SLR Diary: An alternative ‘obituary’ for Robert Mugabe

This is not an obituary, sprinkled as those so often are with compliments and fine-sounding anecdotes that lend shine to the departed, often in direct disproportion to the life they led. No, Simon Lincoln Reader tells it as he sees it, the life of Robert Mugabe that is, the man the ANC could not bring itself to criticise, even when he was committing the worst human rights violations imaginable against his own people and the former ruling whites. Reader goes to his telling love life to illustrate Mugabe’s lack of sound judgement and refuses to buy the dominant southern African discourse that this intellectual giant was driven by a genuine desire for equity in promoting land reform. Then, he puts our ruling elite to the political sword in a manner that seeks to explain the somnambulance that fell upon the ANC during the rampant State Capture years. If they didn’t give a ‘monkeys’ about the genocide of 25,000+ black people (read the Matabeleland massacres), why the hell would they care about the ethics of ANC cabinet ministers, looting, etc? he asks. As alluded to, not quite the hero’s valedictory wave we’ve come to expect upon Bob’s parting. – Chris Bateman

By Simon Lincoln Reader*

Robert Mugabe is a sound example of the theory that history’s great cock-ups are more the result of incompetence and greed than they are of conspiracy.

Zimbabwe’s fortunes are not the result of the west’s unwillingness to accept indigenous land ownership, but of Mugabe’s avarice, dating back to a dreadful mistake he made whilst married to Sally Hayfron.

It was into her name that he stashed the millions that he pilfered. When she died, he asked for the money back, but was given the bird by her Ghanian family. At this point he was busy making another terrible mistake: dating a seductive typist called Grace Marufu, a woman of immeasurable but mostly vile ambition who would later deliver him a pair of rampaging village idiots and remain absorbed in the perpetual speculation surrounding his sexual wellness.

The threat of electoral defeat prompted “land reform” and “land reform” concealed an opportunity to play catch up – to steal as much as possible, as quickly as possible. I appreciate Mbuyiseni Ndlozi cannot resist lying to his confused supporters, but his suggestion that Mugabe intentionally suspended “land reform” to permit South Africa’s ascent into democracy is so insincere that Mugabe himself would probably blush.

**

All ANC politicians and supporters I’ve ever met claimed to love Robert Mugabe. Sometimes at dinner parties in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs, particularly during 2003 and 2008, I listened to the bejewelled wives of the emerging middle class embellish the romance of liberation and declare their worship of the man.

I wasn’t bothered with the fawning, or the awkward silences from fellow white guests, annoyed at what I assume they considered to be blind racial solidarity. But it was ominous: if high profile members of the ruling elite didn’t give a monkeys about the genocide of 25,000+ black people, why the hell would they care about the ethics of ANC cabinet ministers, looting, etc?

**

I want to explore the apparent love of Mugabe because I’m not sure it was love so much as it was re-assurance.

When Mugabe started behaving as he did in 1999, black South Africans mainly aligned to the ANC embraced the renewed sense of control he asserted over the fate of his white population. It was an expression of agency and consequence; in Johannesburg’s political circles, it was symbolic and convenient. At the time the ANC deemed it prudent not to be seen threatening white people – having someone else do it, close enough to be heard, was considered useful.

Robert Mugabe, Zapiro
Legacy (Robert Mugabe). More of Zapiro’s magic available at www.zapiro.com.

But if only it were true: for all Mugabe’s bluster and the racist delirium he provoked in black nationalists, he couldn’t hate whites, simply because his hatred of blacks was far more sophisticated, something that became obvious in his intemperate sulking at – of all things – the travel bans imposed on him and members of his inner circle. This was a man who loved cricket, tailored suits and western media: to confine him to the funerals of ZANU-PF politicians in blazing heat at Heroes Acre, occasioned upon him apparently every other week, where he had to wear caps and loud shirts and be surrounded by wailing peasants, is something he clearly found insulting.

**

Even if it was largely confected, his contribution to the present deteriorated state of race relations cannot be underestimated. The kind of illusion of conviction that Mugabe fronted post 1999 had already entered the west through academia; today you can find much of his obsessive, faux Marx ranting taken seriously in the habits of Britain’s political opposition parties, in its trade union leadership, within the scope of “inter-sectionalism” and other fashionable movements and sadly, in the media. But what the great agitators of today say in thousands of words, Robert Mugabe said, with spectacular precision, in ten.

To understand how successful he was here, just remember that he managed to accuse, of all people, the rights campaigner Peter Tatchell of being a racist. Those who supported Tatchell’s bravery in everything else stood by silently.

**

People who met Mugabe spoke of his formidable and sometimes terrifying intellect. For all Nelson Mandela’s criticism of his personality, I think he begrudgingly respected just how intelligent he was – capable of talking for hours without using notes, drawing breath or veering off piste.

But if he was bad, then the British who led the Lancaster House negotiations and later returned under Tony Blair were worse. It was these people (excluding Margaret Thatcher) who decided that Ian Smith must be cast to the world a racist, and die the same; it was this type of thinking that Blair’s foreign secretary Clare Short exercised when she penned her fateful letter to the incumbent Minister of Agriculture Kumbirai Kanga.

The story of Britain in Zimbabwe is an examination in terrible diplomacy and bad manners. Like always, they made poor decisions, it all went piss in a kettle – then they went home and rewarded themselves with titles. Even more it is another uncomfortable glimpse into the island’s trainwreck-ed soul, where any good has been gradually undermined by the notable shift in its politics and institutions.

One story captures this to near perfection. In 1985, the philosopher Sir Roger Scruton was due to address Glasgow University. Students and lecturers cottoned on to Sir Roger being conservative, so his address was canceled despite him having already arrived on campus. Wondering around the grounds with nothing to do, he stumbled across the spectacle of an honorary degree being bestowed upon none other than Robert Gabriel Mugabe – who was there in person to accept it. Obviously.

  • Simon Lincoln Reader lives and works in London.