BBC News: Ex-Rhodesia leader Ian Smith dies
I was born several months after the creation of Zimbabwe. Thus to me Ian Smith, UDI, Rhodesia and all the rest were already part of history by the time I became aware. Although my godmother's daughter married a Zimbabwean farmer, I have never had particularly strong views on the country before 1999.
That year was the first time I studied the country at all, at the end of an undergraduate history module on decolonisation in East Africa. I was struck by the similarities of concerns between the white settlers in Kenya and Southern Rhodesia, and how in the former country independence was achieved without major conflict between the white settlers and indigenous population, in stark contrast to the latter. No country has had a perfect history, but the history of Rhodesia struck me as one of the worst.
Ian Smith's champions often argue that decolonisation in Africa was widely flawed, leaving behind it some very young mass democracies that rapidly fell to one party rule and military dictatorships, and that Smith was a much more benign ruler than the likes of Idi Amin, with Smith pursuing a gradualist course towards black majority rule. Exactly how this is consistent with Smith declaring "I don't believe in black majority rule over Rhodesia, not in a thousand years," is hard to see.
Smith argued that Robert Mugabe was a disaster for Zimbabwe and that because of betrayal by both the South Africans and the British Zimbabwe was given mass democracy too soon, and expectations that a coalition of moderate black leaders and Smith would be formed to lead the country towards a bright future were rapidly shown to be naïve. But what efforts did Smith - and to give him his due, the British colonial administration right across Africa - make towards fostering a culture of participative democracy? What did Smith do to make support for moderate black leaders a realistic course? How can anyone escape the conclusion that Smith's declaration rejecting black majority rule completely and similar declarations and actions were not great recruiters for the likes of Mugabe?
The UDI era Rhodesia may well have been a country with a stable economy and standards of living stronger than Zimbabwe has today. But Rhodesia proved to not be a stable regime in the long run. Some of this was due to events beyond its borders, such as the sudden collapse of the Portuguese Empire, but what effort was made to encourage all the people of Rhodesia to support the country and regime? The failure of the 1979 internal settlement when Smith did finally try powersharing demonstrated that no such nation building had been achieved.
So was Smith a wise man before his time who should have been supported, or was he one of the prime reasons for the emergence of a tyrant such as Mugabe? Try as I do, I find it hard not to reach the later conclusion?