WHEN I first met and interviewed Robert Mugabe, he was still the exiled leader of an African nationalist movement trying to end white-minority rule in what was then Rhodesia.
It was July 1977 at the Kilimanjaro Hotel in Dar Es S
alaam, Tanzania. I was a 28-year-old freelance reporter, he was a 53-year-old “terrorist” or “freedom fighter,” depending on your point of view.
He had recently spent 10 years in a Rhodesian prison, now he was commander of a guerrilla army. In the United States he was virtually unknown.
My first impressions, jotted in a yellowing notebook: “Mugabe: straightforward, eloquent, direct, to the point; ironic, barbed sense of humour. Impressive. Not in the least bit jive or phony, no posturing.”
“We are fighting for a democratic state, for self-determination, for an end to exploitation,” Mugabe told me. “All countries should help us. There is no reason why the American people should not come to our aid.” He was particularly keen on telling me how grateful he was for humanitarian aid from Sweden.
Mugabe spoke confidently, but without arrogance. A formal man, dressed casually in an African print shirt, he conveyed the dignity of a well-educated teacher, his previous profession.
When his wife, Sally, who was from Ghana, entered the room, he rose to greet her with obvious warmth. After all these years, it’s still difficult and painful to reconcile my memory of this man with the tyrant he became.
Today, Mugabe is one of Africa’s longest-reigning dictators, routinely denounced by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for abusing his people.
“A disgrace to Africa,” says Wole Soyinka, Nigeria’s Nobel Prize-winning author.
“A caricature of an African dictator,” says Desmond Tutu, South Africa’s Nobel laureate. And Pius Ncube, the Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, says he prays for “a popular uprising” to topple Mugabe’s regime.
Of all the depressing statistics about Mugabe’s broken country, the one that gnaws at me the most is that life expectancy has declined in the last two decades from 62 years to a mere 38 years.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When he came to power in 1980, in a landslide election victory after a negotiated settlement of the war, Mugabe was greeted as a national hero, at least by Zimbabwe’s black majority. And at first, Mugabe delivered on promises of peace, reconciliation with the white minority, and social development. Yet even as early as the 1980s, there was an ominous turn of events. Mugabe had formed a coalition “Patriotic Front” government with a rival guerrilla leader, Joshua Nkomo, but it soon fell apart when Mugabe accused Nkomo of plotting a coup against him.
Mugabe shocked many of his international supporters by unleashing his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade against Nkomo’s minority Ndebele tribe in southern Zimbabwe. Thousands were killed.
Frontline was one of the few media outlets in the United States to sound the alarm, in the 1983 documentary Crisis in Zimbabwe, reported by Charlie Cobb, an African American journalist who, like me, was dismayed to see Mugabe acting as brutally and repressively as the white-minority rulers he had replaced.
Should I have seen signs of what was coming? Had Mugabe deceived me? In that hotel room back in 1977, Mugabe assured me he was doing everything possible to overcome differences between the two guerrilla factions — Zanu and Nkomo’s Zapu.
“If we make this attempt at unity and it fails, we fail the people of Zimbabwe,” Mugabe insisted. He outlined in great detail the steps he was taking to try to integrate the Zanu and Zapu armies.
Mugabe had seen what had just happened in Angola in the mid-1970s, where three rival nationalist movements clashed as soon as Portugal ended its colonial rule. Angola’s civil war became a Cold War cauldron, with Washington backing one side, Moscow the other and Beijing the third. Cuba sent troops, South Africa invaded.
In Zimbabwe, the Soviet Union backed Nkomo and China supported Mugabe, but Mugabe was pragmatic enough to realise that a repeat of Angola would be a disaster. For the time being, and through Independence day on April 18, 1980, Mugabe would maintain his tactical alliance with Nkomo. And once in power, even after crushing Nkomo’s opposition, Mugabe allowed Nkomo himself, his burly adversary, to remain part of the government as long as he lived. So the authoritarian impulse was probably there in Mugabe from the beginning, but I chose to see his pragmatism and his political skill.
After that first meeting with Mugabe in 1977, I interviewed him again in 1979 at an Organisation of African Unity conference in Liberia (just before Liberia descended into civil war) and filmed him later that summer at his exile headquarters in Maputo, Mozambique.
The offices of Mugabe’s Zanu were located in a funky high-rise building. Mozambique had only recently emerged from its own war of Independence against Portuguese colonial rule and was a poor, struggling — if momentarily euphoric — country.
The offices were spartan, the elevator not functioning. We lugged our camera equipment up many flights of stairs to the roof of the building, where we interviewed Mugabe against the city skyline. He joked that having to climb the stairs kept his staff in shape.
“In the West, many consider you a terrorist,” I began. “We are fighting an unjust system,” he replied. “We are not fighting the whites as whites. … We are not terrorists. … We are fighters for democracy.”
Political rhetoric, of course. Even in my 20s and sympathetic to his cause, I could recognise that. But it also meshed with my own experience. Back home, I had become friends with a number of Zimbabwean students studying in the United States who were members of Mugabe’s Zanu.
The thing I remember about them most was how non-racist they were. For people engaged in a struggle with Ian Smith’s notoriously racist government, they were themselves almost incomprehensibly free of animosity toward whites. Of course, the guerrilla war in Rhodesia was brutal, with atrocities on both sides. But the Zanu people I knew in the United States and those I was meeting in Mozambique defied the Mau Mau image prevalent in much of the West.In those days, nearly every African leader or would-be leader professed to be a socialist of some sort —whether it was Julius Nyerere’s “African socialism” in Tanzania or Nelson Mandela’s left-wing ANC, which included the South African Communist Party.
