Robert Mugabe: The leader who shouldn’t have been

A series of life events led to Zimbabwe’s controversial leader taking and holding on to power for 40 years, damaging his country from a position even his own mother says he wasn’t fit to hold.

About a kilometre from State House – the official residence of the Zimbabwean president, where Robert Mugabe lived until the mid-2000s before moving to his hideous mansion popularly known as Blue Roof – is the National Archives. The squat edifice holds a rambling but fascinating interview that a government functionary conducted in the 1990s with Mbuya (Gogo) Bona Mugabe, the mother of the former president who has died at the age of 95. It is one that might help us answer the often repeated question: What happened to Mugabe? 

The interviewer had been sent to Mbuya Bona with the brief to help construct a hagiography of her son, Mugabe, who was born in 1924 at Kutama, a missionary station founded by the Catholic Church 80km west of Salisbury (now Harare). Here, he was also educated before heading to the University of Fort Hare in South Africa. Mugabe then migrated to teach in Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana before returning to join the nationalist movement and later become Zimbabwe’s first democratically elected leader in 1980. 

But Mugabe’s mother had other ideas. All she wanted to talk about was Michael, her first-born child and the son who died when he was around eight or nine years old. “Aive nenjere dzakakomba,” she says in Shona during the interview. “He was extremely sharp.”  

Michael appears to have died a few days after drinking from a container that had been used to mix pesticides. His death is said to have been painful and protracted. There was another death, of Raphael, Mugabe’s immediate sibling, in unclear circumstances. But it was the death of Michael that seemed to have affected the matriarch the most, perhaps because as the first-born, nevanji, Michael had a special place in his mother’s heart and was the child who, Mbuya Bona, then the mission station’s catechist, had hoped would become a priest. 

By most accounts, Michael had been an exceptional talent, not only good at sport but gifted with a fine mind, who like a shooting star blazed through the night sky for a brief while and from whose death Bona never quite recovered. 

Robert Mugabe, the third born, suddenly took the unequivocal place of honour that Michael had occupied. His move to the centre as a youngster was hastened by the sudden flight of Gabriel Mugabe Matibili, the family patriarch, to Bulawayo, where he started another family. Perhaps to oblige his mother, then dealing with her husband’s abandonment and the death of two children, the young Robert became forbiddingly religious and assumed a punishing schedule of piety for one so young. It is said that on Sundays he attended mass twice and that he was a regular presence at church during the week. 

10 September 1979: Patriotic Front leaders Robert Mugabe (left) and Joshua Nkomo at the Constitutional Conference on the future of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia at Lancaster House in London. (Photograph by Central Press/Getty Images)

Skipping ahead

In some ways, this shake-up of the family decreed by life and fate, how Robert moved up in the patriarchal set-up to occupy its most central place, would be reprised when Mugabe moved into politics. 

When he joined the nationalists in 1960, it was as publicity secretary and yet, by 1977, he was the head of Zanu, the party which would help liberate Zimbabwe from former prime minister Ian Smith’s shackles. The men for whom the leadership would have been natural – lawyer Herbert Chitepo, Leopold Takawira and Zanu’s founding president Ndabaningi Sithole – had died, sometimes tragically, or been deposed from the party hierarchy.  

The way Mugabe joined the nationalists followed no method and template. It just happened, in the way intimated by Graham Greene, one of Mugabe’s favourite authors, who wrote in the novel The Power and the Glory: “A man isn’t presented with two courses to follow: one good and one bad. He gets caught up.” 

Related article:

In July 1960, Mugabe had returned from Ghana, where he was working at St Mary’s Teacher Training College, on a short holiday to see his mother and introduce her to Sally Hayfron, the Ghanaian woman he intended to marry. When he arrived in what was then Southern Rhodesia, the country was in the throes of a nationalist upsurge as Leopold Takawira, Mugabe’s old friend from Kutama, Michael Mawema, the man credited with coining the name Zimbabwe, Joshua Nkomo, the trade unionist turned nationalist, and others were battling the racist, colonial government. As if on a whim, Mugabe became part of it. 

Even on his return from Ghana, Mugabe had still not decided if he would join the nationalists. He made up his mind or was forced to make a decision when police conducted a dawn swoop on 19 July on the homes of National Democratic Party (NDP) president Mawema and Takawira, the NDP’s Salisbury chair.  

