Robert's rules of order

With Robert Mugabe's iron hold on power finally starting to slip, Sean Jacobs looks at a new biography of the rebel turned tyrant.

December 1979, Westiminster, London, England, UK --- Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, leaders of the Zimbabwe Patriotic Front, hold a conference in London with British politicians to discuss the future of the independent state of Zimbabwe, formerly the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. --- Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

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Dinner with Mugabe

Heidi Holland Allen Lane


In 1957, Ghana became the first European colony in Africa south of the Sahara to gain its political independence. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's new prime minister, invited young Africans from countries still under colonial rule to move to Ghana and help build the new country; a young schoolteacher from Rhodesia, Robert Mugabe, was among them. In 1960, during a visit home to his mother, Mugabe was invited to join a march protesting the arrest of two nationalist leaders in the Rhodesian capital, Salisbury. Facing police, the marchers stopped to hold an impromptu political rally. Somehow Mugabe found himself hoisted onto the improvised stage alongside other leaders like Joshua Nkomo, who headed the leading black opposition group, the National Democratic Party. Mugabe gave a rousing speech ("The nationalist movement will only succeed if it is based on a blending of all classes of men") and the nationalist leaders convinced him to remain in Rhodesia and become publicity secretary of the NDP, which soon morphed into the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU). Three years later, Mugabe engineered a split within ZAPU to form the Zimbabwe African National Union. He would dominate the country's politics from that moment on.

Nothing about Mugabe's earlier life portended his swift rise, the South African journalist Heidi Holland notes in her "psychobiography" Dinner with Mugabe. Born in 1924 in Kutama, in the central part of the country, Mugabe was a shy, precocious child. When Robert was 10 years old, his father, a carpenter, moved away to start a second family and broke off all contact. Mugabe's mother clung devotedly to the Catholic Church and to Robert. She told him he was marked for greatness and sent him for a Jesuit education (Mugabe is still a devoted Catholic.) Mugabe would go on to study in South Africa at the University of Fort Hare, the alma mater of Nelson Mandela and other nationalist leaders. He started teaching after graduation, and soon made his way to Ghana.

The Rhodesia that Mugabe returned to in 1960 was a tense, violent country, especially for its black population. The former British colony was governed by a small, tightly-knit and mainly English-speaking white settler population who had been granted "self-rule" by the British at the expense of the country's black majority. Whites had first arrived in Zimbabwe in the 19th century as part of an aggressive British colonial expansion north from South Africa in search of natural resources. The new arrivals, through a mixture of force and cunning, eventually dispossessed the locals of their land. In 1896 blacks rose up in what would come to be known as the "First Chimurenga", or liberation war. Though they fought valiantly, they lost and colonisation was formalised. By the 1950s, nearly 80 per cent of the best agricultural land belonged to whites. Most blacks were condemned to life on rural reserves, burdened by heavy taxes that forced men to work on commercial farms and mines or move to the ghettos of Salisbury or Rhodesia's second city, Bulawayo, in search of wage-work. The country's whites gradually developed a distinctive political identity and a reputation for unbending racism and prejudice.

In a 1960 speech in Cape Town the British prime minister Harold Macmillan told South Africa's white rulers that "the wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our national policies must take account of it." The South Africans rejected Macmillan's advice, digging in for another three decades of undemocratic rule. Five years later the Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith announced a "Unilateral Declaration of Independence" from Britain, vowing that blacks would not govern Rhodesia "in a thousand years."

By this point Mugabe's new movement, ZANU, had grown into the main opposition force, largely due to its exploitation of ethnic differences. ZANU was dominated by the majority Shona; Nkomo's ZAPU became associated with the minority Ndebele. In 1964, Mugabe was arrested, and he spent 10 years in prison before he was released as part of an agreement between the Rhodesian government and ZANU guerrillas, by now engaged in a full-scale civil war. Mugabe's only son died (at age three) during his prison term, and Smith refused to allow him to attend the funeral; in Holland's account, these slights had a lasting effect on Mugabe.

Holland first met Mugabe in 1975 in Salisbury, where she worked as magazine editor. She arranged for a lawyer friend to meet Mugabe secretly at her suburban home. Over dinner Mugabe said little, but impressed Holland nonetheless: driving Mugabe to the train station after the meeting (his ride had failed to materialise), Holland left her small son asleep alone in the house. The next day, Mugabe called to check that the child was OK.

Over the next 30 years Holland had no further contact with Mugabe, who went on to lead a brutal guerrilla war that would eventually exhaust the government and the appetite of white Rhodesians for segregation at all costs. In the late 1970s, the regime - stripped of British support and abandoned by South Africa's Apartheid rulers (and their backers in the US Republican Party) - initiated negotiations with the black opposition.

But the war also bred elements of the political culture that independent Zimbabwe would later inherit: the use of violence to settle political scores and to obliterate opponents, disregard for human rights, slavish reverence for authority, ideological rigidness and corruption. ZANU won a majority in the first democratic elections in 1980, and Mugabe was initially conciliatory to whites, guaranteeing them seats in the new Parliament (one went to Smith) and appointing a white man as agriculture minister. But barely two years into independence - under the pretext of fighting an attempted coup by guerrillas loyal to Nkomo, who had become the opposition leader - Mugabe unleashed a murderous, North Korean-trained army unit in the ZAPU-dominated Matabeleland province, indiscriminately killing civilians and guerrillas alike.

