By Harry Minetree
June 07, 1976 12:00 PM

It is early in May in Salisbury, Rhodesia. People in the flower market in Cecil Square are enjoying the cool morning air while the African sun is still low. Then the fluttering sound of helicopters intrudes. Looking up, Rhodesians can see the choppers bringing back dead and wounded troops from a guerrilla ambush up-country. From the window of his office near the square, Prime Minister Ian Smith can see them too. He knows that these are not the first casualties in the growing violence between Rhodesia’s whites and blacks. He knows also that they will not be the last.

Smith, 57, is a sadly appropriate figure for the tragic role he seems doomed to play in a drama set in a south-central African country the size of California. The outcome will have international repercussions.

The prime minister rarely smiles. It is physically difficult because his face was almost completely rebuilt in five months of plastic surgery after his Hurricane fighter crashed in North Africa in 1942. (“When it was over,” he said, “my friends did not recognize me.”) Smith is a man whose toughness—or inflexibility—has earned him the nickname “Iron Man Ian” and whose wife says, “No one can influence my husband once he has made up his mind.” Smith insists that most of his country’s problems come not from the fact that 278,000 whites rule and dominate more than six million blacks but from “outside intervention.” (“Had there been no outside intervention, we would have settled our own affairs amicably a long time ago,” he says. “We get tired and exasperated, but there isn’t a great deal we can do about it.”)

Last year Smith seemed to adopt a mildly conciliatory attitude when he agreed to talks on a constitutional compromise with Joshua Nkomo, the moderate leader of the black African National Council. But the negotiations broke off last March, and Smith announced, “I do not believe in black majority rule in Rhodesia—not in a thousand years.”

His philosophy is unchanged from 1965, when he led Rhodesia, then a self-governing colony, in a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. London was demanding that blacks be guaranteed control of the government within the foreseeable future. (The break was known as UDI—and Smith owns a bulldog that he has named “Yoo-dee.”) The world’s governments refused to recognize Rhodesia and economic sanctions were imposed. Nonetheless, no Rhodesian was more confident that his country could go it alone than native son Smith. He was born in Selukwe (population 8,390, only 517 of them white), 180 miles from Salisbury. His father, Jock, a farmer and a butcher who later went on to own a string of racehorses and two small gold mines, often told him: “We’re entitled to our half of the country and the blacks are entitled to theirs.” (The part of Rhodesia that Jock Smith wanted for the blacks was poorer in minerals, hotter and far less fertile.)

After declaring independence, Ian Smith refused even to entertain thoughts of a commitment to integrate blacks into Rhodesia’s government. His intransigence antagonized not only his neighbors among the newly independent black African countries but the British, the equal-rights-conscious U.S. and nearly every other civilized country in the world. But, as a white Rhodesian soldier said recently, “No bugger on earth can tell Smithie what to do.”

The economic sanctions against Rhodesia are still in effect. The country is nonetheless surprisingly prosperous, due partly to the Rhodesians’ own resourcefulness and partly to the defiance of the boycott by, among others, the United States, which has continued to import Rhodesian chrome.

Smith has earned the grudging respect of at least one black nationalist, who says, “If we had a leader like Mr. Smith, we would have won long ago.” He has also managed to keep himself in power, despite occasional efforts to unseat him by moderate elements in his Rhodesian Front party, whose members occupy all 50 white seats in parliament. (There are 16 black representatives with limited powers.)

Smith’s durability is certainly not explained by charisma. Even his wife, Janet, says, “My husband is a very quiet man, not at all a showman. I have never heard him swear or seen him lose his temper. He has no fads or fancies.” The Smiths live quietly and privately, socializing only with a small circle of friends who report that the prime minister can be a lively conversationalist. He will take an occasional beer or Scotch and is seen from time to time at the racetrack.

Growing up in Selukwe, Smith showed considerable flair for tennis, rugby and cricket. “I was an absolute lunatic about sport,” he recalls. “I should have devoted much more time to my schoolwork.” (His old headmaster once said that as a rugby player young Smith was “very fast with a good opening but inclined to stop and dodge instead of going hard all the time. Defense good. The embryonic politician.”)

Smith dropped out of Rhodes University in South Africa to join the Royal Air Force early in World War II. Back on flying duty at his insistence after recovering from his wounds, Smith was shot down over Italy on a strafing run and spent five months—”the best of my life,” he says—fighting with a group of Italian partisans. He learned the language well enough to pass as a native and crossed the Alps on foot to reach British lines.

