Zimbabwe by book: The good, the bad and the dire
On the 46th anniversary of Ian Smith's Unilateral Declaration of Independence, Percy Zvomuya surveys three books about Zimbabwe.
At the Deep End by Morgan Tsvangirai (Penguin)
Dzino: Memories of a Freedom Fighter by Wilfred Mhanda (Weaver Press)
Mugabe and the White African by Ben Freeth (Zebra Press)
One might take it as a sign of approaching normality in Zimbabwe that activists and politicians are taking a break from fighting President Robert Mugabe to sit down and write autobiographies and memoirs.
Most notable is Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), who worked with his spokesperson and ghostwriter T William Bango on a 550-page autobiography, At the Deep End.
It is a text that should have been half its size—the first few hundred pages are forgettable. The book lights up around 1999, the year the MDC was formed, which is about chapter 10. So, if you are pressed for time, skip the first 200 pages. I assure you, you are not missing much.
All right, what’s covered between pages one and 200? It’s a social history of Zimbabwe, the subregion and the world through Tsvangirai’s eyes. But who really wants to view the world through his eyes? Tsvangirai writes about the fall of the dictatorship in Portugal that resulted in independence in Mozambique and the guerrilla war against Ian Smith’s government gleaned from the “avid” reading of Rhodesian newspapers.
Then there are Robert Mugabe’s early years and he even throws in the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The result of this is, at times, unfortunate and unschooled. For instance, writing about the relations between Pretoria and Harare in the 1980s, Tsvangirai says: “He [Mugabe] played into Pretoria’s hands by adopting an aggressive stance and the entire nation paid as a result.”
What was Mugabe supposed to do? Engage in sweet pillow talk with apartheid South Africa so soon after Mugabe, the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) had been generously hosted by Kenneth Kaunda’s Zambia, Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania and Samora Machel’s Mozambique?
Tsvangirai also criticises Mugabe for sending Zimbabwean troops to Mozambique in the early 1980s to help fight the apartheid-sponsored Renamo insurgency. That operation can’t be compared with Zimbabwe’s questionable participation in the late 1990s war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance.
Mugabe, eschewing Durban as a port, had to help secure access to the Indian Ocean via the port of Beira. “The operation in Mozambique cost Zimbabwe an average Z$2-million a day when the economy could hardly sustain it; nor were there any benefits from such extravagance, apart from giving Mugabe the political mileage he needed as a donor and powerful regional leader.
“I was born a few months before the white settler administration formed the federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland,” Tsvangirai writes in the first chapter of a book, which can be read as a social anthropological study of life in Zimbabwe after World War II. By page 24, I was struggling to get into its mostly dense, wooden (apologies to all the trees out there) prose. There is an explanation of sorts on page 24: “Although I was extremely competent with figures, arithmetic and mathematics, I had difficulties with both spoken and written English.”
Then there are the strange sentences and weird thought processes. What, for instance, does the following mean? “People felt their former liberators were now preying on them, riding roughshod over basic graciousness after having fallen hard into the trappings of power, ambition and avarice.”
Or this: “Zimbabweans live in a world dominated by symbols. In fact, symbolism is so deeply embedded in our culture that it can be seen as second nature.” Which people don’t value symbols and symbolism?
“My life was destined to be closely interwoven with political, economic and social changes in Zimbabwe.” I don’t know what this means. I could understand it if Mugabe or one of the nationalists said it, but as Tsvangirai joined Zanu-PF at independence in 1980, its meaning is not immediately clear.
Tsvangirai’s liberation war CV is sparse, involving attending “several secret political meetings at which black people sought to assure themselves that Zimbabwe was destined for freedom”.
Early on in the book he gives us a reason why, unlike some young men of his age, he did not go to the bush to join other guerrillas. “Perhaps I would have become a political activist but my parents needed financial help to support the other children through school.”
To people who are not from the subregion, this might sound like pointless nostalgia, but the liberation war is a big deal in Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa. It’s not a coincidence that where the liberation movements have been voted out, for instance in Zambia and Malawi, wars were not waged to push for independence.
Tsvangirai’s nostalgia for the liberation war recalls what Zimbabwe’s generals told him in 2000—we won’t allow you to take power even if you win the elections. It was a message repeated by Constantine Chiwenga, Zimbabwean military supremo, who said a few years ago: “I would not hesitate to go on record again on behalf of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces to disclose that we would not welcome any change of government that carries the label ‘Made in London’, and whose sole aim is to defeat the gains of the liberation struggle.”
I have no space to point out the holes in Tsvangirai’s argument that “the social agenda that Mugabe had pursued from independence faltered under ESAP [an International Monetary Fund-prescribed neoliberal policy], with devastating results.” Mugabe was able to expand social services, education and infrastructure originally meant to cater for a few hundred thousand whites. Even after a decade of decline, Zimbabwe was last year listed by the United Nations as the most literate country in Africa. Love him or hate him, that’s part of Mugabe’s legacy.
So what new details does this autobiography put in the open? That former president Thabo Mbeki was “financing the Ncube group to destabilise the MDC”, thus the splitting of the MDC into two factions—Tsvangirai’s and that led by university man Welshman Ncube.
