Birth and Background
Robert Mugabe was born to a poor Shona family on 21 February, 1924 who were living in the northeast of Salisbury (the modern capital of Harare) in the British colony of Rhodesia. In 1890, just a year after a Royal Charter was granted, the Pioneer Column occupied Mashonaland raising the Union flag in what would become Salisbury. The colony of Rhodesia was dominated by a white settler class and formed a colonial system of rule not dissimilar from that of what would become South Africa to the south. Racial discrimination meant that many rural Africans were landless or tenant farmers while in urban areas they were forced into poor, overcrowded housing. Thanks to discrimination many could not go into higher education; in Northern Rhodesia (modern Zambia) only 35 Africans had gained higher education by 1959. Mugabe was lucky enough to go into education although his family life was telling for the situation for Africans in Rhodesian society. Two of his brothers died - one of diarrhea and one of eating poisoned maize - around 1934. He managed to go to Kutama College in order to become a teacher, partially funded by Jesuit missionary Father Jerome O'Hea from which he graduated in 1944. In college he was a loner, often described as 'a bit of a cold fish' and after graduation he never stayed long at one school. In 1949 he won a scholarship to Fort Hare University in South Africa which was the same university in which Nelson Mandela attended.
|Mugabe in 1976 with his first wife, Sally|
When Mugabe was in college and university Africa, and the world, was in change. The Second World War had brought many Africans into the political fold of their imperial overlords, and when that was limited after the war they became involved in independence movements. Meanwhile in India, Mahatma Gandhi's independence movement had helped break British rule (alongside the millions which took part in the movement) and would inspire colonized peoples worldwide. The victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany had also brought Marxism into discussions across the world. Gandhi and Marx both helped shape Mugabe's views. In Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah's CPP (Convention People's Party) won independence in 1957 and in the same year a Rhodesian branch of the African National Conference (ANC) was founded. The ANC wanted to reform land allocation, abolish discriminatory laws, and extend the franchise (out of 52,000 people eligible to vote only 560 were African). In 1958 Mugabe moved to Ghana, while also doing a second degree, where he met his first wife Sally Hayfron. According to Mugabe it was while he was in Ghana that he became a Marxist.
Mugabe wasn't the only leading nationalist in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia. Former leader of the ANC, Joshua Nkomo, formed the more racial National Democratic Party (NDP) in 1960 when the ANC was banned. Co-founder (who was also a friend of Mugabe) Leopold Takawira said 'We are no longer asking Europeans to rule us well...We now want to rule ourselves.' Takawire convinced Mugabe to remain in Rhodesia who became heavily involved in the nationalist movement. By the early 1960s as nationalist movements had either won independence or were winning independence Britain had started to offer independence, but on their own terms. In 1961 Britain's Commonwealth Secretary Duncan Sandys organised a meeting in Salisbury to draft a constitution for Rhodesia, and he invited Nkomo to represent the NDP. Many whites opposed this as it seemed to be giving the African majority more power. However, Britain planned for the white population to keep their power by only giving some token representation to the far larger African population. Perplexingly the NDP agreed to a compromise which gave Africans 15 out of 65 parliamentary seats. Riots broke out over the agreement so the NDP was banned. In 1961 the Zimbabwe African People's Union (Zapu) was formed under Nkomo and in 1963 the rival Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) was founded which Mugabe joined causing gang warfare to break out between the two. Meanwhile, the more radical right-wing Rhodesian Front came to power in 1962, and in 1965 to forestall Britain granting African rule the prime minister, Ian Smith, declared a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI).
In 1963 Mugabe was imprisoned and while imprisoned his three-year old son would pass away of cerebral malaria; Eddison Zvobga, a senior Zanu figure, reported that 'He was in tears...he just sat in the corner quietly. I watched him sob.' Smith himself personally saw to it that Mugabe was denied compassionate leave to bury his son. Until his release in 1974 Mugabe retreated into himself acquiring four further degrees. Outside of prison, Zanu's leader, Ndabaningi Sithole, faced a vote of no confidence, and Mugabe was made his replacement. A guerrilla war was being waged in the country with both key parties having their own armed group: Zanu had the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (Zanla) backed by China while Zapu had the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (Zipra) backed by the USSR. As this was happening South Africa, fearful of African guerrilla activists spilling over the border, started putting pressure on Smith, while Rhodesia's independent neighbors were putting further pressure to have the 'Prison Graduates' released. However, in April 1974 a coup in Portugal led to the independence of Mozambique and the coming to power of the Marxist-Leninist Frelimo removing one of Rhodesia's key allies. After 11 years in prison Mugabe was released and immersed himself personally in the guerrilla war, although he focused mostly on propaganda and left warfare to Josiah Tongogara.
