Zimbabwe: Shadows and Lies

From Liberator to Tyrant: Recollections of Robert Mugabe

FRONTLINE/World series editor Stephen Talbot interviewed Robert Mugabe twice in the late 1970s. In this personal essay, he looks back on that pivotal time, just before independence, when he met "an eloquent, direct and impressive man" who promised to turn Zimbabwe into a model for African democracy. Talbot uncovers how far Mugabe pursued and then utterly betrayed that promise and says, "After all these years, it's still difficult and painful to reconcile my memory of this man with the tyrant he became."

Robert Mugabe and Stephen Talbot's 1979 press card

When I first met and interviewed Robert Mugabe, he was still the exiled leader of an African nationalist movement trying to end white-minority rule in what was then Rhodesia. It was July 1977 at the Kilimanjaro Hotel in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. I was a 28-year-old freelance reporter, he was a 53-year-old "terrorist" or "freedom fighter," depending on your point of view. He had recently spent 10 years in a Rhodesian prison, now he was commander of a guerrilla army. In the United States he was virtually unknown.


“What happened to the Mugabe I knew in the late 1970s still bewilders me. Even if he lacked Mandela's transcendent humanity and compassion, Mugabe could have been an esteemed statesman and a popular president.”
- Stephen Talbot

My first impressions, jotted in a yellowing notebook: "Mugabe: straightforward, eloquent, direct, to the point; ironic, barbed sense of humor. Impressive. Not in the least bit jive or phony, no posturing."

"We are fighting for a democratic state, for self-determination, for an end to exploitation," Mugabe told me. "All countries should help us. There is no reason why the American people should not come to our aid."

Protesters oppose Ian Smith
Anti-Ian Smith
rally in London.
Photo: Pippa Gordon

A look at Zimbabwe's political history, from colonial rule through independence to the present day.

1964 Ian Smith of the Rhodesian Front (RF) becomes prime minister.

1965 Smith declares Rhodesia independent from Britain under white minority rule; the international community imposes economic sanctions.

1970 Rhodesia declares itself a republic; no country recognizes its status. The United States closes its embassy in Salisbury (now Harare).

He was particularly keen on telling me how grateful he was for humanitarian aid from Sweden.

Mugabe spoke confidently, but without arrogance. A formal man, dressed casually in an African print shirt, he conveyed the dignity of a well-educated teacher, his previous profession. When his wife, Sally, who was from Ghana, entered the room, he rose to greet her with obvious warmth.

After all these years, it's still difficult and painful to reconcile my memory of this man with the tyrant he became.

What Went So Horribly Wrong?

Today, Mugabe is one of Africa's longest-reigning dictators, routinely denounced by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch for abusing his people. "A disgrace to Africa," says Wole Soyinka, Nigeria's Nobel Prize-winning author. "A caricature of an African dictator," says Desmond Tutu, South Africa's Nobel laureate. And Pius Ncube, the Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, says he prays for "a popular uprising" to topple Mugabe's regime.

Of all the depressing statistics about Mugabe's broken country, the one that gnaws at me the most is that life expectancy has declined in the last two decades from 62 years to a mere 38 years.

ZANU Sticker
Pro-Zanu Sticker

1972 Guerrilla war against white rule intensifies, with rival nationalist groups Zanu (Zimbabwe African Peoples Union), led by Robert Mugabe, and Zapu (Zimbabwe African National Union), led by Joshua Nkomo, operating out of Zambia and Mozambique.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. When he came to power in 1980, in a landslide election victory after a negotiated settlement of the war, Mugabe was greeted as a national hero, at least by Zimbabwe's black majority. And at first, Mugabe delivered on promises of peace, reconciliation with the white minority, and social development.

Yet even as early as the 1980s, there was an ominous turn of events. Mugabe had formed a coalition "Patriotic Front" government with a rival guerrilla leader, Joshua Nkomo, but it soon fell apart when Mugabe accused Nkomo of plotting a coup against him. Mugabe shocked many of his international supporters by unleashing his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade against Nkomo's minority Ndebele tribe in southern Zimbabwe. Thousands were killed. FRONTLINE was one of the few media outlets in the United States to sound the alarm, in the 1983 documentary Crisis in Zimbabwe, reported by Charlie Cobb, an African American journalist, who, like me, was dismayed to see Mugabe acting as brutally and repressively as the white-minority rulers he had replaced.

