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Ian Smith, the former Rhodesian prime minister who unilaterally declared independence from Britain to preserve white rule has died aged 88 after a long illness.

Smith governed the country, now called Zimbabwe, for 15 years from 1964 to 1979, a turbulent period of guerilla war and international isolation. Seen by many as the symbol of colonial-era racism in Africa, Smith was unrepentant to the end, convinced that Zimbabwe would have been better off under minority rule than that of his successor, the current President Robert Mugabe, with whom he shared nothing but a disdain for Britain. 

Smith had recently suffered a stroke and died at a clinic in Cape Town.

Ian Smith, ex-PM of Rhodesia, dies at 88 | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited

Ian Smith, an odd person indeed for me to take an interest in. But at the intersection of my two interests,  the History of the British Empire and Public International Law, no one else has as stridently or as brashly staked their claim to be a player on the international scene and held out as their main credential the strength of their racism.

My interest does not mean I endorse him. The state he founded was built upon a platform of deliberate racism, his politics alone mean that the world was right to shun him and his country, but to think that such a small country and such a tiresome man, can command such a significant portion of interest both in his time and retrospectively, are things that tweak my interest.

Angered at the tide of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s that was seeing Africa move into black majority democracies where the empire had once held sway, and determined to not let his own country be liberalized in the same manner, Smith’s racist right wing Rhodesian Front held out for a Rhodesia that was run by its 200,000  white inhabitants and with no say at all for its 5,000,000 black inhabitants.

Smith became prime minister promising to prolong white rule and made his historic Unilateral Declaration of Independence on November 11 1965. He gained a momentary hope of recognition, from the other Apartheid state, South Africa, but even this comfort was fleeting and recognition was soon withdrawn. Smith’s Rhodesia was never to become a real country.

International condemnation to the Declaration of Independence was swift. Nearly all the members of the UN were swift to condemn his overt racism and the UN Security Council slapped sanctions on him that ended up as a comprehensive ban on trade. Not that it meant anything, most multinationals were willing to break the ban to get access to Rhodesia’s raw materials and agricultural exports.

It was the arrival of that upstart freedom fighter, Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union which put the pressure on. Armed attacks aimed at the white farmers made Smith’s position untenable in the long run. This combined with the independence of Mozambique from Portugal to a black majority rule democracy and the waning support of South Africa, tired of its quarrelsome neighbor, that finally pushed the regime over the edge.

In April 1979 the first multiracial elections were held in Rhodesia, which saw Abel Muzorewa become the first black Prime Minister of what was now called Zimbabwe Rhodesia. However, under the Internal Settlement, which allowed the elections to be held, whites retained control of the country’s judiciary, civil service, police and armed forces, as well as having a quarter of the seats in parliament reserved for them. While this was welcomed by the British government of Margaret Thatcher, opposition from the rest of the Commonwealth meant that Britain did not recognize the new state.

In December 1979 following multi-party talks at Lancaster House in London, Britain resumed control of Rhodesia, and with the help of observers from other Commonwealth countries, oversaw the first full participatory elections. During the four month period that the country was restored to the status of a British colony it was known officially as “the British Dependency of Southern Rhodesia”. The Republic of Zimbabwe came into being on April 18, 1980.

Not that Smith went quietly. He was in opposition in the Zimbabwe parliament till 1986 and stayed a persistent and prominent thorn in the side of Mugabe while living in exile abroad until he returned to Zimbabwe and then to live out the last days of his life in South Africa.

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