Robert Mugabe: How Zimbabwe’s liberator became its oppressor

The late president could have been his country’s Nelson Mandela — a figure of who he was intensely jealous — but instead chose racial hatred and division

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I once interviewed Denis Norman, a former farmer who served in three of Robert Mugabe's cabinets and knew him as well as any other white man. He told me a poignant story of his last meeting with the late Zimbabwean president before he retired to Sussex in 2003. “I said: ‘Before I go can you answer one question? Where did it all go wrong?’ He said ‘Has it gone wrong?’ I said ‘I know it's gone wrong. You know it's gone wrong.’ Mugabe paused, before saying quietly: ‘It's not going right, is it?’” 

Norman’s was a good question, for Mugabe was not always the monster he became. The former freedom fighter, who had spent ten years in a Rhodesian prison and was denied permission even to attend his three-year-old son’s funeral, astonished Zimbabwe’s fearful white minority when he became his newly-independent country’s first leader in 1980.

Instead of seeking revenge, he urged white Rhodesians to stay and help rebuild Zimbabwe after 15 years of war and sanctions — “If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend.” He allowed Ian Smith, Rhodesia’s last white prime minister, to remain in Zimbabwe. He forged a new army from his own guerilla fighters and the former Rhodesian armed forces. He gave cabinet posts to whites. He was an anglophile who wore Savile Row suits, loved cricket and the royal family, and formed an unlikely friendship with Lord Soames, Rhodesia’s last British governor.  

For Zimbabwe’s poor blacks he built schools and clinics, raising literacy rates and slashing child mortality. He boosted agricultural production on communal lands. He secretly unleashed Operation Gukurahundi, massacring 20,000 civilians in the opposition stronghold of Matabeleland, but that only became public knowledge much later. In those early years he was widely seen as a model African leader at a time when the rest of post-colonial Africa was beset by strife.

His relations with white Zimbabweans first began to cool when they rebuffed his overtures and backed Smith’s Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe in the 1985 election. He dismissed Denis Norman as minister of agriculture. “He wrote me a note saying he had no place for me because he had offered the hand of friendship to the farming community, and they obviously didn’t appreciate what he and I had done for them, so he was going to give them a black minister,” Norman recalled. 

Then, in 1992, Mugabe’s Ghanaian wife, Sally, died of kidney failure. Sixteen years later I visited Heroes Acre, the cemetery on Harare’s western edge where leaders of Zimbabwe’s independence war are buried. There were flowers on Sally’s black marble grave. The caretaker told me that Mugabe still came once a week, early in the morning, to lay them. It was the most human story I ever heard about him, and Norman described her as a “great stabiliser and calming influence” on her husband.

After her death Mugabe married Grace Marufu, his insatiably avaricious and ambitious mistress who was 40 years his junior. Thereafter, all brakes removed, his slide towards dictatorship rapidly gained pace. As his popularity declined, he chose to ignore — or was unable to resist — the growing corruption and intolerance of dissent within his Zanu-PF party. Then, in 2000, when Morgan Tsvangirai’s fledgling Movement for Democratic Change defeated a constitutional referendum designed to increase Mugabe’s presidential powers, he took the decision that would ultimately destroy his country. He unleashed his war veterans against Zimbabwe’s white farmers — partly to avenge their support for the MDC, partly to appease his power base, and partly to disperse a million MDC-supporting farm labourers.

The violent seizure of thousands of white-owned farms by Mugabe’s cronies over the following years destroyed the backbone of Zimbabwe’s economy — agriculture. Schools, hospitals and other public services collapsed. Investment dried up. Factories closed. Food ran out. Unemployment exceeded 90 per cent and inflation soared to a world record 500 billion per cent, forcing the Reserve Bank to issue a note worth Z$100trn. A quarter of Zimbabwe’s population, including most of its best and brightest, fled the country.  

As Zimbabwe imploded, Mugabe resorted to ever greater repression to maintain power. He imprisoned and tortured opponents, neutered the media and judiciary, and stole elections so blatantly and brutally that following his presidential “victory” in 2008 not one other African head of state attended his swearing-in. Britain rescinded his honorary knighthood.

Retaining power became Mugabe’s sole purpose. He did so by playing one faction off against another until eventually, in 2017, Grace over-reached herself. Determined to succeed her ageing husband, she persuaded him to sack her main rival, Emmerson Mnangagwa, his vice-president and brutal chief enforcer.

Neither Mnangagwa nor Zimbabwe’s security chiefs could abide the prospect of Grace becoming president. The military rebelled. Mugabe was forced to resign. When not seeking medical treatment in Singapore, he spent the rest of his days friendless and reviled, hidden behind the high walls of the obscenely lavish mansion he and Grace had long ago built for themselves in the affluent Harare suburb of Borrowdale. 

Mugabe could have been Zimbabwe’s Nelson Mandela — a figure of whose worldwide celebrity he was intensely jealous — but instead chose racial hatred and division. As a result, he will be remembered as the man who won Zimbabwe its independence then wrecked it; as the liberator who became a global by-word for repression; as the president who inherited a first-world nation, the “breadbasket” of southern Africa, and reduced it to a failed state where most Zimbabweans survived on a single bowl of cornmeal porridge daily.

Under his rule immensely productive farms reverted to vegetable patches, and his people reverted from the lightbulb, tap and wheel to the oil lamp, well and feet. The supreme irony was that Mugabe lived to 95 in a country where — during his 37 pernicious years in charge — life expectancy fell to the lowest in the world.

Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer and a former foreign editor of the Times