`We created a fantastic country'

As Zimbabwe falters, Ian Smith returns to attack his successor

June 21, 2000|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HARARE, Zimbabwe - President Robert Mugabe has dismissed Ian Smith, the last white leader of this nation, as nothing but a "ghost" of its ugly colonial past.

But ghosts haunt. And as Smith has watched the nation he once dubbed the "jewel of Africa" crumble, he has been one of the most outspoken critics of its downfall.

"There are no jobs. We have one of the highest rates of unemployment in the world. We are churning out 300,000 students of higher institutions every year, and less than 10 percent get jobs. The economy has collapsed," said Smith, whose white supremacist government ruled what was then Rhodesia for 15 years before surrendering to black majority rule.

In the capital, Harare, fuel shortages have forced the closing of some gas stations, and water and garbage collections have been disrupted. Foreign investment and aid donors have fled. The value of the Zimbabwe dollar, which once had parity with the British pound, has dropped to less than 3 cents. Businesses are laying off workers.

In the months leading up to this weekend's parliamentary elections, more than 1,600 white-owned farms have been invaded by Mugabe supporters, led by veterans of his war against Smith's white rule. At least 30 people have been killed in political violence.

Mugabe's critics say he has done little to save the country from the brink of disaster. Facing the first serious challenge to his one-party government, Mugabe, once unopposed, is struggling to maintain his grip on power.

"When I went into a shopping center, I had a dozen people wanting to talk to me. `What are we going to do Mr. Smith? How can we get things right?' It's understandable. They say, `We haven't got a job and our children go to bed hungry at night,'" Smith said.

Hunched over like the handle of a cane, with a mop of gray hair, Smith, 81, is a smaller, weaker version of the ambitious young Rhodesian whose plane was shot down in World War II and who escaped by hiking over the Alps in his socks. He shuffles from room to room in his home next door to the Cuban Embassy in Harare's leafy suburbs.

Time has not changed the views of the man who was one of the world's most notorious white supremacists. And age has not taken away his willingness to spar with his longtime rival Mugabe, whom Smith's government imprisoned for 11 years during a war against black nationalists in which more than 30,000 people died.

Smith is not a candidate. He is an adviser to various opposition parties, including the Movement for Democratic Change, a new group mounting a formidable challenge to Mugabe's ruling party in the approaching elections.

"Mugabe is in a desperate position if he loses this election. When you've got a wounded animal in the corner, that's unpredictable and dangerous. He doesn't seem to be stable in his mind," said Smith.

"He is surrounded by a bunch of sycophants who tell him what he wants to hear. In every election, they've cooked the books. They don't allow themselves to be beaten," Smith said.

Smith has been a source of irritation for Mugabe but has also provided Mugabe a useful springboard for recapturing the spirit of his fight against white rule more than two decades ago. At a recent campaign rally, Mugabe brushed aside his nation's economic woes and attacked the inequities of British colonialism, concluding that he should have "taken Ian Smith's head."

"Ian Smith has been the major reason significant opposition has not developed in Zimbabwe," said Jeffrey Herbst, professor of African politics at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. "Ian Smith joins them and Mugabe points to it as a Rhodesian plot to take over Zimbabwe."

Ruling party leaders shrug off Smith's political challenge, dismissing him as a man out of step with the future of Zimbabwe.

"He's a racist old man," said Billy Hlongwane, a ruling party official. "He can be forgiven for being old."

Founded in 1890 by pioneers of mining giant Cecil John Rhodes, Southern Rhodesia, as it was known then, attracted thousands of white settlers in search of gold and agricultural riches. Like Rhodes, they dreamed of sharing in the dream of a British Empire in Africa stretching from the Cape of Good Hope to Cairo.

The Rhodesians were "more British than the British," Smith said.

Smith's father was a wealthy Scottish-born businessman who ran butcher shops and bakeries in a small rural town in Rhodesia.

At the outbreak of World War II, Smith quit his studies to become a fighter pilot for the British Royal Air Force. He crashed in 1943 and suffered serious injuries to his face that some have said explain his inability to smile. He was shot down over Italy in 1944, leading to his escape across the Alps.

He returned home and entered politics, supporting a system of white minority rule for his British colony.

In 1964, he was elected prime minister. Defying British terms for independence that would have led to black majority rule, Smith declared Rhodesia's independence Nov. 11, 1965.

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