Robert Mugabe: Zimbabwean independence leader who lost touch with his people

When popular heroes stay in power too long, they end up losing their dignity and reputation

Tom Porteous
Friday 06 September 2019 15:50
Robert Mugabe death: Zimbabwe’s first post-independence leader dies, aged 95

It is difficult to resolve the contradictions in the career of independent Zimbabwe’s first leader, Robert Mugabe, who has died aged 95.

A man of action, socialist, pragmatist, and freedom fighter, he came to the forefront of the liberation struggle through being in touch with the people and the frontline guerrillas, but also through being able to outwit and outflank his rivals.

When he swept to power amidst a wave of euphoria in the 1980 elections, it should have been the start of a new era. Besides the goodwill of the liberated people of Zimbabwe, Mugabe had inherited one of the most stable and successful economies in Africa.

In a better world he could have been Zimbabwe’s Nelson Mandela. He had intelligence and a shrewd political instinct.

But Mugabe, never a democrat, stayed too long in power, lost the common touch and failed to respond to the profound political changes brought about in southern Africa by the end of the Cold War and the transition to black majority rule in South Africa.

By the end of his career, Mugabe was isolated from Zimbabweans and from fellow African heads of state. His government was reviled for its corruption, incompetence, economic mismanagement and political repression.

Zimbabwe itself was teetering on the verge of economic collapse and civil conflict. He will not be missed.

Like so many of the 20th century’s African nationalist leaders, Robert Gabriel Mugabe was a child of the mission system. He was born in 1924 in a Catholic Mission village, Kutama, run by Jesuits in the Sinoia district northwest of Salisbury, the capital of Southern Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then still called.

His father was a carpenter in the mission. His mother’s ambition was for him to enter the priesthood. In later life, Mugabe made much of the traditional aspects of his childhood: tending his grandfather’s cattle, fishing and getting into scrapes with other boys (like Mandela he was a boxer).

But, unlike most of his contemporaries, Mugabe, a bright and studious child, spent six years at primary school. He then trained as a teacher for two years before taking up his first job as a primary school teacher in Kutama.

Mugabe spent much of his spare time studying, and gained a place at the “native” Fort Hare University College in South Africa in 1950. Fort Hare was then a crucible of African nationalist leadership. Among its alumni it counted militant nationalists like Mandela and Govan Mbeki (the father of Thabo Mbeki, a South Africa former president).

By his own admission, it was at Fort Hare that Mugabe acquired his taste for politics. He came into contact with the youth wing of the African National Congress (ANC) in which the radical rising stars of the nationalist movement, Mandela, the older Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and others were beginning to emerge, overtaking the cautious and conservative older generation.

Former leader Mugabe arrives to vote in Zimbabwe election

It was here also that Mugabe was first exposed to Marxism, meeting a number of South African Communists who at this time were moving into a tactical alliance with the nationalists of the ANC against their common enemy: the apartheid regime.

On his return to Rhodesia, Mugabe was frustrated in his first efforts to get involved in politics.

He found that the nationalist leadership was, like the old guard of the ANC in South Africa, too restrained. A more radical alternative was yet to emerge to challenge the power of the large white minority.

Mugabe moved to Northern Rhodesia, where he met Harry Nkumbula and Kenneth Kaunda, who were then campaigning for full independence from Britain.

Shortly after Ghana won its independence, Mugabe secured a teaching job there and witnessed at first hand the euphoria of liberation from white colonial rule and the revolutionary effervescence of Kwame Nkrumah’s young African government.

Mugabe’s direct experience of African independence made him quite a phenomenon in the beleaguered nationalist movement when he returned to Rhodesia in 1960 with a young Ghanaian wife, Sally.

The white settler-dominated government was increasingly repressive. It became clear that the British project of Central African Federation, comprising Southern and Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Malawi), would fail and that Britain would have little option but to move fast towards granting independence to its central African colonies.


To forestall this in Southern Rhodesia, the white settlers elected the Rhodesian Front to power and, under the leadership of Ian Smith, started to prepare for their own unilateral declaration of independence (UDI).

