The one-time teacher and carpenter’s son, Robert Mugabe, remains an enigma. Charismatic, fiendishly intelligent and politically calculating, how he ran one of Africa’s most promising economies into the ground is the subject of much analysis.
The Jesuit Order and an Irish priest, the late Father Jerome O’Hea, were responsible for Mugabe’s excellent education. His perfect command of English was a trademark of his time as a revolutionary raising the flag of Zimbabwean nationalism overseas, and later in his career as he appropriated international platforms to menace global powers in eloquent speeches.
His two elder brothers lost to disease growing up, Mugabe overcame great obstacles to educate himself, both at home and abroad, and then by correspondence learning at the University of London. As a teacher, he began to embrace the nationalist ideas that were prevalent among Africans of his generation, and his intellectual curiosity drew him into the independence movement and thereby the political sphere.
On his return to what was then Rhodesia, Mugabe was convicted of sedition and imprisoned from 1964 to1974. His decade-long sacrifice behind bars, where he was subjected to physical and mental torture, has been overlooked, since his blunders in office have won him more renown. It is remarkable that Mugabe was able to eventually forgive his colonial masters, despite them refusing his request to bury his 3-year-old son during his time in jail.
In the late 1970s, Mugabe established his leadership over the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), and later command of its military (ZANLA). He not only oversaw ZANU’s role in the Rhodesian Bush War, but also was central to propaganda efforts to raise global awareness of the independence struggle.
Following his tireless work to frustrate the colonial authorities, then-UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher stunned a Commonwealth heads-of-government meeting in 1979 by announcing Rhodesian independence. Soon after, Mugabe was elected to govern a newly independent Zimbabwe, whose independence was on the proviso that it “transitioned to democratic majority rule.”
His first address to the nation called for calm and the prevention of a white flight. He urged national unity, stability and law and order, insisting that the pensions and properties of whites would be protected. His administration pledged racial reconciliation, and two white ministers — David Smith and Denis Norman — were appointed.
Despite professing an adherence to Marxism and a desire to make Zimbabwe a socialist society, the government focused on conservative economic development, with some notable success.
The administration expanded health care and education. In 1980, Zimbabwe had 177 secondary schools; within two decades, this number had risen to almost 2,000. During the same period, the adult literacy rate rose from 62 percent to 82 percent, one of the best records in Africa.
The former president of Zimbabwe went from being an agent of change and advancement to eventually becoming a prisoner to power and other trappings, holding on to his post in increasingly unfair elections.
Zaid M. Belbagi
But Zimbabwe’s new masters never truly discarded their guerilla tactics. Following the muscular put-down by Mugabe’s Fifth Brigade of an uprising in Matabeleland in the 1980s, and several high-profile cases of detention, the government quickly became the “regime” in international discourse. Mugabe’s defense of torture and contempt for legal procedures damaged his prestige, and within three years half of all white Zimbabweans had fled.
Mugabe held on to power via increasingly unfair elections in 1985, 1990, 1995, and through to the present day. Prime Minister Mugabe quickly became president, and corruption and mismanagement soiled the ruling party.
During the course of the 1990s, Zimbabwe’s economy deteriorated. By 2000, wages, life expectancy and general living standards were all below their levels at independence. HIV and AIDS grew exponentially amid the chaos, with one out of five adult Zimbabweans living with the infection.
Eager for a scapegoat, the regime abandoned its equitable “willing seller-willing buyer” policy of land redistribution, and instead encouraged the violent seizure of white farms. Food production was severely impacted, and unemployment rose above 90 percent.
With hyperinflation a source of great hardship, the majority of the nation’s workforce emigrated. In a final act of desperation, the increasingly unabated excesses of the presidential family were shown in a bid by the president’s former secretary and mistress to inherit power.
Mugabe’s reference to the independence slogan was telling. The one-time agent of change and advancement had become a prisoner to power and its various trappings. Work needs to be done in Zimbabwe to restore it to its former glory as the “breadbasket of Africa.”
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid