Dinner with Mugabe Part 2

2008-06-27 14:29

News24 brings you the second part of the Chapter "The good, the bad, and the reality" from Heidi Holland's best-selling novel Dinner with Mugabe.

Click here to jump to Part 1.

Here, Mugabe's memory was faulty. Clare Short's letter came a few days, not two years, after his meeting with Blair at the Commonwealth summit in October 1997. Those sitting alongside me were laughing uproari-ously at the mention of the contentious letter. 'And we said, "Ah, that's the end of the story",' Mugabe continued.

    They don't want our problems. They say it doesn't come under the poverty relief programme they are running. They're saying their policies don't derive from the Conservative Party, and this (funding for land re-distribution in Zimbabwe) was a decision of the Conservative Party. No colonial responsibilities any more. It was once a British colony, and Britain had long ceased to have colonial responsibility towards it.

His voice became eerily thin:

    That was quite a damning response. It was a very ignorant response. It showed ignorance on the part of New Labour. If you take the Conservatives - (they are) much more mature. They realise there is something called succeeding and honouring both assets and liabilities. It's part of international law in so far as it relates to governments ... This was the undertaking of the previous government so why can't it be your undertaking too? There was a whole package which Blair had on his desk, left by Major, agreed to between the Conservatives and ourselves. What was going to happen to it?

Mugabe was speaking in a menacingly low tone. I leaned forward in my seat to hear what he was saying. 'They were going to tear it up,' he growled bitterly. 'And we read then that it was a government without norms and principles at all, and they didn't deserve our respect.'

    The stance we took was: they can refuse their money but the land is ours anyway. So keep your money and we'll keep our land. So that became it. Then our people became disenchanted and the war veterans started moving on to farms and taking them. We said we would not arrest them, but we would not at the same time regard them as legal acts. They were political acts and we would as government later examine each situation and determine whether we would want a particular farm for resettlement purposes. Our instructions (to the war veterans) were to take the farms but don't use anything and don't commit acts of violence. People said they should be arrested, they are trespassers, but we said no, we wouldn't arrest them. So from that moment on, we started moving on to farms and removing the war veterans where we felt they needed to be removed, and legalising the process. So that then became the point of departure between us and the Labour government.

    People criticised us for not having taken action against the war veterans. And at the end it was the war veterans plus the youth and others who now felt that the people had to act in order for the land to come their way. They criticised us for having allowed this form of occupation to become legal. In fact, we didn't regard it as legal but we didn't disallow it because we were taking action against the British government, who had torn up what was a legal agreement made at Lancaster House. They had reneged on it, so why look at just our own act?

By now following the political line, Mugabe's voice became strong and confident as he described how he sat on the fence when the war veterans invaded Zimbabwe's predominantly white-owned farms. He appears to have condoned the abuse that accompanied the land grab without actually endorsing it directly, although I remember him remarking that white farmers were 'the enemy' on the day Martin Olds was murdered on his farm in April 2000. Perhaps the land grab was his way of acting out his own pent-up rage by proxy. Although stating his own reservations to me as if they were true, his response at the time clearly included the idea that the war veterans could do whatever they liked and he would turn a blind eye.

He went on to explain the dilemma of Zimbabwe's white farmers in not wanting to back his government by holding Britain to account for land compensation because such backing would, in effect, have endorsed the facility by which their land was taken from them. They wanted to keep the land by any means whatsoever, he told me. In fact, the farmers objected to Britain having a special responsibility for compensating them because it amounted to a denial of their Zimbabwean citizenship.

Mugabe's step-by-step explanation of his government's disastrous land grab was obviously the information he intended me to convey - and doubtless part of the explanation for his having agreed to speak to me when so many other interview requests from foreign journalists had been turned down over the years. While I was aware that he was hoping I would go some way towards proving, as he believes, that he was not the guilty party - 'they' were - my impression was that he was telling the truth about the actual events (although there has never been any evidence that any war veterans were removed from farms by his government).

