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Monica Dispatch

A Matter of Perspective: Monica Interviews Ian Douglas Smith

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About the time I was still a girl in elementary school, and didn't even know what Zimbabwe was, Ian Douglas Smith was President here, and signified white oppression in Africa to the rest of the world. To this day, history books devote entire sections to analyzing and criticizing his leadership as Prime Minister of Rhodesia from 1964-1980. He declared independence from Great Britain a year and a half after taking office because he opposed reforms Great Britain wanted to help the blacks here. He then worked under intense scrutiny from the outside world as he worked to develop his vision of an independent white government.

Twenty years later, just last Thursday, actually, I spent 45 minutes in Ian Smith's living room talking with him about colonialism, his time in office, and the current state of Zimbabwe. Who is this man, and how did he influence the Zimbabwe of today?

It is hard for me to determine what is true based solely on what Ian Smith told me in our brief interview. Some of it seems to contradict things he did or said when he was in power, so I'll share with you here what the interview was like, and include a few quoted from other sources and leave it for you to decide what kind of person Ian Smith is.

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Monica is welcomed by the former President of Zimbabwe
He answered the door with a kind greeting, then led me to the beige-carpeted sitting room. He walked with confidence, head held high. He proffered a large armchair just across from him, encouraging me to "just be comfortable." I offered him the oranges I brought as a gift. "You didn't need to bring me a present," he protested. "You're so nice, you just needed to bring yourself. " The grandfather clock in the hall chimed the half-hour, and directly behind him I noticed a collection of blue-and-white porcelain teacups, neatly arranged on the shelves. In his grandfatherly manner, with slow, deliberate phrasing and a faraway look, Smith then began to tell me about his days in office. "I'm interested in people who want to hear the truth," he said, nodding his head emphatically. "I think you're a pleasant and honest person, and we can have time to answer all your questions," he later told me during our 45 minutes together.

On Independence and its Effects

The Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), was signed in 1965 in Salisbury (now Harare) by Smith and his Cabinet members. (See "What Would You Do If You Were in Charge?!?"for more on UDI.) On November 11, 1965, at 1:15pm, Smith gave a personal radio address to the nation, explaining the UDI and stirring the patriotic tendencies of white Rhodesians. Declaring independence was to be, as Smith told me, "The most traumatic decision I had to live up to. Because I didn't want to do it."

In October of 1965, "Smith resolved to have a final fling at obtaining what he wanted by agreement - by which, of course, he meant the British government agreeing with him."

Blake, Robert, A History of Rhodesia, p.377

You can read about some of the circumstances surrounding the UDI in our previous Team Dispatch. Many people, including some of us on the Trek Team, believe that Smith declared independence because he was not in favor of Britain's policy of wanting majority, black African rule. Thus, he has been accused of being a racist, totally intent on keeping the black African down. However, according to Smith, he agreed with Britain on the fundamental need for Africans to advance. What they disagreed on was how fast that should happen: Britain wanted it immediately, Smith wanted to slowly phase in changes.

Ian Smith "declared that majority [black] rule would not occur within a thousand years."

Blake, Robert, A History of Rhodesia, p.406

"Events during the next few years [following UDI] were to suggest more and more strongly that [apartheid] was indeed the basic objective of Smith and the forces behind him."

Blake, Robert, A History of Rhodesia, p.384

The years directly after UDI caused Smith much turmoil. Britain considered Rhodesia a rebel colony. The rest of the world disagreed with Smith's policies, with many countries enforcing economic sanctions in protest. Smith prefaced his remarks with the dry statement, "Every human being makes mistakes," and went on to tell, with feeling, about how Rhodesia was betrayed by the Commonwealth, other African states, and countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Ceylon, France, West Germany, Italy, the Scandinavian countries, Japan, Turkey, the United States and the Soviet Union. "We were banned from the free world!" he exclaims. "Everything we did was criticized. For about thirty years we lived with the world against us, accusing us of things we didn't do!"

It wasn't wrong, he conceded, to be criticized for the things he did do, but it was wrong to publish half-truths and outright lies about his so-called "racist government." For instance, Anatomy of a Rebel, a biography of Ian Smith by Peter Joyce, recounts how some media used false footage: "Africans snoozing in the noon-day sun in Cecil Square have become 'corpses'; scenes of South Africa's Sharpville Massacre have been included in television programmes about the Rhodesian police; sweets have been scattered in the dustbins and gutters of a township so that the photographer can get his pictures of 'starving' children; the BBC's Northern Ireland regional TV service presented a five-year-old film of a Bulawayo department store fire as the scene 'during current riots in one of the main centres of Rhodesia'."

Policies of Separate Development

While Smith has been oft-quoted as saying majority rule would not happen, "not in my lifetime," his policies were, he truly believed, meant to protect the cultures and lifestyles of all Rhodesians. Under his policies of separate development, similar to the original goals of the apartheid rule in South Africa, he tried to find a way where both blacks and whites would develop separately, without creating more conflict between the two. "It's not an easy, simple problem you can solve," he admitted to me. "I always try to be reasonable and effective."

Upon being elected Prime Minister, "Smith's first step was to clamp down as hard as he could on the African nationalists... The prinicpal nationalists were either gaoled [jailed] or put into restriction in places like Gona Kudzingwa, situated in the hot, dreary, remote area of the low veld. The most important pro-nationalist newspaper... was banned... and the two rival nationalist parties were delcared illegal."

Smith proceeded to recount to me the story of Bob, a black African manager of one of his father's businesses in the Midlands. "Bob was better than many white men I knew, a very wise man." Smith remembered how he encouraged Bob to send his young son to school, but Bob replied that his son needed to fulfill duties around the farm, and thus couldn't attend the local primary school.

