ZIMBABWE’S President Robert Mugabe will always be a complex character and an enigma, usually attracting varied perceptions as to the true nature of his ideological leanings and overall contribution to the country.
Cabinet ministers recently described Mugabe as a double-faced politician, a trait which they say has helped him cling to power.
MDC leader Welshman Ncube, who is also Industry and Commerce minister, said last year Mugabe is a “complex character” who purports to champion the interests of the poor people yet his government, through political repression and economic mismanagement, has impoverished the nation.
“No doubt he is a complex character. When you talk to Mugabe, you can hear in his mind he talks of the interests of the people,” he said. “How then do you reconcile what he says and what he and his Zanu PF party goes on to do, you then ask yourself ‘What is wrong with the man?’”
Ncube paid tribute to the late journalist-cum-author Heidi Holland for writing the biography Dinner with Mugabe which sought to explain Mugabe’s history and personality. He described the book as a fairly accurate and candid analysis of the 89-year-old ruler’s unpredictable character.
“At Independence in 1980, Mugabe emerged a hero, but turned tyrant after presiding over the impoverishment of the masses and ruining the country’s economy as he deteriorated into a dictator under the guise of ‘defending the revolution’,” Ncube said.
“History has already made judgment on Mugabe and his legacy. No matter his sincerity or not in championing the cause of the people, the truth is that under his watch, the people of Zimbabwe suffered and were impoverished.”
At a poetry festival in Bulawayo in 2010, one performance artiste spoke of “Uncle Bob: the long play song — in Western capitals who could do no wrong. Harare played host to Western leaders who all stampeded to confer Mugabe honorary doctorates in humanities even though the 1980s in Zimbabwe reverberated with untold calamities”.
The artiste went on to describe the West’s obsession with Mugabe in the first two decades of Independence while his government unleashed political repression as “a vanity, a vanity of all vanities”.
However, Zanu PF sympathisers and the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez fondly spoke of Mugabe as a “revolutionary” whose socialist rhetoric has been matched by practical if unsustainable action in the field of health and education in post-Independent Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s fanatics simplistically compare him to the likes of Vladimir Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Simon Bolivar, Kwame Nkrumah, and mostly recently, Chavez.
More appropriately, Mugabe is seen by his admirers as some kind of a Chavez. The Venezuelan ruler died last week on Tuesday after a struggle with cancer, leaving behind a bitterly divided nation in the grip of a political crisis that grew more acute as he languished in hospitals in Havana, Cuba, and and the Venezuelan capital Caracas.
In 2004, Chavez praised Mugabe as a “freedom fighter” while presenting him a replica of South American liberation hero Bolivar’s sword.
“For you, who like Bolivar, took up arms to liberate your people. For you, who like Bolivar, are and will always be a true freedom fighter,” Chavez said. “He continues, alongside his people, to confront the pretensions of new imperialists.”
Mugabe’s vilification in the Western world, for many reasons including repression and human rights abuses, as well as undermining the interests of global capital, is presented as evidence of his “revolutionary credentials”.
However, political analysts are not convinced about Mugabe’s pedigree. They say while he has been vilified as a socialist in Western capitals due to his controversial land reforms and indigenisation policies, he is not cut from the same cloth as Chavez or other icons of the communist or socialist world.
“At a practical level, Mugabe is no Chavez,” said political commentator Godwin Phiri. “Where Chavez literally took issues into his own hands, redistributing revenues from oil incomes to improve the lives of ordinary Venezuelans and other Latin American countries, Mugabe was at best a ‘reluctant revolutionary’ who reacted to events rather than initiated them.”
Phiri said Mugabe acted, not out of conviction and vision, but short-term interests, including political expediency and survival.
“Left to his own devices, he would not have pursued land reform, but the issue was forced by land-hungry villagers from Nyamandlovu and Svosve who invaded farms in 1998. He would not have awarded war veterans any compensation had they not marched to State House in 1997. Even the indigenisation programme has been forced on him by the need to contain widespread discontent and stave off popular support for the MDC. In any case, the programmes he has implemented are largely elitist,” said Phiri.
International Socialist Organisation leader in Zimbabwe Munyaradzi Gwisai said Mugabe is a “poor copycat” of Chavez.
“Chavez represented the real anti-imperialist front and empowerment of poor people while Mugabe is engaged in fake and sham activities like the indigenisation programme,” Gwisai said.
The significance of Chavez’s contributions to the economies of struggling Latin American countries cannot be under-estimated and clearly underlie his capacity to walk the socialist talk.
For example, Venezuela is now Cuba’s “lifeboat” as it imports 100 000 barrels of Venezuelan oil a day at preferential prices in addition to receiving an annual subsidy of US$4 billion. Similarly, Nicaragua receives US$500 million a year in subsidies from Venezuela.
Although Mugabe has no such largesse to give his allies, he has not displayed such practical solidarity in other ways with his allies, except when he needed support.
Also instead of helping his own people, Mugabe has presided over economic collapse and political repression, leaving Zimbabwe a pariah and impoverished state.
Endowed with vast mineral deposits, particularly diamonds and platinum, Zimbabwe under Mugabe has failed to achieve economic prosperity. Realising his failures could result in him being voted out, he initiated a chaotic and violent land reform programme in which the political and business class emerged with the biggest spoils. The indigenisation programme is widely seen as an elite rent-seeking scheme.
Political and media observer Takura Zhangazha said there were major differences between Chavez and Mugabe, noting regardless of whether Chavez was socialist or not, he demonstrated “organic leadership of his society and peoples”.
“It was a leadership that had a direct link to the concerns of the poor majority and understood that the state, whatever else it does, is there to protect its citizens,” wrote Zhangazha on his blog. “He did not change the fundamental democratic tenets of Venezuelan society, but he did not take kindly to what he perceived as foreign influence on it, particularly after the failed coup in 2002,” said Zhangazha.
Mugabe has apparently been reacting to events. His own history and actions also attest to a schizophrenic personality. While he likes posturing as a Marxist revolutionary, sometimes by only wearing Communist attire during elections and emitting searing populist rhetoric, some just know him as an educated man recognised for his Western suits, love for English cricket, tea and admiration for British royalty. Mugabe was for long content and not inclined to upset the applecart when it came to Western interests.
Most importantly, after Independence in 1980, apart from command economic and social services delivery approach, Mugabe did not seek to reform the settler colonial state structure in line with his party’s socialist and one-party state manifesto. He happily inherited colonial institutions, laws and even top individual officials and bureaucrats to run the state while he learned the ropes.