Saturday, November 24, 2007

One of the good guys?

I have just this week learned of the existence of Ian Douglas Smith, former Prime Minister of Rhodesia. I heard of him, because he died on November 21 at the age of 88; there were obituaries of him all over the web, and I ran into some of them at VFR.

He still exists, of course, though not on this earth.

No doubt all the members of my vast readership know all about Ian Smith, but I didn't previously, knowing very few details about the history of Rhodesia. In brief, Smith declared unilateral independence of Rhodesia from Britain in 1965, when Britain was pressuring Rhodesia to have universal sufferage and majority rule, rather than the white-only suffrage it had had since voting was known in Rhodesia. Smith resisted this change to the last. The Brits didn't want to go starting a war in Rhodesia (and who knows if, in 1965, they could have done so successfully), so there was a 15-year standoff during which guerilla fighters supporting (ta da!) Robert Mugabe harassed the Rhodesian troops, various forms of international pressure were exercised, and eventually Britain went ahead and held elections in 1979 or 1980 (not sure which) at which Mugabe was elected. I forget how much later Smith was forced out of politics.

Well, we all know what a wonderful success majority rule has been for everyone in Rhodesia--now Zimbabwe--since then. Under Mugabe's nasty leadership, the country has gone from prosperous and civilized to a near disaster area, and its citizens, black and white, are in a bad way. Smith maintained to the end of his life that history had vindicated his predictions on these points, and it's hard to argue with him.

Now, to some people, Smith's position on race issues and on democracy and the vote mean automatically that he was on the side of the bad guys--prima facie, a bad guy himself.

But to anyone who (like me) has read nearly all of the novels of H. Rider Haggard and several novels by John Buchan, plus Isaak Dinesen's Out of Africa and Elspeth Huxley's The Flame Trees of Thika, matters are by no means so simple. Because let's face it--there have been lots of people who on most contemporary models would count as racists, who believed in the white man's burden and all the rest of it, who were nonetheless basically very good people, heroic people even, who loved and respected the black people with whom they interacted, and who did immeasurable good in the world, and especially good for Africa and Africans. Reading Ian Smith's obituaries, I saw that he was, as one journalist put it, a man out of time. He harked back to the Victorians and Edwardians who were around when he was born and was growing up. And perhaps I'm just naive and too inclined to take eulogies at the time of a famous man's death at face value, but the picture they give is of an honorable, brave, decent, Christian man.

Herewith a few tidbits: Smith lived into the 21st century in the capital of Zimbabwe, just a few streets over from Mugabe's compound. He was an old man by then and could have been murdered at any time; to my mind it's a wonder he wasn't. Nonetheless, his door was open (literally, ajar) to all comers, black and white alike, and the black people of Zimbabwe came to him for help, which he gave as he was able. While a reporter was visiting him, a black woman came, an entire stranger to Smith, and walked in the door to ask his help for her sick daughter who had been turned away at the local hospital.

Smith's behavior in living where he did and how he did in those years may seem quixotic or reckless, but he had an answer to that, too: He said he was a lifelong Presbyterian, feared God, and believed in Divine sovereignty. Peter Hammond, the missionary who reported the above comment, remembers his driving up, while Prime Minister, to a club in the middle of town. He was alone, without any guards of any kind. He drove up in an old car, smiled at the 14-year-old Hammond standing outside, petted his cat, and walked into the club. This utter lack of ostentation could not have been more in contrast with Mugabe's manner of travel, detailed in the article. In the late 1980's, Smith called the (now grown up) missionary to meet him. Smith had heard that Hammond's organization was going to smuggle Bibles into Mozambique. He gave detailed advice on how to get in and out safely and carry out the smuggling successfully.

Jesus said, "By their fruits ye shall know them." If it's true that an evil tree cannot bear good fruit, then we ought to take seriously the possibility that Ian D. Smith was one of the good guys.

Rest eternal grant unto him, oh Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon him.

We also bless thy name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear, beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service. And grant us grace so to follow their good example, that with them and with all thy saints we may be made partakers of thy heavenly kingdom.

O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last. Amen.


Anonymous said...

I remember Mr. Smith well. Like many at the time, I simply dismissed him as a racist; then, during that 15 year standoff you mention, I gradually became aware of the nature of the opposition. It's not only Mr. Mugabe's rule that has been "nasty"; the tactics employed by his so-called guerilla fighters was a tale of terrorist horrors. Maybe Smith knew better than the rest of the world the nature of the beast that would replace him.

Anonymous said...

Here's a link to a transcript of a 2002 BBC program called Mugabe: the Price of Silence. Some interesting sidebar articles too, such as the "British Invitation to Mugabe's Butcher."

Rodak said...

Like you, I knew little about Ian Smith, other than that he was allegedly a white supremacist. Your post and the Wikipedia article on Smith both reveal that there was much more to the man than that.
I also realized that I know even less about Robert Mugabe than I knew about Smith. Again, all I knew was that Mugabe is a dictator and a thug. Reading up on it a bit, I was surprised to learn that Mugabe, and apparently most of the black population in Zimbabwe, is Catholic. Mugabe considers himself to be a devout Catholic, in fact, and risked arrest to attend the Pope's funeral. His Catholicism is further attested by the fact that the middle name of one of his sons is "Bellarmine." It is surprising, given that he's been in power for over a quarter-century, that the Catholic Church is only this year getting around to openly denouncing his regime.
It is so often easy to see the bad that I sometimes wonder if there is ever a really good side in any political situation?

Anonymous said...

Dear Lydia,

You are so right and it is wonderful that you have discovered this giant of a man who was all but invisible to the American public during our news blackout by the three leftist networks on Rhodesia at that time.

During the 1970s when I was in my twenties, I wrote a letter of encouragement to Prime Minister Smith and letting him know that I named my son, Ian, out of inspiration for him. In the letter I apologized for the cowardly treatment of Mr. Smith by the U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in New York. Ian Smith was a true, brave hero in the mode of George Washington. He stands today head and shoulders above the forgetable politicians in both Britain and the U.S. in that period.

I received a very kind reply to my letter on Rhodesian stationery from the principal secretary to the prime minister, Mr. Snell. I prize that note to this very day.

Hopefully, a talented artist will some day create a bust of Ian Smith.

Retired Colonel

Anonymous said...

Dear me. The suspension of critical thinking here is amazing. Then again, if you believe the bible, you would believe anything.