Bob the Bewildering
Dinner with Mugabe Allen Lane, 2008 280 pages £11.87 ISBN 978-0143025573
Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe Public Affairs, 2007 272 pages £8.99 ISBN 978-1586485580
Take the suited dictator with the owlish glasses above his Hitleresque mustache, the man who punches the air to emphasize points in his vitriol, and imagine him as a child. He sits alongside a riverbank, attempting to catch doves in a simple trap of sticks and leaves. Described as a loner, he would read his book in solitude—sitting, waiting, with characteristic determination.
To imagine this man as a young boy is to conduct an almost impossible feat of reduction of both size and power; it is to underscore how much larger than life an all-powerful leader can become. The idea of the banality of evil, first applied to Nazi war criminals by Hannah Arendt, captures the dissonance between the terrifying tendencies of an individual and the fact of his simple, almost boring humanity. A very real person exists behind the sensationalized façade of Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president who has held on to power for nearly three decades. In getting to know the seeming banalities of that person, we seek to understand his evils.
Heidi Holland’s exploration of Mugabe’s personal history in her biography of the Zimbabwean leader, Dinner with Mugabe, traces how a boy known for his scholarship, articulateness, and determination came to dominate the country he fought to liberate. Poring over his personal history with a psychologist’s eye, Holland reveals him to be an emotionally detached person with a deep inferiority complex, a man who responded to criticism with a desire for revenge. This basic analysis, understood against a backdrop of historical events, forms the story of ‘a freedom fighter who became a tyrant’.
While Holland’s book portrays Mugabe’s path to tyranny as a spiral of vengeful decisions, Martin Meredith’s Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe suggests that Mugabe’s rise to the top represents a megalomaniac’s successful concentration and later defense of state power in the hands of one party. Zooming out from Mugabe’s personal history, Meredith’s survey of the Zimbabwean historical landscape exposes a veneer of violence shrouding the country’s pre- and post-independence days. He charts how Mugabe successfully maintained his grip on power, repressing opposition while his coterie enjoyed the spoils of office. The book is one of several books by Meredith, a professional journalist, who writes on Southern African political history. Holland, too, is a journalist who has worked in Africa for 30 years and has written books on South African politics and on racism and crime in South Africa.
Looking back on history, it is difficult to deduce whether Mugabe underwent a transformation from well-intentioned to tyrannical as Holland suggests, or whether Meredith’s telling of the story is more accurate, with a Mugabe who always cloaked a ruthless edge beneath a freedom fighter’s mask. Both accounts indicate that when Mugabe came to power, he genuinely reached out to his former opponents and spoke sincerely of reconciliation. The puzzle that both authors struggle to unravel is why he responded to rebuffs and setbacks in such a fiercely anti-democratic manner. Both books exhibit a fascination with the spectre of dictatorship and the far-ranging powers it entails, as well as an urge to understand the tragedy that has befallen a once hopeful and relatively prosperous nation. In so doing, the authors reveal the limitations of using one man’s character to explain a nation’s trajectory. Mugabe sits at the center of a story that is not just his, but that he shares with a circle of people who have profited from his grip on power.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe grew up in the Jesuit mission village of Kutama, about 100 kilometers east of the capital city Harare. He was born in 1924, a year after Britain granted Rhodesia, as the country was then named, the status of responsible government. Mugabe qualified as a teacher in 1945, joining one of the few professions open to educated Africans under colonial rule. He taught in Rhodesia, studied for a year in South Africa, and later accepted a teaching position in Ghana in 1957, where he met his first wife, Sally Hayfron. That was the same year that Kwame Nkrumah declared Ghana’s independence, beginning a wave of independence struggles across then-colonial Africa. Mugabe’s biographers emphasize his time in Ghana as a key moment when the political thoughts he encountered previously—about Marxism and national liberation—became meaningful and practicable. Returning home to Rhodesia on holiday, Mugabe participated in a rally and warmed to the idea of getting involved in politics. He and Sally later moved back home for good.
