A Man Out Of Step With His Country

We are all the products of our times and circumstances. Ian Smith is no exception. He belonged to an era when European imperialists imagined they had a grand historic mandate to rule "lessdeveloped" peoples and that "civilized standards" were more important than one-man, one-vote elections. He was a gentleman farmer, a World War II Spitfire pilot who was severely wounded in the defense of the British Empire. He was a simple but canny man who believed that majority rule should not come to his country for a thousand years. Inevitably, majority rule came—but was it inevitable that it would degenerate into the present catastrophe?

I didn't really know Smith personally. When he was leading Rhodesia to unilateral independence in 1965, I was a lawyer in the industrial town of Vereniging, near Johannesburg. Like most South Africans, though, I closely followed Smith's decisions since they so often had implications for our own interests. Often we white South Africans applauded his courage and determination to stand fast against what we regarded as precipitate majority rule and communist aggression. As time passed, however, our concerns regarding the viability of his position grew. In the mid-1970s we pressured his government to accept the best deal before the balance of forces shifted too decisively against him. Finally, he was forced into a corner with few remaining options. He tried them all: the continuation of military resistance; an internal settlement with Bishop Abel Muzorewa and an apparently successful election; then more talks with "perfidious Albion"—as he came to regard his former British comrades in arms—and the final surrender at Lancaster House.

How different might Rhodesia/Zimbabwe have been had he settled earlier? Would the country have entered a golden age of accelerated progress toward multiracial harmony? Might it have been spared the despotic rule of Robert Mugabe? Probably not. The seeds of megalomania in Mugabe would probably still have germinated, regardless of his route to power.