Robert Gabriel Mugabe died within the last fortnight. The floodgates of Western criticism were opened. It seems that Mugabe’s professional life and rule of post-independence was one of unrelieved violence and failure. We wish to enter a most profound disagreement with these gloomy and biased assessments.
We believe that during Mugabe’s long reign as President, mistakes were made but there were definite achievements. Like all political leaders, the circumstances in which Mugabe had his social being and his political existence were complex and challenging and provoked responses which were not perfect or acceptable in normal circumstances. To make our point we will examine Mugabe’s career through critical periods: when he was a leader of the liberation movement, when he became the Prime Minister of an independent Zimbabwe and when he became President of his country.
Robert Mugabe came to political consciousness in a country whose political system was based on the minority rule of Whites over the majority, a situation which was offensive to every democrat of the western world. But there was no universal outcry against the circumstances in which Black men and women were robbed of their dignity on a daily basis in the land of their birth. Only those who have not experienced the whiplash of racial inferiority will ignore the environment which shaped Mugabe’s politics.
Mugabe must have heard Sir Roy Welensky’s remark as Prime Minister of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland that the relationship of the Whites and Blacks was like that of a horse and a rider and he did not have to say who was the horse and who was the rider. Offensive racial politics and practices continued without major objection from the western world until Mugabe and his fellow liberation fighters took up arms against this tyranny.
Educated by Jesuits, bookish and critical of his social and political circumstances, Mugabe acquired seven degrees and entered the teaching profession before becoming involved in the liberation of his country. He was arrested and tried for subversive speech and imprisoned for ten years from 1964 to 1974. Once he regained his freedom, he went into exile in neighboring Mozambique where he joined the liberation struggle. Soon he became the leader of ZANU-PF and prosecuted the case against minority rule in Rhodesia. As Ian Smith’s rule tottered, the western countries entered the fray to rescue the system which would leave the Whites in control of the levers of power.
At the Lancaster House conference to discuss the independence of Rhodesia, the resulting agreement seemed to ignore the rights of the black majority. No land reform could be undertaken for ten years and the minority Whites owned most of the land. A fund was established, supported by the western countries, to compensate the white farmers who might have lost their land between 1980 and 1990. The trouble was the Fund never became a reality and the desire for land sharpened in the post-independence period; a hunger for land, which was the initial source of conflict between Blacks and Whites.
The importance of this question to the countries of Southern Africa is dramatized by the fact that the administration of President Ramaphosa of South Africa is being challenged by this salient issue. When Mugabe yielded the clamant demands of his supporters and seized land, the resulting chaos caused him to be painted as a monster. But what do we find decades later? In a study undertaken by Ian Scoones of the UK Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University in 2010 on the land question, came to this conclusion: “What we have observed on the ground does not represent the political and media stereotypes of abject failure…”
We believe in the Ten Commandments and therefore have some difficulty justifying what Mugabe and his government did to the Ndebele in Matabeleland in the eighties. The killing there has been justifiably condemned. But in reaching a conclusion on this matter the context and the circumstances must be understood. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Nkomo’s ZAPU were involved in an internecine contest for power. They were backed by China and the Soviet Union respectively. The latter governments were involved in a known ideological war and were prepared to do anything to ensure that their ward emerged triumphant. There is a lot here which is unknown and is best left to the judgement of God and History.
Mugabe is gone. But let us remember that he made great personal sacrifices to struggle for the independence of his country and in the process extended the geography of freedom on the African continent. Too many writers tend to forget that Zimbabwe at moments seemed to be doing well and seemed to be on its way to be an economic model for a troubled continent. But then, in the words of that great historian Suetonius, “nature turned disruptive.”’