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How will history remember Ian Smith?  What do you think of him?
When Smith became Prime Minister, he asked his ministers of finance and education to assess the possiblity of building schools for all students. "They came back to me and my Minister of Finance said that the budget to build those schools would equal the entire budget of Rhodesia for that year. Then my Minister of Education came to me and asked me, even if those schools were built, where would we get the teachers? It takes twenty years to produce a teacher." So they decided to make priorities, and build some, but not all of those schools. "My conscience is clear,"

A People at Peace or at War?

During his early years as Prime Minister, Smith backed up his assertions about the good race relations in Rhodesia by statistics. "It wasn't only the happy faces of black Africans that you would see," he explained. "I called on my Minister of Law and create a Commission of Peace. They came back to me a year later and said, 'Here are the statistics. Rhodesia is the only country in the world where crime is actually decreasing...moreover, we have less of a police force than other countries.'" Because of the low rates of crime, Smith felt his country to be a stable, happy one.

However, violence existed and he took measures to prevent it. "The only violence was when these so-called 'freedom fighters' terrorized the poor Africans in the villages... They were told what to do and who to support." He continued to tell me about petrol bombs and why his party, the Rhodesian Front Party, decided to introduce the death penalty for petrol bombing, which had started under Edgar Whitehead's time in office. Freedom fighters, or "terrorists, depending on how you look at it," he said, took containers of petrol with rags stuffed inside, lit them, and threw them into huts while people were sleeping inside. "You can only imagine what happens when those thatched roofs catch on fire..." he shook his head. "Then, when the people inside would try to get out, they would find the door wired shut...People would say [in protest of the mandatory death penalty], 'you don't immediately arrest a man with a gun in his pocket.' But guns can be used to protect oneself. What about a man with a petrol bomb? Who is he protecting himself against.

On the Benefits of Colonialism

One might wonder if the violent actions and bloodshed that occurred as each of the African countries achieved independence could have been avoided if immigrants like the Pioneer had never arrived. Smith disagrees with "those who say derogatory things about colonialism." He explained to me, "I would say colonialism is a wonderful thing. It spread civilization to Africa. Before it they had no written language, no wheel as we know it, no schools, no hospitals, not even normal clothing."

As was noted in "The Mark of the Pioneer Column," the Africans lost a tremendous lot because of colonialism, too. By 1899, over 15.7 million acres of land were taken by the invading Europeans, with only about four million left for the Ndebele, and they were some of the worst land you could get. Of the 200,000 head of cattle the Ndebele used to own, over 160,000 were stolen by the Europeans. The Africans were beaten, killed, and sexually abused by the white "policemen."

His history, he went on, and the history of Rhodesians were deeply rooted in the pride of being British. Of the early pioneers who left Britain to come to this continent, he said, "You were stirred, you had that spirit. You got up and came here to fulfill Cecil Rhodes' dream of a British Africa that went from Capetown to Cairo." If you didn't believe, you stayed at home. Smith went on to say, "Rhodesians had more Union Jacks than in Britain. There were Union Jacks flying everywhere and when you saw one, you really believed in the British way of life and the British ideals. Rhodesians had more spirit than the people in Britain had!" He pauses for a moment. "That was our history," he concludes. "That was how we were brought up. " Smith goes on to explain the mood he sensed after Independence regarding Zimbabwe's colonial history. "Afterward, black Africans would come up to me and tell me, 'We've got to do what these white people do if we want to move forward,'" he pointed out. The Pioneer Column and its legacy, to him, was for the benefit of Africa.

The Current Economic Situation

Zimbabwe's economic situation worries Smith. "Sadly, we're on a very bad track now. The Rhodesian pound at the time [of UDI] was equal to the British pound sterling. Our equivalent of the Zimbabwean dollar could buy 100 British pence. Now, one Zimbabwean dollar buys only 1 1/2 pence. There are children in this country who go to bed hungry," he says, looking away. He then turns to me and says, "If my children were hungry I should think I would steal to feed them."

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He places blame squarely upon government mismanagement. And it isn't the whites, he claims. "There are more black millionaires than white millionaires in this country. In fact the status of whites has gone down," he points out. He talks about Robert Mugabe's authoritarian, one-party state, and thinks he reneged on the promise he gave to the nation at Independence in 1980 to protect "this jewel of Africa." Smith hopes that black Africans will not categorically blame whites for the current economic woes.

A Message for Youth

I asked Smith for his advice to youth worldwide who have aspirations of entering politics. Under his leadership, his party members had a wide range of political ideas which he had to manage and unite, including extremist tendencies. "My party wanted me to move more to the right, to become more reactionary," he explains. "But that wasn't part of my character. That's not me. What they have to concentrate on are two basic fundamentals in Western democracy. Freedom. And Justice. If you have those two, it covers everything. You must stick to those principles and have the courage of your convictions." Ian Smith's political life has definitely been characterized by a determination to follow through with his beliefs. However, whether those beliefs took into account the needs and desires of the entire population over which he ruled is a question that will probably better determine his position in history. It is probably safe to say that history will always view Ian Smith as one of the most important and controversial figures of 20th century Africa.


Kavitha- Spreading a Bad Seed - The Greed of Agri-business
Kevin- Constitutional Comparisons
Monica- Frustration Fuels Motivation - Education in Zimbabwe Through the Eyes of a Student Activist
Monica- Teen Pen Pals Dream of Hollywood and Big Changes for Zimbabwe
Kavitha- Developing Countries, Big Daddy Corporations and the World Trade Organization?

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