First appearances

On that febrile afternoon, at Stodart Hall in the township of Harare (now Mbare) before a throng that would later be known as the March of the 7 000, Mugabe made one of his first appearances at a nationalist gathering. He was introduced as a well-travelled Zimbabwean, with three university degrees, based in Ghana. 

In his speech, Mugabe spoke of life in Ghana, its president Nkrumah and his programme of “Africanisation”. He explained that Ghana’s independence had been won with the help of everyone, “university students and also standard 6 men. So that it must be understood that it is not only the university graduate who is the best leader.

Related article:

“It will be necessary for graduates, doctors, lawyers and all others who join the NDP to accept their leaders even if these may not be university men,” Mugabe continued, in a speech that must have made an impression on his audience. Already in awe of his several university degrees and his status as teacher trainer (in a country in which one of the few, respected professions available to Africans was becoming a teacher), they must have found his deprecation a winning trait. 

“Whoever you may be and whatever may be your station in life, you must pray [for] and respect the leaders you choose,” said Mugabe. And just like that, Mugabe became a nationalist, the very thing he had, in departing to teach in Zambia between 1955 and 1957, tried to avoid. 

Reluctant politician

Most accounts suggest a studious man with no interest in politics. Former Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who was a contemporary of Mugabe’s at the University of Fort Hare, told me: “As far as I remember, with due respect, Mr Mugabe was very quiet, a quiet person … He was not a fire-eater. I remember him as a quiet person, a studious person.”

All of this invites the question of how is it that this reluctant politician ended up occupying Zimbabwe’s politics for 40 years? 

His time stretched from 1977 as Zanu’s undisputed leader, from 1980 to December 1987 as Zimbabwe’s prime minister and from the end of 1987 to November 2017 as president, when he was removed from power by his deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa and Constantino Chiwenga, the head of his army.

Related article:

In trying to understand Mugabe’s obsession with power, once again Greene is a useful interpretive tool. In The Heart of the Matter, Greene’s novel set in West Africa during World War II, there is a fascinating incident involving Major Henry Scobie, the tragic hero of the novel. 

Scobie goes on board the ship Esperança and finds hidden in a toilet a letter, but instead of handing it over to the censorship bureaucracy, where it should have been handled by experts to look for coded messages, he opens, reads and then destroys it. The captain of the ship had offered him a bribe of £100, a substantial amount, but while Scobie turned it down he still didn’t hand over the letter, as duty required.

“Only his own heartbeats told him he was guilty – that he had joined the ranks of the corrupt police officers – Bailey who had kept a safe deposit in another city, Crayshaw who had been found with diamonds…”

Yet, in some ways, these men were better than him. “They had been corrupted by money, and he had been corrupted by sentiment. Sentiment was the more dangerous, because you couldn’t name its price. A man open to bribes was to be relied upon below a certain figure, but sentiment might uncoil in the heart at a name, a photograph, even a smell remembered.”

26 August 2016: Zimbabweans protesting against Mugabe’s rule destroyed a street sign bearing his name as they marched through the capital city of Harare. (Photograph by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Powerful sentiment

For Mugabe, the corrupting sentiment was his obsession with power and control, an inner totalitarian streak that meant he would stop at nothing. 

When you look at his moves in the 1980s to establish a one-party state and his ideas of statecraft, the only constants are power – how to attain it, how to keep it and how to monopolise it. If it was a law that stood between him and power, he changed it. If it was an institution, he subverted it. If it was an election, he rigged it. If it was an opponent who stood between him and power, he had him killed. The 20 000 he killed in Gukurahundi, the genocidal war between 1982 and 1987 targeting the Ndebeles, who supported his then arch enemy Nkomo, must be understood in this context. Towards the attainment of this ultimate prize, nothing was sacred and no one was indispensable. Indeed, when his army moved against him in 2017, it is rumoured he offered to exile his wife Grace, who had become a frontrunner in the succession struggles, in exchange for his continued grasp on power.  

Of course, with power came vast wealth from his multiple farms and businesses. But that was later on. In trying to answer the question of what happened to Mugabe, the frugality of the earlier Mugabe and the excesses and ostentation of later years is often pointed out. 

One incident recounted by the chair of the Nobel Committee, Swedish journalist and writer Per Wästberg, is instructive. He spoke about a 1977 conference in London organised by the International Defence and Aid Fund, a non-partisan organisation originally created during the Rivonia Trial to pay for the legal costs of Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and others, but whose remit later grew to provide support for other political prisoners in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. 

