Dinner with Mugabe: The Untold Story of a Freedom Fighter who Became a Terrorist Heidi Holland

Penguin, pp.250, 17.99

When I was a young doctor working in what was still Rhodesia, I read a book by a nun who was also a political economist. She demonstrated that land reform was not only a requirement of social justice but would lead to greatly increased agricultural output, since African peasant farmers cultivated their land more intensively than commercial farmers. Her argument was positively Euclidean in its precision and I accepted it in its entirety.

The only thing that she omitted to mention, and that did not occur to me at the time, was that the land reform would have to be carried out by men; and not just men in general, but by particular men, with all their passions, weaknesses and prejudices. Political geometry is non-Euclidean.

The man who eventually carried out, or at least presided over, the land reform in Zimbabwe was Robert Mugabe, who by common consent has led his nation to the very brink of ruin, turning a breadbasket into a basket case The author of this book, a liberal journalist who has long supported African nationalist causes, sets out to try to understand why Mugabe turned out the way he did.

She interviewed his brother, the former prime minister Ian Smith, many of Mugabe’s associates who later turned against him, his continuing apologists and, most interestingly, the man himself.

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She wants to know at what point the supposed freedom fighter degenerated into a tyrant. Was he a tyrant by nature, by nurture, or by virtue of the tendency of power to corrupt? Her explanation is not simple. A combination of a naturally unsocial but domineering temperament, early experiences (which must have included the kind of petty humiliations that actually wound more deeply than rank injustices), and later political circumstances, many of his own making, combined to make him what he has become. He is the product also of cultural confusion: for, like many an anti-colonial intellectual, he admires what he hates, and longs to be accepted as a cultural equal by the former colonial masters. This leads to the fury of a rejected lover.

The author’s approach suffers from a lack of comparative perspective. In fact, Mugabe’s trajectory has not been so very different from that of many, if not most, of the first generation of leaders of independent Africa. Zimbabwe’s tragedy is Africa’s: it only seems more dramatic because of the flourishing state of the country when he inherited it. Nor does the author examine the question of how far a man who took over the leadership of an organisation that she describes as thuggish from the first, who presided over more massacres in the first three years of his rule than the previous ruler did in the 16 of his, who has not exactly been a friend of freedom of expression, who has driven a fourth of the population to emigrate and who has destroyed a once-flourishing economy beyond hope of quick repair, can properly be thought ever to have fought for freedom. Only if the race of the oppressor is all-important can he be thought to be a liberator: but that, of course, is to ascribe precisely the importance to race that the most rabid of racists would ascribe to it.

And yet, precisely because Mugabe is an admirer of British civilisation, he has allowed certain constitutional formalities a precarious survival. He has, after all, lost a referendum; he has elections in which there is an opposition, albeit one that operates under severe disadvantages, and which represents a serious challenge to him. Just as he loves and hates Britain, he can neither tolerate dissent not suppress it completely, for then he would have to acknowledge that he was a dictator.

In his interview with the author, he emerges as a highly intelligent and articulate man, who, alas, is exquisitely hypersensitive to criticism and rejection, and whose strengths have been completely destroyed by his paranoid defensiveness.

In one respect, one cannot help but agree with him: his detestation of New Labour. In 1997, Clare Short, then Secretary for International Development, sent Mugabe a letter explaining why she would not allocate money for further land reform in Zimbabwe as promised by the previous Conservative government:

We are a new government, from diverse backgrounds, without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish, and as you know, we were colonised not colonisers.

It would take many pages to disentangle the intellectual, moral and constitutional dishonesty of this, with all its nauseatingly egotistical self-conceit. No wonder Mugabe much preferred the Tories to New Labour; no wonder he was incandescent with rage. If I am right, and Mugabe’s pathology is Africa’s, we should not expect too much from his successor, though we may still live in hope.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated