An obsession with power

2008-02-13 00:00

This chilling book is a revised, updated version of a 2002 publication, and its updating brings the tragic story of Zimbabwe almost down to yesterday’s news.

Far more than just a biography of a tyrant, it also presents with admirable conciseness the whole tale of the country from the arrival of the white pioneer-column in 1890 down to the current ruination of a once prosperous land. Sadly, from its start, that history seems to have been driven by greed, injustice and ruthlessness. Only the colour of the culprits has changed — a depressing thought for students of human behaviour.

One of the worst aspects of the story is the shocking contrast between “The Honeymoon” (Chapter 3) of 1980, when Robert Mugabe, the new president made such conciliatory noises that Ian Smith, embodiment of white intransigence, was moved to point to Mugabe’s “maturity, reasonableness and sense of fair play” and to see him as “a model of reason and fairness” — the contrast between that and what has happened since: the total eradication of Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu party, which ceased to exist, accompanied by the deaths of at least 10 000 civilians in Matabeleland and the beating and torturing of many thousands more; the later calculated encouragement of violence against white commercial farmers (leading to the virtual collapse of Zimbabwe’s once-abundant agricultural economy) and indeed against anyone, white or black, who dared to utter one word of protest or opposition to the ruling Zanu-PF party; a daily and blatant disregard of law; massive corruption among the ruling elite; and, overall, what can only be called widespread crimes against humanity.

Parallels to Hitler and Nazi Germany are remarkable: the tyrant gathers a coterie of sycophantic supporters who are then rewarded for their support both materially and in status. “Little” men suddenly find themselves “big shots”, and in their new positions they are given licence by the tyrant to indulge their greed and their sadism with total impunity. The consequences are horrendous.

One of those supporters deserves special mention. Chenjerai Hunzvi, leader of the so-called war veterans and, according to the author, “a devious and corrupt activist” (an understatement, it appears) who was later described by his Polish wife as an “unfaithful, vain sadist” who beat her regularly. The real war veterans had much to complain about; but Hunzvi (again, his wife says he “never held a gun”; strange veteran) and his gangs were mostly riff-raff, party fanatics and unemployed people without scruple. Hence the notorious and bloody farm invasions which not only killed or drove out most productive white farmers but also battered and displaced hundreds of thousands of black farm-workers.

Meredith’s portrait of Mugabe himself is detailed, closely documented and horribly fascinating. We see an intelligent, reserved, educated man who turned, consciously, to violence to liberate the country from a minority and in many ways selfish and contemptuous regime, and from then onwards regarded violence as a normal and necessary means of retaining power. And power is the keyword here — not democracy nor socialism, in spite of Mugabe’s frequent claims. Meredith sums it up: “What propelled Mugabe to use violence so readily was his obsession with power. Power for Mugabe was not a means to an end, but the end itself. His overriding ambition, he once admitted, was to achieve total control and he pursued that objective with relentless single-mindedness, crushing opponents and critics who stood in his way.”

The great tragedy, spelt out so objectively and factually in this page-turner, is that Rhodesia-Zimbabwe is still unliberated.

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