Should I have seen signs of what was coming? Had Mugabe deceived me?

Robert Mugabe
Mugabe in 1979 outside Zanu
headquarters, Mozambique.
Photo: Pippa Gordon

1979 Talks in London lead to a peace agreement between the Patriotic Front (PF), made up of Zapu and Zanu, and the Rhodesian government. The new constitution guarantees minority rights.

The Cauldron of the Cold War

In that hotel room back in 1977, Mugabe assured me he was doing everything possible to overcome differences between the two guerrilla factions, Zanu (Zimbabwean African National Union) and Nkomo's Zapu (Zimbabwe African People's Union). Mugabe's group was primarily Shona, Zimbabwe's majority ethnic group. Nkomo's base was among the Ndebele.

"If we make this attempt at unity and it fails, we fail the people of Zimbabwe," Mugabe insisted. He outlined in great detail the steps he was taking to try to integrate the Zanu and Zapu armies.

Mugabe had seen what had just happened in Angola in the mid-1970s, where three rival nationalist movements clashed as soon as Portugal ended its colonial rule. Angola's civil war became a Cold War cauldron, with Washington backing one side, Moscow the other and Beijing the third. Cuba sent troops, South Africa invaded. Thirty years later the country is still devastated.

In Zimbabwe, the Soviet Union backed Nkomo and China supported Mugabe, but Mugabe was pragmatic enough to realize that a repeat of Angola would be a disaster. For the time being, and through independence day on April 18, 1980, Mugabe would maintain his tactical alliance with Nkomo. And once in power, even after crushing Nkomo's opposition, Mugabe allowed Nkomo himself, his burly adversary, to remain part of the government as long as he lived.

Outside ZANU Headquarters
Outside Zanu Headquarters in Maputo, Mozambique.
Photo: Pippa Gordon

1980The Zanu Party wins the majority of seats in a national election. Britain recognizes the country’s independence, and Rhodesia officially becomes Zimbabwe. Mugabe takes office as prime minister.

1982 Mugabe accuses Nkomo of plotting a coup and removes him from his cabinet. The national army and guerrilla forces align with the Zapu Party, and a five-year battle between the former allies ensues.

1983 Mugabe unleashes his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, and the Gukurahundi, or Matabeleland genocide, begins. He brutally crushes the rebellion. Thousands of civilians are tortured and killed by government forces.

So the authoritarian impulse was probably there in Mugabe from the beginning, but I chose to see his pragmatism and his political skill.

After that first meeting with Mugabe in 1977, I interviewed him again in 1979 at an Organization of African Unity conference in Liberia (just before Liberia descended into civil war) and filmed him later that summer at his exile headquarters in Maputo, Mozambique. Looking at that old interview just now, I am immediately struck by Mugabe's apparent sincerity, his baritone voice, his reassuring manner.

At the time, the fighting across the border in Rhodesia was fierce. Ian Smith's white-minority regime was aided by a crude assortment of white mercenaries from around the world, and there was always the threat that South Africa's apartheid leaders might intervene to save their ally to the north. But Mugabe seemed cool and calm, even in the midst of his rundown guerrilla compound.

Terrorist or Freedom Fighter

The offices of Mugabe's Zanu Party were located in a funky high-rise building. Mozambique had only recently emerged from its own war of independence against Portuguese colonial rule and was a poor, struggling -- if momentarily euphoric -- country. The offices were spartan, the elevator not functioning. We lugged our camera equipment up many flights of stairs to the roof of the building, where we interviewed Mugabe against the city skyline. He joked that having to climb the stairs kept his staff in shape.

"In the West, many consider you a terrorist," I began.

Joshua Nkomo
Joshua Nkomo at an African Unity conference
in Liberia in 1979. Photo: Pippa Gordon

1987Mugabe and Nkomo merge their parties in an effort to achieve ethnic unity, and form Zanu-PF, ending the violence in southern Zimbabwe.  

1987 Mugabe amends the constitution and replaces the post of prime minister with executive president. He is sworn in as executive president and has sweeping powers.

"We are fighting an unjust system," he replied. "We are not fighting the whites as whites. ... We are not terrorists. ... We are fighters for democracy."