A Rhodesia ruled by Ian Smith, a hard-line politician who fought bitterly to prevent Africans from coming to power, greeted Mugabe and his wife upon their return. Along with his white-minority government, Smith declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1965. After the declaration, he and his supporters fought against the rising Zimbabwean nationalist movement, which sought a Zimbabwe under African control. Mugabe, a force in that movement, had been arrested in 1964 with other members of the Zimbabwean African National Union (ZANU), which had splintered off from the Zimbabwean African Peoples’ Union (ZAPU). In 1972, while Mugabe was in jail, civil war broke out between the government and the national liberation movements. After serving eleven years in prison, Mugabe was released in 1974, along with other detained leaders, to participate in settlement talks with the government. The talks marked the beginning of a series of failed attempts to find a political solution to end the war. Five years later the famous Lancaster House conference took place, resulting in a settlement that led to elections in 1980. Zimbabwe had won its independence. ZANU won a majority in the elections and Mugabe became president.
During the first years of his rule, Mugabe made overtures to his former opponents in what his biographers consider genuinely conciliatory acts. He appointed two white ministers to his cabinet and wowed Ian Smith with his courteous conduct towards him. Nevertheless, tension grew between the ruling party and the white community in Zimbabwe after a series of debacles, tied partly to the new government’s fear that white Zimbabweans were cooperating with the South African government to undermine the newly independent state. Simmering tensions between the two former liberation parties ZANU and ZAPU came to a head in 1983, when government forces unleashed a campaign of terror in Matebeleland, an area home to the majority of ZAPU’s supporters.
By the end of the 1990s, according to Meredith, the unemployment rate had reached 50 percent and inflation ran at 60 percent. Meredith attributes the poor economic outcomes to the corruption of the political elite, which had a destabilizing impact on many government institutions. Effectively condoned by the Mugabe government, people claiming to be war veterans began invading white-owned farms in 2000, one of the most internationally publicized events during Mugabe’s rule. In the early 1990s, commercial agriculture sustained a quarter of all jobs and 40 percent of Zimbabwe’s export earnings. The invasions dealt a harsh blow to an already suffering agricultural economy.
Mugabe’s rule over the past decade has become increasingly authoritarian. Meredith details how the government regularly uses force against the population to prevent opposition to ZANU’s rule. By 2004, three million Zimbabweans had fled the country, Meredith reports, roughly a quarter of the population. Many headed for South Africa. The government retaliated against the 2005 electoral victories of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, by harassing their supporters, who hailed largely from urban areas. In a move purportedly aimed at cleaning up urban centers, the government tore down thousands of houses in slum areas and shantytowns and arrested street traders. A United Nations report on the campaign found that almost 100,000 homes and roughly 30,000 businesses had been destroyed.
Holland met Mugabe in the 1970s, while working in Zimbabwe as a journalist sympathetic to the liberation movement’s struggle. While the title of Holland’s book is in keeping with a fine tradition of dining with dictators à la Tea with Mussolini, it is in fact based on a real experience. The book’s preface relates how she threw together a quick meal of roast chicken and green beans for Mugabe before driving him to the train station on behalf of a friend. It was 1975 and he had just been released from prison. This brief encounter motivates Holland’s central question: ‘What happened to the man who was kind enough to phone a young mother and enquire about her child after a brief dinner in 1975? How on earth did he become the cruel dictator who rules Zimbabwe by decree and corrupt patronage more than 30 years later?’
She seeks an answer to this puzzle in his childhood experiences, which she draws upon to construct a basic understanding of his personality type. From about the age of ten, according to Holland, Mugabe was burdened with his mother’s expectations of success when his older brother, the family favorite, died and his father abandoned them. Holland describes Mugabe’s mother as a deeply pious and extremely depressed woman who ‘left him in no doubt that he was to be the achiever who rose above everyone else; the leader chosen by God himself.’ Mugabe also impressed a local priest in the Jesuit missionary village where they lived, who encouraged him academically and promoted him above his age group in school. Holland depicts Mugabe as a loner, whose bookishness and inheritance of his mother’s devoutness earned him the scorn of his peers.
Holland works her way through Mugabe’s life story in a series of in-depth interviews with key political figures from Zimbabwe’s history and a few family members and priests who knew him well. Through these interviews she destabilizes the simplified portrait of the leader on the book jacket, where Mugabe appears as a clean-cut freedom fighter, tilting his head up to meet the soft light of the future with a clear gaze. The book’s strength rests in part on her application of a highly descriptive technique to an impressive list of interviewees, bringing life to well-known names in Zimbabwe’s history, such as Ian Smith, Lord Carrington, the British diplomat who ran the negotiations leading up to the 1980 elections, and Jonathan Moyo, a key spokesperson for the government from 2000 to 2005. Her final chapter ‘the good, the bad and the reality’ concludes the book with a one-on-one interview with Mugabe himself, conducted at the end of 2007.
