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Mthulisi Mathuthu


Mthulisi Mathuthu

Mathuthu is a Zimbabwean journalist. He started his career as a political and arts writer at the Zimbabwe Mirror before moving to the Zimbabwe Independent. In 2001 he was a nominated for the Konrad Adeneaur Stiftung Southern African Feature Journalist of the Year. From 2003 he worked for the Ecumenical Documentation and Information Center in Southern Africa (EDICISA) as head of the communication department until he resettled in the UK in 2007. His articles have appeared in newspapers like The Mail and Guardian and The Drum Magazine of South Africa, newzimbabwe.com and the New Internationalist in the UK.


 A non-liberal History of Zimbabwe  

THERE is something about the determination of the liberal community to unseat Mugabe which reminds one of Lady Macbeth who, towards the end of that Shakespearean tragedy, struggles desperately to wash her hands clean of Duncan’s blood.    

Just as the poor lady – pushed by a sense of guilt over her role in the murder of King Duncan – battled with the bloodstains, the liberals and the Western world are working tirelessly, not just to undo Mugabe but to absolve themselves of responsibility for the tyrant they adored yesterday, but loathe today.    

In her essay The Tragedy of Zimbabwe Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing writes:

Mugabe is now execrated, and rightly, but blame for him began late. Nothing is more astonishing than the silence for so many years of the liberals, the well-wishers – the politically correct. What crimes have been committed in its name – political correctness…

As Lessing says, the silence of liberals on Mugabe over the years was so pronounced that it is tantamount to a crime, which explains the revisionist language in the new narrative of the struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe.

Suffice it to say that Mugabe’s earlier global image as a humane ‘conciliator’ was hardly the work of Zimbabweans themselves but rather a few powerful liberals from within and abroad with an eye to their own personal comfort.

These liberals cashed in on Mugabe’s reconciliatory gesture and blew it out of proportion by equating their own freedom and satisfaction to tranquillity in the rest of Zimbabwe. For as long as they could enjoy casinos in Montclair, play golf and fly ‘copters and planes to Kariba it was all rosy. It didn’t matter what Mugabe was doing to other blacks because he was good to the white folk.

Mugabe must have known that his image as a ‘good African’ was hinged on Whitehall’s patronage and the liberal account of Zimbabwe; and even though he benefited from it, he must have hated that image. To Mugabe being a ‘good African’ in the sight of white folk must have diminished his stature as a liberation war stalwart, drawing him closer to the likes of Kamuzu Banda and Mobutu – people whom, to his mind, would have been pathetic sell-outs that lost both the respect of their people and masters in equal measure. It would also have set him apart from his heroes, Patrice Lumumba and Kwame Nkrumah. (This might explain why, when he chose to rebel, Mugabe went for symbolic targets – the Congo and the land).   

To the ‘well-wishers’ Mugabe was good as long as he guaranteed security for the whites (by quelling, for instance, the 1980s land occupations) and for as long as he denounced Apartheid which, despite their earlier support, the West now wanted dismantled.

After that Mugabe wasn’t of much use to Whitehall because a bigger project had emerged south of the Limpopo with Mandela’s coming to power. The Whitehall plan was that if Mugabe’s reconciliation successfully ensured the continuing prosperity and satisfaction of the whites – it could then be transferred to South Africa, a country which meant much more to the British not just because of their investments there but because of the size of its economy too.

If the prosperity of a few white businesses in Zimbabwe mattered so much to the West one can only understand how much the success of the many more across the Limpopo had to be ensured at all costs.   

It was no coincidence that, when asked in the 2002 BBC Panorama programme why the British government had let Mugabe kill civilians in Matabeleland, former High Commissioner to Zimbabwe (1983-85) Sir Martin Ewans said:

We had very much an eye to what was happening in South Africa at the time with apartheid and we were hopeful that Zimbabwe would be something of a contrast, and South Africans would look at Zimbabwe and say ah yes, it is possible to work as a multiracial society. So I think Matabeleland is a side issue. The real issues were much bigger and more positive and more important.