Tsvangirai also traces the roots of the anti-intellectualism in the MDC. “If the political project was to succeed, I told myself, it had to be led by ordinary workers, peasants ... not theorists, but doers”. Being one doesn’t preclude being the other; Mugabe is a classic example. He’s very erudite and is a man of action (some would say too much action).
One of the problems that faced the MDC after a few years in existence was its lack of ideological cohesion. Apart from being opposed to Mugabe, one was sometimes not sure what the MDC’s vision for Zimbabwe entailed. But Tsvangirai writes that the MDC was “even more ideological” than the ruling party. “Zanu-PF was just a nationalist movement whose agenda ended with independence in 1980.” Just a nationalist movement?
Tsvangirai writes about the perception that the MDC is a front for the West. “While trying to rescue the white farmers, London created an impression that the MDC was its vehicle for regime change.” It’s not clear whether this impression has gone away because people who dislike Mugabe and Zanu-PF will still tell you that they find the MDC’s positions wishy-washy. Still, Tsvangirai insists, “for all the Zanu-PF hype, neither Zimbabwean whites nor Britain influenced the MDC and me in any way”.
If you like to see blood, Tsvangirai uses his lance to get at his rivals. About Ncube, he writes: “I had spent the better part of my tenure babysitting some of my highly unpopular colleagues, including Ncube.” He notes that Ncube is a “superb boardroom idealist but lacks a popular or grassroots insights”. These politicians insisted that “I should never address a meeting alone. They all wanted to be where I was, especially at mass rallies, in order to benefit from my personal political brand.”
About Arthur Mutambara, the man invited from South Africa to head the Ncube faction of the MDC, Tsvangirai says: “After perusing a copy of his inaugural speech I realised that one could pass a university and still come out unfinished as a human being.” He describes Mutambara (holder of an Oxford doctorate in robotics) as a “politically illiterate newcomer” and a “lay intellectual”.
Tsvangirai is, obviously, a brave man, conscious of his abilities and pulling power. He is, perhaps, the most illustrious hero of the democratic cause.
Yet he uses the “I” voice in places you would expect him to speak in the collective “we”. Writing about the delay in the release of election results in 2008, he writes: “I was positive that if I had won control of the legislature, there was no way I could have lost the presidency.” And there are other instances of this arrogant “I” voice, as in “finally I had dismantled the monolith to its last pebble”.
What about the contributions of the hundreds who died for the democratic cause and the thousands who were tortured?
At other times he speaks about himself in the third person: “Given Mugabe’s fiery rhetoric and his deep personal hatred for Morgan Tsvangirai ” (Mutambara also does this quite a lot.) I think that’s part of the problem with Zimbabwe now, how everything revolves around Mugabe.
When I told a close friend who has worked in Zimbabwe’s civil society for decades that I wanted to give her a copy of the biography as a Christmas present, she said I should rather get her Julian Barnes’s Man Booker-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending. When I pressed her further that, as an activist, she should read At the Deep End, she said Tsvangirai shoud have written more than one paragraph on the National Constitutional Assembly and also mentioned Tawandah Mutasa and Deprose Muchena. (Muchena is briefly mentioned; Mutasa is not.)
Strange turns of phrases
My friend asked: “Does he finally come out on his polygamous situation?” No, he doesn’t, instead portraying himself as a single parent following the 2009 death in a motor vehicle accident of his wife, Susan, whom he describes as “my pillar and holistic stabiliser”.
Tsvangirai has such strange turns of phrases. On page 542, he writes: “I wish to acknowledge the lack of space in this memoir for me to go into detail about my new experience in the changed political arena.” I wrote in the margin: “No, Morgan, you had over 500 pages to do this.”
In contrast, Wilfred Mhanda’s 300-page autobiography, Dzino: Memories of a Freedom Fighter, is one of the most important works to come out of Zimbabwe. It has authority because it was written by a senior combatant, a liberation war aristocrat, once a member of the high command of the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (Zanla), which was the armed wing of Zanu.
In an arena where war credentials are important Mhanda’s CV is sterling. He went to high school at Dadaya, the institution founded by New Zealand-born missionary and former prime minister of Rhodesia, Sir Garfield Todd. Todd was accorded the title mwana wevhu (son of the soil) and billed as the “rallying cry of African nationalism”.
From early on Mhanda wanted to be a politician. Among the most treasured gifts he got from his parents were Ndabaningi Sithole’s tome African Nationalism and a transistor radio (to younger readers, that was the iPhone of its day).
A bright student, Mhanda was accepted in 1971 at the then University of Rhodesia for a bachelor of science degree, majoring in zoology, botany and chemistry. While there he joined the university’s underground Zanu branch. After taking part in protests, he was arrested. He skipped bail and went to Botswana, before proceeding to Tanzania for military training.
