In Summary
  • The fall in production was the result of Mugabe’s often-violent seizure of most of the country’s 5,000 white-owned farms.
  • Above all, he was a canny politician, skilfully manipulating the ethnic and clan rivalries that bedevil Zimbabwe’s politics, and shrewd in his use of patronage.

When Zimbabwe celebrated its independence from Britain on April 18, 1980, the newly-elected Robert Mugabe received a succinct message from a staunch supporter.

“You have inherited a jewel,” declared Julius Nyerere, then the Tanzanian president. “Keep it that way.”

The Zimbabwean leader, who has died aged 95, largely ignored the advice; and he leaves a mixed legacy.

He was a liberation war hero, a man who provided a living link with pre-independence colonial Zimbabwe – the last survivor of a small group of African politicians who endured detention without trial and went on to lead their countries to independence.

Yet throughout his 38 years in power, he rigged elections and sanctioned torture, crushed opposition, and embezzled millions of dollars, treating the state as a milk cow that served him, his family and the ruling Zanu-PF party.

The consequences were disastrous. Life expectancy fell from 60 years at independence to a low of 44 — from one of the highest in Africa to one of the lowest in the world.

At least a million Zimbabweans fled to neighbouring South Africa in search of jobs and sanctuary.

FARM SEIZURE

Hyperinflation wiped out savings and made pensions worthless. And a country that at independence could boast food self-sufficiency, now regularly needs foreign aid to feed its people.

The fall in production was the result of Mugabe’s often-violent seizure of most of the country’s 5,000 white-owned farms.

Robert Mugabe

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe (left) shakes hands with Cuban President Fidel Castro at the State Council in Havana on September 12, 2005. PHOTO | ADALBERTO ROQUE | AFP

Ostensibly, it was done to redress a historical injustices that had left the country’s best land in the hands of whites, outnumbered 15 to one by the black majority.

The reality was that most of the seized properties were gifted to Mugabe’s cronies.

But this was no ordinary despot, no run-of-the-mill dictator. Inside the political hardliner he undoubtedly became, there was a different persona.

For all his homophobic diatribes and the rants against Britain, he was a closet Anglophile; a man who loved to watch cricket at the grounds that adjoined his official residence in the capital, Harare.

CREDENTIALS

He admired the British royal family, spoke fondly of former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher and regarded Christopher Soames, the last British governor who oversaw the independence election in 1980, as a friend.

He spoke excellent English, had no fewer than seven university degrees and diplomas – most of them taken by correspondence, some during the nearly 11 years he spent in detention.

I first met Robert Mugabe in 1974, not long after he had been released from detention and shortly before he fled to neighbouring Mozambique, where Zanu’s guerrilla army was based.

A friend who lectured at the University of Rhodesia – as it was then called – had invited him to dinner. As we sat eating, there was no small talk.

Rather we heard a cool, dispassionate warning about the consequences of the failure of white Rhodesians to accept majority rule.

To meet him after he had won power was to come face to face with an icon, a man with an aura akin that of people who wield absolute power – and who are unfettered in its use.

His liberation-era credentials conferred the position of first among equals among his peers.

SHREWD POLITICIAN

In this context, Mugabe’s age became an asset and not a liability, a reason for veneration rather than grounds for revolt.

His ministers were not only indebted to him, for all were beneficiaries of his patronage: they were in awe of him and afraid of him.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe delivers a speech during a graduation ceremony at the Zimbabwe Open University in Harare, where he presides as the Chancellor, on November 17, 2017. PHOTO | JEKESAI NJIKIZANA | AFP

Far from acting as a constraint on his power, they became complicit in his political chessboard.

Above all, he was a canny politician, skilfully manipulating the ethnic and clan rivalries that bedevil Zimbabwe’s politics, ruthless and brutal in his treatment of opponents, and shrewd in his use of patronage.

The bleak state of Zimbabwe today is in stark contrast to the cautious optimism that marked the birth of the new nation.

The guerrilla war triggered by white Rhodesia’s unilateral declaration of independence in November 1965 was over. Economic sanctions had been lifted and hope was in the air.

“If yesterday I fought you as an enemy” - Mugabe asserted in his eve-of-independence speech, universally acclaimed for its theme of reconciliation and forgiveness - “Today you have become a friend and ally . . . If yesterday you hated me, you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me, and me to you . . .  The wrongs of the past must now stand forgiven and forgotten.”

Robert Gabriel Mugabe had come a long way from his humble beginnings.

EARLY LIFE

Born in Kutama in northwest Mashonaland in 1924 and educated at the local mission school, he was soon singled out by his Jesuit teachers as a pupil of rare talent.

But he was also a loner who made no close friends, and missed the presence of his father, who walked out on the family when Robert was a boy.

For the next 15 years, he taught at schools across the country.

It was not until 1960 that he entered politics, inspired by a visit to newly-independent Ghana, where he met and later married Sally Hayfron, a fellow teacher, who died in 1992.

Now in his 30s, he became publicity secretary for the party headed by the man he would later do his best to destroy – Joshua Nkomo, soon to be leader of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu).

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