That achieved, Mugabe could then be discarded. Mandela’s South Africa would earn the goodwill, and with Zimbabwe dwarfed and Mugabe redundant, his ouster would not just be welcome but also a workable idea in the Whitehall scheme of things. After all, he always kept them on tenterhooks, occasionally threatening to withdraw the hand of reconciliation. In 1992 he had sounded the alarm bells with the Land Acquisition Act.

Despite having let them alone, Mugabe always harboured ill-feelings about the white farming community who he once said were so hard-hearted ‘you would think they were Jews’. So in Whitehall’s scheme of things, the sooner he was overshadowed the better.

But before his departure Mugabe had to be thanked (some might say bribed) with a royal British Knighthood for not just having protected the white properties but for having been such a ‘good African’ that even after the lapse of the 10-year constitutional provision barring the seizure of land he had let the white farmers hold on to their land. Granted in 1994, the year Mandela assumed power, the Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, would serve a double purpose – to see Mugabe off with honour and without him grumbling and secondly to put a lid on his earlier crimes in which Whitehall was complicit – having not only provided part of the training for Mugabe’s military but gone on to help discourage press coverage of the atrocities.

It was thought that Mugabe would be so grateful that when he was sidelined he would relent for fear of embarrassing the crown and of having his earlier crimes brandished against him. With a knighthood, Mugabe would live peacefully after office without anybody troubling him about his past. Surely someone with the British imprimatur should be that much harder to drag to The Hague. In that way the past would have been done with and the Whitehall folk would then proceed to their next project, this time overseen not just by a ‘good’ but a saintly African – Mandela.     

Apparently incensed by WhiteHall’s broader plans, Mugabe took the leap to become a bad African. The Congo River became the River Jordan through which a man who was almost slipping into oblivion was baptised and underwent something of a political transfiguration to emerge as the rock upon which the new African revolutionary thought was to be built. To him the applause and praise from some African quarters was confirmation that he was firmly in the footsteps of icons like Lumumba and Nkrumah. Where Nkrumah and Lumumba failed – by losing the loyalty of their generals to American cash – Mugabe’s generals were to have access to all the diamonds, parastatals, game parks and just about every resource available for looting.

It may not be shocking to learn in future that there was once a Project Zimbabwe/ Mugabe whose sole goal was to obliterate by any means necessary the implications, connotations and temptations of Mugabe’s defiance from the African mind:

He must be stopped at whatever cost to prevent him poisoning other “good Africans” – from Botswana’s Ian Khama through Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaoré to Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete.

Irked by Mugabe’s rebellion and, no doubt feeling embarrassed and guilty for what Lessing calls the crime of political correctness and silence on Zimbabwe, the liberal folk have set up many projects to ‘build democracy in Zimbabwe’ and to revise the account of Mugabe into a case of one who started off very well but got worse along the way.

The guilty have stripped Mugabe of his royal honour and the universities of Michigan, Massachusetts and Edinburgh have had to recall their honorary degrees granted to the veteran tyrant before 2000.  Because these honours were granted at the height of obvious crimes against blacks, which were overshadowed by white prosperity and comfort, the language has been changed to allege Mugabe’s ‘transformation’ from benign leader into monster.  

This revisionist approach transcends into scholarship. Professor Terrence  Ranger, who today is at the forefront of many initiatives to reverse Mugabe’s politics was until just before 2000 not as visible in the fight against Mugabe as he is today. In 1995, at a time when Mugabe’s malevolence was already clear even to primary school children, Ranger received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Mugabe as the chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe. A ZTV footage showed the tyrant rising to his feet to cap the grateful don. 

