HARARE, Zimbabwe Ian Smith, Rhodesia's last white prime minister whose attempts to resist black rule dragged the country now known as Zimbabwe into isolation and civil war, died Tuesday at age 88.
Smith, who recently suffered a stroke, died at a clinic near Cape Town, South Africa, according to longtime friend Sam Whaley, who was a senator in the former Rhodesia.
Smith unilaterally declared independence from Britain on Nov. 11, 1965. He then served as the prime minister of Rhodesia from 1965 to 1979 during white minority rule. The country failed to gain international recognition, and United Nations economic sanctions were instituted.
He finally bowed to international pressure, and Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party won elections in 1980.
To many white Rhodesians, he was "good old Smithy." To most blacks, his rule symbolized the worst of racial oppression.
Smith imprisoned Mugabe, the current president of Zimbabwe, in 1964 for 10 years, calling him a "terrorist" intent on turning the country into a one-party dictatorship.
"We have never had such chaos and corruption in our country," Smith said during a brief return to the political fray in 2000. "What Zimbabweans are looking for is a bit of ordinary honesty and straightforwardness."
Despite their bitter differences, Smith and Mugabe shared one common bond their deep dislike of Britain, which they saw as a meddling colonial power.
Just as Mugabe accused former British Prime Minister Tony Blair of interfering in Zimbabwe to protect the interests of whites, Smith poured vitriol on the government of the late Harold Wilson for pressing him to hand political power to the black majority.
Smith was born to Scottish immigrants in western Zimbabwe on April 8, 1919, but renounced his claims to British citizenship in 1984.
He was, in his own words, "an absolute lunatic about sport" most of his life. He graduated with a degree in commerce from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.
Two years after the outbreak of World War II, he joined the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot. He lost two planes in combat. Plastic surgery to fix scars from the first crash paralyzed the right side of his face, giving him a sinister, expressionless appearance.
Smith was demobilized in 1946 and returned to Rhodesia to raise cattle and grow corn. He entered politics in 1948 as a supporter of the opposition Liberal Party. The same year, he married a South African-born teacher, Janet Watt. They had two sons and a daughter.
Smith was elected to Parliament five years later as a member of the ruling United Federal Party, rose through party ranks as an opponent of black rule, and joined the newly formed right-wing Rhodesian Front Party in 1962 a time when colonial powers were granting independence to black leaders in other African countries.
The Front won a surprise victory in elections that year, and Smith became minister of the treasury. In a right-wing revolt in 1964, Smith ousted the party leader for being too soft in dealings with Britain on the fate of the colony.
Smith became premier of the British Crown Colony of Southern Rhodesia in April 1964. On Nov. 11, 1965, Smith issued a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, pronouncing Rhodesia a sovereign state.
"Prior to our declaration of independence, the British government had always told us that we were the model of the Commonwealth in Africa," a defiant Smith maintained after he published his memoirs "The Great Betrayal" in 1997. "The day after we declared our independence we were suddenly the greatest evil on earth."
Smith swiftly and ruthlessly imprisoned thousands of black leaders, drove many others into exile and introduced draconian laws curbing civl rights and controlling the already tame press.
In 1970, Smith declared Rhodesia a republic with a racially based constitution. Two years later, he declared the country at war with black nationalist guerrillas infiltrating from neighboring countries.
After 14 years of punitive United Nations sanctions and a seven-year bush war that killed an estimated 40,000 people, Smith's resolve to battle on was sapped and he embraced more moderate black nationalists.
He persuaded Bishop Abel Muzorewa to stand in elections in 1979 and form a government of national reconciliation, which included Smith.
The rest of the world was unimpressed. Then U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced that sanctions would continue, a move followed by Britain.
The settlement left out the two main nationalist movements and fighting only increased after the vote.
At a conference in London organized by then British Foreign Secretary Peter Carrington, Muzorewa agreed to new elections involving the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, headed by Mugabe, and the Zimbabwe African People's Party, headed by Joshua Nkomo.
Mugabe won the poll and was declared president. Smith claimed the elections were marred by ZANU-PF intimidation a refrain echoed by most independent observers about recent polls in Zimbabwe.
Smith did not attend the 1980 celebrations marking Zimbabwe's independence from Britain.
"The thought of being confronted by a scene where they (the British politicians) would be wringing their hands in apparent pleasure, and fawning around a bunch of communist terrorists who had come into their position through intimidation, corruption and a blatantly dishonest election, was a situation against which my whole system would revolt," he wrote in his memoirs.
Smith became leader of the opposition at the head of the renamed Republican Front, but his support among whites gradually eroded.
Mugabe expelled Smith from parliament in 1986 and he retired to his farm in southwestern Zimbabwe and then subsequently moved to Cape Town, where there is a sizable community of white Zimbabweans.
He complained in 2002 that Zimbabwe authorities had stripped him of his Zimbabwe citizenship. However, Mugabe made no attempts to expel Smith from the country. He did, though, apologize to supporters on several occasions for not punishing Smith and his white cronies.
Smith's wife and son both have died. He is survived by his stepchildren, Jean Tholet and Robert.
Funeral details were not immediately known.
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