Contrary to the account Mugabe gave of events leading up to the land grab, the prevailing pro-British belief in the West is that the Labour government under Blair was entitled to stop funding land reform in Zimbabwe on the grounds that money already given by the British taxpayer had been misused by Mugabe's government. The point that Mugabe was eager to get across was that John Major's Conservative administration had agreed, despite earlier charges of irregular use of the funds, to resuscitate Britain's Lancaster House land reform undertaking, and that Blair's refusal to honour the previous British government's promise had been unethical - a version of events that accords with my own research.

In my opinion, Mugabe was not so much trying to use me to rewrite history as taking advantage of what he believed might be a fair hearing from a Western-orientated writer with an involvement, albeit peripheral, in the politics of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe. There was never any attempt by George Charamba or Father Mukonori to see what I had written in Dinner With Mugabe before the interview with the president, nor to overtly influence what I was planning to write. In any case, Mugabe's account of events leading up to his land grab in no way justifies his actions and their catastrophic consequences, but it does apportion some of the blame to Britain and, to a minor extent, America. All the parties involved in the redistribution of land in Zimbabwe should have tried a lot harder to ensure a successful outcome.

I did not pursue with Mugabe, perhaps mistakenly, the assertion by Clare Short, the former British minister in charge of international development between 1997 and 2003, that the UN-sponsored land conference of 1998 had offered him the opportunity to recover his financial position in respect of land redistribution. In her view, he failed to take advantage of the Western donations that were available then for land reform, although Short made it clear (see Chapter 8) that only Britain among the nations attending the UN's conference was prepared to give money, albeit of unknown value, for the purchase of land in Zimbabwe.

My main purpose in obtaining the interview with Robert Mugabe - the duration of which was not revealed to me when it began - was not to dwell on the land issue, crucial though it has proved in Zimbabwe's recent history, but to continue with my exploration of the man.

Why do so many people fear you?

'Perhaps because I'm quiet, I keep to myself, and also because I believe in what I say,' he replied. 'We do this, we do that. We are being principled.'

Does that mean you don't compromise?

'No, we compromise a lot. But with principles, no. You don't sacrifice principles - you don't, you don't, you don't sacrifice principles.'

Mugabe's description of why people fear him shows that he partly understands the person he is - quiet, solitary, shy. But what people really fear about him is his instability. There are hidden, irrational responses in him that can neither be seen nor predicted. Although he claims to believe in what he says, meaning there are no contradictions, this is far from true. But he is unaware of the contradictions within himself. He can insist that he never sacrifices his principles because the way he sees it, he did not set out to murder, and the torture people suffered was of their own doing. While he may not be mad in a clinical sense, his is a mad way of being in the world; a cut-off, deluded way. We are all capable of functioning similarly to some extent, cutting off friends or family when we feel they have crossed an unacceptable line - it's a necessary coping strategy. But most of us remain able to negotiate the middle ground, at least some of the time.

When I asked Mugabe if he had ever been deeply in love, he replied, 'That's why I got married twice, isn't it?' Although citing two trips up the aisle did not adequately answer the question, the image of Grace armed with a frying pan flitted across my mind and I decided it was too unfair a question to pursue with a married man, even a monstrous one, when he may well have loved one wife more than the other.

What does it mean to love somebody? I asked him.

'Ah, well, that is to be natural, isn't it? You love somebody and you want to marry someone because you are desirous of having a partner in life. Having children gives your love real application, if you have a heart. The heart must exude itself by showing love to your children; other children as well, and to people as whole.' His voice had become tender as he moved from a purely sexual interpretation of the question to glimmers of intimacy, loyalty and sharing.

Returning to politics, I asked Mugabe what particularly soured his relationship with Britain. Was it Clare Short's letter?

'No, it was the attitude. That letter merely expressed the attitude of the British government. Her letter was a symptom of it.'

What would you say to someone like Lady Soames, a British establishment figure who was really very fond of you?

'A loving, loving woman. I was very sad she lost her husband,' he replied. 'They had become great friends. She remains a great friend at heart.'

But you don't see her any more?

