broken walls and narratives

A not so revolutionary blog about feminism, socialism, activism, travel, nature, life, etc.

What’s a Mugabe?

What’s a Mugabe?

What’s a Mugabe?

I recently read Martin Meredith’s book, Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future. My boyfriend saw the book and asked me what a “Mug-a-bee” was. As my previous post indicates, I am not an African history buff. I wish I was a history of everything buff. But, I am just me. This version of me is interested in history, but has so much to learn. That is why I read Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future. I wanted to know what a Mugabe was.


To give a brief history, as presented in the book and from some previous knowledge, the country now known as Zimbabwe was once called Rhodesia, named after the British diamond mine owner/promoter of imperialism, Cecil Rhodes. Basically, Rhode’s mining company BSAC was granted the mineral rights to an enormous track of land spanning from Limpopo River to Lake Tanganyika. To secure the land (i.e. colonize or take control of), Rhodes promised 3,000 acres of land to anyone who volunteered to be in his pioneer army. Thus, an army of volunteers basically conquered what would become modern day Zimbabwe, taking over the land, killing native people, crushing resistance, and forcing the remaining native people to pay taxes (thus forcing them into a cash/labor/wage based economy).


Fast forward to 1965. A minority of wealthy white land owners have controlled the country since 1890. This is because in order to vote, the electorate must meet certain wealth, educational, and property thresholds. Only the white population, 5% of the total population, met these qualifications. And, having enjoyed over seventy years of uncontested political and economic power, this white minority was not eager to give it up. Thus, in 1965, Rhodesia, which is still a British territory, made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain. They did this because the white elite did not want to negotiate with the British for their independence, as this would entail at least some commitment to transferring power to the black majority. In short, the UDI was not really a declaration of independence, but a declaration of the government to independently continue the status quo of white power.


While I don’t expect much from the United States, UN, or Britain, in this case, the whole world was against white Rhodesia (or at least gave lip service to being against white Rhodesia). The UN condemned the declaration as illegal and racist and the Security Council imposed sanctions on the country. The sanctions weren’t necessary strictly followed and South Africa continued to provide military support, Iran provided oil, Japan purchased imports, and the United Sates continued to purchase chromium and nickel. Meanwhile, various rebel groups launched a bloody war of liberation that continued until 1979, when all parties agreed to terms of independence (elections, delayed land reform, a constitution, ceasefire, etc.) in the Lancaster Agreement.


That brings me back to the original question, “What is a Mugabe?” In the book, Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe’s Future, Robert Mugabe began as a relatable character. He was an isolated, serious, bookish person. I can relate to that. He didn’t drink or smoke. I can relate to that. He became a teacher and worked in Ghana, where he was introduced to socialism. I can relate to that. Then, he becomes a paranoid, ethnic cleansing, corrupt dictator…wait, what happened?! I’ll back up. Alright, so Mugabe was a part of a Maoist leaning rebel group called ZANU. This was one of two major Marxist Leninist rebel groups in Rhodesia, the other being ZAPU, a Warsaw Pact, Soviet aligned rebel group. To make things more complex, these parties have armed wings, ZANLA and ZIPRA. Mugabe eventually became the head of ZANLA, the armed wing of ZANU. Now, the author of the book portrays Mugabe’s descent into dictatorship as somewhat of a personal matter. For one, he spent eleven years in prison for his role in ZANLA. During his time in prison, his three year old son died. Ian Smith, the Prime Minister, personally denied his request to leave prison to comfort his wife, even when prison guards believed he could be trusted to return. Besides prison, he fought in a civil war that killed over 10,000 guerillas. The book suggests that going through the experiences of war, prison, and loss contributed to the direction he took after he was elected and became Prime Minister in 1980. It is also suggested that his austere and driven personality traits contributed to his dictatorship. While this may be a welcome explanation compared to the typical “absolute power corrupts” or “socialism always leads to dictatorship” I was not satisfied with this storyline.   Why does a man starve his country to root out opposition? What did he oversee the killing of up to 30,000 political opponents in the early 1980s, killed along ethnic lines? Why the corruption? Why the excess and pilfering of state money? Rather than the question of “what is a Mugabe?,” which I think the book answers by conveying his history, terrible deeds, and persona…I wonder, why Mugabe?


