By Knox Chitiyo, head of the Africa programme at the Royal United Services Institute, London, and a former co-director of the Centre for Defence Studies at the University of Zimbabwe (THE GUARDIAN, 23/11/07):
Dan Van der Vat gave a good account of the history and personality of Ian Smith, the former prime minister of Rhodesia (Obituary, November 21). For Zimbabweans of all races, Smith’s death brought back to mind the horrors of the war of liberation against white minority rule.No one can say that any side – guerrilla or Rhodesian – was blameless with regard to the atrocities inflicted on civilians in the rural areas; however, the indiscriminate slaughter of men, women and children by Rhodesian forces in the refugee camps in Mozambique, Zambia and Botswana from 1975 to 1979 will always linger. And, as Van der Vat points out, Smith “expressed not a word of remorse or regret for his actions”
Black Zimbabweans remember the Smith years as a period when we were not allowed to vote in any meaningful way, we could not eat in “white” restaurants, or swim in community pools, or start school until the age of seven (two years later than white children). Racial violence came as standard: at my mixed high school, I well remember the call to “kill all the fucking munts [blacks]” the day after an airplane was shot down in 1978, and the vicious fight we had with white farmers’ sons in my classroom.
It would be fair to say, though, that some Africans who knew Smith personally, or worked for him on his farm, respected him, and they will not be inclined to look back in anger. They will remember the Smith who paid them on time, and talked freely with them. They will not remember – or will choose to ignore – the Smith whose policies led to a war which consumed at least 50,000 lives, most of them black.
Some of the young generation of white Zimbabweans regard Smith as a relic from a bygone age. Others, particularly those who have imbibed the legends of Rhodesia, see him as a great and honourable man.
After the handover of power in 1980, as Van der Vat reports, “to mild general amazement, [Smith] did not follow the example of 100,000 of his fellow whites, who fled to South Africa”. Smith became a backbench MP, always eager to criticise the new order. However, he was quick to forget that Robert Mugabe had saved him from calls by many Zimbabweans to “do away with Smith” for the sins of the war years, and had let him remain on his farm. Smith’s example in refusing to reconcile to the new order continued the rift between black and white Zimbabweans, and indirectly helped to bring about the post-2000 apocalypse.
Many will make comparisons between Smith and Mugabe. There is no doubt that both exhibited a ruthless, single-minded approach to power and politics. There is also no doubt that Smith recognised early on that Mugabe would become a formidable political foe.
Some will say that Smith was correct in his assessment of Mugabe’s future behaviour and the likelihood that Zimbabwe, like so many other countries in Smith’s black African dystopia, would plunge into the abyss. Van der Vat recalls “the familiar Smithy whine: ‘I told you so.’ ” But those black Zimbabweans who lived through the Smith years would still prefer Mugabe, despite the current brutalities inflicted upon them.
Sometimes it is difficult for the western mindset to understand this. Under Smith there was food, and jobs, and functioning hospitals. The system worked. However, under Smith all black people were “kaffirs”. Under Mugabe, we became human beings.