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Ian Smith

There’s a telling sentence towards the end of the Daily Telegraph’s story about Ian Smith, the last white prime minister of Rhodesia, who died Tuesday at the age of 88:

But Mr. Mugabe treated Smith with great magnanimity, allowing him to stay in Parliament until 1987 and keep his farm.

What magnanimity (though, at least in comparison to the treatment meted out to most of the country’s whites over time, Mugabe’s disregard of Smith was indeed exceptional). The circumstances of Smith’s removal from parliament were just a minor blip in Mugabe’s descent into full-bore totalitarianism: Mugabe suspended him in 1987 for publicly stating that sanctions against neighboring South Africa would help that country become more economically independent.

Smith was not a great man; indeed, his intransigence—which led to Rhodesia’s 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI)—and refusal to allow even the most basic of democratic rights for blacks, prolonged Rhodesia’s internal political crises, worsened racial relations, and generally created the conditions in which a man like Robert Mugabe could later rise to power. Contrary to what some of Smith’s latter-day apologists might today claim, the roots of totalitarian rule existed in Zimbabwe long before Mugabe: detention without trial, press censorship, the frittering away of the rule of law—none of these things were suddenly or even gradually introduced into Zimbabwean life during the Mugabe years. They were planted by Ian Smith and his crypto-fascist Rhodesian Front party.

Yet as much as Smith was a white supremacist, Mugabe has been a black—and tribal—one to boot. The sad fact is that Rhodesia’s authoritarianism was preferable to Zimbabwe’s totalitarianism, and no knowledgeable observer of Zimbabwe can conclude otherwise. (And Smith, at least over time, was probably right in his boasts–made frequently before his death–that he was ultimately more popular amongst Zimbabwean blacks than Mugabe.) This is not an expression of nostalgia for Rhodesia’s colonial past, but merely an acknowledgment that the sort of diplomacy which allowed a man, openly preaching his desire for continued violence and one-party rule, to take control was ultimately a failure. (And that the story’s lessons can be applied to similar situations—for instance, whether or not to engage with Hamas diplomatically.) But Ian Smith, given his own culpability in violently delaying democracy—and certainly in light of what Mugabe has done to most of his other political foes—sure got off easy.


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