The logical consequence of this was a white segregationist regime, the suppression of African nationalism and, eventually, war.

As an up-and-coming member of the National Democratic Party (NDP), which was formed in 1960 to replace the banned ANC, Mugabe became a popular speaker.

He chaired the NDP’s congress in that year and was elected information and public secretary.

The following year the NDP was also banned and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) was formed under Joshua Nkomo.

By this time Mugabe was recognised as a relatively important figure within the nationalist movement. When Zapu was also banned in 1962, Mugabe was placed under restriction.

The charges of sedition and subversion against him arose from having described the Rhodesian Front – which had just come to power – as a “bunch of cowboys”.

Mugabe’s wife Sally was also charged with bringing the Queen’s name into “dis-esteem” by saying that she was not doing anything to help Africans.

Robert Mugabe with his wife Sally during their visit to the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 1982

Meanwhile, tensions were growing within the nationalist movement as to how to pursue the liberation struggle in the face of an increasingly intransigent white minority.

These tensions came to a head when Mugabe, Ndabaningi Sithole and others broke away from Nkomo’s Zapu to form their own more radical and more confrontational Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu), under Sithole’s leadership.

A year later, Zanu was also banned and Mugabe arrested, along with most of the nationalist leadership. He began a 10-year long stretch in detention.

By the time of their arrest, most of the nationalist leaders had already taken the decision to launch a guerrilla war of liberation and had even laid initial plans for recruitment, training and indoctrination.

During his imprisonment, Mugabe, besides taking three more university degrees (in law and administration) and teaching other political prisoners, consolidated Zanu’s war plans and helped to direct, as far as was possible, its first stages.

While he was in prison his only son died of malaria.

As the war progressed, the Zanu-Zapu split took on an increasingly ethnic character.

A nationalist Rhodesian fighter training in 1975 (AFP/Getty)

Nkomo’s Zapu, which was backed by the Soviet Union and based mainly in Zambia, was active mainly in the Ndebele-speaking regions of Matabeleland.

Zanu, on the other hand, operated and recruited in the larger and more populous Shona regions of the northeast of the country. It was backed by China and had its bases mainly in Mozambique where its ally, Frelimo, was fighting and would eventually win its independence struggle against the Portuguese.

Both militarily and politically, Zanu began to win an edge over Zapu, especially after Frelimo won power in Mozambique in 1974, two years after the launch of the guerrilla war.

Released in 1974 as part of the detente exercise by which Britain, South Africa and the United States hoped to reduce the Cold War tension that was brewing over Rhodesia, most of the nationalist leaders entered into a process of negotiation with the Salisbury government.

Mugabe, however, saw rightly that the war would have to progress further if Smith and his allies were to give in to black majority rule.

First white farmer gets land back under Zimbabwe’s new leader

After his release he went straight back into the countryside to address meetings, to mobilise the people against the detente negotiations and to win recruits for the continuation of the liberation struggle.

The recruitment drive was successful and soon hundreds of young men were crossing the Mozambique border heading for the training camps of Zanu’s military wing, Zanla.

Mugabe responded by travelling to Mozambique, where he set about politicising the guerrillas. By this time, the front line commanders of Zanla had decided to get rid of Sithole, who was seen to be weak and indecisive, and replaced him with Mugabe.

Then little known outside Zanu, Mugabe was distrusted by the African front line states involved in the struggle, especially Zambia’s President, Kenneth Kaunda.

As it turned out, his leadership of Zanu was decisive both in securing victory for the nationalist movement in the war and in securing his own pre-eminence in the post-war dispensation.

Robert Mugabe gives a press conference in Geneva, 1976

Largely due to Mugabe’s tenacity, the war resumed with greater intensity. Under his leadership, Zanu papered over its fundamental differences with Nkomo’s Zapu to form the Patriotic Front (PF).

Gradually exerting his authority over Zanu, Mugabe upped the military, diplomatic and economic pressure on the Smith government, until it began to cave in.

After the failure of Smith’s compromise “internal settlement”, effectively a puppet regime headed by the collaborationist Bishop Abel Muzorewa, all the parties to the conflict agreed to participate in the Lancaster House constitutional conference.