At the time Ranger received his honorary degree, horrific things had just occurred. Members of the state secret services had emptied live ammunition into Patrick Kombayi for opposing Mugabe’s deputy Simon Muzenda in the 1990 elections, Ndabaningi Sithole’s Churu Farm had just been seized by Mugabe, Rashiwe Guzha had just disappeared and Captain Edwin Nleya killed. The then trade union leader Morgan Tsvangirayi had been unlawfully detained and the same was the case with the student leaders. The list was endless.  

It is possible that few of these ‘well-wishers’ knew of the Churu Farm saga or the story of Guzha but know in detail the story of Mugabe’s goons stealing whisky from the Beatrice country club in 2000. Indeed rape as a political tool in Zimbabwe began in the 1980s seizure of the opposition party PF ZPU properties. 

Today Ranger will, I am sure, not hear of an offer for such an honour from Mugabe. But the question will be: what has changed about Mugabe to have so distanced the early ‘well-wishers’ from their friend? His anti-gay stance, intervention in the Congo war and disrupting the American project there, the assault on the whites and the seizure of their properties could be the uncomfortable answers. No doubt Ranger suffered for Zimbabwe’s independence but why did he wait until the end of the 1990’s to act, decisively, against Mugabe’s tyranny?   

To the liberals the pillaging of the Beatrice and Mutorashanga country clubs mean much more than the fates of Nleya, Guzha and Tsvangirayi. It is possible that when Mugabe and his retinue are finally arraigned before a court of law their chief sin won’t be the killing of so many black people since independence but the obliteration of white comfort and the setting in motion of a new form of African impunity and defiance outside Western patronage.

Their punishment will be worked and carried out in such manner that would send out a chilling warning to all out there who might be attracted to Mugabe’s apparent impunity. The message will be: Never again shall anybody dehumanise the white folk as Mugabe did - parading the farmers in prison garb and in some cases bludgeoning them in the name of land reform.

This line might well explain the acts of the likes of R.W. Johnson whose diligence on matters to do with Zimbabwe in general and Mugabe in particular since 2000 is as breathtaking as it is suspicious.

Writers and journalists are not spared either. A whole range of literature on Zimbabwe is hinged on this false view of Zimbabwe with the titles, style and content all meant to cast Mugabe in a light that absolves the ‘politically correct’. Almost all the books written by Western journalists about Mugabe after 2000 have the assault on the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the commercial farmers as their main thrust. Mugabe’s early crimes are of a lesser value. As much as these books dissect and attempt to contextualise Mugabe’s rule and character, they, to a large extent, serve as support to the ‘revisionist account’ of Mugabe.  

A few examples might suffice. The Telegraph diplomatic editor, David Blair’s Degrees in Violence: Robert Mugabe and the struggle for power in Zimbabwe, makes for one.  Much as Blair tries to repudiate the claim that Mugabe was ever a responsible statesman and goes on to tell us that the Mugabe we see today is the ‘real Robert Mugabe’ this hits the reader as a rushed assertion. The writer seems to want to avoid the trap that many of his colleagues have fallen into and to shield himself from the accusation of selective accounting, but he does just that, dragging the reader through the same diet of the assault on the whites and the MDC. The 1980s period is totally overshadowed and yet it is the period whose evidence is more pronounced with the mass graves (not scars) dotted around the western part of the country.  There has not been a single mass grave in Zimbabwe between 2000 and today and yet the comparative overkill on reportage on that country will suggest that an Auschwitz was in progress. 

Heidi Holland’s Dinner with Mugabe: The untold story of a freedom fighter who became a tyrant makes for a spectacular revisionist account. As opposed to fighting for freedom Mugabe sought power by any means necessary. He rode on the freedom train to get power. And to keep that power he has applied methods just as dirty, to this date.

To appreciate that Mugabe has never done ‘freedom’ one merely has to recall what he set himself to do immediately after attaining power:  brutal Stalinist style of power consolidation aimed at cowing opponents and achieving a one-party-state which resulted in the killing of 20,000 civilians in Matabeleland; and yet all these acts didn’t register much in the liberal world because Mugabe avoided disturbing them as a way to win their trust and patronage.