At first I thought that perhaps it was a matter of some ideological flaw. ZANU was aligned with China and sought assistance from North Korea. North Koreans helped Mugabe train his notorious 5th Brigade, which was used to crush political and ethnic opposition. To clarify this, ZANU was mainly supported by Shona people in the north of Zimbabwe, whereas ZAPU was supported by the Ndebele. When someone in Mugabe’s government is quoted as stating that they will bring Zimbabwe back to zero if they must, I couldn’t help but think of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The official believed that it was alright to starve the population if this meant starving out opposition to the government. Thus, food distribution occurred along party lines. Both ZAPU and ZANU were products of their time. Both carried the baggage of the logic, or illogic, of degenerated workers states. That is, their templates or role models were repressive, so why would either be different once in power?


Both of the perspectives are flawed because they keep things within the realm of the personal and the ideological. While wrestling with this, I discussed this with my friend Adam, who added the material. I had some inkling of the material as well, but had not been thinking about the topic long enough to fully flesh out my thoughts on that matter. Adam rightly observed that a socialist revolution would have been fairly impossible in Zimbabwe. Mugabe, as well as anyone else in ZAPU or ZANU were raised in racist Rhodesia. Their consciousness, tactics, world view, way of living, was shaped by racist, classist oppression. The existence of Zimbabwe itself is artificial. South Rhodesia, North Rhodesia, really all countries of Africa, are imperialist constructs. Their borders were decided by Europeans. As a result of colonization, ethnic groups were mashed together or pulled apart haphazardly. Mugabe inherited a colonial construct with an economy geared towards a peripheral role in global capitalism.   Making any sort of socialist reform that challenged global capitalism, without worldwide revolution, would cause the country to become an isolated, embargoed, pariah state. Which is exactly what it is, though for humanitarian and democratic reasons. The cards are stacked against socialism. Even with the best intentions. Machel, the Marxist leader of Mozambique even warned Mugabe against pursuing socialism too aggressively. Can it be expected that there would have been anything different or the country would have had a different fate? Anything is possible. I am a socialist, of course. But, there were many material factors, along with some ideological and personal ones, which directed the course of events.


Having addressed the what and why of Mugabe, there is one critique that I will launch against the book. The book is very sympathetic to white farmers. This raises many questions. Now, the book discusses how his first decade or so in power consisted of consolidating his party with ZAPU, destroying political and ethnic opposition, while enriching the political elite with the profits derived from state owned enterprises/investments. However, as criticisms mount regarding the corruption of the government and misuse of a veteran’s fund, he turned his attention to the white population. In various waves through the 1990s and 2000s, he unleashes bands of veterans to attack white farmers, taking their lands. Eventually almost all of the white farmers are evicted from their lands. The book is very sympathetic to these white farmers, who hide in terror as their land is ransacked and occupied. Throughout this narrative, Mugabe is called a racist. Cowering, courageous white folks flee the country and mourn the losses of their farms. Another part of the narrative is that after the veterans took over the farms, they fell into disrepair and food production plummeted. The author seems to ignore how this narrative is very much like the Rhodesian narrative that black people are not ready to govern themselves, as they will ruin the country. Apparently, black people cannot farm, as they will ruin the farms. This is incredibly racist.


The book portrays white farmers as victims. To backtrack, in 1980, 70% of the land was controlled by less than 5% of the population (whites). To backtrack further, white people were given 3,000 acres of land when they conquered what became Zimbabwe in 1890. For almost 100 years, white people had a monopoly on political and economic power in the country. This raises the question of what rights do colonizers have? Do the white farmers have a right to keep their land? On what basis? If they earned or obtained that land any time during the 100 years of white rule or because an ancestor did, then they have no real right to it. It was not collectively decided that white people should own 70% of the land. The land was taken and maintained through a repressive government atop of a segregated society. And while the white owners must have done a good job overseeing the land and making it productive, this also does not give them a right to keep their land. If someone took your house, but repaired it and kept it cleaner, it does not give them the right to own it. The problem of course is that the land was taken violently and erratically. Much of the land fell into the hands of government cronies. Ideally, a more peaceable, rational, and socially beneficial land distribution should have occurred. But still…what rights do colonizers have? Further, they are called “farmers” but this invokes grandma and grandpa on a 40 acre farm. The farms were mega, corporate, sometimes cash crop farms with hired workers. The whites were wealthy landowners, not farmers in the mom and pop with a few milk cows sense. So, while I don’t want to see any human being suffer, I am uncomfortable for the sympathetic nature in which the whites were portrayed.


In all, I feel that I learned quite a bit about Mugabe. I read the book in about three days, so I found it engaging enough to plow through it. Finally, it raised some questions. As a whole, I enjoyed it and would recommend it, though, it is lacking political analysis and self-awareness of its own narrative.

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One thought on “What’s a Mugabe?

  1. Pingback: A Year of Books | broken walls and narratives

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