These interviews highlight the subjective nature of remembering and interpreting historical events. Her decision to make frequent use of block quotations from her interviews reminds one that every attempt to construct a historical account is always shaped by an individual’s particular worldview. When Patricia Bekele, the niece of Mugabe’s first wife, talks to Holland about her memories of living with Mugabe and Sally (whom she regarded as a mother figure) in the State House, her narration conveys the intimacy of their relationship:
She’d eat custard while he drank his tea. Mummy would always be perched on the arm of his chair, and he’d usually have his arm around her. He’d sometimes be reading a Graham Greene novel. That’s how I remember them every evening as the sun went down over the gardens at State House.
Even if one lacks Holland’s steadfast belief in a model of human psychology that assigns primacy to childhood experience, one can still learn much about the perspectives and attitudes of people involved in Zimbabwean history and their unadulterated opinions about why Mugabe behaves as he does.
Alternative interpretations of history emerge in interviews that Holland uses to support particular pieces of her psychological analysis. For example, Holland interprets a story told by Lady Mary Soames, the wife of the former British governor, as further proof of Mugabe’s emotional immaturity. In the early 1980s, Soames’s husband had worked hard to pull a group of potential investors together in London for a dinner with Mugabe, who then proceeded to embarrass Soames’s husband by spouting Marxist rhetoric. Soames recalls her husband asking Mugabe, ‘What do you mean by spouting all that frightful Marxist tripe?’ and him replying, ‘But it’s what I believe.’ Holland views Mugabe’s ‘inappropriate speech’ on Marxism as a sign of ‘poor judgment,’ embarrassing ‘a friend who had gone the extra mile for him’. Reflecting on the power asymmetries and the former British governor’s desire for Mugabe to cozy up to investors, one can just as easily read his utterance as an act of self-assertion borne of frustration.
Given that Holland relies so heavily on interview material, it remains problematic that she does not sufficiently explore possible biases among her interviewees, particularly where she holds the interviewee in high esteem. She writes that Mugabe and the former agricultural minister Denis Norman had ‘a good relationship in every respect’, a strong statement that has no apparent source other than Norman’s own interpretation of events. In her description of her interview with Norman, Holland heaps praise upon him, observing that ‘though he was extremely wealthy, he had no airs and graces’. In cases where Holland does catalogue her interviewees’ shortcomings or biases, she still goes on to regard their narration of events as a truthful foundation upon which to craft a meaningful analysis of Mugabe’s character.
While Holland organizes her work around interviews, Meredith’s book draws primarily on secondary sources to construct a chronicle of events in Zimbabwean history. There is nary a footnote to be found in either book and references in general are few and far between; this proves particularly stunning when both authors appear to be drawing on the same secondary source. Both books include a ‘select bibliography’ in place of fully catalogued notes. Holland’s work suffers less from the omission of citations because she has conducted much of the primary source material that constitutes meat of the book’s contribution. Meredith’s book is more susceptible to criticism on these grounds.
Unlike Holland, Meredith wastes little time seeking explanations for Mugabe’s character in early childhood experiences. Rather, he focuses on the contrast that Mugabe perceived between racially oppressive Rhodesia, where he came to fear and distrust whites, and independent Ghana, where he was excited by the possibilities of African self-rule. Meredith also argues that Mugabe’s time in prison hardened his resolve to defeat the Rhodesian government militarily and introduce a Marxist one-party state. Finally, Meredith maintains that Mugabe saw a negotiated settlement as second-best to a military victory over Smith’s Rhodesian government, which would have bestowed even greater powers upon him.
The conflicted Mugabe who comes to life on Holland’s pages differs radically from Meredith’s depiction of a blustering megalomaniac ruthlessly carving his place in Zimbabwe’s history. Meredith contends that Mugabe’s legitimization of violence as an instrument of democratic contestation is deeply-rooted, discernable in his statements even before he came to power, an era when Holland and many others regarded him as a ‘guerilla idol’. ‘Our votes must go together with our guns,’ Mugabe is quoted as saying in a radio broadcast from Mozambique in 1976 during the civil war. ‘The gun which produces the vote should remain its security officer—its guarantor,’ Mugabe asserted, adding, ‘The people’s votes and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.’
