Insofar as it is a memoir of degeneration, mirrored in the fate of his family’s Zimbabwean farm, and witnessed in the company of his sister, it is a book that is deeply personal. It is capable, however, of irony, as when Godwin and his sister do manage to visit the old farm to find it dilapidated but under the supervision of the apologetic, English-educated employee of its new owners. This, though, is one of the rare occasions where a character is couched in ambivalence rather than given a hardened moral and political position.
The subtitle, The Last Days of Robert Mugabe, is drawn from Godwin’s trip back to Zimbabwe just after the first round of the 2008 elections when it seemed, finally, Mugabe had lost. I was there for this period and it was clear that Morgan Tsvangirai had won the presidency with 56%. Mugabe had secured somewhat less than 40%. By machinations, rigging and intimidation he held on to power. Godwin recounts the certainly accurate rumours that Mugabe did almost stand down, until a fateful politburo meeting of his party dissuaded him. The book looks to a future when he will finally go because of the continuing courage of those who resist him. Godwin is unequivocal about Mugabe. He can’t wait for him to go.
But this means that Mugabe, who is the sinister backdrop of the entire book, and whose powerful personality breathes life into the opposition arrayed against him, is simultaneously the book’s weakest link. He has to carry too much. As with so much Western policy towards Zimbabwe, the problems of the country have been personalised in one man to the extent that he is caricatured and the complex blend of forces, which he represents but does not by himself constitute, are acknowledged more in passing than in real depth.
The forces within Zanu PF are profound. In some ways, the military and intelligence hierarchy resemble those in the last days of apartheid South Africa. There, it was called the era of the securocrats and this term has now entered popular parlance in Zimbabwe. However, the securocrats are themselves a varied bunch. Some supported the third presidential candidate in 2008, Simba Makoni, and Mugabe’s rigging had to steal almost as many votes from Makoni as from Tsvangirai.
Zanu PF has its own technocratic wing that would like to see a more equitable accommodation with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the high-stakes chess game between Mugabe loyalists and the more moderate technocrats is not reflected in Godwin’s book. Nor is the deep suspicion that the hard-line securocrats are not Mugabe loyalists at all, but his controllers.
Similarly, the complexity and divisions of MDC politics are submerged under a blanket label of bravery and suffering. The fact that the MDC is sometimes capable of being its own worst enemy seldom emerges. Tsvangirai, a hugely courageous leader, has not necessarily been a good prime minister and his performance cannot be entirely blamed on the harassment he has suffered from Zanu PF.
The split within the MDC is not seriously treated by Godwin, so that the complex foundation of the MDC-Mutambara splinter party is not given its place, and nor is the fact that, when the MDC divided, its best political and technocratic figures preferred Mutambara to Tsvangirai.
Rather than provide real analysis, Godwin presents us with a terrifying morality play where the truly heroic are good and those in Mugabe’s Zanu PF party are, like Mugabe himself, evil. But this, in a way, is also the book’s great achievement: not so much its unnuanced characterisation of evil, but its commemoration, its bearing witness to the truly heroic. None will read it without being moved by the examples of commitment to democracy that make voters and activists in the West pale by comparison. The accounts of torture and murder are terrifying.
Godwin’s narrative is superb and spare in recounting the tales of courage, just as his patient descriptions of the landscape give a masterly context to what is perpetuated and endured. When Godwin describes courage and defiance, he does so without embellishment. Godwin shows what a good writer he is by almost under-writing the strongest parts of his book.
But he cannot answer the questions posed by the MDC Finance minister, Tendai Biti, brought into the compromise coalition government brokered by Thabo Mbeki. Biti asked what happens when the struggle is personalised — all against Mugabe — but Mugabe never goes? What strategies are left to seek to improve, even a little, the predicament of Zimbabwe’s suffering people?
Godwin doesn’t try to answer Biti and I suspect he is as bemused as he is impressed by one of the last testimonies he recounts, that of the MDC municipal politician, Chenjerai Mangezo. This man was beaten so seriously by Mugabe’s thugs that he was left for dead. He defied them with what he thought was his last breath. Amazingly, he recovered but, even in his painful convalescence, he insisted on attending the swearing-in ceremony of the new council. He arrived in the back of a pick-up piled with mattresses to cushion the pain of travelling, and entered the council chamber with both legs in plaster casts. Godwin wonders how he sits there alongside those who ordered his murder.
Finally, he attributes it to patience. He means a patience for justice.
It could also be an amazing pragmatism. After all the condemnations and the cries for justice, someone has to make the country crawl forward.
Godwin’s is a book for Western readers who need to be reminded what courage is. But it won’t help them understand the absurd nature of courage on the part of people like Chenjerai Mangezo.
People look beyond Mugabe in more ways than one. They have more complex things to deal with than can be accommodated even in superb narrative and writing that, sadly, leaves us with the age-old Zimbabwean problem of seeing things in binaries — bad and good, black and white.
The absurd courage of Biti and Mangezo is in their heroic, perhaps doomed, effort to live with the devil, to refuse to be crushed by his handiwork, and seek almost forlornly to repair it.
Professor Stephen Chan is the author of The End of Certainty.