Posts Tagged ‘Robert Mugabe’

Robert Mugabe: compassionate, violent, retired

November 22, 2017

I never met ex-president Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. But there was one occasion, an extremely tragic one, when we came within touching distance of each other.

He had come to visit the school where I was working as an English teacher. To be sure, the entourage was impressive: helicopter, convoy, security everywhere. But he was humble and clearly touched, as he went from parent to parent, holding their hands, looking into their eyes, sharing their grief. The parents, poor farmers from villages close to the school, had lost many of their children just a few months earlier in Zimbabwe’s worst bus accident, on August 3, 1991. Some families had buried two, even three of their loved ones, young talent they had pinned their hopes on; young talent we had been teaching.

I was impressed with his humanity. After all, he must have known what they felt. Robert Mugabe lost his son while in a Rhodesian prison in the 1960s. The white minority regime at the time did not give him permission to attend the funeral. I’ll let that speak for itself.

Compassion. It is a side of Zimbabwe’s former president that is not frequently shed light on. It is a side he showed at Regina Coeli Secondary School and it was a side known to the late Heidi Holland, who wrote Dinner With Mugabe, based on her encounters and interviews with him, his family and associates. She recalled how he had stopped at her house. ‘He was supposed to catch a train and after dinner I drove him to the station, leaving my baby at home alone because there wasn’t time to bundle him into the car. I was driving very fast, being rather anxious. The next day he rang me from a public callbox, asking me whether my baby was alright.’

(Photo credit: JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images). Montage, as I understand it, made by Zambia Observer

Manicaland, Zimbabwe’s breathtakingly beautiful eastern mountain province, looms large in the country’s liberation struggle from white minority rule. Mugabe transited Manicaland as he left Rhodesia for newly-independent Mozambique, with the help of Chief Rekayi Tangwena, a legendary local leader in a place not far from Regina Coeli. Once in Mozambique, he joined the group leading the struggle for Zimbabwe, which ended in 1980. Mutare, the provincial capital, is where he caught his train. And as I was teaching there, many were able to point towards the mountains and caves where they hid during the long, dangerous and bloody liberation struggle – the same places where some of the surviving children found refuge after the bus accident.

‘It was not him who joined the struggle,’ Holland told me looking back on Mugabe’s political career, ‘the struggle found him. If left to his own devices, he would have become a headmaster, very prim and proper. He cared about education.’ Indeed: stories about his early years in State House tell us that after work in office he would gather the house staff and run classes with them.

The struggle found him because in spite of his humble beginnings he was well-educated and well-travelled, having worked in Ghana where he met his first wife Sally Hayfron. She supported him all the way through: from his return to Rhodesia, his imprisonment of more than ten years, the armed struggle and then finally to their triumphant arrival at State House, when his party had beaten all the odds and won a resounding victory.

Mutare. My former shopping centre. Photo from Wikipedia.

‘Why do you put the picture of this guy on the wall? It’s never there.’

‘Don’t worry about it. Once the election is over I’ll remove it again. I just don’t want my house smashed up because his picture is not on our wall.’

Family scene in Mutare, early 1980s. The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front deployed vigilante groups throughout the land whenever there was an election and punished anyone who did not demonstrate enough enthusiasm in support of the party and its leader. A few hundred kilometres to the southwest of Mutare, in Matabeleland, the army’s notorious North Korea-trained Five Brigade was on a coordinated killing spree that left up to 20,000 people dead. Their crime: being close to what was considered an armed uprising against the government. It was a confrontation that was fuelled by the deep personal rivalry between Mugabe and the late Joshua Nkomo, who had led another liberation movement with a different ideological orientation. There were South African machinations behind it, as the apartheid state was destabilising all of its neighbours, through proxies, terrorist attacks and in open warfare until their 1988 defeat at Cuito Canavale in Angola put an end to its army operations abroad.

