Robert Mugabe: From a revolutionary hero to tyrant

By BBC On Tue, 10 Sep, 2019 10:08 | 6 mins read
Robert Mugabe
The late Robert Mugabe. PHOTO | AFP
Editor's Review
  • Many Zimbabweans trace the reversal of Robert Mugabe's — and their — fortunes to his 1996 wedding to his secretary Grace Marufu, 41 years his junior, following the death of his widely respected first wife, Sally, in 1992.
  • "He changed the moment Sally died, when he married a young gold-digger," according to Wilf Mbanga, editor of The Zimbabwean newspaper, who used to be close personal friends with Mr Mugabe.
  • That sentiment was common long before anyone dreamed she might one day harbour presidential ambitions, which were the trigger for his close allies in the military and the ruling Zanu-PF party to oust Mr Mugabe from power.

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was a man who divided global public opinion like few others.

To some, he was an evil dictator who should have ended his days in jail for crimes against humanity.

To others, he was a revolutionary hero, who fought racial oppression and stood up to Western imperialism and neo-colonialism.

On his own terms, he was an undoubted success.

First, he delivered independence for Zimbabwe after decades of white-minority rule.

He then remained in power for 37 years – outlasting his greatest enemies and rivals such as Tony Blair, George W Bush, Joshua Nkomo, Morgan Tsvangirai and Nelson Mandela.

And he destroyed the economic power of Zimbabwe’s white community, which was based on their hold over the country’s most fertile land.

However, his compatriots – except for a small, well-connected elite – paid the price, with the destruction of what had once been one of Africa’s most diversified economies.

In the end, this came back to haunt him.

The outpouring of joy on the streets of Harare which greeted his forced resignation in November 2017 echoed the jubilation in the same city 37 years earlier when it was announced he was the new leader of independent Zimbabwe.

Although he was allowed to see out his days in peace in his Harare mansion, it was not the end he wanted, having famously boasted: “Only God, who appointed me, will remove me.”

Many Zimbabweans trace the reversal of his — and their — fortunes to his 1996 wedding to his secretary Grace Marufu, 41 years his junior, following the death of his widely respected first wife, Sally, in 1992.

“He changed the moment Sally died, when he married a young gold-digger,” according to Wilf Mbanga, editor of The Zimbabwean newspaper, who used to be close personal friends with Mr Mugabe.

That sentiment was common long before anyone dreamed she might one day harbour presidential ambitions, which were the trigger for his close allies in the military and the ruling Zanu-PF party to oust Mr Mugabe from power.

Mugabe the man

While he was sometimes portrayed as a madman, this was far from the truth. He was extremely intelligent and those who underestimated him usually discovered this to their cost.

Stephen Chan, a professor at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, noted Mr Mugabe had repeatedly embarrassed the West with his “adroit diplomacy”.

Mugabe in his own words:

“If you were my enemy, you are now my friend. If you hated me, you cannot avoid the love that binds me to you and you to me.” Robert Mugabe
During national address, 1980

Cricket civilises people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe; I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen” – undated

Let the MDC and its leadership be warned that those who play with fire will not only be burnt, but consumed by that fire” – 2003 election rally

We are not hungry… Why foist this food upon us? We don’t want to be choked. We have enough” – interview with Sky TV in 2004, amid widespread food shortages

“Only God, who appointed me, will remove me – not the MDC, not the British. Only God will remove me.” — Robert Mugabe
During election rally, 2008

Don’t drink at all, don’t smoke, you must exercise and eat vegetables and fruit” – interview on his 88th birthday in 2012

[Nelson] Mandela [South Africa’s first black president] has gone a bit too far in doing good to the non-black communities, really in some cases at the expense of [blacks]… That’s being too saintly, too good, too much of a saint” – 2013 state TV interview.

As a former political rival of Mr Mugabe, who went on to serve as his home affairs minister, Dumiso Dabengwa witnessed the different sides of Zimbabwe’s founding father.

“Under normal circumstances, he would be very charming but when he got angry, he was something else – if you crossed him, he could certainly be ruthless,” he told the BBC before his death in May 2019.

Mr Dabengwa said the president would often let him win an argument over policy during the decade they worked together, or they would agree to compromise – not the behaviour of a dictator.

But something, he added, changed after 2000 and Mr Mugabe resorted to threats to ensure he got his way.