    No, the British attitude at the moment doesn't allow friendship. We've had every member of the Royal Family (to stay) at State House - every one of them. The Queen used to talk of the 40s when she was still a girl and came here in 1947, when she stayed in one of the buildings here at State House. When we had the Commonwealth meeting here in 1991, we had the Queen staying. And she loved it. We prepared a lot of things for her (to do) ... And now, to this day, we treasure those moments, and we have nothing against the Royal Family. If anything, we still have our love for the Royal Family, as I was telling Prince Charles when we met in Rome at the funeral of the Pope. I sat next to him. No, we haven't lost our love for them. But you know, the Blair government made even the Prince and the Queen say something against Zimbabwe. That's terrible! It's sad.

Mugabe seemed on the brink of tears as he remembered the Royal Family. But he did not take on board what it meant to lose a good friend like Lady Soames, or that she might have had her own independent view.

His voice became firm and resentful as he bemoaned Britain's dishonesty in world affairs:

    This is what I don't understand about European politics. They can use lies in order to achieve a given purpose and get the public to believe that they are telling the truth, only for the public to discover later that they didn't tell the truth. And then the politicians have a way of justifying their actions. We don't want politics of that nature. You've got to be open and truthful. That's where we find the politics of Bush and Blair, you know, to be absolutely terrible, unacceptable. Where are their moral norms, their virtues of honesty and truthfulness, if they don't apply in what you tell people, what you believe, what you do?

    We are told that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. And they know in their minds that they are telling lies. They invade Iraq and get the international community to actually believe they are telling the truth. At the end of the day, they say no, now they have found that, no, he did not have weapons of mass destruction, which they had known before. In the meantime, they have caused lots of people to suffer and blood to flow. And they continue to kill people, the war continues, even after they have discovered (that there are no WMDs).

Mugabe is incapable of admitting that, just as Bush and Blair tell lies, so does he. In his internal politics, he disavows his own duplicitous and deceitful side, projecting these aspects of himself on to Bush and Blair.

Some people say the land acquisition process in Zimbabwe was a spontaneous movement and that you were not in control of it. What would you say to that?

    We were in control of it. There was a moment when Chief Svosve started with his people moving on to land, and we sent vice president Muzenda to go and talk to him nicely. And this is how we were doing it. When the war veterans started, we could have appealed to them - had Britain not reneged on the issue. But when Britain reneged and we had this action by the war veterans and those who supported people moving on to the land, I said, 'Yes, now we have the weapon to respond to Britain's action in reneging. Fine, we are taking our land.' Now it will affect the farmers in a way that we would not have wanted, but let that be.

    We had hoped that the British would take notice of it and that they would say, 'Let's meet and discuss this.' Indeed, seven years ago when we had the first European Union/African summit in Cairo, Britain's foreign secretary Robin Cook approached (Nigerian president) Obasanjo, requesting him to approach us so that a meeting could take place between him and our delegation. Obasanjo came to me and said, 'I'm bringing you this message from Robin Cook, and he tells me that they have the money for the land but he wants discussions.' I said, 'No, we have never refused discussion. Okay.'

    So we met Robin Cook. He was quite a gentleman. And he said, 'Yes, we have the money. Send some people to London and we will resume it, but let's stop this business of calling each other names in the press and so on.' I said, 'Fine.' So we once again sent a team to London en route for discussions with Robin Cook, only to find that Clare Short and others were angry that he had arranged for this visit, and they told him that there was no money. He had his own team and he thought he had the authority of Blair. Our people came back. They did not meet anyone apart from Robin Cook.

He must have been very embarrassed?

'Yes, so he said. It was so sad.'

In fact, Mugabe's recollection of these events is false. Robin Cook met the Zimbabwean delegation in London for eight hours of talks on 27 April 2000. Cook said that Britain would give ?36 million for land reform over two years - if the land invasions were halted. The Zimbabweans refused to stop the occupations, hence the meeting failed. Afterwards, Cook said, 'We cannot have future talks at ministerial level unless the farm occupations have ended.'