Essentially, Mugabe has been more of a terrorist than a liberator.  Following the assault on opposition leaders in March 2007 Mugabe proudly said ‘We are called Zanu PF. Check our record when provoked.’ This was in line with his earlier threat and instruction to his ruling Zanu PF party goons in 2001: ‘We must strike fear into the heart of the white man – our real enemy – let them tremble’.

Yet another interesting liberal account of Mugabe and Zimbabwe is Christopher Hope’s Brothers Under the skin: Travels in Tyranny which seeks to portray Mugabe as a racist par excellence. Perhaps conscious of the racial aspects of this revisionist account of Mugabe, Hope seeks to escape the accusations by twinning Mugabe with the racist Apartheid architect, Hendrick Verwoerd. And yet it will be difficult to cast Mugabe as a mere racist. Nothing in Mugabe’s life to this date helps Hope’s line.

Instead Mugabe’s tyranny is something of a dragnet sucking in everything and everybody on its way. Whatever he may have uttered against the whites is just as terrifying as any other threat he has issued against any other person. The cataract of venom has been flowing liberally right from start.     Ever an opportunist, Mugabe will stop at nothing to get his way. If it means crushing children or pregnant women, whites, gays, Ndebele or Shona people he will do just that.

Unlike Verwoerd, Mugabe has never espoused an all out racist policy but has played the race card (and tribal card of course) to achieve his broader project – consolidation of power. Verwoerd used his tyranny to enhance his broader racist project. He went so far as to roll out laws crafted in crudely racist language something which Mugabe hasn’t done.

Just how an African tyrant responsible for the death of thousands of black people and nine whites all in the name of sovereignty becomes a racist is difficult to grasp.   

What has been obtaining in Zimbabwe since 2000 is not a systematic breakdown of democracy – because there was never democracy in the first place. Neither is it about racism. It is about a painful curve in the long journey down the bumpy Mugabe road.  It has only become painful to the earlier stewards. The drama in that country is a confirmation of the sad neglect of an opportunity to nurture democracy in a promising country, thanks to hypocrisy and gullibility on the part of the Zimbabwean electorate, dishonesty on the part of the British and international community and dishonesty on the part of the white farming community. 

Sadly, however, reclaiming the Zimbabwe narrative for ourselves will be a difficult task. A whole range of Africans have been sucked into the liberal revisionist line with the likes of Bishops Sentamu and Desmond Tutu lining up to cast Mugabe in this light. Prime minister and MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirayi, is firmly ensconced in this liberal grip as he doesn’t miss the opportunity to wonder at what he has repeatedly termed Mugabe’s ‘transformation’ which he says occurred in the late 1990’s. Even Ali Mazrui’s 1986 BBC Africans documentary series projects Mugabe’s Zimbabwe as one of the countries whose direction is worth emulating, which feeds into the liberal fallacy that Mugabe was once a democrat.

It is responsible for the primates to castigate Mugabe for his obvious crimes, but it is folly on their part to perpetuate the revisionist language which helps the guilty to squirm off the hook.

While Sentamu calls Mugabe the ‘worst racist’ he ever saw, Tutu observed what he terms ‘a change in character’ on Mugabe’s part and that is from being a good leader into a bad one. According to Tutu Mugabe has undergone an ‘aberration’ to become ‘a Frankenstein’ over the years.

For the headline-chasing Sentamu to say Mugabe is a racist on the basis of the horror show from 2000 onwards is to say that the killing of more than 20,000 black people does not count. Ironically, Sentamu serves Mugabe well by casting him as a lesser devil, eliminating from his CV the killings of many other black people before 2000. In the end Mugabe looks like a victim of propaganda and Sentamu like a confused primate! 