This paved the way for the elections and the birth of the independent state of Zimbabwe.

Mugabe’s impressive victory in the 1980 elections, in which he received 63 per cent, took both the white community and the world at large by surprise.

The press had consistently underestimated Mugabe’s appeal, which was increased, rather than diminished, by the fear that the war would continue if he did not win. Underestimated too were the effects of Zanu’s indoctrination and mobilisation campaign on grassroots opinion.

For whites, the victory of the man who had been depicted in the government press for years as a Communist terrorist bogeyman was alarming.

But the election result was proof that the people regarded Mugabe as the real victor in the war, and had given him the clearest of mandates.

Robert Mugabe speaks after being newly elected as thr President of Zimbabwe in 1980

In his first televised address, Mugabe came across as urbane, articulate, magnanimous and conciliatory.

As prime minister and later executive president, he adopted the style (spectacles, unfashionably cut suits and college ties) of the schoolmaster he had been rather than the guerrilla revolutionary he never really was.

Indeed it was in education that he scored one of his few lasting and worthwhile achievements. Zimbabwe today has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa.

But Mugabe was never a democrat. The ruthless determination to stay in power for which he was criticised at the end of his rule was evident from the very start to those who wished to notice it.

After assuming power, he moved fast to create a de facto one-party state. In the early 1980s, he suppressed the Ndebele rebellion in Matabeleland with great brutality.

Robert Mugabe removed as leader of Zimbabwe's ruling party

Many argued that both these measures were necessary to prevent the country from degenerating into tribal civil war and because of the menace of destabilisation from the dying and unpredictable apartheid regime in South Africa.

These were lame excuses. The real reason why Mugabe escaped censure at the time was because this self-proclaimed Marxist had become a favoured Western ally who, for as long as it suited him, took care to protect white and Western business interests in the region.

By the end of the 1980s the world and southern Africa were beginning to change. However, Zimbabwe’s leader was not changing with them. Moreover, the adverse economic consequences of his authoritarian rule and a particularly corrupt strain of “state capitalism” were beginning to be felt.

With a new era dawning south of the border, Mugabe could no longer blame the failings of his government on Pretoria. And, with the end of the Cold War, the West was beginning to encourage the emergence of more enlightened styles of leadership in Africa.

Mugabe and Zanu were going in the opposite direction. Having effectively neutered Zapu in the name of national unity in the 1980s, he had rendered the opposition powerless.

In general elections in 1990 and 1995, Mugabe was swept back to power with large majorities, although low voter turnout was an indication of growing popular disenchantment.

Nelson Mandela, centre, and Robert Mugabe, far right, greet the crowds at the start of the new Zimbabwe public holiday, Mandela Day, in Harare, 1990

His own style also began to change. The austere teetotal, non-smoking president began to act more the part of the presidential “Big Man” pioneered by the likes of Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko.

In 1995, Mugabe’s presidential inauguration (his third) took on the aspect of a tribal coronation, complete with leopard skins and other symbols of African kingship.

A major strike by civil servants found Mugabe on a beachside honeymoon in South Africa with his second wife, Grace. Her expensive tastes ran to a brand new expensive villa, dubbed Gracelands by cynical and increasingly incensed Zimbabweans.

The first anti-government protests and strikes had started in 1988. They continued throughout the 1990s and by the end of the decade a credible opposition formation had emerged – the aptly-named Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Zimbabwe police violently break up anti-Mugabe protests

The opposition presented a real threat to Mugabe’s power backed by a vocal independent media.

Ironically, the MDC’s success among the urban youth owed a lot to the high level of education among young Zimbabweans which Mugabe himself had done much to foster.

This was the moment when Mugabe should have bowed out gracefully.

He married his second wife, Grace Marufu, in 1996

Instead, he responded with a carefully orchestrated campaign of political repression and propaganda designed to keep him in power: the mobilisation of pro-government militias (the so-called war veterans), a clampdown on the independent media and judiciary, vote-rigging and, crucially, land reform.

