Reviewed by Elaine Windrich (Stanford University)
Published on H-SAfrica (May, 2003)
Mugabe for the Masses
Mugabe for the Masses
Despite its title, this book is not a biography in the generally accepted sense of the term. It does not, by definition, cover a person's life or the history of an individual life. Instead, it deals with a specific period in the life of Robert Mugabe, which consists of his years in power, first as prime minister and then as president of Zimbabwe between 1980 and 2002. However, the author rules out any looking backwards for clues to his subject's behavior when he writes that, "I am not going to trace Mugabe back to the liberation days, when his rise to the leadership was crafted by deceits and treacheries. While many would see a pattern repeated from those days," Chan's view is that "running a state is very different from clawing a path in an exile movement." Nor is he concerned with the preceding years (i.e., the first half of Mugabe's life), ruling out "a casual armchair psychological portrait" because "no one has the clinical evidence" for such a portrait and "there are precious few coherent accounts of his private life" (p. xi). But what these few are, Chan does not say, neither in the "Notes on Preface" (comprising three books by Chan on other subjects) nor in the "Bibliographic Essay," which does not include any of the books on Mugabe, such as the biographies by David Smith et al, Martin Meredith, and David Blair.
It is also somewhat surprising to find that this book, although written by a professor at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, is not "a purely academic text." Rather, "it seeks to present an argument [that Mugabe has been bad for Zimbabwe] but not to do so in a dry manner." Hence, the book is "peppered with anecdotes" and "not too many tallish tales." As he explains his purpose, in a rather convoluted non sequitur, "I have tried to write in such a manner that non-specialist readers will find much of interest and illumination; because, frankly, why should one return to a country year after year if that country were not much loved?" (p. xii). Why indeed?
Chan's book is divided into three chronologically ordered parts, and deals, respectively, with the 1980s, the 1990s, and the crisis period of 1998 to 2002. Often the chronology is so strictly adhered to that the book reads like a diary transposed years later, as "in the remainder of 1992" sequence dealing with unrelated events of that year (pp. 78-79).
It may be just as well that a chronology has been imposed because most of the chapter titles do not reveal the contents. What, for example, should the reader expect from "As It Was in the Beginning" (chapter 1) when Mugabe's "beginning" has been excluded from the book? In fact, it was the author's "beginning," since the chapter deals with the Commonwealth Meeting in Lusaka in 1979 (at which he was a Secretariat official) and includes the detente diplomacy leading up to it and the independence elections following it. Nevertheless, the "beginning" chapter opens with a scene in the autumn of 2001 in which farmers are awaiting the rains and Mugabe is reinventing his "socialist rhetoric." Also questionable are some of the identities attached by the author, such as attributing Mugabe's release from detention to Zambian President Kaunda instead of Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith and referring to Herbert Chitepo instead of Ndabaningi Sithole as "Mugabe's predecessor" as leader of ZANU (pp. 5, l8).
Probably because of Chan's own background and research, considerable attention is given to Commonwealth conferences and the diplomacy of conflict resolution during this period. Under the heading "Brilliance and Opportunism's Brief Then Fading Moment" (part 2), he describes Mugabe's two triumphs on the international stage: presiding over the Commonwealth Meeting in 1991, at which, ironically, the Harare Declaration on Human Rights was adopted; and initiating the talks with the RENAMO rebels in Mozambique which culminated (after twelve sessions in Rome) in a peace agreement with the FRELIMO government, ending a decade of conflict and South African destabilization of the region. With the "Roman Triumph" of 1992, Chan writes, Mugabe had become as he was in the new Zimbabwe in 1980, "the great man of reconciliation" (p. 88).
Amongst these triumphs, however, were the seeds of disaster, some of it personal but most of it political. On the personal side, the author makes much of the death of Mugabe's Ghanaian wife, Sally, in 1992 and his remarriage to his young secretary, Grace. But most of this is derived from anecdotal evidence that has not been checked for consistency or reliability. Why else would he say, in the chapter on Sally's death, "they apparently never had children" and "scandalous Rhodesian political gossip during the war spoke, graphically, of his inability" (p. 70); and later, "their first and only child died of cerebral malaria in 1966" and "illness had rendered her infertile" (p. 99). But so had separation, with Mugabe in prison for more than a decade. While much has been made of the differences between Mugabe's two wives--caricatured as the sensible Sally and the shop-a-holic Grace--how they affected his political life remains a matter of speculation, although Mugabe's successes both at home and abroad did occur during his first marriage, his failures during his second.
