Next week marks 30 years since Robert Mugabe was elected Prime Minister of Zimbabwe. Last month was 20 years since Nelson Mandela left jail. The two men have much in common. Both are nationalist leaders who fought white rule in southern Africa. Both served long periods in prison, Mandela 27 years, Mugabe 11. Both emerged and won elections and then offered their white oppressors the hand of forgiveness and friendship. Both created governments of national unity to deal with rival movements: in South Africa Mandela faced the Zulu Inkatha movement. In Zimbabwe Mugabe brought into his Cabinet the largely Ndebele Zimbabwe African Patriotic Union (Zapu).
Most observers had predicted a bloodbath in both countries. That had seemed the most logical of all the scenarios. No one had any doubt about which man had the more difficult task. Apartheid in South Africa was a far more brutal system than white rule in Zimbabwe. Whites were a bigger proportion of South Africa’s population than the whites of Rhodesia — as Zimbabwe was called before independence. And Afrikaners in South Africa had lived there far longer and had no links to any other homeland. White Rhodesians were relatively recent arrivals, many with opportunities to go elsewhere.
Initially both men brought peace and eschewed revenge. Overcoming the immediate threats, they returned their countries to economic growth. With the end of apartheid the scene was set for the economic take-off of southern Africa, perhaps the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. Mandela and Mugabe could have stood together, turning their countries away from the painful past and launching Africa into an era of peace and prosperity. But while Mandela emerged as one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, Mugabe’s reputation is in ruins; a power-crazed dictator who destroyed his country and the lives of millions so he could stay in power.
Many writers have tried to prove that Mugabe was always evil, bent on revenge or trying, like Pol Pot, to bring his country to a Year Zero, from which he could create a perfect communist state. These days he is most commonly seen as a crazed old man, sitting on the wreckage of Zimbabwe, protecting violent, corrupt cronies.
It was not always like that. In 1980 Mugabe came to power with 57 of the 100 seats in parliament. His nearest rival, Joshua Nkomo, had 20. Ten seats were reserved for the countries’ 230,000 whites but an estimated 45,000 emigrated at independence. Mugabe formed a government of national unity with three white ministers and made Nkomo minister of home affairs. He entered parliament for the first time alongside Ian Smith, the former prime minister, and re-employed his intelligence chief. ‘Let us put a line through the past,’ he said.
The Zimbabwean economy, boosted by good rains, rocketed by 15.4 per cent in 1980 and 12.9 per cent in 1981. War had caused average income per capita to fall from $175.5 in 1974 to $134 in 1979 but it bounced back to $170 in 1981. And Zimbabweans realised that the future lay in education. As soon as the war ended, Mugabe’s government pumped money into schools and the number of schoolchildren shot up from 893,000 in 1979 to 1.8 million two years later.
Those first years were marked by optimism while a veneer of socialist rhetoric masked pragmatic conservative policies. Where, many asked, was Mugabe’s communism?
Unlike other African leaders in the region, Mugabe would have no dealings with South Africa, attacking apartheid relentlessly and supporting the liberation movements. In retaliation South African special forces and their agents carried out terrorist attacks, once targeting Mugabe’s official residence. They destroyed much of Zimbabwe’s air force. Mugabe may have had paranoid tendencies but the South Africans were out to get him. His new security chiefs blamed senior white officers in the Zimbabwean military. Some were arrested and tortured.
The South Africans also fomented strife between Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) and Zapu. Former guerrillas of the two movements had clashed at demobilisation camps and had to be disarmed by the national army. In 1982 Zapu arms caches were discovered. The South Africans helped form and support ‘Super Zapu’, a gang of about 400 dissidents. Mugabe turned on Nkomo, accusing him of trying to mount a coup and sacking him from the government. It is not clear whether he really believed Nkomo was in league with Super Zapu or had simply invented this. He certainly used it as an excuse to destroy his rival, forming a fearsome new military unit, the 5th Brigade, made up entirely of Shona-speaking ex-Zanu fighters and trained by the North Koreans. He turned them loose on Matabeleland where, over the next years, they killed some 20,000 people.
Nkomo and the Ndebele were crushed and Zapu was merged into Zanu-Patriotic Front. Mugabe gave some Zapu leaders jobs in government while throwing others in jail. Mugabe was shrewd enough not to ban all other parties. Zimbabwe was virtually — but never constitutionally — a one-party state.
Despite his undoubted intellectual brilliance (he holds six degrees), Mugabe is driven primarily by emotions, ones that probably spring from his upbringing. Contrast him with Mandela, who grew up in a royal household. Mandela would never inherit a throne, yet he aspired to lead and as a young man watched his uncle, the chief, and learned about leadership and negotiation. Mugabe grew up a poor, lonely child with a fanatically Catholic mother and no father from the age of ten. He was adopted by a charismatic Irish priest and white nuns who had spotted his seriousness and diligence — white people have exercised a push-pull dynamic on his life ever since. That might explain his childlike affection for Lord Soames, who oversaw the transition, and his almost adulatory attitude towards the British royal family. In contrast Mandela calls the Queen ‘Lisbet’ and treats her as an equal, a fellow monarch. Non-racialism is at the heart of Mandela’s politics. Mugabe launches racist diatribes about whites at every rally. He was particularly stung by Tony Blair and his government for repudiating British responsibility for colonialism. They tried to take away his Aunt Sally. The war was over and he had won but he had become addicted to the fight.
This explains why he was prepared to destroy Zimbabwe’s economy in the cause of relaunching a political war with Britain, expelling by violence white Zimbabwean farmers. He could have achieved the same end of righting a historic wrong peacefully over 20 years by a steadily applied combination of law and aid-backed compensation. Even those whites who had immigrated after independence were driven off their land. Ironically that war was sparked not by the farmers but by his own militant supporters, the war veterans. On Veterans Day in 1997 Mugabe was heckled by former fighters who wanted pensions. Attacked by the very people he thought he stood for, Mugabe gave in immediately and handed out money to them. It bust the bank, and by 1999 Zimbabwe was defaulting on its debts.
At the same time a new political party was building, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which drew in the growing urban middle class. It was being funded by white interests. Under attack from ‘left’ and ‘right’, Mugabe diverted the war veterans to take the white farms, solving both political problems in a single smart move. Smart politically but catastrophic economically. The economy started shrinking alarmingly and Zimbabwe, once the food basket of southern Africa, began to starve. The British assumed he would bend to pressure. He didn’t. They made it worse by openly supporting the opposition MDC and calling for regime change. That rejection confirmed Mugabe’s deepest political — and psychological — fears.
Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF elite do not consider that they rule Zimbabwe because of electoral support. The 1979 election simply confirmed their right to rule. They could not accept that they lost the 2008 election. Zanu-PF sees itself as the establishment, their position as secure as the monarchy in Britain. They may have to share government with the MDC but never see themselves losing the reins of real power. Key units of the security forces and all the military chiefs, regional governors, ambassadors and senior civil servants are all Zanu-PF appointees. At least the Global Political Agreement, brokered by Zimbabwe’s neighbours in 2008, is preventing complete breakdown and has allowed the economy to recover a little under MDC guidance. The MDC wants to use this to prove it can rule better and thereby win the next election.
When will that be? Zanu-PF is deeply divided. An election might precipitate a war within the party. The MDC is also divided on whether to push for elections now or wait. The longer they wait the more likely they will become part of the co-opted and corrupt ruling elite. And there is no chance of — and no money for — a free and fair election now. Mugabe remains — for the moment.
Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, published by Portobello Books.