Nothing can convey UDI’s monumental folly. Even in 1965, the reasoning behind Smith’s decision was obviously absurd. First, Smith assumed that white Rhodesians – a dwindling minority of four per cent in 1965 – could monopolise political and economic power into the indefinite future. "I don’t believe in majority rule ever for Rhodesia, not in a thousand years," he famously declared.
If UDI was to survive, Rhodesia needed allies, notably Portugal which then ruled neighbouring Mozambique. The two countries shared an 800-mile frontier which had to be kept secure.
So Smith gambled that Portugal’s African empire would last for another thousand years or so.
South Africa provided Rhodesia with oil and electricity. Smith assumed that Pretoria’s apartheid regime, dominated by Afrikaners with a deep suspicion of British settlers, would support Rhodesia forever.
Lastly, Smith presumed that Rhodesia’s black majority – 96 per cent of the population – would accept their status as second class citizens.
These assumptions were so wildly unrealistic that only a fantasist could have believed them.
Thanks to Smith, white Rhodesia dealt with its most dangerous enemy at the moment when its hand was weakest. The outcome was a transfer of power to independent Zimbabwe in 1980 on terms far worse for the white minority than could have been achieved before UDI.
Far from preserving what Smith called "decent, responsible, Christian standards", UDI was the making of Mugabe.
Without Smith’s folly, Mugabe may never have come to power. It is impossible to avoid the verdict that Smith was the co-author of Zimbabwe’s tragedy.
Although Smith's personal qualities were in many ways admirable this seems an eminently fair summary of what he actually accomplished and is why trying to rehabilitate his reputation on the grounds that Mugabe and Zanu PF are far worse is not credible. As with the Tsars in Russia or the Batista regime in Cuba the fact that the successor regime is an order of magnitude worse does not diminish the old regimes failures but magnifies them.