Thursday, November 22, 2007

Ian Smith

Ian Smith, the last Prime Minister of Rhodesia and the signer of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, has died in Cape Town. Opinion was always going to be sharply divided about him, with some decrying him as a racist tyrant who was responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of Africans in Zimbabwe, and some more sympathetically regarding him as a decent man whose gloomy prognostications about Africa have been proved right.

If you're going to try and write a balanced appraisal, it's probably best to get the good stuff out of the way first. He was scrupulously personally honest, and never succumbed to the temptation to line his own nest while in office. His personal 'limousine' was a Peugeot 504 - rather oddly described here as 'redundant and decadent'. Judge for yourselves:

Decadent?

He was also personally brave: a decorated fighter pilot in World War 2, he escaped from Italy by climbing over the Alps, without proper climbing gear. He was honest, according to his lights, and hard working. He ran the economy of Rhodesia relatively well, adjusting to the strictures of sanctions and managing to maintain the value of the Rhodesian dollar to the extent that, on independence in 1980, it was worth approximately £1.50. He wasn't especially humorous, and his style of argument was one of repetition and rather clunky emotion. There was only one occasion that I can find of an Ian Smith joke: when the RAF were sent to bases in Southern Kenya, preparatory to a possible strike on Rhodesia in the late sixties, the mess wrote to Smith, asking if they could have a picture of him for their dartboard, as opportunities for fun were so limited. Smith replied by turn of post enclosing a signed photo, a drawing pin and a Rhodesian ten shilling note (the days before decimalisation...) with a note saying 'Have a drink on me boys...when they unfreeze our currency'. It's not Wilde, but hey.

But the negatives. The one that is most glaringly apparent today is that he was a racist. Obviously he was a racist. He talked of 'equal rights for all civilised men'; he believed that Africans were naturally less intelligent and not fit for self-government; he campaigned on a slogan, in 1964, for 'A brighter, Whiter Rhodesia'. He was a bigot. His only defence, itself not very good, is that most White Africans were. Many still are. Appraisals of the man that focus on his economic record, or the worse human rights record of his successor are missing the point - they are like a history of Mussolini through railway timetables.

But if his bigotry was, perhaps, a generational and geographical product (though there were many others, like Diana Mitchell, who were not remotely racist) there were many other failings. He was stubborn without being principled. His method of strategic positioning was to refuse to concede any point, no matter how trivial, until he was compelled by force of circumstance to submit to everything. He was perpetually politically unrealistic. He had no real sense of vision - White Rhodesia was blindly following Good ol' Smithy, when he had no idea of where to lead them. That he was a relatively competent, relatively decent African leader is much more of an indictment of African leadership than it is a credit to his regime. Some of the people in his cabinet were truly horrible. PK Van der Byl was supposed (according to Max Hastings) to have ridden on Army helicopters taking potshots at suspected guerrillas with a hunting rifle.

Not a nice piece of work
But where does that really leave us? A mixed answer, I suspect. Ian Smith was not the despotic ruler of an apartheid state - he lost votes and MPs to the Rhodesia Action Party through being too moderate and paternalistic. Rhodesian racism was qualitatively different to South African racism - it was about clumsy and bigoted paternalism rather than the more vicious kind of deliberate under-development in South Africa. But this is to distinguish the truly awful from the merely bad. Ian Smith was a reactionary, blinkered and disastrous leader. He missed perhaps the last opportunity for multi-racial rule in Africa, and condemned Rhodesians, black and white, to an unnecessarily protracted struggle.

One thing, however, that he did not say, and that he is continuously pilloried for having said, is that he 'didn't believe in Black majority rule - not in a thousand years'. This is routinely quoted as his version of the "Thousand Year Reich" speech. What he actually said was:

"I don't believe in Black Majority rule ever - not in a thousand years. I repeat that what I believe in is black and white working together. I believe that if one day we have white rule and the next black rule then we will have failed and that will be a disaster for Rhodesia."

The language is ill-chosen but the meaning is clear. This is a call for multi-racial politics and the statement of a belief that a majority rule that excluded the minority would be damaging. It's still, basically, wrong-headed but there's much better evidence of his racism than that. Like when said, in relation to the new constitution of 1971, "I am determined to give blacks a fair crack of the whip." There was a man worse at soundbites than Gordon Brown.

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