Zimbabwe this Week.
What motivates a leader to destroy his countries economy in order to hold onto power? A number of countries have had to face up to this question in the past 30 or so years. The best known example was the red revolution in China. Launched by Mao and using the enthusiasm and commitment of millions of young Chinese, Mao set out to destroy the existing economy and the elite that ran it – whatever their political and ideological persuasion. In the subsequent purge, millions were displaced and many killed or maimed for life. I recall a few years ago seeing the film "From Mao to Mozart" and the one story that remains with me was where a tall, quiet Chinese Professor of Classical music had he hands crushed by young revolutionaries and then was kept in a cupboard for 15 years. His crime – the love of violin and classical music of western origin.
This was followed by the example of Pol Pot in Cambodia – in a massive exercise, the young cadre’s loyal to Pol Pot butchered an entire generation of educated and experienced Cambodians. They emptied hospitals and schools and drove people out of the cities into the rural areas. The reason given at the time was that the cities were corrupt and that ideologically only the rural peasantry were reliable. Cambodia will take a hundred years to recover. In Africa we have numerous examples – Idi Amin in Uganda, the kleptocratic regime of Mabuto in the Congo, Bokassa and several others. Now Mugabe is seemingly prepared to sacrifice everything he has achieved over the past 20 years in order to hold onto power, destroying the economy of Zimbabwe and deliberately driving away key elements of the population which stand in the way of his goals.
The question is why do they do it? One of the most insightful pieces of journalism I have ever read was an article in Time magazine following the disclosure of what Pol Pot was doing to Cambodia. The author traced the intellectual origins of the Khymer revolutionaries and concluded that they truly believed in what they were doing. They rejected the basis on which modern societies are built and managed and attempted to establish an environment in which people would have more simple, subsistence life styles. There was nothing like that in the case of the African despots – they simply wanted power and the opportunity to enrich themselves and their cohorts.
Mugabe is slightly different, he is an intellectual of some considerable capacity, and he is also a committed Marxist and a lifelong Catholic. In his every day life style he is not known for excesses in any way and has been reasonably monogamous in his marital relations even though his present marriage was a product of an affair with a married woman while his previous wife was terminally ill. A fitness fanatic he works out on a regular basis at home and despite his 76 years looks fit and well. The question is why this aberrant behavior?
In 1974 when the South African State President and the President of Zambia launched a reconciliation exercise in southern Africa, the main leaders of the two nationalist parties in Zimbabwe at the time (Zanu and Zapu) were released from prison. A colleague and I decided we would interview the main players one by one and try to assess what they stood for in economic and ideological terms. One of the six leaders we chose was Robert Mugabe. At the time he was young and relatively unknown to the white community. Even the security people of the day did not know that this was the de facto leader of the Zanla army then fighting to overthrow the Rhodesian government. 10 days after our lunch in a top class hotel, Mugabe left the country by walking out over the mountains in the Eastern Highlands into Mozambique where he was greeted as a hero.
For Tom and I this interview was one of the more worrying of the interviews we did at that time – there were few surprises with people like Ndabaningi Sithole and Joshua Nkomo, who were the assumed main players at the time. Mugabe worried us because he was dispassionately committed to a revolution which would see the whites eliminated from the country, the modern, urban economy reduced to marginal importance and the emergence of a simple, subsistence community that would be self sufficient and would not need the outside world. We were familiar with the theories of Marxism, but it would be a year before we saw the Khymer sweep through Cambodia with such devastating effect. At the time a chill went through me as I recalled that conversation with Mugabe 14 months earlier.
When he came home at the end of the war we all wondered what kind of leadership he would provide. Our fears were assuaged when he promised reconciliation and the creation of a state in which we could all find a place in the sun. The first few years were good and then came the period from 1983 to 1987 when he systematically tried to eliminate Ndebele opposition to his rule. In an effort to ensure their self-preservation, the leadership of Zapu eventually caved in and signed the unity accord. An uneasy calm was restored but it was the peace of fear in a prison camp. So long as they did not hinder Mugabe’s grip on power, the Ndebele people and the whites were allowed to participate in the economy and the fiction of reconciliation was maintained on the surface.
But all the while Mugabe did not like the situation he had inherited at independence. He did not control the armed forces – they were loyal to the state, but he wanted personal loyalty. He did not want an outward looking, export led economy but he was forced to accept an economy that was over 50 per cent dependent on foreign trade and which needed that trade and the inflow of resources to maintain its life blood. Because of the circumstances under which he came to power – engineered by the USA and Britain, Mugabe was essentially a prisoner of circumstance in the first decade of Zimbabwe’s independence. He also lost ground in Zanu itself as the conservative, traditional forces in the country rapidly took control at the expense of the young revolutionaries who had been at the forefront of the armed struggle. However the campaign against Zapu and the Ndebele in the early 80’s showed us a side of his character that we were less familiar with at the time. This was a ruthless streak that would not shirk at ignoring world opinion in order to obtain what he regarded as being an essential goal.
Somewhere along the way he also lost his commitment to honesty in financial matters as far as his own personal affairs were concerned and those of his key henchmen. Corruption became more and more widespread and is now endemic in all activities of government. It’s a small step from this to ignoring the rule of law and decisions by the courts – and then wholesale abuse of basic human rights. So long as he felt secure he did not bother with the remnants of the white minority who had remained in the country. They remained stubbornly influential in economic terms and against all the odds began to slowly expand their population again. This all changed when the labor movement – long a thorn in his side, committed itself to forming a political party and challenging the hold of Zanu on government. When this became a threat, the real Mugabe stood up and took out his original ideas for the state and sharpened up his ruthless streak.
So here we are, fighting for our country and our lives against a ruthless African dictator who is prepared to sacrifice the economy of his country. Not just for the pursuit of personal power, but also because this is where his heart has been since he was in prison in the 60’s and early 70’s. He never was fully committed to reconciliation with either the Ndebele or the white African population. What we have to keep in mind is that time and history are on our side – he cannot win this struggle. We must also realize that it is possible that, just as in China where the very struggle to overcome the internal conflicts of the red revolution, laid the foundations for Chinese economic growth and recovery, so may it be in Zimbabwe. Largely in reaction to Mugabe’s excesses, we have in the MDC a new generation of political leadership genuinely committed to a social market economy and democracy. A movement in which we as minorities (Ndebele or white African) are fully accepted as ordinary Zimbabweans. Perhaps also we are at last laying the foundations for a period of economic growth that will reveal the potential of this great little country. It’s a vision worth working and waiting for.
7th December 2000.
Please note that this note is personal and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Movement for Democratic Change.