It might also help if Tutu understands that there was never any other Mugabe except the one whom he berates today. In the end the Bishop loathes the Mugabe he admires! Mugabe has had the privilege of becoming the only Frankenstein to be accorded the British royal honour. In essence he is Sir Frankenstein. Trying to prove (hopelessly though) how Angel Gabriel (Mugabe) diminished into a devil is like defaming Lucifer because in this case he was never an Angel and never needed to be one. The same might as well apply to former US President Jimmy Carter who lavished Mugabe with praises right in the middle of the 1980s horror show but is now a leading campaigner against the same Mugabe.

Let us hear Lessing once more:

‘For a while I wondered if the word tragedy could be applied here (to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe), greatness brought low, but Mugabe, despite his early reputation was never that, he was always a frightened little man…’.

And yet in trying to reclaim the account from the liberal grip some have fared just as badly as Tutu and Sentamu, only that they are praising their friend Mugabe. African leaders and scholars have lined up to argue that Mugabe is a revolutionary leader par excellence whose only sin in the post-independence era was to redistribute land. To buttress this view they point to the inconsistencies and double standards that many have complained of.  

So glaring have been the inconsistencies of the West in its engagement of developing countries that some Africans will go to shocking levels to defend one another in the face of criticism. Under pressure to disown Mugabe in the face of his retributive politics, the African leaders have not only dug in but defended him. Perhaps the most startling defence of the Zimbabwean ruler came from his friend, the former Mozambican President, Joaquim Chissano in 2001. ‘Mugabe is a master of the rule of law and champions it,’ he said at the height of state terrorism in Zimbabwe.

Just as disappointing has been African journalism. Veteran Ghanaian journalist, Baffour Ankomah, has, since 1999, used his UK-based magazine, the New African to promote Mugabe’s quarrelsome brand of politics and to take aim at the rest of Mugabe’s critics. Over and over he has visited Zimbabwe, fully sponsored by the state, to do damage limitation for Mugabe.

Ankomah deliberately confuses the attack on Mugabe for an attack on Zimbabwe. He waxes lyrically about Zimbabwe’s natural beauty and how wrong it is to demonise Mugabe and yet he doesn’t take time to see the obvious carnage on the ground. As Pablo Neruda would have said, what about the blood in the streets Mr Ankomah? 

This opportunistic but determined PR exercise has been carefully crafted and premised on the hypocrisy of the international community with the sole aim of not just promoting Mugabe as a ‘great African’ but of absolving him from any wrongdoing. How dare the West criticise Mugabe when they are supporting tyrants such as Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Biya of Cameroon, Paul Kagame of Rwanda – who, without doubt, are amongst some of the most dangerous Africans, Ankomah and some African scholars argue.

Mugabe has become the window through which we can see into the western hypocrisy. Clearly Mugabe wants to be known as a victim of imperialism and whenever he has appeared on the world stage he has sought to drive this line home, leading to the cheering by some Africans. Much as neo-colonialism is still a factor in international relations that hardly detracts from the fact that Mugabe is not and should not be an African hero. Considering his record in the face of challenge, it would be an injustice to call him an African hero. It will be an overstatement to say he is a victim. He is getting the opprobrium he long deserved, albeit late.

On launching his campaign to take land from the whites and to cleanse Zimbabwe of what he saw to be agents of imperialism he, symbolically, dubbed the controversial exercise the ‘Third Chimurenga’ meaning the third anti-colonial struggle; and that struck a chord with many pan-African scholars.

The hollowness of his revolution is echoed by the fact that however much he tries to sell it as a pro-people exercise the glaring realty is that the first and foremost victims are the poor black people who have been subjected to unspeakable torture, beatings and murder. The 2005 whirlwind demolition of the black urban folk’s shacks in the name of face-lifting provided evidence that Mugabe is one never to care about the ordinary people.   So was the stripping of the many Zimbabweans of migrant origins’ right to vote in the 2002 election.

