Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Mugabe Birthday: No Cause for Celebration
Robert Gabriel Mugabe turns 81 on February 21 and if, as almost universally predicted, his party wins Zimbabwe’s parliamentary elections at the end of March, he will still be president at 86 - by which time he will have held power for 30 years.
Whether the octogenarian will then want to continue the onerous task of running a country in economic free-fall and international isolation is a matter of conjecture. But one of the President’s closest associates, anti-corruption minister Didymus Mutasa, has said, "In our culture kings are only replaced when they die, and Mugabe is our king."
Mugabe himself has threatened that the country’s only significant opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, will never enjoy power while he lives. Issuing a "declaration of war" at a public rally, he said, "The MDC will never form the government of this country, never ever, not in my lifetime or even after I die."
He then broke into his indigenous Shona to warn: "Ndinya kupikirei ndinomu lachidhoma [I swear my ghost will come after you]."
And yet Mugabe, who nowadays habitually indulges in the brutal political rhetoric of an archetypal dictator, boasting "I have degrees in violence," was some two decades ago given an honorary knighthood by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and strongly tipped to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Readers of the London-based magazine New African voted him the most popular African leader of the 1980s.
Somewhere it all went wrong. Exactly where is hard to pinpoint. Lawrence Vambe, the distinguished Zimbabwean historian and journalist now lives in self-imposed exile in Britain with 400,000 of his countrymen. He has known Mugabe since the 1930s, when they were educated together at Kutama Roman Catholic mission, where Robert was born on February, 21, 1924.
"Robert was a terrible loner," said Vambe from his home in the English Midlands. "He was a brilliant student and his dear mother, Abuya Bona Mugabe, desperately wanted her son to become a priest."
When Robert was ten, his Gabriel left Kutama to seek work in Bulawayo. He never returned, deserting his wife and six children for another woman, with whom he had three children. "Mugabe never forgave him for that," said James Chikerema, now aged 80, also educated at Kutama, who is Mugabe’s nephew and a veteran nationalist who founded the guerrilla wing of the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union,ZAPU.
Mugabe greatly admired Kutama’s Irish Jesuit supervisor, Father Jerome O’Hea, who was a strong believer in education as the key to emancipation and who was frequently attacked by the then Rhodesia’s British administrators for "educating the natives above their station".
To this day Mugabe lucidly recalls a conversation in 1933 between Father O’Hea and the British governor, Cecil Rodwell. When O’Hea pleaded for funds to build a hospital at Kutama, Rodwell retorted, "Why do you worry about a hospital? After all, there are too many natives in the country already." Mugabe never forgot nor forgave Rodwell’s remarks.
Mugabe trained as a teacher at Fort Hare University in South Africa. He taught at schools in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and then at Takoradi Teacher Training College in Ghana, the first black African colony to gain independence, under its socialist leader Kwame Nkrumah. There he met and became enamoured with fellow teacher Sally Heyfron, an intelligent and cultured woman who injected tenderness into the life of the reserved and austere Mugabe. They married in a Roman Catholic ceremony in 1961.
"Sally Heyfron was the best thing that ever happened to Robert," said Chikerema from his home in Harare. "She was warm and cared about people. It rubbed off on Robert who could often be as cold as ice."
At independence in 1980, hundreds of thousands of people flocked into football stadiums around the country to celebrate the man Sally had encouraged to become a revolutionary and who was now the leader of free Zimbabwe. "Yes, he was worshipped," remembered Vambe. "We all felt in those days that he was some sort of saviour."
Vambe wept tears of joy at the independence ceremonies as his fellow schoolboy from Kutama became the first black prime minister of Zimbabwe. "I believed then that Robert was a storehouse of all that was best in our culture," he said.
The world, and most of Zimbabwe’s whites, agreed. David Smith, born in Scotland, became finance minister. And when Mugabe appointed Englishman Denis Norman as his first agriculture minister, Jim Sinclair, president of the 4,500-strong Commercial Farmers’ Union, said, "He’s the best leader we’ve ever had."