There was certainly trouble in Matabeleland but the government’s response was of a cruelty that scarred the province forever and strained relations with Harare. The name given to the mass murders was “Gukurahundi”, which translates as “the first rains that wash away the dust and the dirt”. It would not be the last time that Mugabe’s government would refer to people as garbage to be removed. “Operation Cleanup” was supposed to rid Harare’s streets of prostitutes. “Murambatsvina” was an electoral operation that physically removed hundreds of thousands of people from their (often makeshift) dwellings, preventing them from voting in their constituencies and thus handing the party and its leader another victory. In rural Zimbabwe, self-appointed war veterans terrorised the people into what was termed “voting correctly”. During another election-related wave of violence (this time in 2008, a particularly brutal episode), schools, once the pride and joy of the country, were turned into torture centres. And yes, sometimes I wonder what happened to the classrooms where I worked all those years ago.

Months after the president had left Regina Coeli, my school, news emerged that a quarter of a million euros, spontaneously collected by the ordinary women and men of Zimbabwe to help the grieving parents overcome their loss, had gone missing. The ruling party had stolen it. The rot had set in early and nothing was done to stop it. In fact, when war veterans rampaged through the party’s headquarters in 1997, smashing the furniture and eating the food in its well-stocked canteen, the party mouthpiece The Herald screamed “Hooligans” from its front page. The war veterans had enough of starving to death in the rural areas while fat cats high up in the party hierarchy grew even fatter on the backs of other people’s labour. That, in fact, was the origin of the movement. It was hi-jacked by political opportunists like the late Chenjerai ‘Hitler’ Hunzvi, who forced Mugabe into a terrible deal. Here’s Heidi Holland once more.

‘Dennis Norman, a former minister with whom Mugabe got on very well, was close to the negotiations. He describes how Mugabe attended with two other ministers and then was told by the war vets that he must attend by himself. And rather uncharacteristically, he (Mugabe) agreed to this.’ Alone, the war vets arm-twisted the president into a deal he probably knew the country could not afford. After all, he had just sent thousands of troops into the DR Congo to prop up his friend Joseph Kabila and now he was to hand over truckloads of Zimbabwe dollars to tens of thousands of former freedom fighters he and his cronies had neglected. All the deal did was to inflict more damage on Zimbabwe’s already faltering economy. The ill-conceived and even worse executed “land reform” policy of the early 2000s provided more blows. There are optimists who think that the basics are still there and the economy can be turned around but the task will be immense.

And so, in 2017, twenty years after war veterans exposed his political vulnerability, Robert Mugabe finally gets what he has wanted for two decades: an escape from party politics. It was the army that kept him in power, it was Zimbabwe’s highly coordinated military – intelligence – police – prisons complex, inherited from the illegal Rhodesian white minority regime, that ensured he won election after election. And now that he has rubbed them the wrong way, intentionally perhaps, they have dropped him in favour of Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s equally violent enforcer and eternal Number Two. The head is gone, the system that he built, because and in spite of himself, remains in all its rotten glory. Mugabe may have smiled his wry smile, as he heard the traitorous and treacherous hypocrites in the Politbureau and Parliament rapturously applaud his departure.

The man who spent the last twenty years of his reign being a consummate political survivor, has thrown his last roll of the dice. He will retire, not to Kutama, the village where he spent part of his traumatic youth – he lost his elder brother there after an accident with agricultural poison – but in all likelihood to a carefully guarded mansion, maybe in the same leafy Gun Hill area in Harare where he kept his old friend, Mengistu Haile Mariam, a more prolific murderer than he ever was, for 26 years. An intensely private man with a complex and turbulent past, a messy love life and a deeply ambivalent attitude towards power and politics, will now have the time to ponder what he has done to his country, the excellent, the good, the bad, the terrible and for some, undoubtedly, the unforgiveable. ‘A shame that he had to leave through the backdoor,’ Guinean president Alpha Condé commented shortly after Mugabe’s last-minute resignation. True perhaps, but it was Mugabe who made it so, just as he did throughout his long years at the helm. He should have stuck to education.

