Tuesday, November 20, 2007

An Empire-Builder Dies


Ian Smith has snuffed his lid, about 88 years too late. I suspect that many of the obituaries will seek to obscure his malevolent influence or smother it with platitudes and inane descriptions like "controversial", "unpopular with many", "respected by colleagues" and so on. You can't talk about someone like Ian Smith without talking about the epoch and political circumstances that made him. His father had been a butcher, and arrived in the colony eighteen years after Cecil Rhodes and gang had first set foot there with mining rights. In other words, the family's fortunes were made by the growing British control of the Cape colonial system. By the time the British were in the ascendancy, the frontiers in southern Africa had been closed as colonial authorities sought to exert their authority over all territories and regulate the labour system - a network of nebulous borders marked by combat over resources and more or less free movement was untenable for an emerging capitalist regime. Partially for that reason, the territory that became Southern Rhodesia and then Rhodesia was politically separate from, but locked in an intricate economic nexus with, the three southern African republics and the German colony to the south-west in what is now known as Namibia. As in much of southern Africa, poor Europeans moved there to become rich agriculturalists, often with comparatively little government oversight. For them, as for so many other colonists, the demand of self-determination and liberty was usually co-extensive with the insistence on racial supremacy. So it was with the Smith family.

Ian Smith first entered politics during the 1948 election, at the same time that apartheid was being formalised in South Africa with the victory of the Nationalists. Smith was a supporter of the Liberal Party, who were a right-wing racist organisation opposed to trade unions and state intervention in the economy because they saw these as the basis for the organisation and advancemet of majority African interests, potentially leading to self-rule. The Liberals lost the election to the ruling United Party, and Smith moved through a succession of organisations committed to white minority rule before being elected as a Rhodesian Front candidate in the 1962 elections. The front was a successor to the Dominion Party, another organisation formed by whites to defend white minority rule, and formed a slight majority in government. It was desperate to force the British government to grant independence on the basis of white supremacy, and as the leadership of Winston Field failed to secure this, Ian Smith was made the new Prime Minister in 1964. Smith was ideal for their purposes because he viscerally hated the idea of majority rule, and insisted that it wouldn't be seen in his or his children's lifetime - a point on which Robert Mugabe in a better phase of his life helped prove him wrong.

It is obviously not coincidental that this era saw the emergence of a sustained anti-colonial struggle in the country. The anti-colonial movement in Britain had pressured Harold Wilson into adopting the position that independence should come with African rule and universal suffrage - Newsinger has argued that Wilson was unusually dependent on the Left for support, in part because of the low esteem in which he was held among the party's higher echelons. The two main African liberation groups (ZANU and ZAPU) were Marxist, and so like most white supremacists, Smith pretended that he was actually only opposed to communism - a fiction he continued to maintain in his Autobiography. This anti-communist discourse was used most promiscuously in the southern United States and in South Africa during the same period. The neoconservatives who opposed self-rule in Zimbabwe said they did so because of the communist peril. The ease with which racism was commuted through Cold War ideology is striking, but it does speak to the way in which anti-communist doctrine decouples insurgency from the social conditions which produce it - it is, instead, a manifestation of the totalitarian allure. At any rate, given the anticolonial insurgency, which was winning in most of the colonies, the white elite acted decisively to conserve its authority, declaring its independence from London on 11 November 1965. Ian Smith was the Prime Minister of this state and led the elite in a vicious civil war against the population.

Here comes an intriguing shift, then: an apparently 'postcolonial' regime is set up in order precisely to conserve the colonial nature of the regime. In some senses this is structurally analogous to those who confuse violent international political transformation with radicalism today, forgetting that such change is often motivated by acute conservatism. The Smith regime was not only an immediate problem for London. As historian Gerald Horne has shown, it was the beginning of a lengthy engagement from Washington. The Johnson administration was terrified of the growing impression of a global racial conflict, particularly given the insurgency in inner cities and in the US south. There were substantial interests in America that were corresponding with Ian Smith to shift the country to an overtly sympathetic relationship with what had become a pariah state on account of it being one of the few racist dictatorships the West didn't consistently support. Barry Goldwater had openly praised Smith in 1967. And perhaps Smith expected a bit of racial solidarity from the American elite, despite the fact that it was in the process of making strategic concessions to African Americans. The general policy toward the Rhodesian regime from the US was one of tolerance. When the British government organised UN sanctions along with the OAU, the US participated in them but didn't enforce them very rigorously. Wilson may have considered military action to reassert British command of Rhodesia, but was restrained in part because the army, along with many ruling sectors of British society, would sympathise with the 'settlers' as many Tories were already doing. The Rhodesian elite was for its own part like many Loyalists one could mention, in that it was loyal to the crown and not to the parliament - at least until 1970 when it simply declared itself a republic. Both the Wilson government and the subsequent Heath one tried to negotiate with Smith, and offer terms for eventual African rule as a distant prospect - so eager were they to appear to resolve the problem on behalf of their worried America counterparts.

Yet, the only effective compulsion for Smith was the Portugese Revolution of 1974. A classic workers revolt against a right-wing dictatorship rapidly released two countries from colonial rule - Mozambique and Angola - which became bases for insurgency into Rhodesia. Despite hundreds, possibly thousands, of US mercenaries fighting for Smith's regime, the battle was destabilising the local system of white domination. The South Africa ruling class was particularly concerned about the implications for their own system, and pressed Smith into making some sort of compromise. Through a lengthy period of negotiations, he eventually accepted an 'Internal Settlement' in 1978, which saw the inclusion of one wing of the African nationalist movement in government and gave the impression of broad popular support. In fact, the goverment was still fighting on all sides against a well organised guerilla army - the Zanu PF led by Mugabe, who had spent a decaded in Rhodesia's prisons. It became clear that the goose was cooked - the rulers of the country were facing a comprehensive military defeat which would have ended their power, their privilege, and in some cases their lives. Smith accepted a deal negotiated with the Zanu PF at Lancaster House in the UK, which resulted in elections and a massive victory for Mugabe. The corrupting element of the deal was, of course, the commitment to defend the fundamental existing property relations, particularly the rights of white owners.

Smith tried to operate in parliament with a tiny minority for a few years before retiring to his farm and his privilege. His party, the much reduced Rhodesian Front, continued to advocate on behalf of white landowners and eventually formed a small component of the Movement for Democratic Change. Smith wrote a couple of self-glorifying books about his regime, explaining that the difficulties facing Zimbabwe and other African states prove that he was right in trying to prevent black people from trying to rule themselves. In truth, the same limits of the revolt which left Smith with his privilege, wealth and media access were those that contributed to the present dilemma for Zimbabwe. (Three words for you: Deflected permanent revolution.) The pernicious colonial legacy that Smith defended will only finally be dealt with by precisely the transformation in property relations that the British opposed. And when that happens, there will be no end of fucking whining on behalf of white farmers.