Mhanda’s account is part war diary, part scholarly tome, part insider/outsider account of one of the most interesting episodes in Zanu history. The book is so authoritative that, not a few times, he disputes what other nationalists, historians and scholars have put out. He was one of the chief protagonists when nationalists such as Mugabe and Edgar Tekere were locked up in Rhodesian prisons and when Josiah Tongogara, Zanla’s supremo, was in detention in Zambia following the suspicious death of lawyer and Zanu chairman Herbert Chitepo.
Mhanda’s book is a clever critique of the uniform nationalist historiography (“patriotic history”, as British historian Terence Ranger called it) that has become staple since 2000, sometimes known as Mugabeism.
Some of the information might not be of interest to the general reader but would be to scholars of that period. For the general reader, what’s noteworthy is the rise of Mugabe. He wasn’t well known in the training camps in Mgagao, Tanzania. “At the time we knew nothing about Mugabe except for the fact that he was the party’s secretary general.” Rugare Gumbo, one of the few guerrillas who knew him, “spoke highly of him and described him as articulate”.
When Mozambique gained independence in 1975, Zanla moved to the east. When Machel asked them to submit a list of their political leaders, Mugabe topped it. Mhanda writes that “Machel leapt from his chair in disgust. He was clearly not happy that we had included Mugabe, let alone as the leader.” Mugabe was then living in exile in Quelimane, on the Mozambican coast. “He loves the limelight,” Machel said prophetically about Mugabe.
“We lived to regret the day we had put forward Mugabe’s name,” writes the man who later spent three years in a Mozambican prison for his dis-agreements with Mugabe, who was taking control of Zanla at the time.
Mhanda is strange bedfellows with Ben Freeth, in whose company he travels to the west of Zimbabwe in a section of Freeth’s Mugabe and the White African.
“Deeply moving” and “fascinating”, writes Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the foreword to the book. As I read Freeth, however, I wondered how much of the memoir the bishop had read. It’s about the struggles of the British-born farmer fighting off war veterans, thugs and politicians who are after his farm.
The most maddening feature of the book is its amnesia about the genesis of the Zimbabwe crisis. “In Zimbabwe none of the white exploiters will be allowed to keep a single acre of their land,” the book declares on page seven. “From 1973 to 1979, 320 white farmers were murdered. This counted for more than the total number of white civilian deaths over that whole period.”
Why the farmers are being killed is never explained. Freeth doesn’t mention the 50 000 blacks who died in the same period. It’s almost as if apropos of nothing black “terrorists” (his word) started killing white farmers.
Ghost of Ian Smith
The book is written in the spirit of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence announced by the late Rhodesian prime minister, Ian Smith, on November 11 1965. When Britain was “granting” independence to its colonies in the 1960s, Smith unilaterally declared independence from Britain.
The ghost of Smith suffuses every page of Freeth’s book—so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if Smith’s brood argued for a share of the royalties.
Early on in the book Freeth tells us about his encounters with “tribesmen” in Ethiopia, “terrorists” killing the whites. The traditional healer is a “witch doctor”. On a visit to a white-run farm, Freeth is impressed by the commercial operation, “an oasis of irrigated crops and productivity”. In contrast the black-populated areas are “dry and barren”, even though both sections receive the same amount of rainfall.
The Land Apportionment Act of 1930, the cornerstone of laws that began the impoverishment of black people, is written of affectionately. The law was meant for the “security of tenure” it provided, argues Freeth. “Contrary to the repetitious propaganda, every serious farmer knows that land in these communal areas can be made to produce every bit as well as other land in Zimbabwe,” Freeth writes of the rocky, infertile land to which black people were driven by Rhodesian administrations.
Freeth, who is an evangelical Christian, quotes the Bible so liberally that at some point I had to check whether his book was put out by a religious publisher. But his idea of Christianity is one with no empathy for others except his fellow “white Africans”. The Munhumutapa dynasty, whose seat was at Great Zimbabwe, is described as one of “master pillager[s]” and “dictator[s] of the time”. Freeth and his Christian God seems to care only about white people.
The black men’s traditions are “evil practices” and even animals are not spared. The crocodile, Mugabe’s totemic animal, is described as “ugly and evil-looking”. Can’t a crocodile be allowed to be, well, a crocodile? “When I think of African tyrants, I think of the crocodile, because crocodiles are absolute tyrants.” The continent is in a big mess because “the spirit of the crocodile has been roused by many of its leaders”. I will admit that African leaders have messed up but we have to factor in the centuries of colonial rapine and plunder.
Before the advent of the white man, the land was a “place of insecurity and hunger and escaping from invading, looting tribes”, Freeth writes. This is another way of saying that before the white man’s arrival Africa was formless and without order, with no history. Freeth also writes about the first Chimurenga, a war that involved “attacks on the white people”. There is no mention of the dispossession that preceded that heroic struggle.
Freeth’s narrative of dispossession and legal fights is, to be sure, touching and heroic. He stoically fights off an assortment of hoodlums and politicians. After being rebuffed by Zimbabwean courts, he took his case to the Southern African Development Community regional court in Windhoek. The court ruled that “white people could be African”.
If they so wish, whites can be black, too. The American liberation theologian James H Cone argued that “to be black means that your heart, your soul, your mind and your body are where the dispossessed are”. It is never about pigmentation.