Title: The Old Man In — Mugabe’s White Hand Man
PUBLISHER: Weaver Press
It is remarkable how few government officials in Zimbabwe have published accounts of their time in office covering their service in the post-Independence period. The cynic in me can see a few possible reasons why, but this dearth is noticeable when compared to the embarrassment of riches in memoirs about the liberation struggle. Few seem to wish to discuss their role in “building” the Zimbabwe of today while even the interest of local newspapers in their hagiographic interviews with stalwarts of the liberation struggle and later government service seems to end with April 1980. After such elated, unassailable democratic accomplishments, who really wants to discuss the subsequent troubles?
Thus this book is a welcome counter to this trend. Denis Norman has an easy and relatable writing style in the six chapters and epilogue that make up his fascinating autobiography. Telling the story of how he came to live in Southern Rhodesia of the 1950s, the book explores his rise to the pinnacle of its agricultural politics followed by a remarkable tenure as a recurring government minister in Zimbabwe. But the book is much more than that because it provides an insider’s insight into many of the policies, achievements and failures of the Zimbabwean government as it grappled with achieving the unrealistic aims of the liberation struggle before the self-inflicted and dramatic political and economic collapses of the late 1990s. Several “mega-projects” being touted in 2018, in Zimbabwe, were often mooted during his tenure in government, including the Batoka Hydroelectric Dam (p.164-170), the extension of the Feruka pipeline to Gweru and Bulawayo (p.141-142), reducing the size of the bloated civil service (p.197) and even the dualising of certain roads (p.155-159).
His suggested privatisation of entities such as Air Zimbabwe and National Railways of Zimbabwe (p.149-154) was well ahead of its time and if done then, would have better preserved much of the capability and assets of these critical national institutions.
The story of Zimbabwean agricultural development and its undermining by petty politics has been dominated by ivory-tower academics, so a participant’s voice is a refreshing counterpoint.
What sets Norman’s book apart is the apparent lack of bitterness and anger relating to the demolition of white farming interests and the complete rupture of white culture and society in Zimbabwe.
In this, the book is also a useful contrast to many of the biographies published since the post-2000 events (such as Jambanja by Eric Harrison  or African Tears by Catherine Buckle ). The Odd Man In complements C.G. Tracey’s All for Nothing (2009) as a discussion of the development of commercial farming, merged with a political and business career over the UDI and Independence periods. Chapters 3 and 4, provide a valuable riposte to Ian Smith’s Bitter Harvest (2001) as a “white political perspective” on Zimbabwean government agro-politics in the 1990s and beyond.
That said, Norman allows himself the rueful observation that those who took the land in the early 2000s, were “delighting in destroying what existed in preference to using what they had obtained” (p.213).
Surprisingly, small decisions can jumpstart a political career. In Norman’s case, it was his election onto the committee of a local Intensive Conservation Area in 1960 which translated into a seat on the Rhodesian National Farmers’ Union, later the Commercial Farmers’ Union in the 1970s and finally as the personal choice of Robert Mugabe to be the first Minister of Agriculture in 1980. Norman’s narrative downplays the incredible amount of hard, difficult work that he and his many supporting teams did during his career. One moral of Norman’s book is the encouraging power of employing public-private partnerships for the development of Zimbabwe.
The many examples he provides where commercial interests were linked to government programmes to the mutual benefit of country and people are an inspirational example of true leadership for real growth.
Of great value in the book is Norman’s authentic voice when discussing the personalities of the politicians with whom he served as Zimbabwean government minister. Some of the details such as the late Roger Boka’s attempt to bribe him with a car battery filled with gold to support his attempt to control the tobacco industry (p.183-184) or shenanigans in Cabinet as various Ministers jostled for personal power at the expense of their portfolios and constituents (e.g. p.178-186) are frankly, shocking, but not unexpected.
Norman’s acute eye for detail leaves little doubt that there could be more to be told. As an aside, and not that he himself states, research indicates Norman is one of the few Ministers who served in Zimbabwe’s government in the last 40 years to leave only as wealthy as when he first took office.
Norman’s role in the agricultural history of the country for more than 40 pivotal years (1950s-1990s), gives him an enviable perspective on events which have been discussed in great detail by many historians and political scientists for the last 20 years. This books brings a fresh insight to the question that bedevils the politics of southern Africa: that of access to agricultural land and the uneasy dichotomy between commercial and communal farmers.
As the first minister to be in charge of both rural and commercial agriculture (but not land), Norman explains an early primary aim was to increase the viability of the communal farmers but while also having to juggle the desire “to raise the prices paid to all producers, through the single channel marketing system to a viable sustainable level.”
The early vision and progress he describes in the 1980s was undermined by the Zimbabwean Government’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme of the 2000s.
The manner in which Norman discusses the question: “can the present unauthorised occupation of farmland be reversed leading again to a position of food self-sufficiency?” is a thoughtful analysis of a thorny, emotional problem. His experience in the commercial sector and in government means his voice should be heard.
The solution he proposes to resolve the “land question,” whereby government nationalises all land, compensates former title holders over a period of time and offering long-term bankable leases with intensive training and backup to the lessees may well be the one the government eventually stumbles into, once the grime of politics is removed from the process.
As we have come to expect from Weaver Press, the book is meticulously produced. An index of names, places and events would have been useful. I personally dislike the title of the book but it is eye-catching and hints at the relationship between Mugabe and his most-accomplished white minister. From the tone of the book, it is clear that while Norman had the ear of the President, he was never fully in an inner circle. Which is, as I feel, how both parties preferred it.
There is a sincere need in Zimbabwe for the the production of more political auto-biographies that share the honesty, humour and hope of The Odd Man In. I personally ache for the fulfilment of the dream that his final sentence (p.234) conveys: “I wish Zimbabwe well and remain confident that the country will not only regain its political and economic stability, but will develop and exploit its abundant natural resources, whether they be mineral, agricultural or human, to the benefit of all its citizens, and the central African region as a whole.”
Reviewed by Paul Hubbard