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African Majority-Rule Opponent Dies

  • Dennis Cook

The man who once fought black majority rule and declared Rhodesia's (Zimbabwe's) independence from Britain, Ian Smith, is dead at the age of 88. Dennis Cooke and Wythe Dabney prepared this survey of Ian Smith's career.

The leader of white-ruled Rhodesia's 15-year rebellion against majority rule died an embittered man. Once the almost unanimous choice as leader of 280,000 white Rhodesians, in later years, Ian Douglas Smith saw his constituency gradually dwindle, drained by white emigration and a changing political reality that he never truly understood.

As Rhodesian prime minister, Mr. Smith was quoted as saying "never in a thousand years" would there be black majority rule. Under pressure, Mr. Smith unilaterally declared Rhodesia's independence from Britain on November 11,1965. After failing to get international recognition and, under United Nations sanctions, Mr. Smith ordered fully democratic elections, resulting in Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF Party winning power, in 1980. The country was renamed Zimbabwe, under black majority rule. Mr. Smith then served in the Zimbabwe parliament until the reservation of seats for whites was abolished, in 1987. In his later years, he devoted most of his time to his cattle ranch. He moved to South Africa, four years ago, for health reasons.

Officials in Mugabe's government said Tuesday Mr. Smith will not be missed. They accuse him of being responsible for war, death and destruction, as an unrepentant racist.

Known by his friends as "Smithy", Mr. Smith was an unassuming and intensely private man. Never an articulate speaker, he inspired devotion among many by appearing to be the classic underdog.

His World War II record added to his gutsy image. As a Royal Air Force fighter pilot in 1943, he was injured when his plane crashed on a runway. Returning to duty the following year, he was shot down over Italy and spent several months with resistance fighters before making his way back to allied lines.

Born on a farm in the Shurugwi ranching area, about 200 kilometers south of Harare, Mr. Smith grew up in an environment that was not conducive to creating a larger vision of the world. The blacks he knew were mostly peasant farmers and laborers who were as distant in their political awareness from nationalist leaders like Robert Mugabe as they were from Mr. Smith, himself.

In keeping with the paternalistic, 19th Century attitudes that came naturally to the Rhodesian farming culture, it seemingly did not occur to Mr. Smith that there was a conflict between his deeply-held faith in white-rule democracy and the aspirations of the majority of Rhodesia¹s people.

Mr. Smith's political career began in 1948, when he was elected to the legislative assembly of what was then the self-governing British colony of Southern Rhodesia. In 1962, he helped found the Rhodesian Front, a party dedicated to opposing the black-majority government Britain was insisting on from its African colonies, as it granted independence. The Rhodesian Front swept the next elections and, three years later, Prime Minister Ian Smith signed Rhodesia's unilateral declaration of independence from Britain, declaring that "never in a thousand years" would blacks rule the country.

Fifteen years later, a bitter guerrilla war, a faltering economy and pressure from South Africa, Rhodesia's chief supporter, brought the Smith era to an end. British-supervised elections made Robert Mugabe the first prime minister of an internationally recognized, independent Zimbabwe.

For a while, Mr. Smith's party retained its support and he his position as white community spokesman. But his most ardent supporters left the country and those that remained looked to leadership that could deal in a practical way with a black government - something Mr. Smith seemed unable to do. Mr. Smith refused to leave, but the whites gradually deserted him.

His dilemma was best summed up when, several years after independence, he told a journalist that, in his heart, the country would always be Rhodesia.

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