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Wilbur Smith: A tale of racism and failed love

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Tony Mochama | November 28th 2021

Novelist Wilbur Smith. [Courtesy]

When popular novelist Wilbur Smith passed away at 88 two Sundays ago, he was mourned worldwide. 

Born to a nature-painting, book-loving mother, Elfreda, who read to him every night, Wilbur Smith grew up as a bookworm who loved the adventure series of the pilot Biggles – fitting for a boy she had named after the pioneer aviator Wilbur Wright.

He was also the son of a more earth-bound man, a metal factory worker turned ranch owner of a 25,000-acre farm in Zambia, Herbert Smith, who had never read a book in his life (and who would not even read Wilbur Smith’s books in his later life). But the huge ranch in Zambia gave young Wilbur not just a farm but a forest, hills and savanna for exploring, hiking and hunting birds and small mammals, alongside the other ‘small black boys, who were my companions on these adventures.’

Of course, Zambia was then a British Colony called ‘Northern Rhodesia’, and although Herbert Smith, by Wilbur’s later admission, was a ‘typical colonialist’ – ironic for a man whose characters in his African-set books would be imbued by a sly sort of colonialism – he had no issues with letting his son run around in the wild, with the boys of his local ‘boys’ (workers).

He also let his mother send him to schools in Kwa Zulu Natal like Michaelhouse Boarding when Wilbur came of age, where although he was ragged and bullied (like other ‘freshers’ of the age), he also ran the school newspaper – writing all the articles himself, save for the sports section – and even getting mild fame around other secondary schools for his weekly satirical column.

The after school life of Wilbur Smith is well documented. His working on a whaling ship for four weeks when he was just 21.

His claim to wanting to become a journalist after university in order to ‘document social conditions in South Africa’ but being thwarted by his father who forced him to become a chartered accountant.

Yet in spite of Wilbur Smith claiming to have ‘learned to think for myself in my early 20s,’ he still joined his Herbert Smith in Durban for a father-and-son sheet metal factory business venture, after his father had sold their ranch in Northern Rhodesia to retire, but then tragically made big, bad investments in apartheid South Africa that wiped out his life savings –  forcing him back to work.

But their factory failed, and Wilbur Smith went to work for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which was the KRA of South Africa, presumably doing lifestyle audits of tax evaders, as he sold short stories like On Flinders’ Face to publishing houses like Argosy in St Lawrence, South Africa.

It was this that encouraged the young tax auditor to spend his spare time writing his first novel, The Gods First Make Mad that he later admitted had too many characters and opinions, with ‘political posturing and racial tension’ in it.

It was never published.

But with the advice of his agent Charles Pick who told him to always “write what you best know,” Wilbur was soon off to the races with his second novel titled When the Lion Feeds – that dealt with his dad issues, mum adoration, black and white relations, hunting, gold mining, carousing with women, love and hate.

After 20 rejections, the book was picked by William Heinneman, MD of Heinneman Books, London, who not only doubled the 500-pound advance Wilbur’s agent had demanded but quadrupled the initial print run to 20,000, all out before the Christmas of 1962.

This was a wonderful Xmas, New Year and birthday gift for Wilbur, who turned 30 early that January, and with the book earning him three years’ worth of his tax man’s salary, the newly single Mr Smith – who had married the secretary from their failed factory five years earlier – “bought a caravan, parked it in the mountains, and went to work on my second novel” (‘The Dark of the Sun,’ about white mercenaries during the Congo crisis, which was later made into a film in 1968).

This brings us to Wilbur Smith and the regional politics of the 1960s, and his role in them.

The Dark of the Sun was inspired by the events in the Congo after it gained its Independence in 1960, only to collapse into ethnic strife, encouraged by Brussels and funded by the CIA, that would eventually lead to the death of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba – and the rise of the kleptocratic dictator Joseph Desiree, later notorious as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire.

Seeing the dark turn of events in the Congo, the British set a strict timetable to roll out organised ‘Independences’ north of the Limpopo and south of the Sahara.

Tanzania would get her Independence in 1961, Uganda in 1962, Kenya get her uhuru in 1963, Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) in 1964 under Kenneth Kaunda; with the process culminating in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe)’s Independence in 1965.

And all went according to plan until it came to Southern Rhodesia where in 1965, Ian Smith, its white Prime Minister, rather than grant uhuru to the country under black majority rule, instead chose to unilaterally declare independence from the UK, leaving his minority white government in control.

This forced men like Robert Mugabe to lead an armed struggle against the Smith government until 1980 when Zimbabwe finally became free (there is even a Bob Marley song).

The other Smith, our Wilbur, was on the wrong side of history, both in South Africa, but especially in Southern Rhodesia, despite his attempt to whitewash his choices across the decades. Successfully, we should say, as since his death a fortnight ago, no major Western newspaper or magazine has brought these things up.

Wilbur stayed silent in South Africa, other rising book stars like Nadine Gordimer, who would win the Nobel Prize in 2003, were not only paid-up activists of the ANC, but actually harbouring its African leaders in their homes, and speaking up, out and loud for Nelson Mandela.

And what can explain Wilbur Smith’s choice in rushing to Zimbabwe, straight after Ian Smith had declared its ‘independence,’ to become a reservist in the Southern Rhodesian police force?

Smith would later say he quit this police force after a couple of years because he got fed up of ‘pulling black kids’ bodies, killed by pangas, from pit latrines’ – itself a curious statement that seems to suggest it was savage baby-killing black-on-black violence (and not ‘uhuru’ political war). 

The fact was that Wilbur Smith moved back to apartheid South Africa, next to the Onnus River, because his new post-bestseller wife was pregnant, and he could not do the ‘good writer by day, bad cop by night’ thing anymore.

It is also telling that as he stayed on in South Africa, churning out best seller after best seller, not once is Smith on record against apartheid.

The son he got from his second wife, Lawrence Smith, would become estranged from Wilbur.

He would then marry a third wife, his huge fan and a divorcee called Danielle Thomas, in 1971, whom he would later describe as “a manipulative woman who spent my money by the wheelbarrow load.”

Regardless, he would stay with her until the end in 1999, when she passed away of brain cancer.

By 2002, he would be embroiled in a legal tussle with her son, Schmidt, over money – this being the boy he adopted while getting estranged from even the children from his first marriage, Shaun and Christine, ‘thanks to Danielle,’ – though he would reconcile with his firstborn son, Shaun, even as he blamed his other birth children for ‘not wanting to work’ and Schmidt as ‘greedy, out to take advantage.’

By 2001, Wilbur Smith had sold more than 100 million books worldwide and had palatial homes in London, Cape Town, Switzerland, Malta and Seychelles – to do business, writing, mountain climbing, vacationing and scuba diving in respectively – in seasons, all year round.

A year after his third wife’s death, in the January of 2000, Wilbur Smith met a Tajik woman from Moscow working at a book store in London.

“In spite of her being 39 years my junior, it was love at first sight, so we married in May of 2000.”

Of his second wife, Jewell Slabbart, Smith said: “We did not know anything about mutual respect or working together towards a goal. By the time she left, I felt like I had survived a car smash.”

As for Annie Renee, the wife of his callow youth, when Wilbur was just a chartered accountant: “We got on very well in bed but had nothing in common outside of it. After our rather enjoyable honeymoon, I said, “What on earth have you gotten yourself into, Wilbur?” – but then resigned myself to my marriage.”

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