A report by the Catholic Bishops conference later estimated the total number of murdered or disappeared at more than 20,000 people. But Mugabe achieved his political aim: in 1987 he coerced a weak Nkomo into accepting a "Unity Accord", effectively swallowing ZAPU into the new ZANU-Patriotic Front. Not long thereafter, Mugabe changed the constitution to make himself executive president. One of the legacies of that time - and a testament of the power of the nationalist narrative that African independence leaders embodied - is that few if any of Mugabe's present Western critics publicly denounced these murders. Instead he received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 1994 and honorary degrees from American universities. The economy was growing steadily even in the hostile shadow of Apartheid South Africa and access to education and health services markedly improved. As Lord Corrington, the British foreign secretary during independence negotiations, tells Holland: "But other than the killing of the Ndebele, it went tolerably well under Mugabe at first, didn't it? He wasn't running a fascist state. He didn't appear to be a bad dictator."

In 1995, street riots erupted in the capital against rising prices and unemployment. A mineworker, Morgan Tsvangirai, who would emerge as Mugabe's most formidable opponent, led the newly formed Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. Academics, human rights activists and lawyers would later join the trade unions to form the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Their main political focus, alongside protesting economic hardship, was reforming the country's constitution. Mugabe pushed back by announcing a referendum in 2000 to increase his powers and extend his tenure as president. Much to his surprise, the referendum failed, and he was clearly stung by the result.

With parliamentary elections looming and an opposition buoyed by the referendum, ZANU-PF unleashed what Mugabe termed the "Third Chimurenga". (The guerrilla war against the Rhodesian government had been the second.) This involved an effort at land redistribution; the British were blamed for abandoning promises to fund the acquisition of private commercial farms to distribute to black farmers. Whites, who still owned much of the productive land and who had reluctantly come to accept independence, also provided easy targets.

Squatters identified as "war veterans" (among them were 18-year-olds who could not have fought in the guerrilla war that ended before they were born) soon invaded white farms. But it became clear that redistribution was in the eye of the beholder: the best farms were parcelled out to Mugabe's cabinet ministers and senior army officers. A few whites were brutally attacked, and their plight predictably became front-page news in the West. In the British Parliament, members spoke once again of "the people of Rhodesia". Peter Godwin, a white journalist born in Zimbabwe, later claimed that being white in post-independence Zimbabwe was "starting to feel a bit like being a Jew in Poland in 1939." What was not apparent at first was that - just like in Smith's Rhodesia - the bulk of the victims were black: members of the opposition were murdered, tortured or imprisoned. Journalists were harassed, newspaper offices closed or bombed and people denied food if they failed to join ZANU.

In 2002 Mugabe was re-elected to another six year term in an election marred by fraud and violence, and condemned as deeply flawed by both Zimbabwean and foreign observers. Since then Zimbabwe's economy has crashed - there is large-scale poverty and the currency is essentially worthless. Thousands have fled to neighbouring South Africa (whose president, Thabo Mbeki, remains a loyal ally of Mugabe, though his party and the South African trade union movement have backed the Zimbabwean opposition.)

During this period, Mugabe and his closest aides became more delusional and their government took on a siege mentality. Holland's account of Mugabe's political career is book ended with an account of her second meeting with Mugabe in 2007. She describes a banner in his office proclaiming "Mugabe is Right" and his insistence that Zimbabwe's economy is a "hundred times better than the average African economy."

On March 29 of this year, Zimbabweans went to the polls again in presidential elections. The opposition was again subjected to intimidation and violence by ZANU paramilitaries; Morgan Tsvangirai was viciously assaulted by police. However, as the first results arrived, it appeared Tsvangirai held a clear lead. The next day the electoral commission, stuffed with government sympathizers, announced that it would delay the results. A month later, following announcements from the army and police that they would not serve an MDC government, a final result was announced: Tsvangirai had won, but not by enough. So an unprecedented second round was scheduled, and intimidation and attacks on opposition candidates and supporters increased. Days before the vote Tsvangirai - citing high levels of violence - withdrew, guaranteeing Mugabe a hollow victory.

Southern African governments belatedly stepped in, forcing Mugabe to meet with Tsvangirai to thrash out the details of a unity government. The best scenario under the circumstances is for Mugabe to retain a ceremonial presidential post while Tsvangirai serves as prime minister with a fair representation of MDC leaders in key cabinet posts. But who occupies State House is not only the issue to resolve.

Larger questions remain about Mugabe's legacy - and Zimbabwe's future. Mugabe turned the security and civil services into affiliates of the ruling party, rigged elections, encouraged paramilitaries and stifled public debate. Under the cover of Third-Worldism he also mocked real political grievances - as varied as land hunger and unequal global relations - to forward his own selfish, violent agenda. In the West, he became an example of a supposedly black and specifically African, political pathology. But those critics must now come to terms with the fact that his regime is not an aberration, as Holland depicts it: it is also a by-product of Zimbabwe's violent colonial and white minority past and the duplicity of the post-Cold War world.

Mugabe's Zimbabwe demonstrates, among other things, that nationalism as a political ideology is fundamentally flawed, despite its role in the successful struggle for independence. The MDC clearly presents a rupture with the predatory regimes of both Smith and Mugabe, and it bodes well that the MDC was forged as a non-violent post-independence movement. But it remains to be seen whether it can carve its own path between neoliberalism (as its boosters in the West want) and appeals from its constituents inside Zimbabwe for more substantive democracy, including a solution to the land question. But first there's the small matter of consigning Mugabe to history.
Sean Jacobs teaches African Studies and Media Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He was born in South Africa.