“He held compromising material over several of his colleagues and they knew they would face criminal charges if they opposed him.”

This is not a picture recognised by Chen Chimutengwende, who worked alongside Mr Mugabe in both the Zanu-PF party and government for 30 years.

“In all the time I have worked with him, I have never seen him be vindictive or ill-treat anyone,” he said.

Wilf Mbanga, editor, The Zimbabwean:

“He went from trying to convince you with his arguments to a man who would send his thugs to beat you up if you disagreed with him”

Mr Chimutengwende felt Zimbabwe’s leader had been unfairly demonised in the Western media because of his policy of seizing land from white farmers whom he suspects of having influential supporters, especially in the UK, where many trace their roots.

Mugabe the teacher

The year 2000 marked a watershed both in the history of Zimbabwe and the career of Mr Mugabe.

Until then, he was generally feted for reaching out towards the white community following independence, while Zimbabwe’s economy was still faring pretty well.

After coming to power in 1980, Mr Mugabe greatly expanded education and healthcare for black Zimbabweans and the country enjoyed living standards far higher than its neighbours.

In 1995, a World Bank report praised Zimbabwe’s rapid progress in the fields of health and literacy. Run by a former teacher, the country had the highest literacy rates in Africa.

In her book, Dinner With Mugabe, Heidi Hollande said Mr Mugabe used to personally coach illiterate State House workers to help them pass exams.

Mr Mbanga recalls listening to the songs of US country singer Jim Reeves together.

“He could be very affectionate, he was an intellectual. He liked explaining things, like a teacher,” said Mr Mbanga, but then saw a huge change in his former friend.

“He went from trying to convince you with his arguments to a man who would send his thugs to beat you up if you disagreed with him.”

In fact, the warning signs were already there – the massacre of thousands of ethnic Ndebeles seen as supporters of Mr Mugabe’s rival, Joshua Nkomo, in the 1980s and the start of the economic decline – but these were usually overlooked.

“Some say he had us all fooled, I am convinced he himself changed,” Mr Mbanga said.

The journalist says that in his early years as president, Mr Mugabe genuinely believed in trying to improve the lives of his people, and introduced a “leadership code” which barred ministers from owning too much property.

“Look at him today, he is fabulously wealthy. He is not the person I knew,” Mr Mbanga said in May 2014.

‘Political calculator’

In February 2000, the government lost a referendum on a draft constitution.

With parliamentary elections looming four months later and a newly formed opposition party with close links to the “No” campaign posing a serious threat, Mr Mugabe unleashed his personal militia.

Some were genuine veterans of the 1970s war of independence but others were far younger.

TV footage of white farmers queuing up to make donations to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) meant Mr Mugabe was able to portray the opposition as stooges of the white community, and by extension the UK.

The invasion of white-owned farms achieved several goals for Mr Mugabe and his allies:

  • Punish the white community for their “betrayal”
  • Remove a source of funding from the opposition
  • Allow the “war veterans” to intimidate the many thousands of black farmworkers, largely seen as opposition supporters
  • Ensure that the opposition could not campaign in rural areas
  • Re-energise his supporters, some of whom had been losing faith in his ability to redistribute land – one of the grievances behind the 1970s war of independence
  • Attract new supporters with the promise of land handouts.

There was certainly a strong moral argument that land reform was needed in Zimbabwe but the way it was carried out was undoubtedly with political motivations uppermost.

Despite the widespread violence, intimidation and electoral fraud, the MDC gained almost as many elected seats as Zanu-PF in 2000.

Had it not been for the intimidation in rural areas, Zanu-PF may well have lost its majority.

Lovemore Madhuku, one of the leaders of the “No” campaign in 2000, described Mr Mugabe as an “an excellent political calculator”, who adapted his tactics to the situation.

“There are moments when he chooses to be ruthless, others when he chooses to be magnanimous… He considers what is best – for him – in every situation and reacts accordingly,” Mr Madhuku told the BBC.

He said Mr Mugabe might not have realised the damage the seizure of white-owned land would do to Zimbabwe’s economy but in any case, he would not have cared, as long as he remained president.

Mr Chan agreed that, “in terms of Mr Mugabe’s value-set, the ownership of the land is more important than the smooth running of the economy”.

And the economy continued to decline until 2008.