The father of the nation
Stodart Hall, in Harare’s oldest township of Mbare, looks nothing like a national monument.
The paint has peeled off its bland walls, the light bulbs have been stolen and the sign at the entrance announces that the next big event here is “Miss Legs”.
On Pazarangu Street, running past the hall, idle youths take turns drinking from a carton of opaque beer, feet propped on bricks to avoid the slime from a burst water pipe.
Nothing suggests that it was here, 50 years ago, that Robert Mugabe launched his political career.
It was on this street that, on July 20 1960, youths bravely fought back a cordon of Rhodesian police, setting off a new phase of resistance against racist white rule.
The revolution had been waning. But a stirring speech that day by Mugabe, then largely unknown, lit a spark.
Georgias Mutopo, a 71-year-old tailor who has lived in the township since 1958, recalls that many young, aspiring leaders had taken turns at the makeshift podium, eager to make their mark. Then it was announced that an educated black man, fresh from independent Ghana, was next to speak.
“The applause started slowly. People had not heard about him,” Mutopo says.
He had been to Ghana, Mugabe began. He had seen a real-life independent African country run by black people. It was possible. Blacks could govern themselves. Whites could be challenged.
By the time Mugabe walked off the stage, the streets were on fire.
In the aftermath of Mugabe’s first speech, riots raged for days. To contain the riots, Edgar Whitehead’s administration enacted the Law and Order Maintenance Act, giving police impunity in crushing the protests.
Under that law Mugabe and many nationalists were arrested. Decades later it was under the same law, and its successor laws, that Mugabe was to arrest his own opponents, on these same streets.
During his 30-year rule Mugabe has been back here frequently, but only to preside over the funeral of yet another of his comrades.
None of the youths outside the Rufaro Marketing Beer Garden knows why struggle heroes are brought to Stodart Hall for state funerals. They know it more as a venue of the dancehall reggae clashes that have been fought here for years. “Man, a hall is a hall,” they say.
A customer at the Golden Girls Hair Salon, adjacent to the venue, draws laughter when she complains that the hall is a distraction. When “one of them” dies, referring to politicians, the salon is closed.
Few here can identify with the history around Stodart Hall and few bother.
Even as Zimbabwe celebrates a landmark 30th anniversary of independence, the priority in Mbare is the daily hustle to live.
There are hordes of car tyre repairmen outside Mushandirapamwe Hotel in Highfields and none of them knows about the hotel’s place in the struggle—and few care. The hotel, one of only a few black-owned establishments back then, was a hideout and meeting place for nationalists, including Mugabe.
It was in Highfields that ZanuPF was formed and it was at the township’s Zimbabwe Grounds that 200 000 came out to meet Mugabe in February 1980 as he returned from exile. It was also here that, decades later, Morgan Tsvangirai was to be arrested and brutally beaten.
There are many more places that should tell the story of struggle but that now reflect only disillusionment.
Near Kwekwe, in the Midlands, is Sikhombela. Today the area is overrun by armies of illegal gold diggers and peasant farmers who care less about what happened here than they do about making a living.
But it was the prison camp where Mugabe used his superior education to become “headmaster”, teaching other jailed nationalists and forging the father-figure image he enjoys today—sealing loyalties for life.
Mugabe should be worried about how disillusioned his people have grown. But he has private celebrations to make—on April 18 he will congratulate himself for having held on to power, after three decades of rebellions, electoral losses, Western embargoes and economic collapse.
With a mixture of loathing and secret admiration, his critics often wonder how he does it. Bookshelves creak with books on Mugabe, almost all of them hawking the same line: how the nice Catholic boy became a monster.
But, as he told an interviewer in 1981: “What I was, I still am.”
What lifted him to power in the struggle has preserved him—that mix of political savvy, violence, patronage and an ability to play opponents against one another.
Last year, when pressed to act on divisions within his party over his succession, he set up a “succession committee”—- to establish, he said, “systems and processes” for succession. But, in vintage Mugabe style, he appointed to the committee Solomon Mujuru and Emmerson Mnangagwa, the very two men fighting over power. The committee was therefore paralysed before it took off.
He is adept at sniffing out and swatting ambition.
In 2004, when six out of 10 party chairmen elected Mnangagwa, instead of his preferred candidate Joice Mujuru, he threw all of them out of the party. Just when Mujuru thought she had an open road to power, Mugabe accused her of being too ambitious and made Mnangagwa his right-hand man instead.
In 2007, when there were murmurs pushing for reform from within, he sent out war veterans on a series of marches in which “sell-outs” were called out. Scared of being branded traitors, one by one, key party figures fell in line, making public declarations of allegiance to Mugabe.
Mugabe had begun his march to life presidency. Mnangagwa’s province declared Mugabe “supreme leader” and others quickly followed.
Mugabe has used fear to stifle dissent. Dumiso Dabengwa, a former politburo member who split from Mugabe in 2008, says there may be many opposed to Mugabe within Zanu-PF, but they are “faint-hearted”.
Zanu-PF realises the folly of life presidency. The party surprised many when, in its proposals for constitutional reform last month, it proposed a cap on the presidential term to two five-year terms. But only after Mugabe.
Edgar Tekere, a former ally who unsuccessfully tried to unseat Mugabe in 1990, has said: “Mugabe is right at the centre of the nation’s problems. In my view 90% of the blame should go to him and 10% to those who have uncritically huddled over him over the years.”
But that 10% has a lot to lose. Mugabe preys on their greatest fear—losing the vast wealth they have accumulated under his rule. He frequently speaks out against their greed, but does nothing. That way he keeps them on a leash, doing his bidding.
He has plied them with choice farms and he knows they will be vicious in prolonging his rule, for their own sakes.
Mugabe has also convinced resettled farmers, wary of the Movement for Democratic Change, that only he can keep them on the land. To seal their loyalty, he hands out free tractors, seed and fertiliser.
Those who challenge him often find themselves tried for treason. The list includes Tsvangirai and former nationalists Ndabaningi Sithole and Joshua Nkomo.
Exiled from independent Zimbabwe, Nkomo once wrote to Mugabe: “One of the most disgraceful aspects of our independence, which is difficult to defend, is that we have taken the methods used to oppress, torture and kill our people and tried to use them to consolidate our ‘independence’.”
Mugabe will stand in the next election, which may be next year, when he is 87. If he wins, he will be 92 years old at the end of his term. Generations will have known no other leader.
Despite constant rumours among his detractors, he remains in robust health.
Over 30 years he has built a strong personality cult around himself. To some he is something of a god—criticising him is not only unpatriotic, but also blasphemous. Joseph Chinotimba, a militant Mugabe fanatic, declares: “He is our father. Do you reject your father because he is old?”
At the Heroes Acre, the burial place for struggle heroes, a sculpture of Mugabe stands fixed to a towering wall. Many who lie here sacrificed more, but it is Mugabe alone who stands immortalised in bronze, chest thrust forward, flag fluttering behind him.
Kingston Kazambara, the curator, looks up at the massive piece of North Korean art, and gushes: “Majestically, triumphantly, bravely guiding his flock forward to a new future. That’s none other than His Excellency, Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe.”