What struck me about Mugabe's references to Zimbabwe's white farmers was how keen he was to present them as representatives of Britain. They were easier to dismiss once he saw the farmers as part of 'them' rather than 'us'. They did not belong; they were British settlers in Zimbabwe and pawns in Mugabe's revenge game. Rather as a manipulative, vengeful parent might do in a vexed divorce settlement process, he was saying, 'I'll hurt the kid if the bad parent doesn't pay maintenance.' He was hoping Britain would step in and say, 'No, no, you can't treat our child like that! Here's some more maintenance.' However, many of the white farmers were their own worst enemies in the sense that they underpinned Mugabe's 'them' and 'us' view through their shocking racism. They could never portray themselves as Africans, trying instead to elevate themselves to superior, denigrating, British-type overlords.

When I asked Mugabe for his vision of Zimbabwe's land now that it was no longer a black and white issue, he replied that it must be utilised properly and listed, unconvincingly, the ways its current neglect and abuse would be corrected.

But realistically, sir, I said, many people would say that this country as it is going at the moment is light years away from restructuring agriculture to anything like the position it occupied in the economy previously.

My comment was a challenge so I had been careful to frame it politely and in the third person rather than directly from me. Mugabe reacted angrily. His eyes flashed and his voice rose. 'Light years?' he repeated indignantly. 'We don't even have to go two years. Look at what we will do next year, and you'll be surprised. We now have,' he faltered, then began again, 'You don't know,' he continued, searching for a response to my outrageous dissent. 'You have not travelled into the hinterland, have you?'

I admitted that I had not. He must have known that I had done nothing during the previous five weeks other than sit beside the phone waiting for an invitation from him. He pounced. 'How could you miss the amount of farming that the people are doing?' he demanded triumphantly. 'It's on an even larger scale than was being done before. There is greater commitment today. Even in the early days, the commercial farmers were not the greatest producers of maize. The seed maize, yes. But cotton also: it was always the peasants' crop. And they need our input. We are bringing quite a lot of inputs into it - irrigation schemes and so on. Now, with the equipment we have brought into the country, you can expect within two years to see that we will be exporting lots of things.'

Mugabe's hostile reaction gave me a foretaste of his response to criticism. There was little doubt that had I opposed him openly, he would not have tolerated it. So I returned to pussyfooting around him. My goal was to comprehend rather than to confront him, and I wanted to keep the interview going as long as possible to this end. Presumably, Mugabe's anxiety when I challenged what he said was to counter the humiliation he would have felt if I revealed the mess he has made in Zimbabwe - especially in front of all those in the room with us.

If Mugabe were to take sober stock of what his reward for the years he spent in prison and the harsh times he endured in guerrilla camps has added up to, he would be devastated. That is why he has such a strong drive to keep talking up the reward as it collapses around him. He would be left staring into an abyss otherwise. The things he believed about himself and what he thought his sacrifices would achieve have come to nothing. To admit at the end of a largely well-intentioned life that what he set out to do has completely failed would be unbearable for him.

Interestingly, the president kept slipping down in his chair. His legs and arms were all over the place. You wanted to get up and go over to him, put your hands under his armpits and sit him up straight. His body language seemed to reflect his lack of grounding and integration. The emotional foundation to support all the work he had done on his intellect was not there.

What is your vision for Africa? I asked him.

    What would I want Africa to be? Completely free, first of all. We are not free - far from it. Africa is dependent on donors. The majority of our countries are funded in the main by donors. Their budgets are sustained by the same countries that yesterday were their colonial masters. So we are not yet really free in the true sense of the word. We have got to translate our political freedom into economic freedom. And as long as we remain producers of primary products with no capacity to industrialise, so shall we remain subservient ... We appeal all the time to Europe to assist us, and assist us in developing ourselves so that we can become equal economically with them. And Europe is talking down to us. The first subjects they raise are not subjects that have to do with economic assistance. Good governance, human rights, the rule of law - that's what they put first. Let us discuss this first (they say). But the people want economic cooperation and all they want to talk about are human rights and so on.

What do they get out of this unequal relationship?

'They derive inequality and subservience in a perpetual way.'

Are you saying they deliberately perpetuate it?

