The old man and the sea
Former Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe passed away in a Singapore hospital on Friday 6 September.
A state funeral was held for him at a near-deserted stadium in Harare last Saturday.
Dozens of leaders were in attendance, including Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo who led the Nigerian delegation. We understand that his remains will be interred in a month’s time when preparations would have been finalised for his official mausoleum at Heroes’ Acre in the heart of the capital.
He had been a fixture in his country’s politics for 37 years. Shy and almost effeminate, his outer demeanour belied the man of steel — an African despot who spoke English with the polish of an Anglo-Saxon aristocrat.
A grandfather who doted on children; he could be witheringly cold and severe. An austere teetotaller, he had vast business interests; with castles in Scotland and mansions in South Africa, Malaysia, Dubai and Hong Kong. His birthday banquets included endless courses of elephant, buffalo, antelope, impala and a lion. An avowed Catholic, he thought nothing of taking another man’s wife.
I once sat behind him at an international summit in Malabo. I remember him sitting glumly like a statue. When it was his turn to speak his eloquence was electrifying. Mugabe is the most erudite statesman I have ever listened to, barring former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born on 21 February 1924, at Kutama catholic mission in Mashona land. His grandfather reputedly served in the court of King Lobengula. His father, Gabriel Mugabe Matibili, walked out on the family for another woman in Bulawayo. His elder brother passed away, and soon thereafter, his younger brother also. Those tragedies cast a shadow over his childhood. He attended St. Xavier’s College Kutama, founded in 1914 by the Jesuits. Its motto is telling: “Esse Quam Videri” (To be rather than to seem to be). Schoolmates remember him as academically outstanding, but reclusive. He was mentored by the local Irish priest, Father Jerome O’Hea, who describes him as a “fine heart and a fine mind”.
In 1949, he won a scholarship to Fort Hare University College in South Africa, at the time the Oxford and Harvard of the emerging black elites of East and Southern Africa. There he met future anti-Apartheid leaders such as Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, Joe Matthews and Duma Nokwe. Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela would have graduated a decade earlier. He graduated in 1952 with an honours degree in History and English.
Returning to Northern Rhodesia, he taught in local schools before moving up north to Lusaka; subsequently immigrating to Ghana, which, under Kwame Nkrumah, had become the hotbed of pan-African nationalism on the continent.
While working at St. Mary’s Teacher Training College Takoradi, he met Sarah Francesca “Sally” Hayfron who became his wife. Sally was a bright and vivacious young woman who shared his radical politics. They had a son, Michael Nhamodzenyika, who died in 1974.
In 1960 he returned to Salisbury (now Harare) to cast his lot with his people. It earned him a long prison sentence, from 1964 to 1974. In prison he taught literacy, English and mathematics. He also read voraciously; earning degrees in law, economics and administration as an external student of the University of London.
In 1974 he crossed the border into Mozambique, where he joined ZANU. His charisma and eloquence made him a natural leader, following the untimely death of Bernard Chitepo in 1975. Driven to exhaustion by 1979, Ian Smith agreed to the Lancaster House talks under Lord Carrington.
Robert Mugabe won the elections as Prime Minister on 18 April, 1980. It was a time of optimism and hope. During the first decade of independence Zimbabweans were relatively prosperous. He was the undoubted star on the black firmament of Southern Africa. But things soon went awry.
Tensions with archrival Joshua Nkomo and his ZAPU led to the horrendous Gukurahundi military campaigns in Matabele land, in which more than 20,000 people died. It has been said that Mugabe was slow to raise the Land Question because he did not wish to jeopardise the prospects for majority rule in neighbouring South Africa. After the country achieved majority rule in 1994 he felt more confident to demand that Britain pay up for Zimbabwe’s land reforms as agreed in the Lancaster House settlement. British intransigence gave him a free hand to do as he pleased.
Forcible land seizure of white farmlands without compensation angered Western powers, who soon imposed sanctions. The British revoked his honorary knighthood. The economy collapsed.
Hyperinflation skyrocketed to a world record-breaking 132,000,000% in 2008. The one-trillion dollar Zimbabwe bill remains a collector’s item today. It has been alleged that some foreign powers may have waged a currency war by flooding the country with fake Zimbabwe dollars. Mugabe ordered the Reserve Bank to unilaterally adopt the U.S. greenback as a national currency. But it was only a stop-gap solution.
Unemployment rose to 80%, even as HIV/AIDs and poverty brought the country to its knees. Some 4 million – a quarter of the entire population – fled abroad.
South Africa brokered a peace which led to a national unity government with Mugabe as President and Morgan Tsavingirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) as Prime Minister during 2009-2013. But it was not to last. The old fox bade his time until he could outmanoeuvre his enemies and reconsolidate absolute power.
It is ironical that this ascetic statesman who dazzled the world with his brilliance ended as becoming one of the most reviled tyrants in Africa.
According to one insider, the DNA of his despotism had been there all along: “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.”
His mother, Mbuya Bona, warned his friends in the sixties: “You think my son cares about your politics….You don’t know how cruel my son is. Hamunyatsomuziva. You don’t know him at all.”
Robert Mugabe felt overshadowed by the towering figure of Nelson Mandela, following the latter’s release from incarceration in 1990.
The death of Sally in 1992, the only voice of restraint on his excesses, rendered him bereft of good counsel. He began an affair with his secretary, Grace Marufu, while Sally was battling terminal cancer.
Some 41 years his junior, Grace Marufu, who was born in South Africa, had been married to an air force pilot, Stanley Goreraza. Sally passed away in January 1992 and he married Grace some years later, in August 1996. They have three children together.
Popularly known as “Gucci Grace”, the former First Lady has the reputation of a gold-digger with the demonic ambition of Lady Macbeth. In 2014, the University of Zimbabwe awarded her a PhD in Sociology barely two months after registering on the programme. She never concealed her single-minded ambition for the ultimate prize; orchestrating the sackings of two former Vice-Presidents, Joice Mujuru and Emmerson Mnangagwa, to pave the way for her own ascension up the greasy pole.
When rumours transpired that the old man was preparing to hand-over power to her, the army struck. Mugabe was forced to resign on 9 November, 2017.
Mnangagwa, who had fled to Johannesburg, was recalled to take over the saddle. A former Mugabe enforcer and personal assistant, he belongs to the Old Guard, with its thuggery and grand larceny. Zimbabwe needs a new breed of leadership if it is to join the ranks of prosperous democracies.
His place as Founding-Father of Zimbabwe is assured. His education and health policies were successful; as were the land reforms. Unlike Madiba, he refused to strike a Faustian bargain with the Babylonians. If we listen to new leaders such as Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the Land Question will not disappear any time soon.
From Aristotle to our day, successful political leadership is a factor of opportunities and context, nature of political coalition, and personal attributes such as wisdom, vision, courage, compassion and ability.
Politics is the one vocation that quickly exposes what a man is ultimately made of. Mugabe had a high Intelligence Quotient (IQ) but was cursed with a low Emotional Quotient (EQ). His monomaniacal obsession with power drove a country with humongous prospects to ruin.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin spoke about “the crooked timber of humanity”. Mugabe had more than a fair dose of crookedness. Whatever he might have achieved will always be overshadowed by the original sin of hubris and his self-delusional omniscience and infallibility that broke the confidence of such a gifted people.