Explaining Mugabe: Much Learning but Not Much Sense

By Thomas, Tony | Contemporary Review, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Explaining Mugabe: Much Learning but Not Much Sense


Thomas, Tony, Contemporary Review


ROBERT Mugabe, the re-elected President of Zimbabwe, is the classic example of what people mean when they describe somebody as overeducated. He is, on paper, probably the most highly qualified head of government in the world. Through obsessive study he has acquired no fewer than seven university degrees. He gained four of them - an MSc in economics, a Bachelor of Administration and two law degrees - when, as a political prisoner, he enrolled in a correspondence course with London University.

He also boasts many degrees in violence hence the title of David Blair's recent biography, Degrees in Violence: Robert Mugabe and the Struggle for Power in Zimbabwe (Continuum; 258 pages). Yet, with all these letters after his name, Mr Mugabe remains a fool. In an exceptional feat of perverse alchemy he has, during his 22 years in office, changed gold into lead and ruined a once relatively prosperous southern African state.

Yet he still has apologists, both inside and outside Africa, though they are a rapidly diminishing band. In excusing his election rigging, they implicitly endorse the opinion of black Africans expressed by Lord Soames, Winston Churchill's son-in-law and the last Governor of Rhodesia, when he presided over the 1980 election which marked the transfer of power from the white-supremacist regime of Ian Smith to the black-majority government of Mr Mugabe. 'You must remember this is Africa', Lord Soames told observers from Britain. 'This isn't Little-Puddleton-on-the-Marsh and they behave differently here. They think nothing of sticking tent poles up each others whatnots and doing filthy, beastly things to each other. It does happen, I'm afraid. Its a very wild thing, an election'.

Those who take the Soames view, and claim, in effect, that black Africans are too backward to be judged by the standards aspired to by the Western democracies, do not find themselves short of evidence. Mayhem and murder have scarred elections in several neighbouring countries, including South Africa, where Zulus were loth to be bossed about by the Xhosa-dominated African National Congress. But Mr Mugabe's misrule is egregious even when weighed against the approximate measures of good governance that prevail in southern Africa, as is made plain in David Blair's withering biography of the Zimbabwean despot.

Nelson Mandela would agree. As Mr Blair recalls, in mid-2000 he delivered an extraordinary tirade against leaders who had once commanded liberation armies but now 'despise the very people who put them in power'. He called on Africans to 'pick up the rifle' and depose such tyrants. Asked whether he had Mr Mugabe in mind, Mr Mandela replied: 'Everybody knows very well who I am talking about'. He did not demur when newspapers carried his call under such headlines as: 'Mandela urges overthrow of Mugabe'. Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, stops short of advocating the assassination of Mr Mugabe but is no less dismayed by his behaviour. His presidency is, he says, 'almost a caricature of what people think black leaders do. Mugabe seems to be wanting to make a cartoon of himself'. As if to confirm this impression, Zimbabwe's president travels through the cities of his now parlous nation in a 22-vehicle motorcade and commandeers jets from the national airline to fly his new wife Grace and her entourage on shopping trips abroad. Several of those planes now run the risk of being seized for debts to American banks.

Mr Mugabe's misrule, and the consequent collapse of a once vibrant economy, were bad enough when Mr Blair arrived in Zimbabwe as a correspondent for The Daily Telegraph in May 1999. But things had gone from very bad to even worse by the time he was deported in June 2001. A country whose commercial farms had customarily produced a large surplus of maize to feed people in other African states, including the starving masses in the Horn of Africa during Bob Geldof's emergency efforts, was by then having to count on the white commercial farmers of South Africa to supply its staple food. …

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