Watching the 84-year-old Robert Mugabe mince into a meeting of the UN food summit in Italy on television last week, I thought of one of the last times I saw him. It was at a crunch-point in the Lancaster House negotiations in 1979; I was principal private secretary to Lord Carrington; and the guerrilla leader, along with Joshua Nkomo, had come to the foreign secretary’s office to parley.
It was November and Mugabe was wearing an enormous college-type scarf, a reminder, together with his sharp features, thin spectacles and seven degrees (two of them gained in prison), that he was the intellectual of the pair. But it was always the mincing that struck me. It was not a gait you associate with guerrillas. Maybe he means it to be a swagger.
The subject of the meeting – the number and location of assembly points for guerrillas and their weapons – was crucial, and the mood tense. Mugabe was a taut, atrabilious Laurel to Joshua Nkomo’s big, burbling Hardy, and to keep up with his hardline comrade Nkomo was doing a bit of table-banging. Mugabe himself was glacially superior, though when he spoke it was in an angry, squeaky voice. The session ended with “Ebagum” (Carringtonese for Mugabe) flouncing out, flinging his scarf over his shoulder with an air of finality as he went. There goes our ceasefire in Rhodesia, we reflected morosely.
At the time he was a Maoist of sorts, and his manner reminded me of some of the more venomous, stonewall types I had negotiated with when I worked in China during the Cultural Revolution (even today Mugabe has a special relationship with Beijing). Yet in the end the assembly point issue was resolved, we got our ceasefire, and he won the elections and came to power. At which point everything about him seemed to change for the better.
Charm is not a word I associated with Mugabe, yet when Margaret Thatcher gave a dinner in his honour at Downing Street and praised the Marxist terrorist’s work for peace and reconciliation (after vowing never to negotiate with terrorists), he received her tribute gracefully, charmed to be there, just as he was to be charmed by his knighthood later. Thereafter he worked with the British to implement the Lancaster House agreement, including its provisions to pay the colonialists’ pensions and refrain from changing the constitution for ten years.
The Mugabe we see today sounds like a manic version of the man I first encountered. What accounts for the regression? Mao had a slogan: “Remember old bitterness.” Mugabe’s bitterness is that of a clever man who perceives slights which are not always there, but also of someone who has plenty to be bitter about. There is a tendency to forget the responsibility of the appalling Ian Smith in all this. Smith, the prime minister during white minority rule, was the perfect colonialist counterpart to the trade union pigmies ruling Britain in the years of his ascendancy. It was Smith, I reminded Mrs Thatcher, en route to the Zimbabwe independence celebrations in Harare in 1980 when we discussed Mugabe’s character, who had refused to allow him out of jail to attend the funeral of his three-year-old son.
Then there were the Jesuits, who helped educate him. The results were apparent in his keen if argumentative mind, and in degenerative form they do something to account for his spectacularly twisted logic today. Alongside the political thuggery there is also something of the wannabe Mao about him. It is there in the crazy, politics-before-economics schemes that have beggared his country, and in the elevation above reality of himself and his wilful, expensive wife.
He can’t compete with the 70 million the Chairman murdered or starved to death. But in his small way, he’s doing his best.