In 1982, Smith visited America and Britain, and told reporters that Mugabe was turning to totalitarianism. For some reason, Mugabe later went on to choose the Marxist Leninist flavour preferred by Nkomo’s ZAPU, over ZANU’s Chairman Mao Chinese flavour, perhaps to sideline Nkomo. That was when he sent his Matabeleland Massacre brigade to North Korea for training, so more likely he had no particular beliefs, except the end justifies the means, like all little men promoted beyond their capabilities.
In many respects Smith’s last years, in opposition and under constant threat of violence and retribution, are his greatest. As Mugabe consolidated his power, Smith harried him every step of the way. Time after time Smith attacked Mugabe, and laughed in the face of his intimidatory tactics, despite the very real danger Mugabe would find a way to dispatch his nemesis, like he did many white farmers, and probably even Smith’s long term political sponsor, Lilford, found beaten to death and shot on his farm in Nov 1985. That year Smith did well in the elections, winning Bulawayo. Mugabe called this ‘the racists of his country’ defying the government and rejecting reconciliation. Smith called Mugabe ‘illiterate’ in a BBC interview, Mugabe called him ‘an incorrigible racist’ who ‘should have been hanged long ago, and hanged publicly’. That was the year we were there!
But Smith never took a backward step. When he called Uncle Bob ‘mentally deranged’ in May 2000, at the ripe old age of 81, when most are enjoying a well-earned retirement, Mugabe said if he returned to Zimbabwe he’d be tried for treason and genocide. Smith mocked him, saying to the press ‘I would love that. Let him try it …… it would give me the chance to tell the world the truth about this gangster …. I will give him the date and time of my arrival by plane so he can meet me at the airport’. When the mass of reporters arrived at Harare Airport to witness his arrest, Smith told them he was disappointed there was no confrontation, and said ‘We have a president here who is mentally unstable and makes statements that have no bearing on reality’, and went home at his leisure!
During that period Smith twice denied militant thugs who presumed they could drive him off his farm; and unlike the liberal academics long gone on foreign passports, he preferred to hand over his British passport when Mugabe banned dual citizenship to force remaining whites to choose between him and the British, to effectively drive them out and repossess their farms without compensation. That was when Blair threw a public little hissy fit, along with empty threats of war. Mugabe had reneged on every assurance he’d ever given at international agreements like Lancaster House. He treated those agreements like he treated Lord Soames, Blair and the rest of the British establishment, with the utter contempt dictators always have for those whose bluff and bluster can be safely ridiculed or ignored.
In an extraordinary final twist, with numbers of whites in Zimbabwe down to less than 50,000, most of them elderly like him, Smith experienced a domestic resurgence. In 2002 he received a standing ovation for a speech he gave to students at the University of Zimbabwe that castigated ‘the incompetent and corrupt’ gangsters. He ended the speech by challenging Mugabe to come to a black township with him to see who got the best welcome. ‘Only one of us will come out alive’, Smith said. ‘I’m ready to put that to the test right now. He’s not’. To all those critics, including the British press who ignored his 2004 visit to London, who had branded Smith racist and idolised Mugabe as a freedom fighter, what could be worse? If you offered Smith’s many enemies a choice between a flute of that bubbly defiance, and a cup of Mugabe’s cold sick, they’d down the cold sick every time.
When Mugabe won the election in 2008, it was discovered that Smith and hundreds of thousands of people, many of them white, had voted for his Zanu-PF. But they were all dead! It was estimated that 27% of his votes in that election were deceased voters. Smith, who died in Cape Town in 2007, was finally struck off the election roll in 2013, along with 345,000 other corpses. Mugabe had turned stealing elections and land into a fine art. He even stole Smith’s family farm off his children in 2012.
Smith may have lost everything he set out to defend. But he owned Mugabe, Africa’s worst National Communist. He owned every part of him, right down to his last little pathological brain cell. And he owns those that appeased Mugabe. Perhaps he owns them even more. And that means, in my book, he died a rich man indeed, a lion amongst crocodiles and chickens.
On the way out of the Matopos Hills, we visited Cecil Rhodes grave, a pretty unassuming affair on a small hill with a nice view over the bush. In more recent times, as anti-Rhodes sentiment gathers steam, protest movements, some domestic, others foreign, demanded that Rhodes Memorial be destroyed and his bones disinterred and flown back to Britain. Given the stream of invective Mugabe directed at Britain, the anti-colonial, anti-imperial, anti-capitalist tropes echoed by student activists, many of them black, how perverse that he refused to bow to their demands. Was it all just an act in the final analysis, and part of the gangster smokescreen that only Smith’s winds of challenge cleared? What precious irony if everything the activists deplored in Rhodes, Mugabe secretly admired.
Or maybe, deep down, close to the end of the horror he’d presided over, he appreciated the work ‘raw colonials’ like Rhodes and Smith put into building up his country. He had seen how hard it was to protect their legacy, never mind craft one of his own. As many young Zimbabweans today have worked out, the man they must venerate destroyed their country, and their dreams.
In the long run, he might have done them a favour. Unlike Mandela, who used communism for revolution not ruling, Mugabe established a one-party Marxist Leninist state. Once set on the path of national communism at terrorist training camps, he eschewed all off-ramps. The forces unleashed couldn’t be reboxed, and sent back from whence they came. In fifty short years Zimbabwe went from being an imperfect capitalist bread basket a hundred and fifty years in the making, to a perfect communist basket case. He proved, to any dedicated student with an inquisitive nature, that while not every gangster boss is a communist, every communist boss is a gangster, whatever the colour of their skin.
Ch 3 – Uncle Bob’s Crocodile Farm