His ‘revolution’ is one based mainly on murder, retribution and revenge. Just as Mugabe never sought inclusive freedom but personal power, it was never about land reform; instead he seized land from the whites with the primary aim of inflicting pain, rather than achieve social justice which to his mind is down the scale. To him the white folk had to feel the reverse pain of loss and to know that they too can bleed.

The beneficiaries of the so-called land reform are the cronies and not the people in whose name the exercise is carried out. Rather than being erected on reason the exercise is driven by vengeance and rather than inspire pride and confidence it spawns hatred, fear and destruction. The effects cut across the whole social fabric, which explains why previous examples of African prosperity such as the 1980 reconciliation and education policies came crumbling down without any qualms in order that the master be felt and feared. Rather than being a revolution, his is a socio-political Chernobyl. Thanks to earlier Western indifference and patronage, the carnage has spread across the globe with so many Zimbabweans in exile doing menial jobs.

Whenever his supporters have sought to sell Mugabe as a hero who has served his people well the tendency has been to praise him for the pain he inflicted on the white farmers and hardly for the good he is supposed to have done for the people. A question one might as well pose is: How does one become a hero on the basis of an evil act committed against other races and not on the basis of what he has done or provided for his own people?

Some commentators go so far as to say Mugabe is a hero of a global stature and is falsely accused of conducting a murderous project. Stephen Gowas’s Looking for Evil in all the Wrong Places is a classic example of scholarship raising genuine questions such as why other tyrants like Melese and Mubarak are showered with awards and money when they are conducting their own human rights horror shows but for the wrong or sinister ends. What this obtuse scholarship fails to appreciate is that Mugabe is himself a Melese or a Mubarak. It is not that he is better. Just as Mubarak is spared the opprobrium he deserves, Mugabe was let off the hook for too long. The fact that Gowas doesn’t mention the 1980s pogrom is because he is either ignorant of it or has never come to appreciate the scale of its horror simply because it was underreported. If he knows about it why does he not mention it?

Gowas is so diligent at unearthing the dirt in the case of the rest of the dictators but goes on to absolve one of their number – Mugabe. This lays him open to the charge that his selective accounting is just as bad as what he accuses his targets of doing. The tendency amongst Gowas think-alikes has been to say that just because Mugabe’s terror pales in comparison with the rest of the western client dictators who have never held elections then the Zimbabwean leader is wrongfully accused.

They say just because Mugabe has allowed some newspapers like the Zimbabwe Independent and the Standard to operate and also let the opposition MDC party to operate shows that Mugabe is tolerant. Again this is obtuse because it ignores the fact that Mugabe’s tyranny is unique in that it is sustained by democratic institutions. It might not be as brazen as Kamuzu Banda’s totalitarian project but on scrutiny one will see that this tolerance is nothing but a façade. Bench packing and a total hold on the public press to an extent that Mugabe has never been criticised at all, not even once, in the public media are commonplace.

Writing in the American Spectator of April 16 2008 George H. Wittman said:

‘In the end, Robert Mugabe has proved that democracy itself does not prevent totalitarianism. Zimbabwe has had a fully functioning representative government for many years now. This process has been exploited by a clever autocrat assisted by willing party faithful and a jackbooted security service.

Even the Congo's deadly dictator Mobutu in the 1970s was periodically "voted" into office, as have been other African leaders via so-called democratic processes. It's not the name of the process that ensures equality but the character of the people controlling the process itself. American municipal machine politics has confirmed that many times. Eventually the people take back their government, and the hope is that time may be arriving for Zimbabwe’.

As Mugabe’s candidature for the top African honours effectively collapses of its own accord the ‘well-wishers’ and the liberals are, like the poor Lady Macbeth, battling madly, trying to wash themselves spotlessly clean. One can almost hear them: ‘Out, damned spot!’ And yet not even the waters of the Jordan and the perfumes of Arabia will suffice.

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