Ian Smith, the former prime minister of Britain’s rebellious colony of Rhodesia, who once promised that white rule in Africa would endure for 1,000 years, died yesterday in South Africa. He was 88.
The cause was a stroke suffered at a nursing home near Cape Town, said Sam Whaley, a friend and former senator in Mr. Smith’s Rhodesian Front government.
Mr. Smith’s resistance to black rule led to a unilateral declaration of independence from Britain in 1965 and, later, severe repression and a seven-year guerrilla war, costing about 30,000 lives, most of them black fighters and civilians.
Second only to the apartheid rulers of South Africa, Mr. Smith became a symbol, both to black Africans and many others, of iniquitous white rule.
The land Mr. Smith left behind is markedly different from the one he nurtured before white-ruled Rhodesia became majority-ruled Zimbabwe, an era in which a tiny white minority of mainly settlers of British descent clung to privilege, prosperity and power in the teeth of international pressure.
In the earliest years of independence, in the 1980s, Zimbabwe impressed many outsiders as a stable and prosperous land, where high school enrollment for black children, held back in the long decades of white minority rule, soared and tourism to game parks and the famed Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River flourished.
But in later years the formerly white-owned farms that once fed much of southern Africa and earned millions of dollars in foreign exchange were decimated by a precipitate land-redistribution program. The economy is in tatters, with hyperinflation running at such a pace that currency bills change hands in brick-sized bundles.
An urban elite with ties to the regime of President Robert G. Mugabe prospers while the poor go hungry. Millions of Zimbabweans have fled to neighboring African states. Political opposition to Mr. Mugabe’s regime has been suppressed with the same zeal as Mr. Smith himself once displayed in the fight against African nationalist strivings for majority rule.
Zimbabwe’s troubles only fed Mr. Smith’s unwavering white supremacist views, his unshakable belief that Africa without white rule would not work.
“I’m pleasantly surprised at the number of people who come to me and say, when you were in the chair, we thought you were too inflexible and unbending; we now see that you were right,” he said in an interview during a visit to London in 2004.
Physically, the man at the center of these storms appeared almost drab. Tall and slightly stooped, he spoke in the clipped monotones of his country, where the English language seemed overlaid with the Afrikaans of South Africa.
Ian Douglas Smith was born on April 8, 1919, in Selukwe, a village about 200 miles southwest of Salisbury, now Harare, the capital, where he later owned a 7,500-acre cattle spread. His father, Douglas Smith, had immigrated to the territory in 1898 from Hamilton, Scotland, settling in Selukwe and eventually establishing a butcher shop.
At school, Mr. Smith excelled in sports rather than academics. In 1940, after studying commerce at Rhodes University in South Africa, he joined the British Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot in World War II. He crashed twice.
The first time, taking off in a Hurricane fighter plane in the Western Desert, he hit a runway obstruction. Flight Lieutenant Smith was badly hurt. Plastic surgery left him with a lopsided expression and a drooping eyelid. Afterward he rarely smiled, partly because of a dour temperament but partly because of the surgery.
His second downing, by enemy ground fire, took place over the Po Valley in Italy. Joining the partisans as a guerrilla fighter there, he trekked across the Alps to Allied lines and flew again over Germany. He returned home a war hero.
Mr. Smith entered politics in 1948 to campaign successfully for a Parliament seat. A little-known political figure who referred to himself as “a backroom worker,” Mr. Smith attained the office of deputy prime minister in 1962, the year his party, the Rhodesian Front, first won power. In 1964, a cabinet revolt against his predecessor, Winston Field, gave Mr. Smith the job of prime minister.
He stepped momentously into the history of central Africa a few months later, at a time when the flood tide of black nationalism seemed to be racing down the continent. Mr. Smith and his colleagues, with the kind of defiance that white Rhodesians applauded, set themselves against what in time proved to be inevitable.
On Nov. 11, 1965, Mr. Smith announced in emotionless tones that Rhodesia had declared independence from Britain rather than bow to pressure from London for concessions toward the black majority.
It was a broadcast proclamation of rebellion, ending with the words: “We have struck a blow for the preservation of justice, civilization and Christianity, and in this belief we have this day assumed our sovereign independence. God bless you all.”
His white countrymen were confident that “good old Smithy” knew what he was doing. His black compatriots were aghast at his display of defiance. But their resentments were countered by a state machinery that encompassed detention without trial, an efficient secret police and, later, martial law. Mr. Mugabe was one of many black nationalists jailed for years by the white authorities under emergency powers.
Condemnation of the rebellion heaped up. The United Nations applied international sanctions intended to cut off Rhodesia from the rest of the world in 1966.
Mr. Smith would not bend. “No African rule in my lifetime,” he said. “The white man is master of Rhodesia. He has built it, and he intends to keep it.”
Later, in 1976, he declared that there would be no majority rule, “not in a thousand years,” in Rhodesia. Black Africans, Mr. Smith said, were not ready for self-government.
