The event was sold out. Extra chairs had to be wheeled in to accommodate a steady flow of eager viewers. Another reminder of how the story of Mugabe the man continues to captivate the British public.
“Were this a documentary about any other African leader or the neglected crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Madagascar, would the public interest have been this similar?” I wondered to myself. I think not.
Mugabe is the British media’s bogeyman for everything that is wrong with Africa and one can never escape the naked reality that the fallout from Zanu PF’s violent eviction of white farmers in Zimbabwe from 2000 onwards, many of whom were British descendants, continues to attract a disproportionate amount of international focus compared to other more severe crises in the DRC and Madagascar.
The film relies on interviews with the late Edgar Tekere, Geoff Nyarota, Simba Makoni, Lovemore Madhuku, John Makumbe, Wilfred Mhanda, Trevor Ncube, Elinor Sisulu, Dennis Norman and Lovemore Matombo to paint what Bright has billed as “a definitive account” of Mugabe’s life.
The film depicts Mugabe’s role in Zimbabwe’s successful liberation and development, along with his Machiavellian retention of power, and suggests that his leadership showed great promise in its infancy, but deteriorated over time. We are told, at the end, that Mugabe’s legacy is one of genocide.
To be fair, when juxtaposed against the Mugabe and the White African documentary, which managed to scoop a British Independent Film Award (2009), was nominated for a Bafta (2010) and shortlisted for an Oscar award (2010), Robert Mugabe … What Happened? is a far more bearable watch. It also showcases never-before-seen archival footage and the makers are to be commended for conducting several original interviews. But that is where it ends.
The film has many problems.
The vast majority of the aforementioned commentators on Mugabe have observed him from a distance. They have no intimate knowledge of the man. Consequently, the likes of Sisulu, Makumbe and Madhuku bring little by way of substance towards understanding Mugabe. Tekere and Norman once worked closely with Mugabe, but they were not sufficiently probed on meaningful matters. For instance, Norman’s only real contribution is the retelling of how, after the first cabinet meeting of the independent Zimbabwe government, Mugabe instructed cabinet members who were not dressed in suits to dress appropriately. Members of cabinet always wore suits after that first encounter, Norman tells us. “And so what?” I exclaimed to myself during the showing.
The core problem with the film, however, is that the question it poses — what happened to Mugabe’s promise? — can be asked of almost all the figures it relies on for answers. Despite being a long-time civil society activist for democratic constitutionalism, Madhuku unilaterally amended the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) constitution in 2011 in order to retain leadership. Lovemore Matombo and George Nkiwane are currently locked in a power struggle over control of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). The handiende or angihambi from power syndrome is not just about Mugabe and Zanu PF evidently.
Makumbe, a University of Zimbabwe lecturer, has long since abandoned academic responsibility as he made clear to me in 2005: “There is no such thing as intellectual neutrality in Zimbabwe. You are either for the establishment or against it. I am not a saint. I definitely refuse to be a saint. John Makumbe is MDC. So am I as bad as (Tafataona) Mahoso? Definitely!”
And for all Simba Makoni’s criticisms of Mugabe’s leadership in the film, it goes without saying that he was a member of Zanu PF from 1980 to 2008. Makoni bears collective responsibility for bad policies in those years.
These examples lead me to the essence of my argument, which is that in asking what happened to Mugabe, we are asking the wrong question. What we ought to ask is what happened to Zimbabwe’s political culture? What is it about our political culture and values that debases leadership? Zimbabwe’s problems are much bigger than Mugabe. By focusing on him, we miss the crux of the matter.
The words of the late Masipula Sithole in 2000 are worth recalling here: “The fundamental crisis our country is facing today is a crisis of political values. Should we manage to fix the economy without revisiting the values crisis, we are building on quick sand.”
I want to close by raising three last points. First, it is bad film-making for Bright to demonise Mugabe in the way that he does. Mugabe’s statement that “if redistributing land from whites to blacks makes him a Hitler in Western eyes, then let it be” is deliberately used out of context in the film in order to portray Mugabe as Hitler’s disciple. I challenged Bright on this point during the post-screening panel discussion. He was guilty as charged and could not reply.
Second, we are told at the end of the film that Mugabe’s legacy is one of genocide. And yet there has never been genocide in Zimbabwe. Gukurahundi, Murambatsvina and the March to June 2008 violence all violated human rights, but to label them genocide is to banalise the term into a validation of every kind of victimhood.
Lastly, to further move beyond Mugabe, we need to understand the motives and calculations of the various men who built Mugabe up. Why did Rex Nhongo (Solomon Mujuru) ditch Zipa comrades such as Mhanda in favour of actively supporting Mugabe’s rise to power in 1976? What did Mugabe’s colleagues in detention in Sikhombela — such as Tekere and Enos Nkala — see in him that they did not see in themselves to the degree that they worked so closely with Mugabe and backed him to the hilt?
Understanding these men, their relationships with Mugabe and the structures out of which they arose will tell us much more about Mugabe’s leadership, where Zimbabwe has come from and where it is headed.
Blessing-Miles Tendi is a lecturer in African History and Politics at the University of Oxford and author of Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: Politics, Intellectuals and the Media.
See Page 16 for Simon Bright’s response.