Mugabe: A man of more than one story


Mugabe was never a single story.

Zimbabwe, the country he led for almost four decades, was never just a Mugabe story either.

Few places help define Robert Mugabe, and the framing of Mugabe, like the Heroes Acre, the place where Zimbabwe buries her struggle heroes.

There is a towering wall, carrying a mural of Mugabe. Many who lie here sacrificed more, but it is Mugabe alone who stands immortalised in bronze, chest thrust forward, flag fluttering behind him.

On one visit, at the height of Mugabe’s power, the curator looked up at the massive piece of North Korean art, and gushed: “That’s none other than His Excellency, Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe, majestically, triumphantly, bravely guiding his flock forward to a new future.”

That narrative was part of the Mugabe playbook. For years, he cast himself as the sole liberator, the one the country could never do without. His history, while key to the country’s own history, became the history of the country, captured forever in song and history books.

Unwittingly, Mugabe and his critics often converged on that narrative; that Zimbabwe was all about him.

Over the last 20 years, the world reduced Zimbabwe to a single story – Mugabe. It was “Mugabe’s land reform,” they would report, from “Mugabe’s Zimbabwe”.

But we were never that. Mugabe himself, was far more complex than the “liberator turned dictator” trope loved by his detractors.

The story of a man who hated losing

Mugabe was born at Kutama mission in 1924.

When Mugabe was aged 10, his brother, Michael, a bright athlete aged 15, died of suspected poisoning. His father, Gabriel, out of grief and rage, abandoned the family and left for Bulawayo, where he remarried.

Robert Mugabe grew under the care of his mother, Bona, mentored by Jesuits priests.

Growing up, Mugabe hated losing. Kezito Bute, a young priest at Kutama at the time, told the writer Heidi Holland, how Mugabe, a keen tennis player, would throw a fit if the game wasn’t going his way: “He was keen and good. He often won and then he was happy. But when he was losing you would hear ‘love this’, ‘advantage that’, and then ‘game, bang’ and his racquet went on the ground. You would know Robert was going to be hurt and angry. You would see his head fall and his shoulders drop down and he would leave the court without saying anything to anybody. He did not like to lose.”

Years later, it’s a streak that was to define him.

Through his years at Fort Hare, where he met many struggle icons, Mugabe’s grew his interest in politics, as he discovered how the world he had been sheltered from at Kutama was skewed against the black race.

It was not until years later, at Stodart Hall in Salisbury, that Mugabe’s career as a nationalist, and a future leader, began.   

It was July 1960. The revolution had been flagging, with nationalist leaders either jailed or scattered abroad. In the townships, the youths were all fired up for resistance, but there was no inspiring leadership to light the match.

Mugabe was on a brief visit to the country from Ghana. Still reluctant to join the struggle, he was invited to speak at an event at Stodart. He stood up, and began: he has been to Ghana. He has seen a real-life independent African country run by black people. It is possible. Blacks can rule themselves. Whites can be challenged.

In the aftermath of Mugabe’s first speech, riots raged, and they went on for days. To contain the riots, Edgar Whitehead’s administration enacted the Law and Order Maintenance Act, giving police impunity to crush protests. Under that law, Mugabe and many nationalists were arrested. Decades later it was under the same law, and its successor laws, that Mugabe was to arrest his own opponents, on these same streets.

Exiled from independent Zimbabwe, Joshua Nkomo was to write to Mugabe: “One of the most disgraceful aspects of our independence, which is difficult to defend, is that we have taken the methods used to oppress, torture and kill our people and tried to use them to consolidate our ‘independence’.”

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Mugabe arriving for a press conference on the eve of Indepedence Day, 1980

Mugabe’s first decade is often touted as Zimbabwe’s glory years. It was, but also wasn’t.

There had been reason for hope. Coming out of a bitter war, Mugabe had resisted retribution against whites, and, confounding their fears of “Marxist revenge”, offered reconciliation.

In his early years, Mugabe spent eight times more on education than his peers in the region, building a legacy of high literacy that Zimbabweans still take pride in today.

Yet, that this literacy never advanced into a core black middle class, one that would build its own industrial base, is an indictment both on Mugabe and those he educated.

Still, many today look to Mugabe’s first decade in power with nostalgia. Why not? Railways and buses worked, many urban children went to well-run schools, and many of the new professionals, including civil servants, bought property.

Yet, even then, it was more complex than it looks now. The cracks had already been showing.

In 1980, just months after Mugabe had come to power, the country had been hit by strikes. Between March and June 1980, at least 172 000 working days were lost to strikes, according to an ILO paper. There were up to 200 strikes between 1980 and 1981.

Mugabe said the workers were abusing Independence, warning them: “Democracy is never mob rule.”

In October 1981, striking teachers and nurses in Harare were detained, 200 were suspended and 80 teachers were fired.

In the Midlands and Matabeleland, worse was happening. For some, the 1980s are the good old days of Mugabe’s early rule, but for parts of the country, they were the darkest days.

The integration of the three armies – the Rhodesian forces and the two liberation forces, ZIPRA and ZANLA – did not end the old tensions of the war. Responding to a group of armed dissidents, Mugabe ordered a unit of the Fifth Brigade, a special unit that reported directly to him, to fan out into the countryside. Their mission, ostensibly, was to weed out the dissidents. However, by the time they were done, they had murdered thousands of civilians.

The 1980s were Mugabe’s best years. And they were also his worst.

The story of Mugabe and the land

Mugabe and Tony Blair, 1997. The two fought a bitter war over land reform

Nothing brings out the complexity of Mugabe more than land.

Land was at the core of the liberation struggle. To make way for independence in 1980, a compromise deal was reached; the new black government would leave white farmers on the land for at least a decade, and allow a system of willing buyer-willing seller. Whites, just 2% of the population, owned 70% of arable land.

Agitation for land restitution was rising in the 1990s. The willing-seller, willing-buyer system had long stalled.

In an infamous 1997 letter to Mugabe, Clare Short, the British International Development Secretary, said Britain had no “special responsibility” to pay for farm compensation. Mugabe needed no second invitation. That same year, the government listed 1,503 farms for acquisition.

In 1998, villagers in the Svosve area invaded farms, complaining that government was too slow. “Your farm is on my land,” local Chief Gahadza is said to have told a white farmer.

Two years later, in 2000, a wave of farm takeovers spread across the country. Over 5000 farms occupied by about 4 500 farmers and companies were taken over.

The impact of the land reform? When Mugabe listed those farms for takeover in 1997, and promised the war veterans hefty and unbudgeted for gratuities, the Zimbabwe dollar crashed.

Click to read: Remember November – A timeline of how Zimbabwe lost its currency]

Yet, grudgingly, even Mugabe’s toughest critics now say it needed to be done; the route might have been less violent, but it had to be done.

Today, around 145 000 households sit on 4.1 million hectares of smallholder farm schemes, according to government data. A further 3.5 million hectares is now held by 23 000 medium-scale black farmers.

Tobacco was once grown by a few thousand white large-scale farmers. Today, over 170 000 black smallholders have blundered and staggered their way to 257 million kgs, taking losses and lessons on their way to record output. It is an imperfect revolution.

Land reform decimated an industry built on agriculture. It helped collapse the currency. However, many blacks farmers still believe it restored their right to their land, their remaining shortcomings on production notwithstanding. While many black farmers have failed, many others have succeeded, challenging the myth that farming is inherently tied to skin colour.

The story of Mugabe and the West

One of the most enduring images of Mugabe is one taken on a 1983 visit to the White House, where he strolled down the Rose Garden with Ronald Reagan.

“We didn’t always agree, but have all gained much from hearing your views, Mr. Prime Minister,” Reagan told Mugabe after an hour and half-long “working lunch”. He visited the White House under Jimmy Carter, George Bush Snr, and Bill Clinton.

He was knighted by the Queen, hosted her in Zimbabwe in 1991, and saw a procession of world leaders to State House.

They all overlooked Gukurahundi, and his brutal crackdowns on rivals over the years. It took land reform, and not his repression, to change the West’s mind about Mugabe. To them, the story was that he had suddenly changed from good guy into a despot. His victims, and Mugabe himself, knew a different story.

“What I was, I still am,” he himself once said.

He had to be punished. And, because their single story narrative of Zimbabwe was that of a country owned by Mugabe, the country had to be punished with him.

On March 8, 2001, US senators Bill Frist and Russ Feingold introduced the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA). It was a bipartisan effort; Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, were part of the push.

However, the story of ZIDERA, and indeed what lay at its core, is best told by telling the stories of chief bill sponsor Senator Jesse Helms in 2001, and Senator Jeff Flake in 2018.

The original bill – a new edition was signed into law ahead of elections in July 2018 – demanded that Zimbabwe withdraw from the DRC and also respect democracy. But land reform was the heart of the law.

Helms was a friend of racist Rhodesia, and a supporter of Ian Smith’s UDI. Once, during the civil rights movement, Helms ran an advert: “White people, wake up before it is too late. Do you want Negroes working beside you, your wife and your daughters, in your mills and factories?”

When the Civil Rights Act passed through Congress in 1964, to end discrimination against blacks, Helms denounced it as “the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced “. He called civil rights leader Martin Luther King and his followers “Communists and sex perverts”.

Ironically, while Helms pushed for sanctions on Zimbabwe, he had campaigned against sanctions on Rhodesia. When Bishop Abel Muzorewa was elected leader of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, an election boycotted by the nationalists, Helms wrote to Jimmy Carter, saying “by any objective standard” the elections were free and fair. At Lancaster, Helms sent two of his aides to support Smith’s delegation.