In 1948, short of money, Smith gave up farming for politics and won a seat in the legislative assembly of what was then Southern Rhodesia. He kept winning, switching to the governing United Federal party in 1953. He quit the United party in 1961 when it proposed a voice for black Africans in the government. He and Douglas (“Boss”) Lilford, an ultraconservative tobacco tycoon, founded the Rhodesian Front party. By 1964 Smith was prime minister.

As a public speaker, he has acquired a reputation for droning in the same lethargic monotone whether the subject is cattle prices in Bulawayo or the Unilateral Declaration of Independence. His skills face-to-face with political opponents are more formidable. Harold Wilson, former British prime minister, once called Smith “the most slippery political customer I’ve ever negotiated with.” An opponent, Allan Savory, a former Rhodesian MP, says, “The prime minister has the rare ability to make people believe things they know for a fact are untrue.” Wilson and others have suggested that Smith’s wife—the well-educated daughter of a rich South African physician—is the real moving force. “Janet is always standing behind the PM on speaking occasions,” says a friend. “You can see those lovely blue eyes boring ideas into his head.”

Smith defends himself against charges that he is a racist. “I am a strong right-wing man,” he says, “but that does not mean I am an extremist.” In a country where the black-white relationship is still literally one of “boy” and “master” and use of the word “kaffir”—an epithet similar to “nigger”—is not uncommon, Smith watches his language, though not always his condescension. “The sooner we can educate the black Africans,” he says, “and bring them up to the standard of the white man, the sooner they become an asset and make a greater contribution.”

Since his talks with Nkomo collapsed, Smith has brought four tribal chiefs into his cabinet in largely ceremonial positions. But that has hardly eased the pressure from black nationalists, who call Rhodesia “Zimbabwe” after the ruined city built by a powerful and cultured tribe believed to have ruled the area 1,500 years ago. The nationalists have been encouraged by recent external developments. With the independence last year of Mozambique, Rhodesia’s eastern neighbor, Smith found his country surrounded by black-ruled nations with the exception of South Africa, his only ally. And even South Africa, which has been promoting détente with black governments, has announced it would not support Rhodesia militarily in the event of civil war.

Smith is lobbying hard for American support, portraying Rhodesia as an anti-Communist bastion. Yet Henry Kissinger, during his trip to Africa last month, not only did not visit Rhodesia, he pledged a U.S. policy of “unrelenting opposition” to the Salisbury regime. “I don’t profess to know what goes on in the minds of American politicians,” Smith sighs. “But I am informed by very responsible and influential Americans that, tragically, until the election is over, American politicians are too busy looking over their shoulders for votes. And appeasement is the order of the day.”

Meanwhile, 3,000 Rhodesian black guerrillas—many armed with Chinese weapons—are in position across the 800-mile border with Mozambique (some 5,000 more are being trained in half a dozen camps). Facing them are the Rhodesian armed forces, 15,700 strong (most of them black), and 35,000 reservists. Raids by the guerrillas—”terrorists” to the whites—have escalated in the last four years.

Recently three white tourists were machine-gunned to death on a busy Rhodesian highway, and a train on the vital rail link with South Africa was derailed by a mine. Ambushes of Rhodesian troops are increasing.

Smith’s political and military crises have been complicated by family problems. His son Alec, 27, was arrested on a marijuana charge in 1972 and subsequently left Rhodesia, saying his countrymen should “give up our pride and privilege to save the continent.” (Smith’s two children from his wife’s first marriage are grown up and gone, though both still live in Rhodesia.) “Ian has aged unbelievably in the past few years,” says a friend. The siege atmosphere in the country also may be diminishing his popularity. “He has overplayed his hand,” one defecting party member charges. “He should have moved when he had something to bargain with. Now the blacks have the moral support of the free world and the military backing of the rest. They no longer have to barter. It’s only a matter of time.”

Smith remains adamant. “We may lose in the end,” he says, “but I think it’s better to lose while you’re standing up and fighting than crawling out on your knees.”

“They will move in from all directions and it will be impossible to stop them,” calmly predicts a New Zealand immigrant who lived through the fighting in the Congo and Nigeria. “They will take the small villages first and then begin planting bombs in Salisbury. The big rich will be the first ones to leave.”