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Mugabe really wanted to be a teacher? Dictators are not so simple afterall
on 11 December 2012
If you live in the English-speaking world, you will recognise Robert Mugabe as the malevolent ogre that has ruined Zimbabwe, a country that was once the 'bread basket' of Africa. Mugabe has presided over a calamitous decline in living standards and has encouraged violence against his real and imagined enemies within Zimbabwe. This, at least, is the caricature of the man painted by the popular press (such as The Economist). Like all caricatures, this portrait reflects many truths, but is malproportioned. I bought Martin Meredith's 'Mugabe' because I wanted a more critical picture of Mugabe's Zimbabwe. I had read Meredith's excellent book 'The State of Africa' and was thoroughly impressed by Meredith's knowledge of post-colonial Africa. Therefore, I expected 'Mugabe' to add nuance to the popular caricature of the man. The book succeeds, but only barely so.
WHO IS ROBERT MUGABE?
Meredith attempts to uncover how a keenly intelligent, ostensibly idealist Marxist Mugabe transformed into the ogre of popular imagination. His answer is simple: Mugabe was never quite a committed Marxist. Mugabe's only goal in leading Zimbabwe's black liberation movement was power. He would do anything, brook no opposition and murder anyone in order to retain power. Nothing surprising here.
Mugabe grew up in racially-stratified colonial Rhodesia. According to Meredith, Mugabe resented the racial assumptions of the colonial caste system: blacks were inferior while whites - no matter their intellectual gifts or character - were considered superior to blacks. Yet, Mugabe grew up fearing, even admiring, 'The White Man' (Meredith's words). He (Mugabe) showed little appetite for politics as a young man, but eventually became caught up in the independence movement of the 1960s. He eventually led his country to independence from white minority rule. After becoming Prime Minister in 1980, Mugabe systematically repressed his enemies (chiefly, the Ndebeles led by Joshua Nkomo). He developed an extensive patronage system that milked the country dry before training his eyes on a visible, privileged minority - the white elite. Meredith chronicles how Mugabe neutered the Zimbabwean judiciary, legislature and other institutions of state in his bid to establish a one party state.
I credit Meredith for highlighting two elements of Zimbabwe's story that are often glossed over in press accounts: (1) The land issue; and (2) Mugabe's reliance on a venal elite coterie.
THE LAND ISSUE: POLITICS, ECONOMICS AND IDENTITY
Land matters greatly in Zimbabwe--and I wager in most parts of the world. Robert Mugabe inherited a poisonous legacy of inequitable land distribution. In the late 1800s, Cecil Rhodes, under the British flag, conquered and systematically dispossessed the Shona and Matabele (the indigenous tribes of Zimbabwe) of their land. The land was subsequently been distributed to white settlers.
Fast forward eighty years. A tiny elite of white farmers controlled the vast majority of the country's most fertile land. Black Zimbabweans, on the other hand, were left in overcrowded marginal lands. The issue goes beyond economics. It does not matter that the white farmers are more economically productive. A grave injustice had been done. Further, land in Zimbabwean society is not simply an economic asset to be exploited, it has profound sociological functions: it is a symbol of identity, status and heritage. Thus, British expropriation of native land is doubly painful: it is the visible expression of the economic and social domination of the former colonial power. This corrosive legacy of racism and colonialism would have tried the most saintly statesman. It was only a matter of time before a cynical, power-hungry Mugabe played the race card in order to divert attention from his mismanagement of the economy.
A VENAL ELITE
No dictator can rule alone. Meredith shows that Mugabe relies on a network of venal elite Zimbabweans to translate his policies into action. These men and women are part of a lucrative patronage system that penetrates the heart of Zimbabwean society. Mugabe may be the figurehead of the system, but it is a system composed of many members who benefit handsomely from Mugabe's misrule. As long as Mugabe placates this elite, it is unlikely that the masses will rise up and overthrow him.
QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS
Meredith's account of Mugabe's rule is superficial: it reads like a serialised newspaper column. It left me asking for more on two levels: (1) how the land issue penetrates the consciousness of Zimbabwean society; and (2) the role of external players and on the factors that shaped Mugabe's character. For instance, what role did the British play in supporting Mugabe? How come despite his mismanagement of the country did he get millions of dollars in loans from the US and Europe? What were the stipulations of the Lancaster house accord? What role did it play in staying Mugabe's hand?
Even though I did not expect Meredith to psychoanalyse Mugabe, I expected more insight into the forces that shaped Mugabe - especially those of the colonial period and the country's history. Perhaps, this shortcoming is understandable; Mugabe is still alive and access to his personal files must be restricted. Nevertheless, I expected Meredith to dig deeper than popular press accounts in order to uncover the hand of history in Zimbabwe.
Regardless of its shortcomings, 'Mugabe' is an enjoyable easy read. (I read the entire book on a Sunday afternoon.) After reading Meredith's 'State of Africa' I had come to expect vivid accounts of the lives of Africa's leaders. In 'Mugabe', Meredith delivers, but not quite as he did in 'The State of Africa'. No one can understand contemporary Africa - especially Southern and Central Africa - without understanding the colonial past. Attempting to analyse an individual as complex as Mugabe without shedding light on history leaves a lot of questions unanswered. I hope Meredith is working on a sequel to 'Mugabe'.