The story of Mugabe and the sanctions

Helms died in 2008, and his protégé Jeff Flake took up the torch. Flake, who had spent some years in Zimbabwe and South Africa as a missionary, went about his dealings with Zimbabwe with similar zeal as his mentor.

In 1987, Flake had testified before the Utah State Senate in support of a resolution expressing support for the apartheid government of South Africa. At the time, ironically, Flake said he opposed sanctions on apartheid South Africa because they would only worsen the lives of black South Africans.

Under ZIDERA, sanctions will not be lifted until Zimbabwe introduces democratic reforms, which have long been resisted by ZANU-PF, under Mugabe, and now under his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa.

However, ZIDERA also demands that Zimbabwe “enforce the SADC tribunal rulings from 2007 to 2010, including 18 disputes involving employment, commercial, and human rights cases surrounding dispossessed Zimbabwean commercial farmers and agricultural companies”.

The rulings are reaching; they found that land reform was racially motivated and discriminatory, and therefore illegal under the Constitution, and that white farmers must get back their land or be given full compensation for the land they lost.

And that was the complexity of the land question. While Mugabe had dithered on the land question for years, and indeed used land reform to butcher opponents and retain power, Western hypocrisy and its prejudices did little to help those who sought to reduce land reform to a mere Mugabe power ploy.

And, so, while the single story narrative was that these were “Mugabe’s farm grabs”, land reform was clearly far more complex than that. And while Mugabe’s supporters told us that land reform was all Zimbabwe needed, that was also never the whole truth.

Today, ZANU-PF blames sanctions for all its failures, while some critics deny the existence of sanctions entirely. In truth, the truth is more complex than that: Zimbabweans were caught between Mugabe’s cruel battle to retain power, and the West’s crusade to punish him for land reform.

[Click to read: Special Report – US sanctions on Zimbabwe: truth, history, and lies]

Mugabe: no single story

For decades, the Western world’s gaze on Zimbabwe has been coloured by a visceral obsession with Mugabe.

We had Mugabe’s repression on one hand, and, on the other, a West whose entire Foreign Policy was not about Zimbabwe, the country, but on getting Moogarby.

For Mugabe, this worked well for him. He could play victim, portraying himself as the last bulwark against Western imperialism. His podium-thumping anti-West speeches at the United Nations endeared him to many across Africa and in the African Diaspora.

For cowardly African leaders, he was their spokesman, the man they silently cheered on as he said the things that they, with their national budgets funded by donors, could never dare say.

And yet, for Zimbabweans at home, all his rhetoric was just as empty as their shop shelves were in 2008. Because of Mugabe, they lost life savings, watched family murdered in his name, and were driven to the corners of the earth to escape his disastrous economic policies.  

Today, generations will live with the effects of his political legacy.

It galls many Zimbabweans that Mugabe died peacefully, in a well-funded foreign hospital, at a time underpaid doctors at home deliver babies under candlelight.

He allowed the military to involve itself in political power games. “A country we won by the gun? Taken away by the stroke of a pen? Never,” he once swore. Now, that military turned on him, and now continues to hover over citizens’ lives.

Mugabe supporters ahead of Mugabe’s return to Zimbabwe, 1980

His sympathisers now want to rewrite his role, trying to sell the line that he was an unwilling bystander. For 40 years, they would tell us, he knew nothing. But his political legacy is clear to see; his open calls to violence and division have left a polarised nation, drunk on a particularly cancerous strain of bitterness against each other.

As for Mugabe’s economic legacy, it is everywhere you look. It is in the decayed infrastructure he left behind – how many miles of rail did he build? – in the billions of debts that he left unpaid, and in the currency that he decimated.

His legacy is there in the economy he was forced to leave behind. It is a broken economy. In his last years, he kept it aloft on rickety pillars of subsidies and inefficiencies, many of them deliberately designed to feed patronage. It is an economy that, as Mthuli Ncube has found out, was designed to resist change.

Yet, even in all that chaos, there could never be one single story to tell it all.

Was Mugabe a revolutionary that fought against white minority rule? Yes.

And yet still a snake-oil salesman whose pan-Africanist rhetoric contradicted his love for all things British? Also, yes.

A thorn in the side of Western imperialists? Yes.

An economics disaster whose idea of containing world record inflation was to order prices to be cut in half? Totally.

A brutal dictator who helped destroy his country? That too.

But should Mugabe define Zimbabwe? No. Was Zimbabwe all about Mugabe? It was not.

And was there just one way of telling the Mugabe? No. It is possible to understand those who admired Mugabe the revolutionary, and sympathise with those who reviled Mugabe, the man who crushed a generation’s dreams.

The murals at Heroes Acre will have his people believe that the country’s history, and its future, was about Mugabe alone. The headlines in the Western media, similarly, would have us think Zimbabwe was nothing more than Mugabeland.

Yet, in truth, Zimbabwe was never his alone, and neither was it ever about him alone.  

And, to tell the story of Mugabe and the country that he led, generations will need more than one story.