As Zimbabwe celebrated its independence in April 1980 President Nyerere of Tanzania had a piece of advice for Robert Mugabe: ‘You have inherited a jewel. Keep it that way.’ At first, it seemed that Mugabe would take his fellow socialist’s advice. His address to the nation on the eve of independence gave all Zimbabweans hope that, white and black, they could together rebuild the country after the miseries of the guerrilla war.
Guguletho Moyo and Mark Ashurst quote the speech in full at the beginning of their useful compendium, and Martin Meredith reminds us that, after an initial interview, Ian Smith himself reported that he had found Mugabe not ‘the apostle of Satan’ but ‘sober and responsible’.
These two books are timely and can be read together. Meredith chronicles Mugabe’s progress from guerrilla leader to power-obsessed paranoiac. Moyo and Ashurst look to the future by canvassing a broad range of opinion as to how to rebuild a country utterly destroyed by a man using yesterday’s rhetoric in an Africa that is changing rapidly.
Nyerere’s remark is interesting. Meredith chronicles very fairly the white man’s land grab in Rhodesia from Lobengula to the 1960s and how effective the land question was as a recruiting sergeant for Mugabe, Sithole and Nkomo. Equally, there are numerous references in both books to the emergency laws the Rhodesian Front introduced after UDI and the often brutal treatment of the ‘terrs’ and those who harboured them by the Rhodesian security forces. However, what shines through in Meredith’s account is how deeply implanted certain basic beliefs were in Rhodesian minds and how courageously Zimbabweans both black and white have resisted ZANU-PF thuggery in defence of their beliefs.
Take the case of Margaret Dongo. Appalled by the scale and the blatancy of the corruption of the ZANU-PF elite, this former ZANU fighter and founder member of the War Veterans’ Association broke with her former associates and stood for Parliament in the 1995 election in the Harare South Constituency. The Registrar-General, the official responsible for the fairness of elections, the caricature figure Tchaiwa Mudede, had, as so often he had elsewhere, rigged the election. An independent inquiry showed that of 33,251 voters’ names on the electoral role, 41 per cent were not genuine. Margaret Dongo took her case to the High Court and in the subsequent by-election, in spite of a concerted campaign of thuggery and vilification, she won.
Hers is only one example of many of the courage, not only of individuals, but of the Zimbabwean electorate, in resisting the government’s brutality. It also shows that there still existed, at least until recently, a functioning judiciary willing to stand up for the rule of law as well as an ingrained faith in the power of fair elections as a force for peaceful change.
These were things which, along with a powerful economy and a tradition of honest and competent administration, were the legacy of Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. They are things that became rare in Africa after the end of the colonial era. No wonder Nyerere told Mugabe he had inherited a jewel: but squander it he did.
Meredith’s account is all the more devastating for the unemotional tone he employs. Particularly gut-wrenching is the account of the massacres in Matabeleland, planned by Mugabe and carried out by the North Korean-trained and specially formed 5th Brigade from 1983-85 and known as ‘Gukurahundi’ or the rain that blows away the chaff. However, almost as chilling as the accounts of brutality by the regime and the thieving by the kleptocracy that ZANU-PF became as soon as it achieved office, is Mugabe’s single-mindedness.
He desires only one thing: power. He bends every sinew to acquire it and then to keep it. His Catholic/Marxist upbringing and his intelligence have prepared him well and he cares not a fig for the misery that he has inflicted on his people. And the horror is very far from over.
Getting rid of him will, for a start, not be easy. As an old Africa hand once said to me with some asperity, ‘Southern Africans don’t do military coups.’ In any case military coups, as Martin Rupaya points out in Moyo and Ashhurst, usually solve very little. There are some indications that many in ZANU-PF want Mugabe to go, but he has so far proved equal to internal dissidence. As for external pressure, Thabo Mbeki and his successors are clearly reluctant to push him out, except on his own terms. In any case, as Mark Ellis makes clear in an interview Moyo and Ashurst reprint, it is increasingly difficult to grant immunity to departing tyrants if they are sued under international law. Mugabe, sensibly from his point of view, would find immunity comforting.
The tragedy of Zimbabwe is not only what has happened, but that what has happened will make it difficult to build a country that can fulfil its potential. It possesses vast resources, mineral, agricultural and aesthetic. Above all, it has a courageous and able population, both black and white, who could make it the economic and political motor of Central Africa. Instead, the chances are that it will remain another African basket case, suggesting that Ian Smith was right about majority rule. What a triumph it would be if the people of Zimbabwe were to prove the late Ian Douglas wrong.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 15, 2007