Socialist Worker

The brutal and corrupt rule of Ian Smith

Issue No. 2079

I must acknowledge my debt to Ian Smith, who died last week. I was a teenager in Zimbabwe – then known as Southern Rhodesia – during the years when Smith consolidated white rule that, he said, would last a thousand years.

The experience of Smith's bigoted, racist, repressive, mean-spirited, corrupt, provincial regime politicised me, and put me on the road to becoming a revolutionary Marxist.

Zimbabwe became a settler colony after its conquest by the British South Africa Company in the 1890s. Though ultimate sovereignty lay with Britain, the country was run by the white settlers, who never numbered more than 250,000 compared to a black population of five million.

Zimbabwe was dominated by the white capitalist farmers, who seized the best land from its original African owners, and by multinational mining companies. Apartheid-style laws entrenched settler privilege and power.

In the 1950s this cosy arrangement was challenged as the movement for colonial liberation began to sweep across Africa. Urban blacks built trade unions and nationalist parties united in demanding majority rule.

By the early 1960s the rise of black nationalism had split the white ruling class. The more moderate wing, prodded by a British government eager to be rid of its colonies, was grudgingly willing to share power with 'moderate' Africans.

But in 1962 the Rhodesian Front (RF) came to power. Based on the settler farmers and the poorer urban whites, it refused to make any concessions.

In 1964 Smith thrust aside the more cautious Winston Field and took over as RF prime minister. Confronted with a Labour government under Harold Wilson that demanded progress to majority African rule, he unilaterally declared independence from Britain on 11 November 1965.


I remember the main newspaper appeared the next day with huge patches of white where government censors had banned stories. The black political leadership was detained without trial – Robert Mugabe, now president of Zimbabwe, was one of many who spent a decade in Smith's gaols and internment camps.

Support from apartheid South Africa allowed the regime to survive economic sanctions imposed by Britain. But in April 1974 the Portuguese Revolution brought an end to colonial rule in neighbouring Mozambique. This made it much easier for the guerrillas of the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) to infiltrate into Zimbabwe.

Smith's South African patrons responded to the Portuguese Revolution by forcing him to free and start negotiating with the black political leaders. His stubborn procrastination bought white Rhodesia another five years.

During those five years the nationalist guerrillas were able to escalate their struggle into a full-scale people's war. Zanu flooded rural Zimbabwe with tens of thousands of young fighters – the 'boys'. The Rhodesian forces were eventually overwhelmed, but 30,000 Zimbabweans died in the process.

The Lancaster House agreement of December 1979 brought an end to both the war and white rule. But Smith succeeded in preserving certain settler privileges – above all, the control of the best land by what now were renamed the 'commercial farmers'.

Mugabe was swept to power in the independence elections of February 1980. Though his victory was the result of peasant land hunger, he was content to leave the white farmers be for 20 years.

Mugabe used the structure of coercive power he inherited from Smith to crush his opponents and consolidate one-party rule.

It was only mass popular opposition that led him in 2000 to rediscover the land question. The white farmers were expropriated, but on a basis that wrecked the agricultural economy and enriched a tiny corrupt elite.

To his dying day Smith maintained that Mugabe's rule proved that he was right. In fact the two old monsters had a lot in common. Both sought to preserve their power even if it destroyed the country. To hell with Smith and let's hope Mugabe joins him there soon.

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Alex Callinicos
Tue 27 Nov 2007, 18:48 GMT
Issue No. 2079
Share this article


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.