The Great Betrayal, Ian Smith, and Rhodesia

Photo: Time Magazine
Photo: Time Magazine

If you’ve never been to Africa, most likely you’ll never have heard of Ian Smith (unless, like me, you read plenty of semi-trashy Wilbur Smith – no relation, I think – novels in your youth), and I don’t blame you if you’ve skipped this blog post based on the title. However, it is a highly interesting topic for the political scientist and can hold its own compared to today’s current events.

Most South Africans, especially of the generation slightly older than myself, know Ian Smith very well, the man who unilaterally declared Rhodesia’s independence from Britain, served as its prime minister, and oversaw the bloody civil war that eventually led to the first democratic elections and the long reign of Robert Mugabe since then.

The short story is this (and please don’t hold me to too high of a standard, I do want to keep it brief and may have oversimplified, but there you go):

Rhodesia, having been a very self-sufficient colony of Great Britain for many years, felt like it deserved full independence sometime in the 1960s. In fact, Northern Rhodesia was already on a path to full independence, with Britain’s support, becoming what is today known as Zambia. Likewise Nyasaland, also part of the Rhodesian Federation at some point in time, turned into modern-day Malawi. Southern Rhodesia, it has to be said, was not your typical colony because it was never really ruled from Britain but founded by Cecil John Rhodes in his quest to expand his mining enterprises ever farther into Central Africa. Yes, the selfsame Cecil Rhodes with whose mention during my discussion of the Rand Club here in Johannesburg I created such inadvertent controversy (and page views!) on my blog and Facebook page (if you want to follow THAT debate in any way, see here and here, even though it really has nothing to do with this post. I am just so tickled to have created such controversy that I had to mention it).

Early on Southern Rhodesia had a form of limited self government, pretty much taking care of all their needs without the help of Great Britain, and yet Great Britain didn’t want to grant them independence outright. Because, and that was the crux, Rhodesia’s government was not truly democratic. It was a minority-ruled mainly white government, even if a rather benevolent one, and Britain didn’t want to send any of its colonies into independence unless they first became truly democratic. Maybe to atone for their past sins in subjugating all these colonies in the first place.

The rulers of Southern Rhodesia, of course, had different ideas. Not that they couldn’t envision an eventual emancipation of all “their blacks,” but they felt a graduate development was needed, not a sudden change, and that people in England’s parliament didn’t really have any clue how to best proceed, yet were constantly meddling in their affairs.

This is where Ian Smith comes in, and his memoirs, which he called The Great Betrayal: The Memoirs of Ian Douglas Smith, a book that I finally completed after what I admit was a bit of a laborious slug. He published it in 1997 when he lived out his retirement mostly in obscurity, and it has a bit of a self-published, not so very professional feel about it, dragging on too long and at times poorly edited. It’s hard to believe that a former prime minister of any country would have gotten such little attention in his later life as Ian Smith, who at some point in history took center stage of world politics.

My brief outline of Rhodesia’s history above is more or less comprised from what I learned in this book, so not necessarily unbiased.  But I was struck by how incredibly detailed he recounted the events from decades ago, down to the exact back and forth of dialogues during meetings in the 1960s.

Basically what happened was that things were heating up as he became prime minister of Rhodesia. The endless talks with Britain were leading nowhere, new British governments and ambassadors came and went and broke previous promises, and the Rhodesian population eventually ran out of patience, declaring their unilateral independence (or UDI) from Britain on November 11, 1965 under Ian Smith’s leadership.

As you can imagine, Great Britain wasn’t very happy about this, answering with some of the toughest sanctions imaginable, which proved more or less ineffectual, only infuriating England more. In fact, the UDI experiment at the time was really a success story, and Ian Smith was rather popular around the world for his spunk and steadfastness. What did him in, in the end, was increasing unrest in his country, which up to that time had been very peaceful, a civil war ensued, and in the end he abdicated, paving the path for the one-time election of Robert Mugabe as head of the newly-formed Zimbabwe, and of course we all know where that has led.

As I said, I may or may not be accurate in my assessment, just trying to give you a picture if you have no prior knowledge of this little part of Africa. I’m neither defending Ian Smith nor accusing him, just curious how these events followed each other and led to where we are today, and whether it was inevitable or what might have been avoided had different people been in charge back then. Did Ian Smith make things worse by pursuing UDI, or would things have been better if he had succeeded?