He and his followers justified their repression by saying they were “holding the line” against Communism and “resisting the chaos” of newly formed black nations beyond the Zambezi River. He expressed bewilderment at the refusal of the United States, Britain and other Western powers to reinforce his self-adopted “front line against international Communism” — code language for black domination and a reflection of the cold war divisions of the era.
Mr. Smith’s relations with the West, Britain in particular, were not improved by the series of negotiations through which London, the lawful authority in Rhodesia, sought to end the rebellion. Each round of discussions ended with mutual accusations of deviousness and deceit. Each collapse bought Mr. Smith a little more time to extend minority domination. Each time, black anger deepened.
For the black majority, the rebellion was the worst of affronts, an institutionalized humiliation, and in December 1972 nationalist guerrillas attacked a farm in northeastern Rhodesia with rockets, starting a war that eventually took some 30,000 lives, with much of the insurgency mounted from nearby Zambia and Mozambique.
Only in 1976, under pressure by the United States secretary of state, Henry A. Kissinger, through South Africa, Mr. Smith’s main ally, did Mr. Smith acknowledge a need for majority rule. Even then, it was a grudging acceptance, which Mr. Smith was slow to carry out.
On March 3, 1978, he signed an agreement with moderate black leaders, who had pledged to eschew war. Under the arrangement, Mr. Smith agreed to step down, and handed over power to Bishop Abel T. Muzorewa, who won elections in April 1979.
But the vote was condemned by the guerrillas. Their exiled leaders, Mr. Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, dismissed the settlement as a ploy, because it enabled whites to retain control of the army, economy and legislature. The agreement won no international recognition, and the war continued.
In the fall of 1979, however, Britain presided over what was to be its final conference on Rhodesia. Only Mr. Smith, a member of Bishop Muzorewa’s delegation, resisted the terms that led to British-supervised elections and lawful independence the next spring. Mr. Mugabe came to power. The white Rhodesians’ rebellion had finally crumbled.
A Constitution drawn up at Lancaster House in London contained compromises guaranteeing that whites would have 20 of the 100 seats in Parliament. The Rhodesian Front, Mr. Smith’s party, won them all in the first elections in 1980, and despite wartime threats against his life, he stayed on, asserting that it was in the interests of his white followers.
Mr. Smith and Mr. Mugabe, an odd couple, cooperated with each other at first. After having labeled Mr. Mugabe a bloodthirsty terrorist, Mr. Smith now described him as “a very pleasant change from what most of us had expected.”
But Mr. Smith never apologized for leading the country into war and never came to terms with what he depicted as inevitable decline under black majority rule.
“We gave Rhodesia 15 wonderful years extra,” he said in an interview on his farm at Selukwe, since renamed Shurugwi, in 1983. If he had not declared unilateral independence in 1965, he said, “then this sort of scene would have come earlier.”
The final rift with Mr. Mugabe came in 1985, at the first post-independence election, when white voters gave Mr. Smith’s party 15 of the 20 seats reserved for whites under the Lancaster House Constitution.
Mr. Mugabe said the vote showed that “the enemy of yesterday is still today’s enemy.” From then onward, he shunned Mr. Smith. Two years later, Mr. Smith left Parliament, claiming he had been forced out illegally by Mr. Mugabe.
While he later played a modest, behind-the-scenes role in political life, Mr. Smith never regained the prominence of his days as a rebel against the British crown. He did not figure significantly when an opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change, began to challenge Mr. Mugabe in 2000. And when Mr. Smith visited Britain in 2004, meeting with Conservative legislators, his stay went virtually unreported in British newspapers.
As he aged, he remained bitter that, in his view, successive outside powers including the United States, South Africa and most of all Britain had broken promises, betraying Rhodesia’s white minority and its leaders in the name of political expediency.
“And in all honesty, what had Rhodesia done to deserve all of this treachery?” he wrote in his 1996 memoir, “Bitter Harvest: The Great Betrayal.” Returning to his prophecies of economic decline under black majority rule, he added in a 1998 postscript to the book: “I think I can correctly comment: I told you so. History records that my predictions have materialized.”
Mr. Smith stayed put in Harare, insisting that his descent from the first settlers who arrived to colonize Rhodesia in the 1890s bound him to Zimbabwe. Even after Mr. Mugabe had ordered a bloody campaign to strip the country’s white farmers of their land in the early 2000s, Mr. Smith kept on farming two estates.
To the end, Mr. Smith insisted that his government, condemned in the outside world as racist and unlawful, had been beneficial to most of the country’s people. Indeed, as Zimbabwe slid into corruption and decline under Mr. Mugabe, Mr. Smith sensed events had vindicated his refusal to dilute white dominance.
“There are millions of black people who say things were better when I was in control,” he said in 2004. “I have challenged Mugabe to walk down the street with me and see who has most support. I have much better relations with black people than he does.”