The farmers, whose produce was the bedrock of the Zimbabwe economy, chorused, "Good old Bob."
"However," said Vambe, "first, power went to his head. Secondly, the whites he thought he could trust turned on him and started funding opposition parties."
But Vambe, like many Zimbabwean analysts, points to the death of Sally in 1992, after kidney failure, as the point where something in Robert snapped and Zimbabwe began a precipitous decline towards bankruptcy, threatened by total economic collapse and catastrophic food shortages.
"He turned away from all his old friends and embraced a collection of crooks and conmen who have brought to its knees a country the late [Tanzanian president] Julius Nyerere called The Jewel of Africa," he said.
However, Mugabe's ruthless and murderous streak had already made itself apparent much earlier, when in 1983 he asked North Korean military instructors to train a special Fifth Army Brigade, made up entirely of his fellow ethnic Shonas and directly answerable to him.
He believed that ZAPU, the old rival to his ZANU PF in the liberation struggle, still had weapons secretly buried around Bulawayo, the country’s second city, which could be used in an uprising against his government. Numerous massacres occurred and as many as 35,000 people, mainly peasants from the minority Ndebele tribe, were murdered by the Fifth Brigade.
The scale of the violence was far worse than anything that had occurred during the independence war. Most whites looked the other way. "Better he turns on his own than on us," said a leader of the powerful Zimbabwe Tobacco Association, who had been a general in the old Rhodesian Army
In 1993, white farmers and businessmen helped finance a new, anti-Mugabe party called The Forum. Led by Enoch Dumbutshena, Zimbabwe’s first black chief justice, the party enjoyed support from the black urban middle class.
"Mugabe was livid," said Chikerema, who joined The Forum. "Blacks had announced their opposition to Mugabe’s economic policies. But when Mugabe threatened their white backers, black support drained away and those of us who stuck with The Forum were left stranded."
The MDC was launched in 1999, with similar financing but a much bigger support base and with Morgan Tsvangirai, the popular secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, as its leader.
Mugabe’s response, starting on February 26, 2000, was to launch a carefully coordinated invasion of white-owned farms across the country by government-supported gangs armed with axes and pangas. Government and army trucks were used to transport them to the farms and to keep them supplied with rations.
They were dubbed 'veterans', but the majority were too young to have participated in the war of liberation 20 years earlier. The land invasions had a devastating impact on the white farming community.
By the beginning of this year white commercial agriculture had been destroyed, but so had the country’s economy. Hardly noticed, black critics of Mugabe also lost their land, including Chikerema, whose 800 acre farm was taken from him by his uncle Robert.
"It is tragic," said Vambe, "that the world looked the other way when Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade killed anything between 25,000 and 30,000 black men, women and children in Matabeleland, but went wild with anger when white-owned farms were invaded by Robert’s hooligans, leading to the death of 13 farmers. This was British and white man’s hypocrisy at its very worst."
Looking back on it all, Vambe said, "Robert Mugabe wanted love and affection from his people and still believes he has given them what they most wanted, the return of the land taken by the whites in the 1890s.
"But in that process he has destroyed the economy; alienated all the best people and made enemies of the young who are pawing the ground waiting for change or leaving Zimbabwe for countries that offer them some hope."
Asked to pinpoint the key moment of change from Mugabe the liberator to Mugabe the oppressor, 88-year-old Vambe replied, "Not one, but two. The first was when the whites took sides against him after he offered the hand of reconciliation in 1980.
"The second was the death of Sally. Something closed down in him. He returned to being a lonely isolated little boy in an old man’s body. I no longer recognise the man I once knew well and greatly admired. He has disgraced the name of Zimbabwe and I, for one, will not be celebrating his 81st birthday."
Trevor Grundy worked as a foreign correspondent in Zimbabwe for Time magazine, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Scotsman from 1976 to 1996.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight