Notes from underground

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Ian Smith and Bram Fischer — memories of a bygone era

The death of Ian Smith calls to mind a memorable day when he issued his UDI, and Bram Fischer, after several months on the run, was rearrested.

The 11th of November 1965 was particularly memorable for me because that was the day on which I had been summoned to the chief Magistrate of Pietermaritzburg to receive an official warning under the Suppression of Communism Act.

clipped from

Ian Smith, Rhodesia’s last white prime minister whose attempts to resist black rule dragged the country now known as Zimbabwe into isolation and civil war, died Tuesday at age 88.

Smith unilaterally declared independence from Britain on Nov. 11, 1965. He then served as the prime minister of Rhodesia from 1965 to 1979 during white minority rule.

He finally bowed to international pressure, and Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party won elections in 1980.

Just as Mugabe accused former British Prime Minister Tony Blair of interfering in Zimbabwe to protect the interests of whites, Smith poured vitriol on the government of the late Harold Wilson for pressing him to hand political power to the black majority.

Smith was born to Scottish immigrants in western Rhodesia on April 8, 1919, but renounced his claims to British citizenship in 1984.

Smith became premier of the British Crown Colony of Southern Rhodesia in April 1964. On Nov. 11, 1965, he issued a declaration of independence

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The other day I heard a radio announcer remarking that a street named after Bram Fischer had been spelt wrongly, saying that it should have been “Braam”, not “Bram”. But no, he was always known as Bram Fischer. For any of the younger generation, like that announcer, and for those interested in the history of those days, here is what I wrote in my diary on that memorable day:

I went to see the magistrate, at Room 116 in the Magistrate’s Court, as instructed. I knocked on the door, which had been left slightly open. A deep voice inside said “Ja”. So I went in and said “More, Omie” , and the beak looked slightly puzzled, so I said, in Afrikaans, that he had said I should come and see him. He continued to look slightly puzzled, and then suddenly his face lighted up, and he said, “Are you Mr Hayes?” in English. And I said Yes. He scratched around among the pile of papers on the table and pulled out a folder, and then asked me if I understood Afrikaans. I said I did, and so he read out this rigmarole about engaging in activities which were calculated to further any of the objects of communism, with a rather apologetic expression that implied it had nothing to do with him, and that he knew nothing about it, but had merely been asked to do this by the minister. He seemed very nervous and embarrassed. When he had read it out, he gave his interpretation of what he thought it meant, and advised me not to go to any political meetings. He asked me what the badges were that I was wearing on my blazer, and I told him that one was the church badge, and he looked puzzled again. I then told him that the other was the Liberal Party badge, and once again the light dawned. “O, ek sien.” That explained everything.

I went outside and met Pam Taylor in Commercial Road. She said she had been worried about me, and had come down to see what had happened. Then I went to see Pat in the party office, and told him I had been warned, and told him I would have to give up my idea of having a political holiday between the last exam and going home to Joburg. It is not worth getting banned for five years for just two weeks of political activity.

After lunch I was in my room lying in my bed doing nothing, when John Aitchison burst in, with great jubilation, saying Ian Smith had just gone mad, and made his oft-threatened UDI. This means the beginning of the end of white supremacy in Southern Africa. We went up to see Isobel, who told us that all the Rhodesians in varsity had given up swotting and gone off to town to celebrate. And some of the Zambians had done as well, which was worse. Two of them came past waving a Rhodesian flag, so we sang “God save the Queen” and “Land of hope and glory”.

In the evening John and I went to see Pat, and discussed the Rhodesian situation. Then we went to Pechey’s place and listened to Wilson’s broadcast on Rhodesia at 11:00 pm. He announced economic sanctions, said Rhodesian passports would no longer be recognised, and said Rhodesia would be placed under direct rule of the Crown, and that Britain would not abdicate her responsibility for Rhodesia. It was quite a good speech. The rest of the news followed, with a report that Bram Fischer had been arrested. So Pechey got some booze out and we drank three toasts: to Fischer, the Queen, and Wilson. Fischer may be a communist, but anyone who can keep the SB guessing for 11 months deserves admiration, no matter what his politics are. The stalemate has broken at last now that Smith has gone off his head, and things can start moving again.

The “Pat” referred to there was Pat McKenzie, the national secretary of the Liberal Party of South Africa.

Ian Smith went on for another 15 years, and turned Rhodesia into a police state. When that came to an end there was a brief flicker of hope, but Smith’s successor Robert Mugabe has turned out to be just as bad, driving millions of Zimbabweans into exile with his oppressive policies.

And Harold Wilson’s successors, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, have been doing their best to turn Britain into a police state, as South Africa was in 1965.

The “warning” issued by the magistrate was the preliminary to a banning order, issued by the Minister of Justice (then B.J. Vorster). These banning orders were similar to the “control orders” recently introduced in Britain by the Blair/Brown regime.

The day after I received the warning the South African Prime Minister, Dr Verwoerd, spoke at a National Party meeting in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. The national and international press were there, waiting to hear what he would say about Smith and his UDI, and had to listen to a long diatribe against Sir de Villiers Graaf and the United Party, and he dismissed the whole Rhodesian UDI business in a couple of sentences, when he said smugly that South Africa didn’t believe in interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries and that was a matter for Britain and Rhodesia to sort out between them.

The security police reported to the Minister of Justice that I had ignored the warning I had been given by attending the meeting — ie that by attending the National Party meeting I was “engaging in activities that further, or are calculated to further any of the objects of communism”.

I wrote my final exam on 15 November, and returned to Johannesburg, where I got a job as a bus driver with the Johannesburg Transport Department to save money for postgraduate study in the UK. On 11 January 1966 Mr Vorster signed a banning order for me. A few days later a Detective Sergeant van den Heever phoned and said he wanted to come and see me, though he did not say why. I was about to go to work to do overtime, so I told him I would go and see him the following day, between my overtime and my main shift. I suspected that he either wanted to give me a banning order or to confiscate my passport., so instead of going to work I went to ask the advice of John Davies, the Anglican chaplain at Wits University, and decided to skip the country. We left immediately and drove to Beit Bridge where we crossed into Smith’s Rhodesia, the first impression of which was notices in the immigration office saying “Please do not allow your children to scribble on the blotting pads”.

We reached Bulawayo at lunch time, and had lunch with a local Anglican priest, Leslie Gready, who told stories of how the Rhodesian police used the rainwater tanks of black peasants for target practice, thus depriving them of drinking water.

Late in the afternoon I got a plane to Salisbury (now Harare), and from there to London via Rome.

Such are my memories of Ian Smith and his Rhodesia.

As for Bram Fischer, he spent most of the rest of his life in jail. Unlike Smith and Mugabe, he wasn’t a racist.

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4 thoughts on “Ian Smith and Bram Fischer — memories of a bygone era

  1. Iosue Andreas on said:

    Great post. How interesting it is for us who live far away!

  2. The Scylding on said:

    So when is your book coming out? 😉

    You certainly lived through a lot in SA, and have knack of writing it down…

  3. Gerri on said:

    Good post. Ian Smith surely was something else. How would you compare him to Mugabe? I was not around in Mr Smith’s time but what I am seeing going on in Zimbabwe at the moment leaves me saddened. The place that I call home has just about collapsed and it is hard for people to get by.

  4. Pingback: Interrogating silence | Notes from underground

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