Meredith reveals that a complex of interests lies at the heart of the ruling party’s refusal to give up power. Drawing on highly publicized cases of corruption, he shows how politically connected individuals lined their pockets, often with damaging consequences for the well-being of state agencies. For example, a parliamentary inquiry found that senior personnel had stolen nearly ten million Zimbabwean dollars from the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority, pushing it to declare insolvency in 1999. By widening the scope of his analysis, Meredith sheds light on how Mugabe was able to consolidate his power for nearly three decades.
Mugabe’s success in part stemmed from his decision to give followers at various levels of the state apparatus free reign to enrich themselves and use their powers to crush dissent. According to Meredith, provincial governor Josaya Hungwe told a crowd ahead of a mayoral election, ‘If you do not vote for Zanu-PF in the coming mayoral election, people are going to be killed.’ Notably, Meredith reports that the MDC candidate won the election in that area, but the description of local repression ahead of the elections underscores the idea that Mugabe rules through a vast network of party loyals encouraged to use their discretion to protect the ruling party’s hold on power.
Yet the fact that these cases are scandals at all suggests some sordid measure of accountability left in Zimbabwe. Newspapers have helped to bring corruption scandals to light and the courts have censured the government in several instances. In 2000, for example, the Supreme Court ruled on behalf of the Commercial Farmers’ Union declaring the government’s actions illegal because it had not complied with its own process for compulsory seizure of land. It gave the government six months to develop a lawful resettlement program. Still, Meredith’s discussion of the role of the judiciary shows that the executive has fiercely opposed the courts on many occasions and has not always respected their decisions.
At stake in these dissonant portrayals are questions about historical determinism. Mugabe lashed out in the face of rejection and opposition, Holland argues, but he responded well to genuine but firm engagement, revealing a ‘creative, passionate and flexible’ side to him. For Holland, this analysis provokes questions about collective culpability for Zimbabwe’s downward trajectory:
If we had reacted differently to the early signs of [Mugabe’s] paranoia, could Zimbabwe have been saved from its current abyss? If whites in the country had been more realistic and acknowledged the impossibility of shifting smoothly from a police state of their creation to the democracy of their self-serving dreams, would they have been more respectful, less provocative? Or is Robert Mugabe simply an example of how power corrupts?
Holland’s analysis suggests that if Mugabe had been surrounded by more caring and sincere individuals, he might have chosen more constructive responses to people who opposed his rule. While perhaps, for example, white politicians in the early 1980s could have shown greater interest in reciprocating what both authors perceive as Mugabe’s genuine overtures for reconciliation, events like Gukurahundi support Meredith’s analysis that he nevertheless would have been quick to sanction the use of violence to quash dissent.
Both authors succeed in adding complexity to an analysis of Zimbabwe by shedding light on Mugabe’s motivations. Holland especially illuminates his inner world by revealing a richly described personal history behind his façade. Her book makes him knowable and mundane. The conclusion of Holland’s more nuanced portrait, however, ultimately mirrors Meredith’s interpretation: Mugabe is now a hardened and bitter individual, lightyears away from the moral man she once believed him to be. In this context, understanding his internal complexity tells us more about the past than it can about his future behavior if, as both authors suggest, Mugabe the man has retired into Mugabe the tyrant.
Zimbabwe’s election fiasco this year underscores the importance of understanding what motivates Mugabe. The 84-year old leader bit his thumb at the world in March, demanding a recount when his party faced stiff electoral competition. The delay in releasing the presidential election results extended into weeks of chaos, as the country’s security forces cracked down on the opposition, raiding offices and making arrests. The international community floundered in the face of Mugabe’s recalcitrance, unable to cajole the government into abiding by the electoral rules it had set out prior to the elections.
As a young boy, Mugabe demonstrated his ability to wait patiently, on his own, until the time was right to achieve his objectives. The boy who patiently watched traps by the side of a river has grown into a man who will not bow easily to the pressure of his opponents. Despite indications that after almost 30 years many Zimbabweans want him to exit office once and for all, he is still biding his time.
But while he may seem like a loner, he is not alone. A sophisticated analysis of Mugabe may be critical to understand Zimbabwe’s trajectory, but the analysis of a single person can only shed so much light on a complex set of institutional arrangements and personal interests holding together a corrupt authoritarian regime. At this advanced stage in the game, when the livelihoods of a significant number of cronies depend on Mugabe’s continued reign, an understanding of how Zimbabwe will get out of its current impasse must build on an analysis that moves beyond knowledge of the man at the top. An understanding of the man, however, is still a good place to begin.