Smith, Led Rhodesian Racist Regime, Dead

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"I don't believe in black majority rule ever for Rhodesia, not in a thousand years," Smith once said.

[International News]


Ian Smith, Rhodesia's last white prime minister whose attempts to resist black rule dragged the country now known as Zimbabwe into isolation and civil war, died Tuesday at age 88.

Smith, who recently suffered a stroke, died at a clinic near Cape Town, South Africa, where he spent his final years with his family, said longtime friend Sam Whaley, who was a senator in the former Rhodesia.

Smith unilaterally declared independence from Britain on Nov. 11, 1965. He then served as the prime minister of Rhodesia from 1965 to 1979 during white minority rule. The country failed to gain international recognition, and the United Nations imposed economic sanctions.

He finally bowed to international pressure, and Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party won elections in 1980. To many white Rhodesians, he was "good old Smithy." To most blacks, his rule symbolized the worst of racial oppression.

"I don't believe in black majority rule ever for Rhodesia, not in a thousand years," Smith once said. For him, the increasingly tyrannical abuse of power in recent years by Mugabe, still the president, and Zimbabwe's hyperinflation and economic collapse vindicated that belief.

Smith had imprisoned Mugabe in 1964 for 10 years, calling him a "terrorist" intent on turning the country into a one-party dictatorship. "We have never had such chaos and corruption in our country," Smith said during a brief return to the political fray in 2000. "What Zimbabweans are looking for is a bit of ordinary honesty and straightforwardness."

Zimbabwe's state television and radio briefly reported Smith's death on late night news shows Tuesday.  "Zimbabwe will remember Smith for his unrepentant racist attitude and the killing of thousands of innocent people" in the struggle for independence, state TV said.

Mugabe was scheduled to address a state funeral Wednesday for a former guerrilla fighter in the bush war that ended Smith's rule and was likely to refer to Smith during ceremonies at a shrine outside Harare honoring fallen guerrillas and politicians of his ruling party.

Despite their bitter differences, Smith and Mugabe shared one common bond — their deep dislike of Britain, which they saw as a meddling colonial power.

Just as Mugabe accused former British Prime Minister Tony Blair of interfering in Zimbabwe to protect the interests of whites, Smith poured vitriol on the government of the late Harold Wilson for pressing him to hand political power to the black majority.

Smith was born to Scottish immigrants in western Rhodesia on April 8, 1919, but renounced his claims to British citizenship in 1984.

He was, in his own words, "an absolute lunatic about sport" most of his life. He graduated with a degree in commerce from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.

Two years after the outbreak of World War II, he joined Britain's Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot. He lost two planes in combat. Plastic surgery to fix scars from the first crash paralyzed the right side of his face, giving him a sinister,
expressionless appearance.

After the war, Smith returned to Rhodesia to raise cattle and grow corn. He entered politics in 1948 as a supporter of the opposition Liberal Party. The same year, he married a South African-born teacher, Janet Watt. They had two sons and a daughter.

Smith was elected to Parliament five years later as a member of the ruling United Federal Party. He rose through party ranks as an opponent of black rule before joining the newly formed right-wing Rhodesian Front Party in 1962 — a time when colonial powers were granting independence to black leaders in other African countries.

The Front won a surprise victory in elections that year, and Smith became minister of the treasury. In a right-wing revolt in 1964, Smith ousted the party leader for being too soft in dealings with Britain on the fate of the colony.

Smith became premier of the British Crown Colony of Southern Rhodesia in April 1964. On Nov. 11, 1965, he issued a declaration of independence, pronouncing Rhodesia a sovereign state.

He swiftly and ruthlessly imprisoned thousands of black leaders, drove many others into exile and introduced draconian laws curbing civil rights and controlling the already tame press.

In 1970, Smith declared Rhodesia a republic with a racially based constitution. Two years later, he declared the country at war with black nationalist guerrillas infiltrating from neighboring countries.

After 14 years of punitive U.N. sanctions and a seven-year bush war that killed an estimated 40,000 people, Smith's resolve was sapped and he embraced more moderate black nationalists.

He persuaded Bishop Abel Muzorewa to stand in elections in 1979 and form a government of national reconciliation, which included Smith. The rest of the world was unimpressed, and then President Jimmy Carter announced that U.S. sanctions would continue as did Britain.

The political settlement left out the country's two main nationalist movements and fighting increased after the vote.
At a conference in London organized by then British Foreign Secretary Peter Carrington, Muzorewa agreed to new elections involving the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, headed by Mugabe, and the Zimbabwe African People's Party, led by Joshua Nkomo.

Mugabe won the poll and was declared president. Smith claimed the elections were marred by ZANU-PF intimidation — a refrain echoed by most independent observers about recent ballots in Zimbabwe.

Smith did not attend the 1980 celebrations marking Zimbabwe's independence from Britain.

"The thought of being confronted by a scene where they (the British politicians) would be wringing their hands in apparent pleasure, and fawning around a bunch of communist terrorists who had come into their position through intimidation, corruption and a blatantly dishonest election, was a situation against which my whole system would revolt," he wrote in his 1997 memoir, "The Great Betrayal."

After Mugabe rose to power, Smith became leader of Zimbabwe's opposition at the head of the renamed Republican Front, but his support among whites gradually eroded.

Mugabe expelled Smith from parliament in 1986 and he retired to his farm in southwestern Zimbabwe and then subsequently moved to Cape Town, where there is a sizable community of white Zimbabweans.

He complained in 2002 that Zimbabwe authorities had stripped him of his Zimbabwe citizenship. However, Mugabe made no attempt to expel Smith from the country. He did, though, apologize to supporters on several occasions for not punishing Smith and his white allies.

Smith's wife and son both have died. He is survived by his stepchildren, Jean Tholet and Robert.
Funeral details were not announced.

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