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Freedom Fighter Turned Tyrant

UNTIL recently, historians and journalists have been disinclined to look deeply into the private circumstances and individual psychologies of the African leaders who replaced white rulers in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.


In our Manichean enthusiasm for democracy, it was considered neither correct nor constructive to examine too closely what lay behind the public utterances and dramatic showmanship of men like Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta, Thabo Mbeki, even Nelson Mandela.

Until now, anything that damaged Africa’s image was seen in liberal media circles as an attempt to boost apartheid.

Now, with white rule in Africa out of the way, the Rhodesia-born South Africa residing author and journalist Heidi Holland has opened the window and, with the help of three psychologists (two white, one black) let in some fresh air and clear bright light on a man we are unable to get enough of, 84-year old Robert Gabriel Mugabe.

We all know where he’s going: but where did he come from? That’s the question.

With Wordsworth’s dictum that ‘the child is father of the man’ clearly in her mind, Ms Holland begins her story with a little help from her intriguing subject’s former friends.

In 1934, it can’t have been much fun being the 10-year old Robert Mugabe.

His father Gabriel was a carpenter who went to Bulawayo looking for work and who never returned to the small and impoverished Mugabe family which lived at Kutama in Mashonaland, close to the famous a Jesuit Mission Station where young Robert (and many of the men who went on to lead Zimbabwe at Independence in 1980) were educated.

It was also the year that Robert’s elder (and popular with local villager girls) brother Michael was found dead, poisoned by something he ate, or someone jealous of him.

In her despair Bona Mugabe, a woman who would have made a better nun than mum — told tiny Bob that not only was he the new male head of the family but also a child sent to her by God, a special delight who would one day become a great Catholic priest, perhaps even a cardinal. Perhaps even the Pope.

Intellectually furious, the teenage Robert kept himself to himself, locked himself into the private world of books and religion and attracted the attention of Jesuits who saw him as one of them.

A child of “unusual gravitas” said Father Jerome O’Hea SJ, a wealthy priest who took an interest in his young protégé’s education and became (say Ms Holland’s psychologists) Mugabe’s surrogate father.

Sadly for Zimbabwe (perhaps fortunately for the Catholic Church) Robert Mugabe did not go on to become a priest.

Instead, after meeting an attractive teacher in Nkrumah’s Ghana he returned home to introduce Sally to his mother.

In 1960, he joined the ranks of African nationalists fighting against a still fairly “liberal” Rhodesian government and went on to become (after ten year imprisonment and the tragic death of his son in Ghana — he was not allowed to attend the boy’s funeral) in 1975 a freedom fighter based in Mozambique.

That was the year that Ms Holland — through a Rhodesian lawyer — had her very brief encounter with Mugabe which provides her with the title for this book.

It was the first time she had cooked a meal for a black man. The following day, Mugabe telephoned her and thanked her.

Ms Holland — daughter of stalwart supporters of Ian Smith and white rule in Rhodesia — was bowled over. Wide eyed and blinking she asks:” What happened to the man who was kind enough to phone a young mother and inquire about her child after a brief dinner in 1975?”

Unity Mitford and Diana Mosley used to ask questions like that. With great effort and admirable determination, Ms Holland turns towards some of Mugabe’s erstwhile fans and followers for an answer — to his surviving brother: to Denis Norman, Mugabe’s first Minister for Agriculture who now lives in the UK: to Mary, widow of Lord Soames (Britain’s last Governor in Rhodesia): the rather cranky head of the Jesuits in today’s Zimbabwe, half a dozen or so rather nauseating former secret service agents for Smith and Mugabe) and to the great historian and writer Lawrence Vambe who was once a close friend, supporter and Mugabe admirer. They went to school together, Sadly, he lives in England miles from his beloved homeland. This is a book worth reading despite its many shortcomings.

Ms Holland experienced nothing of political or ordinary life in Zimbabwe from 1982 (she tells us she left the country just ahead of Mugabe’s secret police) until she returned to Harare last November when she waited weeks in a local hotel for an interview with the Man Himself one of the strangest interviews I’ve read in my career as a journalist with some of the author’s questions, put to him during a two and a half hours interview at State House, bordering on inanity.

Ms Holland is also limited by the fact she speaks not a word of either Shona or Sindebele, Zimbabwe’s two main local languages.

‘Dinner with Mugabe’ is a brave but deeply flawed attempt to answer difficult questions about a complicated man.

Yet it is still a thought-provoking work that should engage the mind of anyone with a serious interest in post-colonial Southern Africa. But its claim to tell the “untold story of a freedom fighter who became a tyrant” is ludicrously ambitious, even misleading.

This is a piece in a jigsaw puzzle, a part worth having — essential even — but little more than that.

*Trevor Grundy worked as a reporter for Time magazine, Deutsche Welle, SABC, Beeld, The Scotsman, and Radio France Internationale in Zimbabwe from 1977 until 1996.

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