Clues to an African Enigma; Profile of Robert Mugabe

Robert Mugabe vanished from sight for a week in late May. He had gone to Switzerland for what was probably his first holiday of more than two days since he came to power in 1980.

Rested, he returned on Sunday, June 2, and stormed back into the rough and tumble of business within about three hours of landing at Harare airport on the all-night flight from Gatwick.

He has not paused since. In addition to attending to routine cabinet and government business, he has addressed more campaign meetings in the constituency he is contesting, the geometrically laid out rows of tiny homes that make up the township of Highfield in Harare, than has any other member of his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union (Patriotic Front).

In between, he has electioneered intensively through the western provinces of Matabeleland, the Midlands and now parts of Mashonaland in the east.

When the counting of the votes cast today and earlier this week for the 80 black seats in the 100-seat House of Assembly is concluded, Mr Mugabe will in all certainty launch himself with equal vigour into his second term as the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe.

Five years of wrestling with Zimbabwe’s post independence problems have left little physical mark. His widish face, with the articulate mouth and high cheekbones, shows no trace of lines on the dark, glossy skin. The only concession to his 61 years are the few streaks of white, darting above the halo of grey lining his forehead.

From the fearsome and vengeful figure that was his image when he returned from running his guerrilla campaign to fight elections, a far subtler but still engimatic personality has emerged. He has not so much changed as become slightly better known.

At political rallies he turns orator, employing a fine sense of drama. In Barbourfields Stadium in Bulawayo last month, speaking deliberately in perfectly enunciated Shona, the vernacular of the east of the country, and articulating with his delicate hands, he thus urged the 30,000-strong crowd: ‘To turn from the Zapu (Zimbabwe AFrican People’s Union) party of Mr Joshua Nkomo. I want the people of Matabeleland to answer these questions. Is it war or is it peace? Is it development or is it retrogression? Do we move forward, or do we move backwards?’

Outside visitors describe meetings where he listens and has even to be coaxed into discussion. ‘If you go on talking, he doesn’t interrupt. There’s no dominating the conversation’, said an official of a private sector lobby group who sees Mr Mugabe several times a year.

The reticence is more attentiveness than awkwardness. Asked for an answer, he supplies it. Provoked, he retaliates decisively, with a knack for intimidating irony, as numerous opposition MPs have found to their embarrassment.

Those who know him testify that he is by no means all cold fish. ‘He has a twinkle that is always there,’ said a civil servant who has worked with him since independence. ‘Gentle, genteel, solicitous, sympathetic, he is all of those things’.

He objects to being referred to in honorific terms. In Parliament in 1981 on the subject of his gate guards referring to him as ‘chief’ in the vernacular, he responded: ‘It embarrasses me. I would rather they called me Comrade, or Prime Minister’.

His wife Sally, continually ill with kidney problems, speaks of his lack of bitterness after 10 years of being detained by the Rhodesian Government and after being refused parole from detention to go to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to commiserate with her after the death of their only son, of cerebral malaria, in 1966.

He confesses to being withdrawn. Of the thousands of adulatory supporters at rallies, he told a television interviewer: ‘I find them very embarrassing. I’m rather a shy person, though I try to hide it. I never have been easy with crowds’.

The claim of shyness, however, sits uncomfortably on a prime minister who travels in a bullet-proof black limousine with an escort of three cars loaded with plain clothes guards, a Toyota Land Cruiser with a stick of heavily armed guards following behind and about eight motorcycles wailing as they weave in and out of the motorcade while the rest of the traffic pulls to the side of the road.

It is argued that this showiness is a result of persuasion by his security aides and, more likely, pressure by Mr Emmerson Munangagwa, the minister of state for security.

Also ill fitting the image of a compassionate Mr Mugabe is his refusal to speak to Mr Ian Smith since early 1981, and, more importantly, the continued use of detention without trial (and even after trial, despite an acquittal), his apparent turning of a blind eye to atrocities in Matabeleland in 1984, and his general deep hatred for Zapu.

But Mr Mugabe has a deep sense of moral indignation. At a rally in the north of the country in 1982, he made a point of going straght to a group of local white farmers and their families and introducing himself. A boy in the group was in school uniform, and Mr Mugabe asked him which school he attended. The boy gave the name of a school in the north Transvaal of South Africa.

Mr Mugabe angrily turned on his heel without a word, and went on to deliver to the crowd of assembled black supporters one of his more noted anti-white speeches.

The same trait resurfaced last weekend in his outspoken attack on the country’s whites for their continued electoral support of Mr Smith. Referring to them as ‘snakes’ and ‘racists’, he warned that he would make their lives ‘very dificult’.

Mr Mugabe does not trust Mr Joshua Nkomo, whom he believes is the sole embodiment of Zapu. Their association goes back to the late 1950s when Mr Nkomo led Zapu as the only organization of resistance to white rule, with Mr Mugabe as his secretary general.