When Mugabe appeared on television he seemed to be the opposite of his guerrilla self; Ian Smith even found him 'sober and responsible.' Mugabe himself said:
The wrongs of the past must now stand forgiven and forgotten. If ever we look to the past, let us do so for the lesson the past has taught us, namely that oppression and racism are inequalities that must never be a correct justification that because the whites oppressed us yesterday when they had power, the blacks must oppress them today because they have power. An evil remains an evil whether practised by white against black or black against white.Hopes were high in 1980. Mugabe brought in Ndebele (who had largely voted for Zapu) into his government, and even kept Ken Flowers the Head of Intelligence, the man who had tried to assassinate him. £900 million was donated from abroad, boycotts were lifted, Africans no longer faced racial persecution from the security forces, and whites no longer face military call-up. For the first three years of recognized independence everyone benefited and Mugabe could easily have been seen as positively as Nelson Mandela is seen today. Primary school enrollment rose from 82,000 in 1976 to 2,216,878 in 1985, and secondary school enrollment from 66,000 to 482,000 in the same period. By 1988 the WHO and UNICEF praised Mugabe for providing safe drinking water to over 84 percent of the population. Workers' rights improved, a minimum wage was introduced and labor discrimination based on race was illegalized. Shona and Ndebele were both made national languages, as well as English, and many minority languages including Chewa, Venda, Tonga, Nambya, Kalanga, and Shangani were officially recognized. He even earned the nickname 'Good Old Bob.' This shows that Mugabe saw great improvements to Zimbabwe but the big question is, what went wrong?
|British prime ministers, starting with Margaret Thatcher, would often pay Zimbabwe when Mugabe redistributed white land.|
End of the Honeymoon
There are several reasons why the honeymoon period came to a crashing halt. The legacies of colonial rule in the form of the Lancaster House constitution meant that very few black families were resettled onto white land, and many areas of resettled land was not suitable for farming. Although 416,000 people were resettled on 6.5 million acres this was not nearly close enough to deal with the issue. Job creation stalled: although 10,000 were made a year this was not enough. Most importantly many former soldiers lacked work and this became a major criticism towards Mugabe as he was seen as abandoning people who fought for both Mugabe and Zimbabwe. It did not take long for Mugabe to abandon socialism and unlike others like him he did not even pay lip-service too socialism. As corruption started to skyrocket, (one of his proteges Phillip Chiyangwa said 'I am rich because I belong to Zanu-PF. If you want to be rich you must join Zanu-PF.'), inflation soared. Human rights started as exemplified by the Gukurahundi.
|Members of Mugabe's 5 Brigade|
Since becoming president in 1987 the current image of Mugabe which we have in the North Atlantic world set in. Due to the amount of things to discuss I'm only going to focus on certain key events of Mugabe's presidency until 2017. It is quite telling that the US, UK and World Bank focused not on the Gukurahundi, which largely affected Ndebele but also affected some white farmers, to instead criticize Mugabe over the seizure of white land without payment in the early 1990s and again in the 2000s. However, this should not overlook the blatant cronyism. As mentioned earlier Mugabe abandoned socialism rather quickly, and in 1991 Zanu-PF dropped all references to socialism, never mind Marxism. In December 1996 a recurring theme in Zimbabwean politics happened. Popular war veteran Mukoma Musa passed away in relative poverty, and at his funeral Brigadier Gibson Mashingaidze criticized Zanu-PF for abandoning their ideals and that he himself had to contribute lots of money to Musa's funeral. 'Some people now have ten farms to their names and luxury yachts and have developed fat stomachs when ex-combatants like Comrade Musa lived in abject poverty. Is this the Zanu-PF I trusted with my life? Is this the same party which promised to care for us in our old age?' By 2000 unemployment had reached had risen by 50 percent, inflation had reached 60 percent, 70 percent of the population were in poverty, and 13 million were 10 percent poorer than they were in 1990.
|Tanks in Harare during the coup|
Despite the political repression, economic turmoil, and mass sympathy protests during the coup Mugabe is still very much respected. The legacy of his fight for African liberation and attempts to help the non-white population before his rule became increasingly authoritarian. Opposition leaders during the coup have even praised him for his actions during the liberation war. The media in the North Atlantic world has been quick to paint Mugabe as a dictator, and it is quite accurate to do so, but it is also important to remember that he was not always seen that way. Not mentioned yet but Elizabeth II did knight Mugabe. Robert Mugabe can easily be described as a liberator turned dictator.
The sources I have used are as follows:
-Profile: Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Al Jazeera
-Nick Dearden, The West owes Zimbabwe a Future, Al Jazeera
-David Blair, Degrees in Violence: Robert Mugabe and the Struggle for Power in Zimbabwe, (London: Continuum Books, 2003)
-Michael Auret, From Liberator to Dictator: An Insider's account of Robert Mugabe's descent into tyranny, (Clarement, South Africa: New Africa Books, 2009)
-Martin Meredith, The State of Africa: A History of the Continent since Independence, (London: Simon & Schuster, 2011)
-Brian Raftopoulos and Alois Mlambo (eds.), Becoming Zimbabwe: A History from The Pre-Colonial Period to 2008, (Johannesburg: Weaver Press, 2009)
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