“The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.”
― Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare.
Note: this blogpost has been edited.
Yesterday I was driving when over the radio came the news that Robert Mugabe, former Zimbabwean President, had died. He had been in a Singaporean hospital for treatment since April.
I started my article with a quote from a Shakespearean tragedy. This is because Mugabe’s story is exactly that ― a tragedy. The tragedy of someone becoming the very thing they sought to overcome. A hero of the fight against white minority rule in what was then Rhodesia and the first democratically elected leader of Zimbabwe, he gradually became a despotic tyrant far worse than Ian Smith, the ruler he replaced.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe was born in what was then Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe on the 21st February 1924. His father walked out when he was 10 and young Robert devoted himself to his studies. He was exceptionally intelligent, and qualified as a schoolteacher aged just 17.
Years later, Mugabe joined the fight to end white minority rule. At the time, black people in Rhodesia were banned from voting and standing for election. In 1964 he was arrested and held without charge for 10 years. In an act of extreme cruelty, he was refused permission to attend the funeral of his three year old son in 1966.
The actions of the various liberation movements combined with international sanctions and pressure eventually forced the Government of Ian Smith to the negotiating table. The Lancaster House Agreement accorded black Rhodesians full and equal rights with white Rhodesians, and in 1980 Mugabe became the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe. Things intially went well, with Mugabe promising no reprisals against whites and encouraging ownership of land.
Mugabe soon began to turn bad. In the early 1980’s, the North Korean trained 5th Brigade was sent into Ndebele areas to “pacify” matters. What the operation, named Gukurahundi, really was, was a genocide. Thousands of Ndebeles died, some estimates putting the total at 30,000.
As part of the Lancaster House Agreement, the UK funded the purchasing of white owned farmland for resettlement by black Zimbabweans. After the first few payments were made, it emerged that politically connected individuals had been embezzling the funds. The UK immediately stopped paying and insisted that the people responsible were charged and the funds recovered. A perfectly reasonable demand. Mugabe refused and the UK never resumed payments. Furthermore, when the government owned Zimbabwe Herald ran stories on the embezzlement, including implicating those involved, the editor was fired and the Herald turned into a government mouthpiece.
In 1987, Mugabe changed the Zimbabwean Constitution and became President, a position he would hold until his ousting in November 2017. In 1992, his first wife Sally died, and Mugabe started becoming unhinged. He began railing against white Zimbabweans, blaming them for the problems Zimbabwe faced. He also put forward Bills that would have allowed the Government to take farms without paying compensation. All were struck down.
In 2000, Mugabe suffered his first major political defeat. A new Zimbabwean Constitution had been written and was the subject of a plebiscite. Included in it was a clause that permitted expropriation without compensation. A “Vote No” campaign organised by civil society proved successful, and the Constitution was rejected.
A few days after the vote, “War Veterans” began invading white owned farms, forcing off and murdering the farms’ owners and the farmworkers. A few days after that, Mugabe pushed through the constitutional amendment permitting expropriation without compensation.
The timing was all too convenient. It is clear now that the plan was for the amendment to be passed and for “War Veterans” to invade the farms. The Constitution was rejected but the invasions proceeded anyway.
The affect of the land invasions was disastrous. Zimbabwe imported a lot and depended heavily on agricultural exports (especially tobacco) to earn the foreign currency it needed to pay for what it imported. The “War Veterans” were not nearly as competent as the farmers they’d forced out. Agricultural exports crashed, leading to Zimbabwe not having the foreign currency it needed to pay for imports, and the economy went into meltdown. Thousands fled to neighbouring countries to survive.
It has been utterly revolting to read the statements made by Mugabe’s apologists. One claim is that he was motivated by justice for black Zimbabweans when invading the farms. This does not stand up to even rudimentary scrutiny, and falls apart completely under proper examination.
Firstly, most white Zimbabwean farmers had bought their farms after Mugabe had come to power.
Secondly, Mugabe had refused to act against those who had embezzled funds meant for land reform. This reveals where his priorities truly lay.