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Orwell’s Zimbabwe

October 7, 2012

The Africa Desk at Radio Netherlands recently had a report on the latest antics of Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, focusing on his highly complicated love life. More about that here:  

It brought me back to school.

Two decades ago, I was teaching English language and literature in a secondary school in the Nyanga area, Northeast Zimbabwe. Proof, it is useful to recall, of president Robert Mugabe’s dedication to education. Among early Zimbabwe’s most enduring legacies will be millions of well-educated Zimbabweans, including my own former students. President Mugabe was, after all, a teacher himself. More on that here (go to the bottom of the page and listen to Part Two of my interview with the late Heidi Holland – the other parts are good as well…):

Two decades ago, I was living in my little corner of Northeast Zimbabwe and to my eternal shame not very well aware of the bloody backdrop to the new unity government that had just been been announced. The main order of the day, I felt, was decolonizing the literature curriculum. I kicked out boring 19th century rural English lit and introduced Chinua Achebe, Wilson Katiyo, Shimmer Chinodya and others. For students wanting to take a deeper literary plunge I could point to Zimbabwe’s greatest national treasure: Dambudzo Marechera. Not yet Yvonne Vera, that other great treasure; her first book came out one year after I had left.

Personal contacts in and outside the school gradually began to reveal a country where political intolerance was the order of the day. Hidden, mostly, between elections; palpable, in campaign time. When the ruling party came up for re-elections, talk in bars moved resolutely away from politics: even then it was unwise to proclaim one’s own dissidence in public. The armed dissident movement in the South and the West of the country had just been wiped off the face of the earth by North Korea-trained soldiers of the Five Brigade. At least according to government propaganda. In reality, there had been an almost completely concealed campaign of mass slaughter going on, which had killed 20,000 people. A fact that was only hit home when in 1999 the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission published its report called “Breaking the silence”.

I kept Orwell in class. Animal Farm: a dangerous choice.

After much discussion, I asked the students if they would want to write essays comparing the story in Orwell’s fable to events in their own country. Not without risk but they jumped at the opportunity – and the insights they offered were razor sharp. How about this? They mentioned…

The revolution that kicked out the former owners.

The short-lived but genuine euphoria: we’re free!

Ubiquitous use of the word “comrade”.

Dissent and infighting in the top ranks; dissidents being banished or coopted.

Sly propaganda to keep the populace in line. Frequent trick: asking, rhetorically, menacingly: do you want the former owner back?

Violent repression of those who disagree with the new rulers.

Writing certain undesirable elements out of history.

It was all there, in the writings of the students. And that was long before the “international community” suddenly discovered that there was a problem in the state of Zimbabwe.

Yes, this country’s history has followed an uncannily large number of the twists and turns from Orwell’s tale, including personality cults and replacing a universal anthem by a “proper” national anthem. It also added a few twists of its own, including the 1997 revolt of the revolution’s rank and file. Their anger was paid off and the “war vets” were co-opted into Zimbabwe’s infrastructure of political violence.

Another extra-Orwellian twist was the emergence of a group that could, perhaps, maybe, help liberation further along by kicking out the liberators. Predictably, Zimbabwe’s leaders wasted no time in painting Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change as stooges of the former owner. Do you want him back? President Mugabe’s ruling party election slogan was nothing more than a simple statement of fact: Zimbabwe will never be a colony again.

Indeed. No-one, except for a few deranged white supremacists, has been suggesting anything else. But the second wave of euphoria has been even shorter-lived than the previous one. Today, with Tsvangirai’s love life at least as untidy as that of the president, you could forgive my former students for turning to the last page of Animal Farm and concluding that, inevitably, would-be liberators bear an eerie resemblance to liberators-turned-leaders…