Mr Mugabe was pivotal in the split from Zapu, when the Zimbabwe African National Union was formed. It came after Mr Nkomo tried to negotiate with the white government, to the chagrin of a great many of his officials.

The mistrust pervaded their uneasy union when they coordinated operations in the liberation war. It came to a head in early 1982 when security forces uncovered large arms caches in Matabeleland, belonging to Zapu.

Mr Mugabe has not been able to formally link Mr Nkomo to a plot of treason which he alleged Mr Nkomo was hatching. His stock reply has always been: the courts were not in possession of the information his intelligence organization had.

Mr Nkomo’s sacking from the cabinet was followed by the desertion from the national army of hundreds of ex-guerrillas of Mr Nkomo’s old army. Zipra. They turned renegade.

The solution Mugabe chose was to form a new military unit – the Fifth Brigade – which would not be undermined by pro-Zapu military men. The controversial brigade constituted members of Mr Mugabe’s Zanla guerrilla army.

The tactic badly dented Mr Mugabe’s moral reputation, as the poorly trained, ill-officered and bored troops went on the rampage. He was described as having reverted to the type of bloodlusting guerrilla boss.

Apologists argue that Mr Mugabe was not informed of the atrocities. (It is widely held that he is kept in the dark on numerous issues by his Cabinet). However, Mr Mugabe does appear to have a strong capacity to harden himself against the distasteful, for the single-minded achievement of his goals.

Parties to the various constitutional talks before independence have spoken of feeling near despair when confronted with the set, cold visage of a resolute Mr Mugabe. The degree of his knowledge of the horrors of Matabeleland may lie somewhere between the two positions.

On the issue of socialism, Mr Mugabe is more easily understood. He has never evinced the attitudes of a tome-thumping dogmatist. In 1980, he told the New York Times: ‘To me it is absolutely repugnant, it becomes a moral question, that those resources (of the country) should be the property of a few. If that is Marxist, than let me be called Marxist.’

Three years later he said in an interview with local journalists, that ‘There is nothing ..which can be regarded as true socialism ..There is not a single socialist country which has followed exactly the same path in its modalities of transforming its society into a socialist one, except in enunciating the principles and seeking the guidelines’.

The absence of any nationalization, the promise in the party’s election manifesto to allow the private sector to continue to thrive and the manifesto’s offer of tax incentives, all point well away from the rigid experiments of Tanzania, Ethiopia and Mozambique.

He expresses a strong dislike for the music and lifestyle of Rastafaria, both endemic among Zimbabwean black youth. Yet the puritanical leadership code, which requires party officials not only to divest themselves of the acquisitions of plenty but also always to be clean and neatly dressed, has yet to be enforced, despite a promise that there would be a purge after the party’s congress in August last year.He has little leisure time, rising early to work in his office built on to his official residence at Zimbabwe House in Chancellor Avenue, and retiring there for much of the evening after his day’s duties.

His good health and continued high energy is attributed to his non-smoking and drinking only when toasts are called for.

He enjoys spectator sports, and perplexes the ruddy-faced old school tie set in the ultra-colonial surroundings of the Harare Sports Club by watching visiting international cricket teams for hours at a stretch.

His public reticence has been complemented increasingly by the party’s tendency to shield him from informal appearances, as well as from the press. He has not held a single press conference during the campaign. A party political broadcast, part of a series which will have featured the leaders of all the other parties, will be done by Dr Nathan Shamuyariea, the Minister of Information.

The enigma and myth enfolding Mr Robert Mugabe is retained, and he grows ever more remote.

Born in 1924 near Kutama Mission, 40 miles west of Harare, Robert Mugabe has carved during his 61 years a reputation as a fearless fighter for black rights and equality. His skills as an orator and negotiator stem not just from his strong beliefs but from his extensive education.

He qualified as a primary school teacher in 1941 and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and history at Fort Hare University, South Africa, in 1951. This was followed in 1958 by a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics from the University of London, having previously become a Bachelor of Education at the University of South Africa in 1954.

It was during his ten years in prison in Salisbury (now Harare) that he devoted himself to learning, becoming a Bachelor of Law and Master of Law from the University of London and a Bachelor of Administration from the University of South Africa.

It was not until 1960 that Mugabe entered full-time politics, when he was appointed secretary for information and publicity with the National Democratic Party. The following year he married Sally Hayfron, a Ghanaian.

When the party was banned in 1962 he became secretary general of its successor, Zapu, a position he also held with Zanu on its split from Zapu in 1963.

Two years later he was detained at Whawha detention camp in Salisbury until 1975, the year he took over the leadership of Zanu from the Rev Ndabaningi Sithole. He then left for Mozambique to lead the guerrilla war against the Rhodesian Government.

In 1976 he led the Zanu delegation to Geneva for talks with Henry Kissinger and subsequently rejected his proposals. A year later he was formally elected Zanu’s president. In 1979 came his successful talks at Lancaster House in London and in 1980 he became prime minister following Zanu’s general election win. He was re-elected party president in 1984.

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