Part 3 ("The Old Man's Ruthless Stand") deals with the crisis years 1998-2002. All three chapters are called "Mugabe's Path of Discomforts," which include "Disease, War and the Constitution" (chapter 8), "Land and Persecution" (chapter 9), and "Ghosts and Spectres" (chapter 10). While chapter 8 includes some insightful comments on Mugabe's political behavior, it opens with the inexplicable heading "The New [sic] Dramatis Personnae." Under this heading is a list of five persons and two newspapers, all of which have appeared earlier in the book and one of whom, Mugabe, is the subject of the book. His identification, at sixth place in the list, reads as follows: "President, embattled, bitter, ruthless; not someone who should be demonised, but increasingly haunted by the ngozi, spirits or demons of the past" (p. 131).
Among Mugabe's "Discomforts" which follow, only one, "War," has been resolved, with the withdrawal of the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) from the Congo (which is not "Africa's largest country") (p. 135). Although Mugabe's intervention was meant to enhance his image on the world stage and bring untold plunder to his generals, ministers, and business cronies, the cost of $l million per day over the four years of occupation was a major cause of the collapse of the economy. As for "Disease," this is a "Discomfort" which can only get worse, because the AIDS epidemic, from which more than 2,000 die each week (not "each year," p. 135) has been exacerbated by the widespread starvation caused by drought, poverty, and government confiscation of productive farmland. Nor has there been any solution to the constitutional impasse which followed the rejection in a referendum in February 2000 of a ZANU-PF crafted constitution increasing Mugabe's already formidable powers, including the power to confiscate farmland.
Mugabe's greatest "Discomfort," however, has been the land question because this has been inextricably bound up with the "Persecution" of his first credible political opposition in twenty years--the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by former trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai. For Mugabe, as Chan says, land has been "a long-term political conviction" and an international "bargaining ploy" to solicit donor, especially British, financial support (p. 133). But unleashing the disgruntled "war vets," the Youth Brigades, and the ZNA to occupy most of the white-owned commercial farms, which began immediately after the referendum defeat, also meant having loyalist troops on the ground to intimidate, beat, torture, and even kill tens of thousands of MDC supporters. Even so, the MDC still managed to win nearly half of the elected seats in June 2000 and would have won the presidency in 2002 had it not been for the massive fraud at every stage of the electoral process. As Chan concludes, "if before it had been possible to speak both well and ill of Mugabe, after the 2000 election it was possible to speak only overwhelmingly ill of him. Complexly bad--not mad--but complexly bad" (p. 161). And this conclusion is repeated after the 2002 election on the very last page of the book, followed by the reflection that Mugabe has "missed his chance to enter history without shame" (p. 215).
So, what should an Africanist or an African historian make of this book? Some might regret the loss of the subject's first fifty years. Others might lament the neglect of essential parts of the Mugabe story, such as his early achievements in domestic reform, especially education and health, as well as his dismal failure to stamp out the corruption that eventually took over the entire government, sabotaged the economy, and rendered land reform a farce. And yet others might object to the irrelevant inserts which appear throughout the book. The "Prologue," for example, is about the author's visit to the Italian Bakery Cafe on a Saturday night in the New Millenium and the "Interlude" consists of his visit to the Book Cafe during the 2002 election. Another "Interlude," headed "The Intellectual Debates in Zimbabwe," is instead "a brief intellectual history and sociology of publishing in Africa" (p. 121).
Finally, there are the "Ghosts and Spectres" allegedly haunting Mugabe. Although Chan admits that to take this subject seriously in a book on Mugabe's political history might seem to inject "the gratuitously esoteric," he nevertheless attributes at least some of Mugabe's "Discomforts" to his failure to undergo "spiritual cleansing." In his case, it would require apologizing for his role in the atrocities in Matabeleland in the 1980s (which claimed up to 20,000 lives) and the alleged assassination of ZANU leaders Josiah Tongogara and Herbert Chitepo. But what Chan does not relate is the origin of the story of Tongogara's ghost at Mugabe's table, which first appeared in London's Sunday Times (August 12, 2001) and was reprinted in Zimbabwe's Sunday Standard, and how the editor, the late Mark Chavunduka (having been previously tortured by the military police), was charged with criminal defamation. And so much for unattributed ghost stories.
. David Smith and Colin Simpson, with Ian Davies, Mugabe (London: Sphere Books, 1981); Martin Meredith, Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe (New York: Public Affairs, 2002); and David Blair, Degrees in Violence: Robert Mugabe and the Struggle for Power in Zimbabwe (London and New York: Continuum, 2002).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-safrica.
Elaine Windrich. Review of Chan, Stephen, Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence.
H-SAfrica, H-Net Reviews.
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