'Oh yes, yes, of course it's deliberate.' He went on at length about how European governments give aid only to enable Africa to continue producing the primary products required by their own factories. 'The British buy our tea, blend it and call it English tea,' he laughed. 'They don't even acknowledge its origin - never. Earl Grey - who was he? And Lipton - who was he? Where can you grow tea in Wales or Scotland? You can't even grow it in their greenhouses, can you? So there it is. We in Africa have no capital, you see. That is (the situation) we in Zimbabwe would want to get out of. Fortunately for us, we've had some industry started here, and fortunately we have raw materials that we can use - minerals and from agriculture - and get capital for ourselves to improve our industries.'

Here, Mugabe was defying the universal laws of economics. No country is forced to sell its tea in Europe or anywhere else. His main grievance seemed to be the fact that the British didn't acknowledge the source of the tea. He was intent on rubbishing existing trade practices when he did not have a viable alternative. His alternative, seizing the land that once produced the tea, was not about building but about destroying.

Is there a sense that you have of being prepared to sacrifice the welfare of Zimbabwe in order to prove your points?

    Yes, we have already sacrificed our welfare and we have singled out a Zimbabwe which is going in a completely different direction from other countries. That's because of the empowerment of our people. We have refused economic colonialism or imperialism in the sense that we don't want our economic sectors dominated by foreigners ... You can't preach it to others unless you are doing it. We must demonstrate that we can do it in Zimbabwe and get our economy to transform. At the moment, we get no development aid at all.

But your economy shows it, I pointed out.

Mugabe sat up straight, his eyes flashing. 'Our economy shows it but it's far better, a hundred times better, than the average African economy. Outside South Africa, what country is (as good as) Zimbabwe?'

Is that true - even now?

'Even now,' he stated. 'What is lacking now are goods on the shelves. That's all. But the infrastructure is there. We have our mines, you see. We have our enterprises.'

Incredibly, Mugabe was saying dismissively that all Zimbabwe lacked was goods for sale. Everything was fine except that they didn't have food on the shelves. He was revealing that he was utterly out of touch with reality. Later, when I told Father Mukonori that Mugabe was deluded about the economy, he explained it as the fault of the officials who were not telling the president the truth. A more accurate explanation is that Mugabe's people are too scared to confront him or tell him the truth. Like the fable about the emperor's clothes, there are things that are not allowed to be said because someone is holding a delusional position. Mugabe could never say, 'Okay, our ideals are not achievable so we will establish - not in repudiation but in a creative way - something more modest that will be neither Britain nor America but will work well enough for us.' For that reason, he could never move on.

There are a lot of people who would disagree with you, sir.

'Why?' His eyes were on fire, glinting menacingly, so I retreated, mumbling about the economy possibly improving some time in the distant future. He seized the upper hand. 'Why disagree when they are not in the know?' he demanded. 'They don't know what we are doing. And they don't know what we are pumping into the system, you see.'

Mugabe's manner did not allow for any contradictory ideas. Whenever I was on tricky territory, I backed off in the interests of keeping the interview going. Had I stood my ground, there might have been an entirely different outcome. He silenced me whenever I drew attention to uncomfortable realities. He could not admit that he was in trouble and had made a complete mess of Zimbabwe. So he idealised the mess as if he really believed it was going to be wonderful two years hence.

Have you changed over the past 30 years?

'Yes, physically I have. I've grown old and bald. But the ideas and principles remain. I haven't changed at all.'

Do you worry about repercussions in the international justice system in respect of Gukurahundi (the campaign of beatings, arson and mass murder deliberately targeted at the civilian population and conducted by Mugabe's personal militia)?

Mugabe waved his hands dismissively and sighed in exasperation.

    It's just political. It's just politics that people try to gain out of it. Gukurahundi - as it happened - what was it? You had a party with a guerrilla force that wanted to reverse democracy in this country. And action was taken. And, yes, there might have been excesses, on both sides. True, it's not the fact that there was Gukurahundi which is wrong. It's the fact that there have been excesses that have caused some people to suffer. But we'd have to start with the excesses of Ian Smith - and the colonialists, the British, who were still in charge - because lots of people disappeared; lots of people died.

