3 FEBRUARY 1979, Page 8

A triumph for Ian Smith

Richard West

Salisbury You have to hand it to Ian Smith. Only fourteen years ago, he led a rebellion against the British crown to establish in Rhodesia a system of white majority government that would last, at least 'in my life time' and maybe 'a thousand years'. On Tuesday this week Mr Smith persuaded the Rhodesian whites to vote by 85 per cent of the poll to accept a constitution that will mean black government in April this year. The turnabout of opinion has not been lost on Smith's enemies. At every one of his public meetings this month, there has been somebody in the audience to remind Smith of what he said in 1968 at Que Que or in 1972 at Bulawayo concerning the evils of black rule or the worthlessness of constitutional guarantees for the whites. Smith listens to such reproaches with patience. He acknowledges that the new constitution is not of the kind that he personally would have wished. He admits he has had to change his mind.

This victory at the referendum cannot be put down to some demagogic skill of Smith's in duping the white Rhodesians. He is seldom given more than a mild hand-clap by way of greeting: his oratorical style is sombre and flat; his hecklers and questioners are unawed by his reputation and office. He does not today command the same kind of adulation he had among the white Rhodesians in the exciting weeks after independence. Indeed Smith has a number of bitter and very vociferous enemies among the Rhodesian whites, particularly among the recent immigrants from Great Britain, the aggrieved working-class of Salisbury and Bulawayo, plus an element of the army, including some of the crack troops of the Special Air Service and the Selous Scouts.

Last week I heard Smith address a meeting at Selous, a prosperous farming district in the Rhodesian midlands. There, in contrast to Salisbury, he got a polite ovation and suffered no hostile questioning except from an Afrikaner gentleman who had been shocked by photographs in the paper of white youths taking orders from an African sergeant-major. Did this mean, the Afrikaner wanted to know, that blacks (he nearly said Kaffirs) would shortly 'be flying in aeroplanes, over our heads? Otherwise, the audience bought Smith's unequivocal message, that Rhodesia had no alternative but to accept black rule, however 'grim' the prospect. A No vote would mean that Rhodesia got no petrol and no more support from its one friend in the world, South Africa. Without that support, Rhodesia's chance of survival was 'slim'. Anybody who did not understand that was 'dim'.

There are only some 200,000 white Rhodesians and only 6,000 farmers, so Smith, when he speaks at a country meeting, probably knows much of his audience, at least by sight. The intimacy of Rhodesian politics produces a realism and honesty that we no longer find in Europe. The people who formed the audience at Selous, for instance, are just as well aware as Smith of the problems facing this country. They know that the government is not winning the war against the guerrillas; they know that Rhodesia cannot survive without oil and help from South Africa. They know that they have to accept a black government, even if most of the ministers prove to be venal and incompetent. In this intimate kind of politics, Smith cannot attempt to bamboozle his followers, as do our politicians in Britain. Although an outstandingly able politician, Smith cannot be said to have led the whites: he simply identified with their mood.

The white Rhodesians followed Smith in declaring unilateral independence in 1965. White public opinion, expressed in the Rhodesian Front, overruled those politicians, including Smith, who favoured some sort of compromise with Britain after UDI. An average audience of Rhodesian whites, such as the one at Selous, is not impressed or amused by somebody quoting back at Smith some of the things he said ten years ago about African government: they, the audience, also believed in lasting white rule. The whites cannot pretend that they were duped by Smith, who merely expressed the feelings and hopes of the community. The failure of white Rhodesia is anyway largely attributable to outside events over which Smith had no control: the coup d'etat in Portugal leading to independence in Mozambique, the Russian and Cuban intervention in Africa, and now the fall of the Shah of Persia and loss of his oil. The white opponents of Smith, by contrast, seemed to be out of touch with reality. The liberals from the university and Salisbury's professional class wanted a No vote and a return to rule from Westminster. But who in their right mind these days would want to be ruled from Westminster? Furthermore, none of the liberals that I have met here really believes that Britian would take on the burden of trying to govern Rhodesia and fight the war against the guerrillas. A return to legality would in effect mean handing the country to one or other faction of the Patriotic Front: and few whites want that, not if they plan to stay here.

The right-wing opponents of Smith are quite as 'dim' as he often describes them. Their eve-of-poll meeting on Monday was not, for once, graced by Rhodesia's premier loony, Len Idensohn, who claims to have fought six years in the Second World War on the wrong side. Instead, we were addressed by Ina Bursey, the president of the Rhodesia Action Party, who begged us 'for God's sake' vote No; and went on: 'In using God's name I am not being irreverent, because if you vote Yes you will inevitably be landed with a Marxist government'. The RAP get noisy support from a group of white Rhodesians now living in South Africa who try to present themselves as speaking for the South African government, in spite of clear hints from Pik Botha, South Africa's Foreign Minister, that he hoped for a Yes vote. But Mrs Bursey would not have this. She quoted the words of South Africa's diplomatic representative in Rhodesia, suggesting, not very convincingly, that he wanted Rhodesia to carry on as before.

The RAP and the other right-wing groups do not even possess the courage to state their real conviction: that they do not want to be ruled by blacks. Instead, Mrs Bursey has to go into a rigmarole about how the blacks are themselves in dread of black majority rule and have implored the RAP to win a No vote in the referendum. 'A group of blacks from Bulawayo have sent us a message: -vote No. Don't let these barbarians be our government". Here again, they fail to face up to reality. Most whites in Rhodesia know the weaknesses of black politicians who now take part in the interim government. Most whites distrust the black 'auxiliaries', sometimes referrred to as private armies, who now guard much of the country and last week were brought in to police the outskirts of Salisbury. Few whites look forward to black majority rule, least of all Smith, who said at Selous that he sometimes dreamed of living back in the days of white supremacy before awaking at dawn to 'grim reality'.

No white Rhodesian, least of all Smith, is likely to think that the Yes vote will mean an easy transition to black majority government or recognition of such a government by the outside world. One Rhodesian minister, David Smith, tried to suggest last week that Margaret Thatcher, if she came to power, would recognise a Zimbabwe under the new constitution, but this suggestion was promptly dismissed by Conservative Central Office. It is accepted here that no British Government can act in foreign affairs against the wishes of Britain's creditors and suppliers such as Nigeria. There is more hope from the United States, where the South Africa lobby is powerful. And although politicians do not like to discuss such things openly. Rhodesia may be angling for support from certain countries with whom her relationship has not been noticeable in the past: notably France, the most 'darling' foreign power in Africa, as she was called by a black politician here, some conservative Arab states and perhaps even communist Mozambique.