Ian Smith, the former white minority president of Southern Rhodesia, has died. Smith and his supporters unilaterally (and illegally) declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1965 and ran a white minority regime for 14 years, until an insurgency led by Robert Mugabe finally forced him into peace talks at Lancaster House in 1979.
The Lancaster House Agreement led to the creation of independent Zimbabwe, which has been led by Mugabe ever since.
I met Ian Smith in 2001. Jesse Helms introduced us. Of all the people and things in life I never expected to encounter, Ian Smith was right up there, but one day I found myself stuck in a room with Helms, who told me he was about to meet his friend Smith. Helms asked if I knew who Smith was, and I told him that since I study African politics, I did. He proceeded to inform me that Smith was “a prophet,” because “exactly what he said was going to happen to that country did happen.”
And in teetered Ian Smith. I stood in the shadows, as good interns are supposed to do, and watched the two men greet one another. Smith took a look around and said, “You sure have a lot of pretty girls working for you,” and Helms grabbed my arm, pulled me over, and said, “This one knows all about what a prophet you are, because she studies African history,” and Smith smiled and stretched out his hand to greet me.
I shook Ian Smith’s hand. My upbringing and manners won out over my sense of injustice.
I don’t really remember what happened after that, until later that day, when a staff member who’d witnessed the whole exchange said to me, “You’ve never heard anyone say anything nice about Ian Smith before, have you?” “Well,” I replied, “there was that whole ‘white minority regime’ thing.”
“Well, sure, it wasn’t one-man, one-vote,” responded the staff member, “but he was fighting the Communists!”
Smith was a complicated man. I don’t feel right about speaking ill of those who have died, but he was, as his New York Times obituary put it, “committed all the while to an unshakable belief that Africa without whites would not work.” He and Helms were friends and allies in part because they shared certain values about race. And, as the Times points out, he clearly saw the events of the past few years in Zimbabwe (in which President Mugabe’s expropriation of white-owned farms for his political allies and bad economic policies have caused unbelievable inflation rates and a near-total collapse of the national economy) as a vindication of his views which Helms saw as so prophetic.
What do you say about an unrepentant racist? There’s no question that his insistence on white minority rule set up the problems the country is having today. Land should not have been so heavily concentrated in the hands of whites, and if a liberation war hadn’t been necessary, Mugabe wouldn’t be able to spew vitriolic hatred of whites as a justification for his policies. Mugabe’s last eight years of rule has been a disaster, but I would argue, however, that the bulk of the problem is not rule by black Africans, but rather rule by Mugabe. Zimbabwe is a complicated place, and too many people, both black and white, are responsible for messing it up.
What we can be grateful for, however, is that it’s no longer socially acceptable in the bulk of the world to be so blatantly racist as Smith and others of his ilk were in their primes. In no sense have we solved the race issue in our society, but you can’t stand on the international stage and proclaim that whites are superior to others and get away with it. So may Ian Smith rest in peace, and may we all work to build a better society than the one he left behind.
Laura Seay is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas studying social services in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her college internships included the U.S. State Department. She writes a blog titled Texas in Africa.