Childhood & Early Life
Ian Douglas Smith was born on April 8, 1919, at Selukwe, Southern Rhodesia, to Scottish immigrant John Douglas Smith and his British immigrant wife, Agnes (née Hodgson). His father was a farm-owner, butcher, and horse-breeder. Smith had two elder sisters, Phyllis and Joan.
Smith attended ‘Selukwe Primary School’ and then studied at ‘Chaplin Boarding School,’ Gwelo, where he played cricket, rugby, tennis and other sports. In 1938, he enrolled at ‘Rhodes University’ in Grahamstown, South Africa.
With the onset of the World War II in 1939, Smith took a break from studies and joined the Royal Air Force (RAF). After his training in 1942, he was assigned to number 237 (Rhodesia) Squadron in the Middle East.
His plane crashed in Egypt in 1943, leaving him with serious injuries on face, legs, and shoulder. In 1944, he returned to his squadron and in June 1944, his spitfire was shot down over Corsica. He was helped by a peasant family and later joined an Italian partisans group and fought behind German lines. He crossed Alps on foot and was rescued by American troops. In April 1945, he joined number 130 (Punjab) Squadron.
At the end of the war, he was discharged as Flight Lieutenant, and went back to the university in 1946. After obtaining his degree in Commerce, he joined ‘Gwebi Agricultural College’ in Southern Rhodesia.
In 1948, Smith bought a farm near Selukwe, named it Gwenoro (the stream), and began farming tobacco and maize. The opposition ‘Liberal Party’ convinced him to run for the parliamentary elections; he agreed after initial reluctance. He won the parliamentary elections in September 1948, to become the youngest Member of Parliament in Rhodesia. The Liberal Party, however, didn’t get many seats.
During that period, Southern Rhodesia, along with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, was a Federation. In April 1953, he joined the newly formed ‘Federal Party’ under Huggins, the 1st PM of Rhodesia. Smith resigned from his Selukwe seat and in December 1953, won from the Federal Assembly’s Midlands constituency.
In 1958’s new UFP (United Federal Party) government, Smith was appointed the ‘Chief Whip,’ or a member who makes sure that the party members attend and vote as per the wish of the party leadership. Many political changes were taking place around late 1950s and early 1960s. The Federation of 3 countries was facing difficulties.
In 1961, the new PM of Rhodesia, Sir Whitehead, agreed to new constitution that allowed more representation for black Rhodesians in the parliament. Smith opposed it, resigned from the UFP and attended the assembly as an independent. After accepting it initially, the black nationalists later boycotted the constitution, but the white electorate passed it in July 1961 (65% majority).
In December 1961, Smith, along with rancher-industrialist DC Lilford, formed ‘Rhodesian Reform Party’ (RRP), While the banned (by PM Whitehead) black nationalists’ ‘National Democratic Party’ changed its name to ‘Zimbabwe African People’s Union’ (ZAPU).
In March 1962, Smith and Winston Field formed a coalition party, ‘Rhodesian Front,’ to oppose PM Whitehead, which gained support of the white-supremacists. Smith’s party won in the 1962 elections when he promised a white minority government and independence from Britain. The Federation dissolved in 1963, and the British Prime Minister also spoke of ‘Winds of Change.’
After the 1962 victory of the ‘Rhodesian Front,’ Smith became Deputy Prime Minister, while Winston Field became Prime Minister. However, Field was considered as moderate, so the ‘Rhodesian Front’ voted against him and Smith became Prime Minister of Rhodesia in 1964.
In October 1964, Northern Rhodesia became independent as Zambia, under the black rule. Great Britain insisted about constitutional changes that would enable progress in the direction of African majority rule. In July 1964, during the ‘Commonwealth PM’s Conference,’ Smith declined to discuss new constitution, which would ultimately bring the black majority rule. The repeated talks between British PM Harold Wilson and the ‘Rhodesian Front’ remained inconclusive.
On November 11, 1965, Smith announced ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence’ (UDI). Britain dismissed the Smith government and stopped trade with Rhodesia. Though Rhodesia faced international isolation and the UN Security Council applied economic sanctions against Rhodesia, the RF government of Rhodesia continued with the help of South Africa and Portuguese Mozambique. Some international companies continued to break the sanctions secretly.
Smith held repeated talks with Harold Wilson aboard British vessels ‘HMS Tiger’ (1966), and ‘HMS Fearless’ (1968), but the talks remained inconclusive. There was internal unrest in Rhodesia, which was suppressed using police force and thousands of blacks were imprisoned.
On June 20, 1969, a referendum was issued, which dealt with adoption of a new constitution by which the white minority would gain political power and Rhodesia would get republican status. With majority white electorate, the new constitution was passed in November 1969. Rhodesia was declared a republic on March 2, 1970. It severed all ties with Britain.
The guerrilla attacks by the black nationalists were on rise. The white Rhodesians, who tried to oppose the new rule, (such as former PM Garfield Todd and his daughter, Judith), were put under house-arrest. Under Smith’s rule, the NIBMAR (No Independence Before Majority Rule) also became incontestable.
The black nationalists, under the leadership of Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo of ‘Patriotic Front,’ stepped up the guerrilla war. They held a base in Mozambique, which became independent in 1975. Smith retaliated with armed forces. Economy was affected, as government money was being used for controlling the black agitators. The whites began emigrating from Rhodesia, as their farms were being attacked by the protestors.
Ultimately, Smith had to initiate interim settlement with moderate black leader Bishop Abel Muzorewa. In March 1978, Smith signed a settlement and became a part of the ‘Transitional Executive Council’ that initiated the transfer of power to black government. Smith functioned as PM till May 1979. On June 1, 1979, Muzorewa became the interim PM. Until December 1979, Smith was a minister (without portfolio) in Zimbabwe’s black majority government.
An all-party election was held in March 1980, and Robert Mugabe’s party won a majority and formed the first free government in Africa. The RF was renamed ‘Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe.’ Smith remained in parliament till 1987. In 1992, he led the opposition party, a coalition of his party and the black parties that opposed Mugabe.
His autobiography, ‘The Great Betrayal: Memoirs of Ian Douglas Smith,’ was published in 1997. He later retired from politics and went to live on his farm. In 2005, he moved to a retirement home in Cape Town.