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Despot at large

Martin Meredith takes as the epigraph to this book a 1976 quote from Robert Mugabe: “Our votes must go together with our guns. After all, any vote we shall have shall have been the product of the gun. The gun that produces the vote should remain its security officer — its guarantor.”

That was before Mugabe came to power in 1980 and it was clear that, like Chairman Mao, he saw power as proceeding from the barrel of a gun. Meredith makes it clear in his book that Mugabe still believes in this power and has not hesitated to use it.

Meredith rather skims over Mugabe’s early life and his 11 years in jail; most of the book is devoted to showing how Mugabe and his ruling elite have systematically looted their own country, destroying its once flourishing economy, using whatever means came to hand to stay in power. The latter chapters of the book are the most detailed, dealing with the corruption, manipulation and violence of the past few years as Mugabe has taken ever more desperate measures to cling to his position.

It is clear, though, that from the beginning Mugabe had more faith in the gun than in the vote. He was a reluctant participant in the Lancaster House talks that led to the end of Rhodesia and to the foundation of a black-ruled Zimbabwe: it was pressure from Mozambican leader Samora Machel and Zambian leader Kenneth Kaunda that got him to the negotiating table. Meredith quotes Mugabe as recalling his feelings: “Why should we be denied the ultimate joy of having militarily overthrown the regime here?”

And in 2000, as the farm invasions gathered momentum, he repeated that idea: “Perhaps we made a mistake by not finishing the war in the trenches … If the settlers had been defeated through the barrel of a gun, perhaps we would not be having the same problems.” It is as though Mugabe believes that a full military victory would have given him more absolute power from the start — and perhaps he wouldn’t have had to bother with all these pesky elections, never mind the trappings of the kind of constitutional democracy Zimbabwe was designed to be by the Lancaster House agreements.

Yet Mugabe has never entirely abandoned the pretence of democratic procedures and structures. Instead of simply dismissing parliament, cancelling elections and, as it were, coming out as a fully-fledged dictator, it appears that he would rather go ahead with elections and use undemocratic methods to win the vote: browbeating and intimidating his supporters into voting for him, and simultaneously sanctioning violence against his opponents, making it as hard as possible for them to campaign. Meredith doesn’t really examine why this should be.

After all, Mugabe’s contempt for the rule of law has become increasingly evident — let alone his dismissal of fundamental democratic rights such as freedom of the press. He shrugs off criticism from outside Zimbabwe as a neo-colonial plot. He has the loyalty of the army, it would seem, and that is probably the single most important issue in his ability to cling to power (as it so often has been in post-independence African countries).

Why does Mugabe even bother with the business of elections? Meredith hints in places at the pressures placed on Mugabe by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but does not really delve into the nature of that relationship, or describe exactly what those funding bodies expected of the Mugabe government in exchange for their moneys. Such information would have been useful.

The book as a whole, it must be said, is relatively superficial, though it does give a reasonable overview of Mugabe’s years in power. And what a sorry story it is. Those who might have lionised Mugabe at one time, and he was lionised, will see (on the evidence presented here, at least) that he was a hard man right from the start. Meredith sees Zapu-PF’s 1980 election victory as a vote for peace by the populace more than anything else; it was a matter of vote for Mugabe or the war would continue. On taking power, Mugabe was conciliatory, but once in power he took extreme measures to crush any opposition, including his employment of the notorious 5 Brigade in Matabeleland, where many thousands died. As the former British ambassador Robin Renwich has pointed out, Mugabe is a terrorist in the truest sense of the word: like Robespierre or Stalin, he has used terror to stay in power.

Corruption has taken deep root and Zimbabwe has turned into another African kleptocracy. Thomas Mapfumo, the musician and activist who had once sung in praise of the chimurenga, or struggle against colonialism, sang in 1990 about chamunora, or corruption — and got banned again. He has since left Zimbabwe.

Meredith does make it clear what a canard the whole land resettlement issue is. The British government spent £44-million on resettlement schemes before pulling out in disgust at the way the whole process had been mismanaged and corrupted. Apart from the way appropriated land was given to members of the ruling elite instead of to the poor farmers it was supposed to benefit, the issue of resettlement was also used in a blatantly political way. For instance, farm land owned by Ndabaningi Sithole, a former Zanu-PF leader and now a foe of Mugabe’s, was seized in 1993, despite a high court order refuting the state’s right to do so. About 20 000 people, members of Sithole’s Ndau tribal group, were forcibly removed from the land. So much for helping the poor.

As Zimbabwe’s presidential election looms, it is clear that the whole situation is a very tricky one. Can the elections possibly be free and fair when, as Moeletsi Mbeki pointed out on TV the other night, Zanu-PF has had a plan of intimidation in effect at least since the last election, which Mugabe nearly lost? And what if the Movement for Democratic Change wins, despite the intimidation and violence? In the eyes of international observers is that a fair victory, or would the general lack of freedom and fairness invalidate it?

One is not sure what to make of Essop Pahad’s plea to the media to stop “demonising” Mugabe. One is sure, however, of the fact that the notion of an African renaissance is meaningless unless a stand is taken against despots. Meredith’s book shows just how much of a despot Mugabe has become.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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