/ 21 November 2007

Former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith dies

Ian Smith, who defied the world in 1965 when he led 270 000 white Rhodesians in a unilateral declaration of independence from Britain rather than accept moves to black-majority rule, has died in South Africa aged 88.

State-owned radio ZBC, reporting his death, said ”Smith will be remembered for his racism and for the deaths of many Zimbabweans.”

Smith became prime minister of white-ruled Rhodesia in 1964 and remained in office until a guerrilla war forced him to accept a ceasefire and political settlement in 1979.

Elections were held the following year, when Rhodesia became the black-ruled republic of Zimbabwe, with Robert Mugabe as prime minister.

Born in the small Southern Rhodesian mining town of Selukwe on April 8 1919, the son of a farmer, Ian Douglas Smith was educated locally and at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, where he obtained a bachelor of commerce degree.

”Good Old Smithy” to his white followers — stayed on in the black-ruled republic of Zimbabwe after independence in 1980, keeping a critical eye on those who had defeated him, and vehemently opposing Mugabe’s plans for a one-party state.

As a fighter pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force during World War II, he was shot down twice and underwent plastic surgery after his first crash left him with a permanently lop-sided face which made it almost impossible for him to smile.

He personified white intransigence.

When Smith became prime minister, neighbouring states were nearing black-ruled independence. But Smith — with the support of the white Rhodesians — set himself firmly against the aspirations of five million blacks.

Smith remained vocal in opposition to Mugabe, even after the parliamentary seats reserved for whites were abolished in 1987.

Although he occupied no formal position after leaving Parliament, he retained a place in the heart of a white minority much shrunken by emigration.

Ironically, like Mugabe now, Smith routinely berated Britain for what he branded interference in Rhodesia’s domestic affairs and dwelled on this subject at length in his autobiography, The Great Betrayal.

He moved to Cape Town four years ago for health reasons.

Over the years, Mugabe has suggested his government could have hanged Smith and his closest allies for war crimes and human rights abuses.

”If we were vindictive, if we had not pursued a policy of reconciliation for which our detractors don’t give us any credit, that head that Smith carries should have been chopped,” Mugabe has said repeatedly.

Officials in Mugabe’s government said on Tuesday that Smith — who in 1976 declared he didn’t believe in black majority rule, ”not in a thousand years” — would not be missed.

”Smith will not be mourned or missed here by any decent person because he was an unrepentant racist whose racist stance and opposition to our independence caused a war, and he was responsible for a lot of deaths and suffering,” Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga told Reuters.

Mugabe dismisses white Zimbabweans opposed to his rule as hankering for Smith’s racist Rhodesia.

The white population, estimated to have shrunk to about 40 000, has kept a low political profile since often violent farm seizures by Mugabe’s supporters started seven years ago.

A once-clean shaven Smith grew a long grey beard in his 80s. But old age didn’t stop his attacks on Mugabe, calling him a terrorist and communist who ruined Zimbabwe’s economy.

Although afflicted with a stoop in later life, he still enjoyed showing visitors his herd of cattle on a ranch he had tended for decades.

In 1985, to Mugabe’s fury, the Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe, the party Smith led until 1987, won 15 of the 20 white seats in Parliament.

Smith queued up with the aid of a walking stick at the age of 82 to vote against Mugabe in March 2002 presidential elections. – Reuters