Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mirror Image Leaders

There are uncanny similarities between the late Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe.
By Prisca Zvarwadza
President Robert Mugabe celebrated the death last week of former Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith, the man who jailed him for ten years and caused the deaths of thousands of freedom fighters, but commentators say Mugabe should instead have spent time reflecting on his own leadership since independence in 1980.

“He should ask himself if he has maintained the values of the liberation struggle,” said a former freedom fighter who has become an academic and a political analyst. “Has he achieved the goals that we set out when we waged the war to liberate the black majority from white oppression?

“What will he see when he looks in the mirror? Ian Smith, perhaps?”

Many Zimbabweans take the ironic view that Smith and Mugabe are mirror images of each other. There are uncanny similarities between the two.

Smith is quoted as saying in 1976 that there would never be majority rule in his lifetime. "I don’t believe in black majority rule ever in Rhodesia, not in a thousand years," he said.

Mugabe has made a similar claim: he has said Zimbabwe will never be ruled by “western puppets”, meaning the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC. But as friends and supporters of Smith were making plans for a memorial service in Cape Town, Mugabe’s lieutenants were engaged in talks with representatives of the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai.

Early in his political career, the British Foreign Office had noticed Smith’s obduracy. That is also Mugabe’s greatest weakness.

But the similarities run deeper, including their dislike of meddling Britain and their radical racist rhetoric. And both Smith and Mugabe led the country into isolation.

Smith declared unilateral independence from Britain in 1965 and went on to blame the British for what he called interference in Rhodesia's domestic affairs. Likewise, Mugabe rants against Britain and western powers at every turn. He blames them for the economic mess that exists in Zimbabwe, claiming they are after regime change through sanctions.

Geoff Hill, writer and correspondent for the Washington Times in South Africa, was the last journalist to see Smith alive, when he visited him in his hospital bed before his death. He said Smith and Mugabe were both paranoid about British intentions and did not like being challenged from within their own parties. Both used the same brutal tactics and Mugabe has adopted legislation used by Smith to maintain his grip on power.

Smith died in South Africa, aged 88, and even 27 years after he relinquished power he showed no remorse for the bloodshed that claimed over 30,000 lives, mostly black fighters and civilians.

Mugabe has never shown remorse or publicly apologised for the Matabeleland massacres in the early 1980s in which more than 20,000 people whom he believed to be opposition supporters died at the hands of his notorious South Korean-trained Fifth Brigade.

The one-time liberator has become the oppressor. Mugabe, once hailed for bringing democracy to Zimbabwe, has furthered his rule in the same fashion and using the same strategies as the former colonisers he scorns.

To many white Rhodesians, Smith was a saviour who vowed to preserve white minority rule and protect their interests against rising African nationalist sentiment. They saw as heroic his unilateral declaration of independence, UDI, from Britain in 1965, when Britain was pulling out of its African colonies.

But to the blacks who fought a bitter war of independence, many of whom spent years in jail, Smith was a ruthless tyrant who banned black nationalist parties; had leaders arrested and introduced harsh laws curbing civil rights.

Although the political circumstances are different, Mugabe and his ruling elite seem to be following in the footsteps of their predecessors. Mugabe is not just a tyrant to whites, from whom he seized their farmland, but also to his black opponents.

Some 27 years after independence, Zimbabweans are still being subjected to the same aggression from the state, violations of basic human rights and oppressive laws that they fought against.

Opposition political leaders have to endure the same brutality, violence and intolerance that nationalist leaders suffered under Smith’s regime and that in the end made them take up arms during the colonial era.

Smith imprisoned Mugabe and many others, claiming they were terrorists. Members of the MDC have suffered the same fate under Mugabe. Several MDC officials were jailed earlier this year on trumped-up terrorist charges.

The same torture that was used to break nationalist leaders and destroy nationalist movements is now being commonly perpetrated on journalists, political and human rights activists and anyone critical of Mugabe, his party and government.

Opposition leaders cannot freely hold meetings and rallies without running battles with the police and other security agents. They have to seek permission from the police and such requests have been turned down in the past.

Sometimes, they are forced to hold secret meetings, as did Mugabe, the late vice-president Joshua Nkomo and other nationalist leaders under Smith’s regime.

Under the Public Order and Security Act, POSA, more repressive than the Smith era’s Law and Order (Maintenance) Act, public gatherings, demonstrations and opposition rallies can be banned. Government has also banned prayer meetings in the past.

Most journalists have to work clandestinely and Mugabe, like Smith, has banned several independent newspapers, using the infamous Access to Information and Privacy Protection Act.

Press censorship, oppressive legislation and a selective application of the law also feature in the legacy of both men.

The Central Intelligence Organisation, CIO, has remained almost the same in structure and practice. As during Smith’s reign, when the CIO was accountable to the prime minister only, it now directly and exclusively reports to Mugabe and is in place to serve only the president’s interests.

Both regimes attracted sanctions, although this time, the sanctions are targeted ones, aimed only at Mugabe and his closest allies. And herein lies one difference: despite working under widespread sanctions in the 1970s, Smith managed the economy better than Mugabe has.

In an interview in 2000, Smith, with an unshakeable belief that Africa would not work without whites, said, “We have never seen such chaos and corruption in our country. What Zimbabweans are looking for is a bit of ordinary honesty and straightforwardness.”

At least he could boast that “we had the highest standard of health and education and housing for our black people than any other country on the black continent. That was what Rhodesians did, and I wonder if we shouldn’t be given credit for doing that”.

Maybe Mugabe could also boast that at one time he managed to increase the country’s literacy rate and access to basic health. But the education and health standards have since collapsed almost totally.

If Mugabe does engage in introspection, the man he will see in his mirror will surely be the man that he fought against, the man whose beliefs he strongly opposed and the man he has now become.

Prisca Zvarwadza is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

More IWPR's Global Voices