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Choosing the Whip
Heidi Holland explores the complex psychology of Robert Mugabe.
7 May 2008

Dinner with Mugabe: The Man Behind the Monster, by Heidi Holland (Penguin Global, 280 pp., $30)

When Heidi Holland welcomed Robert Mugabe to her home over 30 years ago, she “had never had a black man to dinner before.” Such was not an uncommon state of affairs among whites living in what was then Rhodesia, a rebel British colony—the “Jewel of Africa”—that had declared independence from the British Commonwealth rather than accept majority rule. Meeting with Mugabe, an exiled guerrilla leader fighting the minority white regime, could have meant a long jail sentence for Holland if the authorities had learned of it. Indeed, Holland, who today runs a Johannesburg guesthouse popular among journalists visiting the region (myself included), earned a strong reprimand from the Rhodesian government merely for putting Mugabe’s face on the cover of a magazine she edited: printing images or quoting statements of Mugabe was illegal.

The Mugabe to whom Holland introduces us is an exceedingly polite, reserved, and shy man—a far cry from the monster who would one day, as dictator of Zimbabwe, starve his people to death, thunder about British “gay gangsters,” and order that his portrait hang from every observable public space. The afternoon after Holland hosted him for that furtive dinner, Mugabe called her from neighboring Mozambique, thanked her for the meal, and asked about her baby. In fact, Mugabe once won praise as the future of African political leadership. He preceded Nelson Mandela as the African racial reconciliator par excellence and surprised many of Zimbabwe’s whites—who were expecting to be driven out of the country like Asians in Idi Amin’s Uganda—when he pleaded with them to stay in the country and help it prosper.

Unlike many dictators’ motives, Mugabe’s are not easily explained by a lust for riches or power. While he has no doubt accumulated vast wealth while running his country into the ground, and while his Harrods-patronizing wife Grace (“I only wear Ferragamo”) is the epitome of the Third World dictatorial shrew, Mugabe has not run a kleptocracy like that of Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, who stashed billions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts. Nor is Mugabe a territorial expansionist, determined to become a Saddam Hussein–style regional hegemon. He is not a racial annihilationist like Adolf Hitler, nor does he fit the profile of most African nationalists, who began their commitment to fighting colonial rule in their youth. He dabbled with the idea of becoming a Catholic priest, only to decide on a career in teaching, the most respected (and accessible) profession at the time for highly intelligent Africans denied most professional opportunities. As one of Mugabe’s former associates tells Holland, “Nowhere in his record prior to becoming the leader of [the political party and guerrilla outfit] Zanu do you see Robert Mugabe driven by political passion or a vision of a better future for Zimbabweans.”

Mugabe’s worldview—which has remained consistent, if untethered to any specific political doctrine—developed in direct response to colonialism and the 11 years that he spent imprisoned under Ian Smith’s white minority regime. Two life-changing incidents occurred during this period: the death of his first son, whose funeral Smith prevented Mugabe from attending; and the struggle of his Ghanaian first wife, Sally, to resist deportation from England, which Mugabe viewed as unjustified, since she was married to a Rhodesian citizen who remained loyal to the Crown and opposed his government’s split with the Commonwealth. Both events wounded Mugabe’s pride and surely fostered pain and resentment.

Although many critics brand him as a prototypical Marxist-Leninist, socialist doctrine has never played a significant role in Mugabe’s rhetoric or policies. His ties to the Chinese communists, formed during the Rhodesian Bush War of the seventies, had less to do with sympathy for the worldwide proletarian struggle than with simple opportunism; the Soviets were supporting rival guerrilla leader Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwean African People’s Union, and Mugabe needed money and guns. Mugabe’s fierce anticolonialism, along with his trademark paranoia, led him to adopt a rash, anti-Western worldview once in office. He still sees conspiracies everywhere and tars any opponent, no matter how authentic, as a tool of Great Britain’s endless machinations against him. Such allegations might have had a shred of credibility when Mugabe was targeting white farmers, some of whom held British passports. They are less convincing when Mugabe is smearing the majority of black Zimbabweans who vote against him in democratic elections.

Drawing on psychology, Holland entertains several theories to explain why Mugabe became a leader notorious worldwide for heartlessness and a cavalier attitude toward reality. One popular explanation, which I heard several people express when I visited Zimbabwe in 2006, is the 1992 death of Sally, who, many Zimbabweans believe, was a positive influence on her husband. Holland destroys this shallow thesis, however, by pointing out that Sally had been involved in her own corruptions, both petty and extravagant. Her death may have made her husband take a turn for the worse, but the notion that she was a benign influence only makes sense if you ignore the series of atrocities and crackdowns that ravaged Mugabe’s Zimbabwe in the 1980s, when Sally was still alive.

Indeed, Holland’s book helps put to rest the conception that Mugabe has only very recently become a loathsome tyrant. Apparent throughout Dinner with Mugabe are the struggle Holland faces as a white, liberal Zimbabwean coming to terms with her subject—a man she (along with many others) once admired—and the lurking suspicion, never entirely conceded, that he was a rotten apple from the start. A thread of equivocation is implicit in the book’s subtitle, “The untold story of a freedom fighter who became a tyrant,” which suggests that Mugabe’s totalitarian impulses date from sometime after he became Zimbabwe’s first prime minister in 1980. Holland nevertheless expresses fear that she “and many other well-intentioned individuals may have helped Robert Mugabe to become the man he is today.”

One of the stranger aspects of Mugabe’s character is his admiration for the British royal family. Mugabe reminisces fondly about how “every member of the Royal Family” has stayed at his presidential compound. He speaks warmly of sitting next to Prince Charles at Pope John Paul II’s funeral, and he seems “on the brink of tears” remembering his interactions with various royals. Mugabe implies that if only Tony Blair’s government hadn’t ended its commitment to his disastrously corrupt land-reform program—which led to the seizures of white-owned farms beginning in 2000—and if only the Queen were in charge of British-Zimbabwean affairs, the relationship between the two countries wouldn’t have become such a mess. That Mugabe could have warm feelings for the royal family confounds his alleged Marxist credentials, of course, yet also indicates a palpable fascination with autocracy and authority, denuded though it may be in the case of the Windsors.

Holland’s book is a stunning journalistic accomplishment, not least because the author managed to get an interview late last year with one of the world’s most reclusive leaders—after 18 months of persistent effort and lobbying some of his closest associates—and lived to tell the tale. In the interviews she also conducts with a host of people close to Mugabe (his brother, niece, priest, and others), she reveals a much more complicated picture than the usual witless caricature of the African Big Man. As the dictator—now entering his 28th year of uninterrupted rule—finds himself in the headlines again for his attempt to steal yet another election, Dinner with Mugabe is a timely examination of one of the world’s cruelest leaders.

At one point Mugabe’s only surviving brother, Donato, reminisces about his studious sibling, who herded cattle as a youth. “He held the book in one hand and the whip in the other,” Donato tells Holland. These objects symbolize the career paths that Robert Mugabe might have taken, and it is to the catastrophic detriment of Zimbabwe’s people that he chose to hold the latter.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic.

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