He was a school teacher. After a trip to South Africa in the 1950s, he became politically active. He was jailed for over ten years by the white minority government for sedition. While in jail his son dies, and he’s not allowed to go to the funeral. He taught his fellow inmates how to read and write. He was eventually freed and led an armed struggle against the oppressive regime. The British intervened and brokered a peace agreement, premised on free and fair elections. He won in a landslide. It was 1980.
After over 37 years in power, Robert Mugabe appears to finally be on his way out. It didn’t have to end this way.
As I’ve touched on before, the colonial era in Africa was extremely detrimental to African development, and newly-independent African nations were almost all left in perilous financial, social and political situations.
After the conference of Berlin in 1884, noted imperialist Cecil Rhodes consolidated a number of mining companies into the British South Africa Company, modelled after the eponymous East India Company.
The company got a charter from Queen Victoria and solidified their control of the Southern African market. The conference of Berlin had given the British most of Southern Africa. The colony straddling the Zambezi river (just north of South Africa) was named Rhodesia in honour of the great man himself.
Rhodesia was explicitly developed to extract natural resources. Roads and railroads were built to ship materials out of the country. Rhodesia was well known for its fertile soil and plentiful mines – tobacco, maize and gold being its primary exports.
As the winds of change blew through the lands in the late 50s and early 60s, the white elites in Rhodesia had other ideas. In 1965, Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence, with white minority rule and Ian Smith as Prime Minister. The similarities to apartheid-era South Africa were jarring. Rhodesia was marginalised by most of the international community.
The 1970s were a turbulent time in Southern Africa. Mozambique and Angola were in the midst of brutal anti-colonial wars. The Portuguese had staunchly resisted any attempts to decolonize. South Africa was deeply entrenched in the apartheid system. And then there was Rhodesia.
There was a brutal guerrilla war that had kicked off right after the unilateral declaration of independence. The South African regime feared the conflict may spill over into their territory, and brokered an agreement that included releasing Robert Mugabe from prison. Consider that the South African regime still had Nelson Mandela under lock and key. And would for another fifteen years.
Upon his release 1974, Mugabe disappeared into the jungle between Rhodesia and Mozambique, to continue the guerrilla struggle. His aggressive rhetorical zeal makes fearsome reading, even today. In one of his speeches, he declared: “Let us hammer [the white man] to defeat. Let us blow up his citadel. Let us give him no time to rest. Let us chase him in every corner. Let us rid our home of this settler vermin”. (Blair, 11)
A peace deal was struck in 1979, ironically brokered by the British. Mugabe had to be convinced to attend the conference, as he was utterly committed to military victory. The peace deal had a number of crucial clauses. There were to be free and fair elections in 1980. Africans were allowed to vote. But the white minority was guaranteed 20 out of 80 seats in parliament. And Mugabe was talked into agreeing to the protection of the white community’s private property. But only if the British government agreed to provide financial assistance to the Zimbabwean government to purchase land for redistribution. (Holland, 63) The white minority naturally controlled the best land in the country. (Meredith, 8)
Mugabe won the election in a landslide. He appeared on national television, appealing for calm, peace and unity. Despite this, immediately following the election ten percent of the white population moved to South Africa. (Meredith, 46) White flight is not just an American phenomenon.
Zimbabwe was suddenly the test-case for a post-apartheid nation.
Governing proved incredibly challenging. The apartheid regime in South Africa readily funded white militants. There was a bombing at Mugabe’s political headquarters in 1981 which stoked the already smouldering embers. (Meredith, 52) Recall that just a few years prior to this Mugabe was in the jungle literally preaching the extermination of the “settler vermin”. The economy kept plummeting as more whites left the country, and the British reneged on their promises to provide financial assistance. (Blair, 133) Despite this, the government invested heavily in health and education. There were 177 schools in 1980 and over 1500 by the end of the millennium. (Blair, 37)
By the mid-90s Mugabe had fallen prey to the trappings of unrestrained statecraft. He had centralized power in a brazen attempt to establish a one-party state. He abandoned his socialist rhetoric and doled out favours on his inner circle, in classic patrimonial style. He instigated and supported land-grabbing, intimidation and in some cases outright murder.
Opposition to his regime began to grow from within his own party, as the economy spiralled into oblivion. The early 2000s were riddled with news stories about the eponymous wheelbarrows of cash for loaves of bread. The 2000 election was heavily contested. Using voter fraud, violence and intimidation, Mugabe was able to maintain his grip on power. He actually lost the election in 2008, but somehow managed to hold on to power in a convoluted power-sharing agreement. He spent much of the 2000s feuding with a variety of Western leaders, roundly accusing the west of historical revisionism and neo-imperialism.
The post-colonial era in Africa is tremendously complicated. Mugabe is widely and rightly denounced as a kleptocrat. But Mugabe was also an incredibly powerful and important figure in the decolonization struggle. The Mugabe experience must be seen through the lens of the anti-apartheid struggle. Rhodesia and South Africa are exceptionally odious cases. The white minorities choose to remain in power despite the winds of change. And used the full force of their respective states to ensure it.
Mugabe was conciliatory towards the people that jailed him for speaking out against racial injustice. This exemplifies the notion of twice as good. We love to idolize Nelson Mandela, championing his non-violence and his ability to forgive. Because Nelson Mandela forgave white people for their sins. Mugabe did too. But then went back on it. And has been roundly denounced and ostracised as a result. Has Mugabe committed untold atrocities on his own people as well? Demonstrably yes. Is Mugabe a dictator, a kleptocrat supreme and a frankly quite deplorable individual? Also demonstrably yes.
Robert Mugabe is leaving the building. There aren’t many of his generation left. Paul Biya and Teodoro Nguema still outflank him in terms of longevity. Biya has stunningly been in charge of Cameroon for over 42 years. But the era of strongman politics in Africa is surely coming to a close. Many countries now have rigid and robust constitutions that impose term limits. Robert Mugabe was born in another era and ruled in another era. Most of the leaders in Africa are already part of this post-colonial generation, no longer struggling for legitimacy in the face of imperial domination. Born after independence, in a new world. When my own father was my age – 27 – Kenya wasn’t quite a country yet. We can’t lose sight of that. There is a generational transition afoot, and Mugabe’s ouster is a significant signpost. But we should not forget the critical role he played in deconstructing a racist regime and establishing a black majority government.
Sources not cited in text
Blair, David (2002). Degrees in Violence: Robert Mugabe and the Struggle for Power in Zimbabwe. London and New York: Continuum
Holland, Heidi (2008). Dinner with Mugabe: The Untold Story of a Freedom Fighter Who Became a Tyrant. London: Penguin
Meredith, Martin (2002). Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe. New York: Public Affairs.
By Rashid Mohiddin
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.