Thirdly, the number of farmworkers thrown off the farms in the invasions was greater than the number of people moved on to the farms.
Finally, and most damning of all, after Mugabe was deposed, an audit into farm ownership was conducted by the new Zimbabwean Government. It found that many farms had been taken over by high ranking officials and politicians. Mugabe himself owned more than twenty farms.
The invasions were never about justice for black Zimbabweans, they were about Mugabe clinging on to power.
Another laughable argument the apologists make is that it was the sanctions, not the invasions, that wrecked the economy. Again, this collapses almost immediately.
Sanctions took 14 years to bring Ian Smith to the negotiating table. They took over two decades to help bring apartheid to an end. Yet we are asked to believe that sanctions, which were targeted against Mugabe and other high-ranking ZANU-PF members, destroyed the Zimbabwean economy in under a year? No.
Shamefully, Mugabe was abetted and enabled throughout his misrule by fellow African leaders, most notably then South African President Thabo Mbeki. Their actions showed that supporting a fellow African leader, even one who had ruined his country, was more important than the will of the electorate.
Mbeki consistently refused to accept the truth of what Mugabe had become. His response to the crisis was “Quiet Diplomacy”. What this in reality meant was that he condoned, even supported, Mugabe’s actions. He blamed the UK for halting funding for land reform and demanded that it resume, ignoring the fact that the reason the UK stopped paying was because the monies had been embezzled, and no action had been taken against the perpetrators or to recover the funds. He responded to critics of his approach with ad hominems and poisoning the well, stating that they wanted to see Zimbabwe destroyed, even though Mugabe was doing precisely that. After the fatally flawed 2008 Elections, he fought hard for Zimbabwe to be readmitted to the Commonwealth, ultimately without success.
In 2002 and 2008, Zimbabwe held Parliamentary and Presidential Elections. South Africa sent observer missions to both. After the 2002 Election, the leader of the observer mission acknowledged that the Election had been neither free nor fair, but was still “legitimate”, an utterly preposterous statement. The 2008 observer mission was a disgrace. Ignoring blatant evidence of rigging, the leader declared the Elections “impeccable”. DA members who were on the mission disputed this assessment, and were attacked, with the mission’s leader threatening to report them to the Speaker of Parliament.
In 2002, South African President Thabo Mbeki had tasked Judges Sisi Khampepe and Dikgang Moseneke to observe the Zimbabwean Elections and report back. They did so. In 2008, the Mail and Guardian Newspaper asked for a copy of the Report. Their request was refused. What followed was a years long legal battle, ending with the Constitutional Court ruling that the Report be released.
The Report was damning. Khampepe and Moseneke had found incontrovertible evidence that the Election in no way “represented the will of the Zimbabwean People.” Mbeki had ignored their report and even suppressed the evidence.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is a regional organisation consisting (at time of writing) of 14 Countries from Southern Africa, namely Angola, Botswana, The DRC, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. As part of its lip service to good governance, a Tribunal was founded to be the highest level of dispute resolution.
A few years after the land grabs, several dispossessed Zimbabwean Farmers approached the SADC Tribunal to win compensation for the loss of their farms. The Tribunal heard their case, and in its verdict, ruled in the farmers’ favour.
Embarrassed, SADC ignored the ruling completely, and later quietly disbanded the Tribunal.
The failure of African leaders to confront Mugabe is a blot on them. Had they gone to Mugabe and impressed on him that his actions were unacceptable and that they would denounce him if he continued, it is a virtual certainty that matters would not have reached the point that they did.
In the last years of his rule, Mugabe became ever more frail and senile. He kept falling in public and dozing off in meetings. There were also rumours that he was incontinent and occasionally messing himself.
As I wrote at the beginning, Mugabe’s story is a tragedy. Had he retired in 1992, he would have been remembered as a hero. Instead, he is remembered as someone who took a thriving country and destroyed it. And as is so often the case in tragedies, others bear the consequences.