting independence to the colony if black majority rule were accepted by the white leadership. This, the Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith and the vast majority of the country's white population, refused to do. On November 11th of that year Smith read out a unilateral declaration of independence, the first in British Imperial history since 1776:
We have struck a blow for the preservation of justice, civilization and Christianity, and in this belief we have this day assumed our sovereign independence. God bless you all.International recognition did not come and the new nation remained a pariah. For the next fifteen years Smith, and the approximately quarter of a million Rhodesian whites, found themselves in the glare of the world's media. Denounced as bigots and exploiters, a last hold out, save South Africa, of white misrule on the continent. For seven years the British government attempted to negotiate an end to what was technically a rebellion. Harold Wilson was told by his advisors that military intervention might provoke a mutiny among British forces. He responded by inviting Smith to two meetings in Gibraltar, at the first of which he attempted to berate the Rhodesian PM into accepting black majority rule. In 1972, after a last ditch effort by the Conservative government of Ted Heath, negotiations collapsed. Two years later Smith, under international pressure, released several black nationalist leaders, whom he had arrested nine years earlier. This, probably, served as the catalyst for a guerrilla war that was to last until the end of white rule in 1980.
The myth, spread by a sympathetic western media, emerged during the Bush War, that Robert Mugabe, an African Castro, lead his nation to freedom. The future tyrant, however, was only one of the more prominent of a series of guerrilla leaders vying for control of the country. It was a fight, incidentally, the Rhodesian Army was winning, but at an enormous cost to the country's finances. Facing the beginnings of an international campaign against Apartheid, the South African government of John Vorster began to withdraw financial and military support in late 1974. The real beginning of the end for Rhodesia, however, was not on the African veldt but in the streets of Lisbon on the morning of April 25th, 1974.
Since 1966 the United Nations, backed by the United States and Britain, had maintained a policy of sanctions against the rebel state. South Africa, and several large international companies, had engaged in extensive sanctions busting. Less well known was the support lent by the Portuguese colonial government in Mozambique. The shortest supply route between the Rhodesian capital Salisbury (now Harare) and the outside world lay along the railway line to the port of Beira. The Portuguese Imperial government, fighting its own counter-guerrilla campaigns in Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, was more than willing to support Rhodesia's own efforts. With the overthrow of the country's fascist government in 1974, the colonies were quickly abandoned. Mozambique, under Communist rule, became a haven for anti-government forces in the Rhodesian Bush War. With South Africa now seeking detente with its new neighboring governments, Rhodesia was alone. Near bankrupt, Smith faced Henry Kissinger at the American embassy in Pretoria in September 1976. Kissinger's message was blunt, black majority rule in two years.
Smith's contention, derided as bigoted rationalizations at the time, that black rule would lead to chaos and tyranny proved itself correct, not only in the new Zimbabwe, as Rhodesia was renamed, but through out the continent. In his 1998 book Smith concluded, perhaps somewhat smugly: “I think I can correctly comment: I told you so. History records that my predictions have materialized.” In a 1983 interview he noted: “We gave Rhodesia 15 wonderful years extra, then this sort of scene would have come earlier.” In 2004 he observed:
There are millions of black people who say things were better when I was in control. I have challenged Mugabe to walk down the street with me and see who has most support. I have much better relations with black people than he does.Unlike Mugabe, who lives in armed compound, Smith, even in the bloodiest years of the Bush War, lived with little in the way of police protection. In his last years perfect strangers would often wander into his house asking for help. “It was better under Smith," said even some of his former enemies.
A clue to the nightmare that has become Zimbabwe comes from Theodore Dalrymple, who worked as a doctor in that country in the last years of the Smith regime. From an article in his collection Our Culture, What's Left of It:
Unlike in South Africa, where salaries were paid according to a racial hierarchy(whites first, Indians and colored second, Africans last), salaries in Rhodesia were equal for blacks and whites doing the same job, so that a black junior doctor received the same salary as mine. But there remained a vast gulf in our standards of living, the significance of which escaped me at first; but it was crucial in explaining the disasters that befell the newly independent countries that enjoyed what Byron called, and eagerly anticipated as, the first dance of freedom.Dalyrmple then turns his attention to the Europeans themselves:
The young black doctors who earned the same salary as we whites could not achieve the same standard of living for a very simple reason: they had an immense number of social obligations to fulfill. They were expected to provide for an ever expanding circle of family members (some of whom may have invested in their education) and people from their village, tribe and province. An income that allowed a white to live like a lord because of a lack of such obligations scarcely raised a black above the level of his family.
It is easy to see why a civil service, controlled and manned in its upper reaches by whites could remain efficient and uncorrupt but could not long do so when manned by Africans who were suppose to follow the same rules and procedures. The same is true, of course, of every other administrative activity, public or private. The thick network of social obligations explains why, while it would have been out of the question to bribe most Rhodesian bureaucrats, yet in only a few years it would have been out of the question not to try to bribe most Zimbabwean ones, whose relatives would have condemned them for failing to obtain on their behalf all the advantages their official opportunities might provide. Thus do they very same tasks in the very same offices carried out by people of different cultural and social backgrounds result in very different outcomes. Viewed in this light, African nationalism was a struggle for power and privilege as it was for freedom, though it co-opted the language of freedom for obvious political advantage.
Perhaps the most baleful legacy of British and other colonials in Africa was the idea of the philosopher-king, to whose role colonial officials aspired, and which they often actually played, bequeathing it to their African successors. Many colonial officials made great sacrifices for the sake of their territories, to whose welfare they were devoted, and they attempted to govern them wisely, dispensing justice evenhandedly. But they left for the nationalists the instruments needed to erect the tyrannies and kleptocracies that marked post-independence Africa.I would like to make clear that I don't regard Ian Smith as an advocate of such views. What I wished to highlight with this post was that Smith, despite the bigotry of many of his supporters, represented the values of freedom and civilization. There is simply no comparison between the American South and Southern Africa. Black Americans were born within an essentially free nation, though one which denied them full status as citizens until very recently. They accepted, overwhelmingly, the values of that society as far as their situation allowed. To imagine that a thug like Robert Mugabe somehow exists on the same moral plain with figures like Frederick Douglas, Booker T Washington or Martin Luther King is blasphemy. Ideas matter and the culture that propagates them matters.
A better solution to the Rhodesian crisis would have been, to offer merely a suggestion, voting qualifications based on education coupled with a massive literacy and educational campaign among the black African population. While such qualifications have a dark history as one of the pillars of Jim Crow, limiting the franchise was one of the keys to Britain's peaceful transition to mass democracy in the late Victorian era. The better Rhodesians, I believe, had the same vision as the British Liberals of the nineteenth century, educate, liberate and then extend the vote. Democracy as the last stage in the development of liberty.