HARARE, Zimbabwe — The big metal gate to the two-story house has been left wide open. So has the front door. A stooped man with a slight frame and wispy white hair waits in the foyer.
"Come in, come in," says Ian D. Smith, directing a visitor toward the parlor. "This is your seat here. I hope it suits you."
Smith, the last white ruler of this southern African country known until 1980 as Rhodesia, turned 81 on Saturday. He lost his job as prime minister in 1979 and retired from active politics seven years later after being expelled from parliament for dealings with apartheid-era South Africa.
But the spread of business cards on the coffee table attests to Smith's resurgent popularity: journalists, politicians, physicians, clergymen. The door, he says, is always open.
Suddenly, with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe embroiled in his government's biggest political and economic crisis since the 1980s, the man who came to symbolize white resistance to black-majority rule in Africa is back in the fray. As thousands of Mugabe supporters illegally occupy commercial farms across the country in advance of parliamentary elections next month, public disenchantment with the ruling party's tactics has had an unlikely beneficiary.
"For a while, I was lying low, writing my memoirs so that I could get the truth out about what happened in our wonderful country," said Smith, referring to his 1997 autobiography, "The Great Betrayal: The Memoirs of Africa's Most Controversial Leader." "Now the main objective is to get rid of the gangsters [in government] by not having competing opposition candidates in the districts. The opposition must unite, or it will hand the election to Mugabe."
It is not that Smith ever went away. He continues to live in a colonial-style residence in the leafy Harare suburb of Belgravia when he is not tending to his 6,000-acre cattle farm in the Midlands. Fine china and cut crystal adorn the spacious living room, its walls covered in white satin. Most of the appointments are showing their age--he says he has changed very little in the home since his wife died in 1994--but then critics would argue that Smith is as well.
"He is poison and should never be allowed in any governing chamber in this country," said John Makumbe, a prominent political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe. "But people are so furious with Mugabe that you even hear Africans say Ian Smith is better than Robert Mugabe. The man should consider himself fortunate to be alive when you consider in the West they are trying war criminals."
Last week, a dozen opposition activists, most of them black, gathered in Smith's dining room to discuss election strategy. The erstwhile opposition leader says he has no interest in returning to parliament, but he clearly relishes his newfound status as elder statesman. Last month, Smith and a small group of activists--black and white--announced the formation of the United Democratic Front, an opposition movement based on disenchantment with Mugabe.
"I learned from the true masters of the struggle for liberty that there are no permanent foes and no permanent friends either," Lupi Mushayakarara, one of the new party's founders, wrote in a newspaper column explaining the alliance. "In spite of Ian Smith's past policies, [he] and I have been victims of . . . Mugabe's intolerance and misrule for a solid 20 years."
The new party is not expected to attract many votes. Most of its players are minor ones, and the key opposition group--the trade-union-based Movement for Democratic Change--has dismissed suggestions of a broad alliance.
Morgan Tsvangirai, who heads the Movement for Democratic Change, describes Smith as an "eccentric who is confusing the situation by creating a party." But Tsvangirai says Smith is serving a useful purpose by deflecting criticism that the Movement for Democratic Change is a front for disaffected whites. Mugabe has made that accusation because many white commercial farmers, upset about the land invasions, are backing Tsvangirai.
"Smith will actually help us because the right-wing whites can go with him and we will keep the whites who have supported the change [to black rule] in this country," Tsvangirai said. "That way, we cannot be accused of being the party of whites."
In 1965, Smith declared independence from Britain to block the advance of black-majority rule. He no longer suggests that Zimbabwe should have a white ruler, though he offers no apology for his actions then. The point now is vindication.
"If I left this country, Mugabe and his gang would have the biggest celebration," he said. "I am not going to give them that opportunity."