Wästberg, looking through the receipts and invoices after the guests had departed, was struck by the amounts spent by Mugabe’s fellow nationalists. “Nkomo had used a large amount on food but also on souvenirs and trinkets, and Sam Nujoma had likewise bought some expensive clothes.” Mugabe, on the other hand, had not spent any money at all, except on transport between his hotel and the conference venue. 

28 July 2013: President Robert Mugabe enjoying some ice cream while his wife, Grace, delivers a speech at the final Zanu-PF rally of Mugabe’s election campaign in Harare. (Photograph by Simphiwe Nkwali/Sunday Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Guerilla conditions

The Swedish writer related another incident to me in which he had seen Mugabe’s ascetic nature on display. In 1977, Wästberg and Swedish leader Olof Palme were in Lagos, Nigeria, for a conference that Mugabe also attended. However, as a guerilla leader, he had no VIP status and was put up in “a windowless chamber” with no running water. When an offer was made to Mugabe to secure him a room in a better hotel, he refused, pointing out that he was a guerilla and could make do with any situation.  

What happened to Mugabe? How did the statesman who charmed the West with his vast erudition, his familiarity with the English literary canon, European history and politics, end up a much-reviled figure, a persona non grata in European capitals where he had been a welcome presence, as evidenced by his knighthood, later revoked?

How did the man who inherited what former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere described as a “jewel” bankrupt his country, trash its living standards and drive millions of its people into exile in migration waves unimaginable for a country that’s not at war?  

How has a country blessed with rain and good soil, minerals (diamond, gold, chrome, lithium) and a reasonably educated population – one thing Mugabe did right in the early years of independence – pushed millions of its people out to work as waiters and waitresses in South Africa, Botswana and beyond? 

Mugabe himself once bristled at the question, insisting, “What I was, I still am.”

Bizarre but revealing

Perhaps his mother holds clues to what could have happened to her son. 

Towards Christmas in 2014, I went to see William (Bill) Saidi, a Zimbabwean novelist and journalist. He had been retired for some years, after a distinguished career that began in the 1950s, but was still the elegant and graceful man he was said to have been. 

Throughout the interview, he laughed uproariously when he remembered a funny story and groaned with heartfelt pain when he related grim stories. “I attended the inaugural meeting of the African National Congress at Mai Musodzi Hall in 1957,” he said, as if to say, “I was there when it all started.” The African National Congress was the first Zimbabwean nationalist party, modelled along the lines of South Africa’s ANC.

Towards the end of our talk, he recounted a bizarre story. Some time in the early 1960s, a party member in Harare township had died and Mugabe had been delegated to deliver the funeral speech. People were dispatched to the township of Highfields where Mugabe lived, but he wasn’t there and the search for him was extended to include his rural home of Kutama. 

When the emissaries arrived, Mbuya Bona said, as if she wasn’t in control of her mind, “So you think my son cares about your politics? Haana basa nazvo. He doesn’t care one bit about that. Hamunyatsomuziva mwana wangu kuti aneutsinye. You don’t know how cruel my son is. Hamunyatsomuziva. You don’t know him at all.” 

A sense of foreboding

At the time this anecdote was relayed to Saidi, it didn’t make sense at all. How could a mother talk to a stranger about her son in those terms, one of the men had wondered. Of course, mothers are privy to all kinds of messy details about their children, but this was highly unusual. 

What Bona Mugabe was saying, the secret meaning of the prophecy, which made sense decades later, was: my child has joined your cause not because of fellow feeling; this man’s headlong plunge into nationalism was a false position, when people who surround you believe you think as they do. This man is no humanist. He is a masochist.  

Are we surprised that Mugabe died in a hospital in Singapore, because he had destroyed his own country’s health system? 

Are we surprised that his own friends, tiring of his obsession with power and his moves to have his wife inherit the presidency, finally put him under house arrest and demanded that he resign, which he eventually did? 

Are we surprised that the person who succeeded Mugabe isn’t the brilliant Harvard-trained lawyer Eddison Zvobgo, or the journalist and intellectual Nathan Shamuyarira, or the fresh-faced chemist and former finance minister Simba Makoni, or the brave, principled war veteran Margaret Dongo, but Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s trusted enforcer and former personal assistant who, continuing Mugabe’s legacy of authoritarian thuggery, continues to kill and maim? 

What Mugabe’s mother had clearly seen early on, in that way only mothers can, what was confirmed to her as he grew into a man, is something that Zimbabweans cottoned on to much later amid the ruins, broken dreams, famine, exiles and deaths that characterised his 37 years in power.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.