Ian Smith, 88; Defiant Leader Of White-Separatist Rhodesia

Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith, left, and Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole, answer reporter's questions at a Capitol Hill news conference.
Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith, left, and Rev. Ndabaningi Sithole, answer reporter's questions at a Capitol Hill news conference. (Frank Johnston -- The Washington Post)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ian Smith, 88, the steely prime minister of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) who unilaterally declared the former British colony's independence in 1965 and spent 14 years defying international sanctions and calls for black majority rule, died Nov. 20 at a clinic near Cape Town, South Africa, after a stroke. He had lived in self-imposed exile in Cape Town in recent years.

Mr. Smith was a cattle farmer before rising to power within a nationalist political movement of white settlers called the Rhodesian Front. Their goal was to resist Great Britain's post-World War II efforts, and a broader geopolitical trend, to turn over European colonies in Africa to black majority rule. "Never in a thousand years," Mr. Smith famously announced.

The Rhodesian Front, later described by England's satiric Punch magazine as a "surrey with the lunatic-fringe on the top," won the country's top offices in 1962 in reaction to a constitution urged by England that would have allowed for greater black participation in Rhodesia's parliament.

Mr. Smith became prime minister in 1964 and denounced the proposed constitution. After fruitless talks with Britain on finding a compromise solution, Mr. Smith proclaimed unilateral independence -- making Rhodesia the second British territory, after the United States in 1776, to take such a step without approval by the crown. England declared Mr. Smith's actions "treasonous."

The segregationist political system Mr. Smith maintained, including race-based restrictions on voting and land rights, was supported by counterinsurgency efforts that cost tens of thousands of lives before Mr. Smith was forced to step down in the late 1970s.

He also instituted martial law by calling a state of emergency and aggressively deploying a brutal central intelligence service and commando unit. That approach to governing continued under Robert Mugabe, a onetime black rebel leader who became prime minister of the newly named Zimbabwe in 1980.

Terence Ranger, an emeritus professor of race relations at Oxford University and a leading authority on Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, said Mr. Smith's refusal to hand over power sooner "was a disastrous and destructive delay" that resulted in continued authoritarian rule.

The economic destruction and political repression that define Zimbabwean life under Mugabe have served to enhance Mr. Smith's reputation as a courageous patriot among some Rhodesian-era whites. Mr. Smith also endeared himself to his supporters for his accessibility and unpretentious living habits. "Good old Smithy," as he was called, rarely traveled with an entourage of guards.

He once denied he was an extremist, adding, "I have certain values I believe in, quietly and firmly, without shouting or waving my arms about."

The youngest of three children, Ian Douglas Smith was born April 8, 1919, in Selukwe, a Rhodesian mining town now called Shurugwi. His Scottish ancestors settled there at the end of the 19th century. His father was a farmer and businessman who bred champion racehorses.

'Entitled to Our Half'

Mr. Smith called his father "one of the fairest men I have ever met, and that is the way he brought me up. He always told me that we're entitled to our half of the country and the blacks are entitled to theirs."

When England went to war with Germany in 1939, Mr. Smith left Rhodes University in South Africa and joined a Rhodesian squadron of the British Royal Air Force.

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