Raised as a Catholic and educated in part by Jesuits, Mugabe became a Marxist while studying in Ghana during the era of President Kwame Nkrumah, the grand old man of African nationalism.
Mugabe’s Marxism was an ideology that hardened during his 10-year prison term in Rhodesia and was influenced by his Maoist allies in China. I should have paid closer attention to Mugabe’s definition of socialism as a “socio-economic system … which is planned and operated by those who are chosen by the people.”
For Mugabe, the goal became a one-party state, not a European-style social democracy. And his own power — not the welfare of his people — became his obsession.
Mugabe’s 26 years in power have turned out to be a textbook example of Lord Acton’s famous dictum, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
In the first election after Independence, Mugabe’s Zanu won control of 57 out of 80 seats in parliament, easily overwhelming their nominal ally — Zapu. A pattern soon developed: When Mugabe felt firmly in control, he was relatively benign, running Zimbabwe like a ward boss in old Chicago, handing out patronage to his friends. But whenever Mugabe felt that his power was threatened — by Nkomo, by white farmers, by the Movement for Democratic Change — he lashed out. Usually his brutal crackdowns were timed to upcoming elections he thought he might lose. Mugabe’s confiscation of white-owned farms in the last six years has been highly political.
Suddenly Mugabe played the race card. He urged “war veterans”—unemployed, demobilised guerrilla soldiers — to occupy white farms. Ownership of many farms was simply transferred to Mugabe’s cronies, who have proved to be either incapable of farming or totally disinterested in it. Most whites have left the country, sometimes invited to start over in neighbouring Zambia or Mozambique.
Thousands of black farm workers lost their jobs and agriculture has collapsed. Malnutrition is now widespread. A least 80% of Zimbabweans are unemployed. The whole country, now some 12 million people, has closed in upon itself, cut off from the rest of the world, trapped in its own private torment. Mugabe, now 82, has virtually achieved his one-party state. Zanu controls most of the seats in parliament.
When Mugabe needs to, as in 2002, he rigs elections. His party, which only needs a 75% majority (which it has) to change the constitution, does so on a whim. He has silenced what used to be a robust and free press, jailing and torturing reporters. And he has become increasingly mercurial and brutal.
Last year he launched his own version of slum clearance, Operation Murambatsvina (“Clean the Filth”), evicting some 700 000 people from their homes in Harare and other cities — mostly desperately poor people who, he feared, might support the opposition or stage food riots.
When condemned by the international community, Mugabe hisses back, claiming he is the target of a Western conspiracy. Paranoia has replaced the openness with which, 30 years ago, he solicited international support for his rebel cause. All of this has caused me, and others, to wonder what exactly transformed Mugabe from a promising national hero to a tyrant.
Is it simply that he has remained in power far too long? Or was there some other trigger?
Smith, Mugabe’s now-elderly enemy, has said he thinks Mugabe is simply “deranged”.
Long ago, Mugabe seemed to hold something of Mandela’s promise. When I last spoke with him, on that rooftop in Maputo, he had come to a crossroads.
His guerrilla army had taken the offensive, and he might, conceivably, have shot his way to power, but the toll in lives would have been high and it might have provoked a larger conflict, involving South Africa and perhaps even Britain and the United States.
There was an apocalyptic mood back then, with South African apartheid leader PW Botha telling the BBC that World War III had already started in southern Africa between the West and the Soviet Union.
At that moment, Mugabe had the good sense to accept a British offer to go to London and negotiate an end to the bitter conflict. The Lancaster House Agreement, which paved the way for majority rule in Zimbabwe, was signed just before Christmas in 1979. There would be no repeat of Angola, no spark for a third world war.
As a result, Mugabe entered office with a reputation for international statesmanship — a reputation enhanced by his support, at some risk to his own country, for an end to apartheid in neighbouring South Africa.
The reluctance these days of African leaders to denounce Mugabe’s human rights abuses is self-serving — they don’t want to call attention to their own shortcomings — but it is also partly a legacy of respect for a man who was once a freedom fighter.
I have pondered the enigma of Robert Mugabe countless times — and questioned my own naïveté in taking him at face value. It’s unnerving when you misjudge someone so profoundly. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, there is one thing that everyone notices but rarely mentions about Mugabe: his mustache.
That small, distinctive streak of dark hair just under his nose is Hitleresque. Not a perfect match — Hitler’s was more of a square, Mugabe’s is narrower — but one can’t help making the comparison, however unfair and stupid that might be. In fact, many political cartoonists who dislike Mugabe draw on the Hitler comparison.
I never asked, but I can’t help thinking: Is Mugabe being deliberately provocative? Or does his style of facial hair have no political symbolism whatsoever?
I can still remember my excitement at meeting Mugabe and filing my first radio story about him. This was history — a man leading one of the last anti-colonial struggles in Africa.
He seemed to measure up — a tough, university-educated African leader with British flourishes. When I asked him how he would describe US policy toward Zimbabwe, he deadpanned: “A mixed grill.”
What happened to the Mugabe I knew in the late 1970s still bewilders and disturbs me. Even if he lacked Mandela’s transcendent humanity and compassion, Mugabe could have been an esteemed statesman and a popular president. Instead he has run his country into the ground, one more tyrant on a long-suffering continent, his people waiting for him to die. — Frontline/World series.