Notes From the Margins…

Guest Post: Robert Mugabe (1924-2019): A History of Wounds

  • September 07, 2019
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Guest Post from Richard Drayton, Professor of History at King’s College, London.

Robert Mugabe is a hate figure in the West, especially in Britain, where the political right had such important family, economic and political connections to white-minority Rhodesia. And he did his own memory no favours: he was a man with very serious flaws, whose regime was marked by episodes of state violence and many authoritarian mutilations of Zimbabwe’s democracy.

But while the word ‘dictator’ is bandied about, he was not a dictator: Zimbabwe retained elections, opposition parties and an opposition press, a surprisingly independent judiciary, and in fact the preservation of white capital’s ownership of most of the economy.

Mugabe deserves to be examined with more care than he seems to be. For what we have here is not just a man but a document of 20th century history: his achievements and failures were the products of historical forces which he was only partly the master of.

I remember vividly the one time I saw Mugabe in the flesh. It was December 1983, and he was speaking to the Harvard Law School Forum. Sanders Theater was packed to the rafters, and its wooden floors and benches resounded to our cheering, and he and his entourage applauded the audience in return. It was the early years after independence in 1980, and there seemed every reason to applaud. Here was the poor Shona boy from the dirt poor hill town who had made it to Fort Hare University, had spent a decade in grim imprisonment, then had led a war of liberation which had won.

Mugabe appeared to have managed a peaceful transition from the terror of the white minority regime in Rhodesia to a democracy in which significant new initiatives in education and healthcare were accompanied by economic growth. The Zimbabwe army was helping Mozambique fight the Renamo terrorists who had been created by South Africa and the CIA. Zimbabwe’s success was clearly strengthening the pressure on apartheid South Africa.

Little did we know that as he was speaking to us and we were cheering in 1983, his 5th Brigade, the North Korean trained Praetorian guard, were conducting a murderous crushing of a revolt in Matebeleland which resulted in the deaths of 10,000-20,000 people.

What is interesting is that the Western states and media were quite silent at the time about this early dark turn. So long as he kept the white minority and their property safe, keeping the bargain he had made in the Lancaster House negotiations with the British, they didn’t really care.

The British however did not keep their side of the bargain. At the Lancaster House negotiations, it had been agreed that the British government would provide the funds which would allow for white farmers, who occupied the best farming lands after seven decades of British colonial landgrabbing, to be bought out to allow land reform. The tape recordings of the negotiations, which were in the care of the British government, mysteriously disappeared.

For people who had suffered immensely in the liberation war to find themselves as poor as before created great discontent. Mugabe tried to get land reform going with state revenues, on the willing buyer willing seller model. But nothing worked. In the 1990s it was still true that 1% of the population, almost all white, owned 70% of the arable land. Popular discontent was met with force. He decided that he would take the step of encouraging people to squat allow armed squatting of farmland.

By 2000, the state was encouraging reverse landgrabs. It is in that late 1990s moment that the IMF decided to put the squeeze on Zimbabwe, and he became the ‘African Hitler’ of the British right wing press. The people in Britain who had fervently backed white minority Rhodesia now became very concerned about the fate of democracy in Zimbabwe.

This 1990s and early 2000s period was accompanied by high levels of violence of all kinds, and a collapse of the economy. Trade unions and demonstrations met state repression. Opposition politicians were harassed. Ndebele Zimbabweans felt this was a Shona-biased regime, while White and Asian Zimbabweans were made to feel unsafe, and to have their membership in the nation brought into question.

At the same time, the political elite appeared to be living well, through their access to the state, and there was the rumour of corruption. Zimbabwe’s intervention in the Congo civil war was linked to army officers getting rich from diamonds and metals they returned with.

How are we to make sense of this collapse of the promise of the moment of Zimbabwe’s independence?

First, we need to understand that political independence and democracy mean nothing if they are accompanied by extraordinary economic inequality. The land and inequality crisis in Zimbabwe has its partners in every postcolonial country, in particular in Africa, where independence in Kenya and the end of apartheid in South Africa left almost unchanged the structure of wealth and poverty created by white supremacist regimes.

This is why there remains across Africa, and indeed in the wider African diaspora, great compassion, if not even in many quarters outright support, for what Mugabe was trying to do, in his chaotic and often violent way.

Second, we need to take stock of the legacies of one hundred years of violence and undemocracy in Rhodesia. The 1990s turn in Mugabe’s policy was undoubtedly provoked by memory of the 1890s uprising, which was crushed with extraordinary brutality by Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa company troops. That 1890s defeat led to the first land grab, followed by a century in which the space of land claimed by whites was ever expanding.

And it was not just the violence of conquest:  colonial power and the farming economy were accompanied by extraordinary private physical violence. Beatings of blacks were  a standard part of ordinary life. I don’t have the figures for Rhodesia, but I know in Kenya that no white person was ever convicted of murdering a ‘native’ until the decade before independence.

Colonial rule resulted in economic precarity, extreme poverty and hunger. Those who know deprivation early in their lives will spend the rest of it seeking compensations. Apart from this physical violence, we need to take stock of the psychic violence of white supremacy – over on Africa is a Country there is a sneer about how Mugabe hated reggae and only valued western classical music – but in this I am reminded of Marcus Garvey’s refusal of jazz and Eric Williams’s contempt for carnival.

We should not forget how even the anticolonial leader was formed by the colonial experience, by a culture of contempt and self-contempt, which could only be conquered by wearing a suit, acquiring first hand taste of ‘high culture’ and showing you were the civilised match of the white man.

Beyond all of this, whatever ideas he was exposed to, Mugabe learned about authoritarian rule by looking all around him as he was a child: the military dictatorships of Pakistan and the distorted democracy of India carry within them the memory of the colonial experience, much as the state formed in Russia after 1917 continued the czarist traditions of secret police and political prisons.

The Mugabe who stood before me in 1983 was thus bearing wounds which we could not see, was knotted by scar tissue which stiffened him and made his movement through the world awkward. That Mugabe, with all his horrors, we bury with regret and compassion, to be absorbed by Zimbabwe’s future history. May he in death be healed, or at least separated from that experience of pain and mutilation.

But there is another Mugabe, the little boy who said to himself this is not fair, this is not right, I will fight, whatever the cost, we will demand freedom and justice. That Mugabe who lent his help to the making of freedom in Angola, Namibia and South Africa. That brave big-hearted man is an object of great interest to me. For his courage is shared by many, even are many of his wounds and scars. Mugabe is in no simple way a hero, but there was much heroic about the man.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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