But Gukurahundi happened during your time, I told him. Would you like to place on the record your regret about it?

    No, there is no regret about the fact that we had to defend the country. But the excess, where it happened, yes. Any death that should not have occurred is a cause for regret, and wherever people have suffered. But the figures don't make sense because they don't represent the truth.

When I told him the estimates of deaths during Gukurahundi ranged between 8 000 and 30 000, he replied icily, 'Who are those people; who are they? We want to know.'

I had been expecting Mugabe to object to the question on Gukurahundi but it was my scepticism that bothered him. The question itself did not disconcert him because he simply justified his actions. He clearly feels Gukurahundi was legitimate on the grounds that he was aggrieved. He was settling a problem with a terrorist group, though he regretted the excesses. He sat on the fence, condoning the terrible violence without actually saying as much. Like the husband who beats his wife mercilessly and then says he did it because she provoked him, Mugabe takes no responsibility for his loss of control or what Gukurahundi says about him.

Do you have any regrets, sir?

'Of what?'


'It would depend on what you have in mind.'


    No, no regrets. You go into a fight. It's a fight against colonialism. You make sacrifices. And naturally, when people die you regret the deaths of the people. And that's why we have created Heroes Acre in order to remember those whose deaths should not have occurred. Yes, we are sorry that there are those who have died, but other regrets, I don't know. We might have regrets where we've had a policy that we've had to revise. Or failures in our programmes because some people have not implemented them faithfully and honestly. Yes, you regret those failures. Failures in government are regretted, especially when they are because of corruption or inefficiency, incompetence or neglect. Sure, we regret.

How would you like to be remembered?

Just as the son of a peasant family who, alongside others, felt he had a responsibility to fight for his country. And did so to the best of his ability. And was grateful for the honour given him to lead a country and be remembered as one who was most grateful for the honour that the people gave him in leading them to victory over British imperialism. Yes, for that I want to be remembered.

He is more likely to be remembered as a leader who was out of touch with reality. The simple, traditional home he grew up in, where a grandfather would fail to take a dying child to hospital for fear of what the doctors might do, was inadequate for a bright child craving stimulation. So the bored boy in deprived circumstances created his own internal realm, as such children are prone to do. It was a parallel world where he could imagine that there was no injustice, where the prince rescued the princess, and little boys weren't left with nothing to eat. In his fantasy world of books and ideas, idealised goodness was valued above all else and he did not have to grapple with the daunting realities of everyday life.

He learned to distort reality; making it what he wanted it to be. He thought everybody would hold hands and achieve heaven on earth. But when someone wrote a letter saying they didn't want to do that, reality impinged: it was not going to be the way it was meant to be in the books. He was shocked and disillusioned.

He had thought his ideals would be achieved through suffering; that his sacrifices would be rewarded. His people would be free and laughing, their bellies full as they waved flags in the streets of Harare. But he had not taken into account the inescapable fact that freedom is an internal as well as an external matter; that people are sometimes limited by internalised experiences that can trap and hold as surely as a cell. The doors of the external prison might have swung open, but the internal cell remained locked and barred. He dedicated his life to his country without knowing what it was he could and couldn't achieve.

Limitations were never recognised by the freedom fighter who thought he could achieve everything - and still does. To be an ordinary person, he would have had to face not being the saviour he wishes he were. If he could have accepted his ordinariness, he might have adjusted his sights and had a more humble though realistic vision. But he was perhaps too deeply ashamed of his incapacities - despite a rare moment of candour when he admitted them to Lord Soames - and needed to see himself as invincible.

As an ordinary man, he could have listened rather than believed he had all the answers; made mistakes and learned from them, forgiven shortcomings in others and been forgiven; made friends and been a friend; asked for help - all the things that mere mortals do. But he believed he was special, different, born for greatness.

In the end, Robert Mugabe is a disillusioned man surviving on omnipotence and distortion as he approaches the end of his life. He will be remembered by most as a tyrant; by some as a sad figure who suffered and sacrificed. His ruined country, Zimbabwe, is truly the tragedy because it need not have suffered its devastating fate.

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