What definitely comes through in The Great Betrayal is that Ian Smith resented the British. Or rather the British government. But you can’t just put him aside as a guy hanging on the white minority rule come hell or high water. It’s more complicated than that. For instance, his thoughts on apartheid in neighboring South Africa:

“The original concept of apartheid, as explained by the then Prime Minister, Dr. Malan, when he first used this previously unheard-of word, was the division of the country into different areas in order to accommodate different peoples according to their history, culture, and traditions. Whether one approved of this or not, it was possible to argue the pros and cons. The nearest English word portraying a similar meaning is “Balkanisation”, which derives from the division of parts of Europe into a number of states known as the Balkans. Even Britain has a well-trodden record in this area: it separated, with disastrous results, India and Pakistan, Palestine and Israel, and Ireland between the Protestants and Catholics.”

He then goes on to talk about how it panned out in reality, where the part of land reallocation wasn’t enforced by the South African government, doubling down instead on racial segregation.

“A division within a unitary country based purely on race, declaring that white people were first-class citizens and blacks were second-class citizens, was unprincipled and totally indefensible.”

What he had in mind, judging from his book, was a gradual path to emancipation for “our black people,” as he often calls them in his book. He blames the political problems on a few terrorists but is sure the mass of people “conceded the merit of an evolutionary programme of gradualism,” considering they “had the best facilities in the fields of education, health, and housing” in Africa, as well as one of the lowest crime rates in the world. His professed goal was “evolution as opposed to revolution”:

“Rhodesia was the success story of the Commonwealth. We had succeeded in Africa where they (British) had failed. History proved the veracity of this belief. Africa to our north was in chaos, and with the passage of time degenerated into disaster. Africa is the continent of coups, assassination of political leaders, governments mesmerised by their communisst mentors and this riddled with corruption, incompetence, nepotism and top jobs for comrades irrespective of ability experience training or professionalism. By contrast, Rhodesia was an oasis of peace and contentment. Visitors to our country invariably commented on ‘the happiest black faces we have ever seen’. …Proportional to population we had provided double the amount of facilities in the fields of education, health, housing, recreation and culture than Britain had to our north.”

It’s easy to see why Ian Smith chose The Great Betrayal as title of his memoir. Over and over he feels betrayed by Britain’s actions in not granting Rhodesia independence when it did so for other, surrounding countries, just because Rhodesia didn’t have a black-majority government, even though events in many of those surrounding countries should have proved to the world, in his mind, that “one man one vote” only worked once, until a corrupt dictator took over and squandered the opportunity. Events in Zimbabwe itself over the following thirty years seem to have proved his point. And from the way he describes it, the British did renege on verbal agreements already made, over and over again, changing their stance repeatedly due to political pressures at home, which did not sit well with the Rhodesians. Interestingly, he also felt betrayed by South Africa, but the reasons for why are too complicated to get into at this point. As for the USA, he was impressed by Henry Kissinger, but then goes on to say that “the thought of Jimmy Carter was frightening” for the prospects of getting any support for the Rhodesian problem from that front. Altogether, The Great Betrayal underscores the impression that Ian Smith was a  man who didn’t mind going it alone against the rest of the world.

One thing that is hard to understand, in hindsight and from our current perch, is his deep-rooted fear of the communists and the socialists and what he repeatedly calls “the Marxist-Leninists”. He actually sounds a little bit like George Bush when he frequently summons the “forces of evil,” which in his day were the  “communists and their minions” and “communism sweeping down the African continent.” I suppose it’s easy to forget how very real and frightening the Soviet Union’s influence around the world and especially in Africa truly was.

Highly principled or simply stubborn? It’s hard to tell from what is clearly a one-sided account. But the one thing I take away from it is that it was  never an easy, black-and-white (no pun intended) question. And no doubt Zimbabweans today are still suffering the consequences of all this long-ago history.

I’m not sure I recommend the book, since it’s not an easy read, but it definitely provides an interesting historic perspective from a much-misunderstood man. For excellent reading about life in Rhodesia under Ian Smith and afterwards, I recommend Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa by Peter Godwin, as well as its more sobering sequels When the Crocodile Eats the Sun and The Fear.