The West cried foul and Mugabe responded with increasingly anti-Western rhetoric which mixed nationalism, socialism and homophobia and sought to shift the blame for all Zimbabwe’s ills from his own shoulders onto those of his perceived enemies: white farmers, the UK and the International Monetary Fund.

To cap it all, Mugabe opted for a militaristic approach to regional politics when he joined Angola and Namibia to intervene in the Democratic Republic of Congo on the side of the unelected Congolese president Laurent Kabila 1998.

All of this earned Mugabe increasing isolation at home, in the region and internationally.

The economy deteriorated still further, the very institutions of the state eroded, civil war threatened.

Zimbabwe President Mugabe to punish critical veterans

Hundreds of thousands of jobless and scared Zimbabweans migrated to South Africa. Regional leaders feared Zimbabwe’s economic and political crisis would destabilise the whole region. But Mugabe’s isolation appeared merely to strengthen his determination to stay in power.

In truth by this time it may have appeared – as so often in African politics – that there was no obvious alternative exit mechanism for the man who had ruled for more than two decades.

His resolve was supported and encouraged by a narrow but powerful clique of “war veterans” and party loyalists, who loudly argued in the government media that responsibility for Zimbabwe’s woes lay at the door of the whites and neo-colonialists.

In a narrow sort of way, and in spite of failing health, Mugabe was still able to display flashes of his keen Machiavellian political judgement both at home and abroad, even into his seventies and eighties.

The confiscation and redistribution of white-owned farms, which represent the vital backbone of the agricultural sector, contained all the complex contradictions of Mugabe’s political style and approach.

Economically disastrous, the policy of farm invasions put the international spotlight on Zimbabwe, earned Mugabe the vilification of the Western media and put him on a collision course with the UK government.

But it also enabled him quite plausibly to ratchet up the nationalist rhetoric, to play the emotive racial card and to bolster his own revolutionary credentials. All this he exploited to the full.

Abroad, the 1998 military intervention in the Congo showed that Mugabe was quite as good as Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni or Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame at taking advantage of Africa’s complex regional politics and the collapse and failure of nation states in order to grab opportunities for furthering his own interests (especially commercial) and power.

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni, right, welcomes President Robert Mugabe to Entebbe International airport in 1998

He was also adept at using his status as one of the last liberation leaders left in power to pull weight over younger leaders, such as Thabo Mbeki, at regional gatherings.

Attending these meetings, he played on regional rivalries and suspicion of South Africa’s hegemonic role.

Following a government of national unity between 2009 and 2013, a challenge to his rule was made by the former prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai. He lost by a landslide, with the incumbent winning a 61 per cent share of the vote.

To the end, he showed a shrewd understanding of the realities of African politics and an ability to manipulate them to his own advantage. The problem was that somewhere along the way Mugabe’s interests and those of the majority of Zimbabweans had drifted far apart.

In mid-November 2017, the issue was brought to a head when the army took power in Zimbabwe. Over the following days, the Zanu-PF party pressured the president to resign.

“We want to get rid of this animal called Mugabe. We have the numbers, the opposition is also going to support us”, said Zanu-PF MP, Vongai Muperer.

Anti-Mugabe protesters gather in Harare in 2017

Despite an impeachment motion accusing Mugabe of being a “source of instability”, he had tenaciously clung on.

But on 21 November he conceded and resigned, after 37 years in power. Celebrations erupted spontaneously throughout the country.

If a lesson can be drawn from the life of Mugabe, it is that Africa needs more democracy.

A surprise appearance. He addressed the media on the eve of the country's first election since he had been ousted

It is not only bad for the governed when their popular heroes stay in power too long, it is also bad for the heroes themselves. They end up losing their dignity and their reputation.

Had he, like Mandela, engineered his own retirement and a smooth transition of power after, say, 10 years in office, he would not only have done Zimbabweans a favour, he would have done himself a favour.

And he would now be remembered for his achievements as the leader of the struggle for black majority rule, rather than for the many spectacular failures of his last years in office.

Additional reporting by Marcus Williamson

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