How the tyrant of Harare also started his career in the classroom

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Were it not for an accident of history, Robert Mugabe might now be a retired schoolteacher living out his dotage in peaceful Ghana. In the summer of 1960 when the first African National Congress – the one set up in what was then Rhodesia – was starting to challenge white rule, the young Mugabe was more of an academic than an activist. The holder, already, of three degrees he had only returned to his homeland to introduce his future wife, Sally, to his family.

The staunchly Catholic and ferociously studious 36-year-old still had two years to run on a four-year contract with a teacher training college in Ghana and fully expected to return. The west African nation, the first to gain independence from Britain, was probably the most exciting country on the continent at the time, governed by the charismatic and ambitious Kwame Nkrumah, and the young Mugabe was already a confirmed admirer.

Friends in what is now Harare attempted to persuade the teacher to take up the nationalist cause. The couple spent much of their time with Leopold Takawira, a friend from their days at the Catholic mission in Kutama, who was involved himself. Mr Mugabe's friend was among three young leaders picked up by police on 19 July and charged under the Unlawful Organisations Acts – one of a battery of repressive laws dreamt up by white Rhodesians and now perfected by the Mugabe regime.

In the 24 hours that followed the arrests, thousands of people, including the teacher, streamed out of the black township of Highfield – the same suburb that is now a stronghold of the opposition against Mugabe's rule, and the scene of arbitrary arrests and oppression by his security apparatus. By midday the next day, tens of thousands had gathered by a makeshift platform and Mr Mugabe was asked to speak. Introduced to the crowd as a distinguished scholar, he addressed the protesters with a vision of a country he called "Zimbabwe". He got a huge ovation.

Within weeks he had quit his post in Ghana, within months he would be in the vanguard of nationalist leaders and by 1964 he would be in prison. By the time he was freed 11 years later he was a hardened revolutionary.

Historians argue as to the exact point that he transformed into an autocrat but there can be little doubt that the crowd that heard his first speech would struggle to believe that nearly half a century later the same man would dominate their country so utterly. Nor imagine the ease with which he would sanction beatings of teachers who dare to lead protesters out of the same impoverished townships in search of the same civil rights.