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Muted Reaction In Zimbabwe To Death Of Colonialist Holdout Ian Smith

The death of former Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith Tuesday in Cape Town, South Africa, elicited muted reactions in Zimbabwe even from state-controlled media which nonetheless reminded Zimbabweans that Smith had bitterly opposed black majority rule and resisted it militarily at the cost of many thousands of lives.

But the news of Smith's death at the age of 88 also provoked some sobering reflection on the steep decline in Zimbabwe's economic fortunes and the dire circumstances in which many of its citizens find themselves three decades after the country's black majority cast off white minority rule and established the Zimbabwean state.

Resisting British pressure to accept black majority rule as inevitable and just, Smith in 1965 issued a unilateral declaration of independence and resisted democratization for 15 years despite international isolation and internal warfare between the Rhodesian military and liberation leaders including Robert Mugabe, today president.

Western diplomacy finally brought that conflict to an end through the Lancaster House talks in 1979 which brought about the democratic elections in 1980 which led to the installation of a black majority government headed by Mr. Mugabe as prime minister.

Though Smith imprisoned many liberation activists, including Mr. Mugabe, he served as a member of parliament until 1987 when the Harare government abolished the practice of reserving seats for whites.

Smith once famously insisted that he did not believe in black majority rule for Rhodesia, not -- in his words -- in a thousand years. He once said that he would always consider the country to be Rhodesia, and he never withdrew his assertion that black rule would lead the country into decline and chaos.

Throughout his life, Smith continued to be critical of President Mugabe, saying the Southern African leader should never have been allowed to assume power. He argued that the economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe vindicated him.

For his part, Mr. Mugabe said Smith should consider himself lucky to have been spared punishment for alleged atrocities committed under his rule.

Zimbabwean state radio said that Smith would be quote “remembered for his racism and for the deaths of many Zimbabweans.”

Deputy Editor Bill Saidi of the Standard newspaper in Harare told reporter Ndimyake Mwakalye of VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe that news of Smith's death was somewhat sad, but noted that many hold him responsible for thousands of deaths.

Political commentator and journalism professor Stanford Mukasa of Indiana University in Pennsylvania told reporter Patience Rusere that Smith’s death has been a public relations disaster for the ruling party, as Zimbabweans realized that while they lacked political freedom under Smith's rule, there was greater economic stability.

However, the Web-based news service ZimOnline, which is based in South Africa, said there is "still a lingering bitterness among millions of black Zimbabweans who still regard (Smith) as the personification of evil, even in death."

University of Zimbabwe political scientist Eldred Masunungure told ZimOnline that the former Rhodesian leader would be remembered as "nothing but a hardcore racist who was deeply buried in white prejudice." Masunungure said Zimbabweans who had lost family and friends in the liberation struggle would find it hard to forgive Smith.

More reports from VOA's Studio 7 for Zimbabwe...