Political rhetoric, of course. Even in my 20s and sympathetic to his cause, I could recognize that. But it also meshed with my own experience. Back home, I had become friends with a number of Zimbabwean students studying in the States who were members of Mugabe's Zanu. The thing I remember about them most was how nonracist they were. For people engaged in a struggle with Ian Smith's notoriously racist government, they were themselves almost incomprehensibly free of animosity toward whites. Of course, the guerrilla war in Rhodesia was brutal, with atrocities on both sides. But the Zanu people I knew in the United States and those I was meeting in Mozambique defied the Mau Mau image prevalent in much of the West.

The Zimbabwean I knew best, Tirivafi Kangai -- who would later become an ambassador for Mugabe's government -- was a gentle soul, a teddy bear, with an easy laugh. He had a few malapropisms in his otherwise articulate stump speeches that still make me smile whenever I recall them. My favorite: He frequently declared that the people of Zimbabwe would be free, whatever it took, "by hooks or by crooks."

In retrospect, the "crooks" part seems eerily prescient.

Today, Mugabe and his cronies live in luxury behind high walls, having looted their country and impoverished their people. The man I once saw as modest, even ascetic, now acts like the late Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator in his leopard-skin pillbox hat who plundered Zaire and lived in splendid isolation on a vast compound in his pillaged, ruined nation.

Mugabe inspects Zimbabwean army
Mugabe inspects Zimbabwean army [Photo AP]

1998 An economic crisis provokes riots. Support grows for the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions, headed by Morgan Tsvangirai.

1999 Zimbabwe’s military involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s civil war becomes increasingly unpopular. Tsvangirai heads a new opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change ( MDC ).

That's not the vision of Zimbabwe that Mugabe presented to me in 1979. Asked what kind of society he hoped to lead, Mugabe replied, "A truly democratic society devoid of racism ... a society where there is equality, where there are civil liberties. ... And as far as our own program is concerned, we are for a socialist society, you see."

In those days, nearly every African leader or would-be leader professed to be a socialist of some sort -- whether it was Julius Nyerere's "African socialism" in Tanzania or Nelson Mandela's left-wing ANC, which included the South African Communist Party. Raised as a Catholic and educated in part by Jesuits, Mugabe became a Marxist while studying in Ghana during the era of President Kwame Nkrumah, the grand old man of African nationalism. Mugabe's Marxism was an ideology that hardened during his 10-year prison term in Rhodesia and was influenced by his Maoist allies in China.

An All-Consuming Power

I should have paid closer attention to Mugabe's definition of socialism as a "socio-economic system ... which is planned and operated by those who are chosen by the people." For Mugabe, the goal became a one-party state, not a European-style social democracy. And his own power -- not the welfare of his people -- became his obsession.

I never had an opportunity to discuss all this with my friend Tirivafi. But if he was disgusted by his president's power grabs and personal aggrandizement, he never said so publicly. Tirivafi spent most of his career abroad, as a diplomat in India, Africa and Europe. He died of natural causes at an early age.

Mugabe's 26 years in power have turned out to be a textbook example of Lord Acton's famous dictum, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

No Maize
Even maize is scarce

2000 Mugabe announces at a rally that all white-owned farms can be seized and given to landless blacks.

2000 In parliamentary elections, the opposition MDC Party stuns the country by winning nearly as many seats as Zanu‑PF.

2001 Despite court rulings that land seizures are illegal, the government announces it plans to seize 5,000 white-owned farms. The finance minister announces economic crisis and serious food shortages, yet farmers are banned from cultivating fields. Most Western donors have cut aid because of the land seizure program.

In the first election after independence, Mugabe's Zanu Party won control of 57 out of 80 seats in parliament, easily overwhelming their nominal ally, Zapu. A pattern soon developed: When Mugabe felt firmly in control, he was relatively benign, running Zimbabwe like a ward boss in old Chicago, handing out patronage to his friends. But whenever Mugabe felt that his power was threatened -- by Nkomo, by white farmers, by the Movement for Democratic Change -- he lashed out. Usually his brutal crackdowns were timed to upcoming elections he thought he might lose.

Mugabe's confiscation of white-owned farms in the last six years has been highly political. Zimbabwe inherited an inequitable agricultural system from colonial Rhodesia. A quarter of a million whites owned most of the fertile, productive farm land in a nation of what was then 7 million blacks. The farms were efficient and bountiful, producing tobacco as a cash crop and more than enough corn to feed the country and to export. African demand for land reform was strong, but Mugabe did not want to jeopardize the economy, and despite some militant talk, he did almost nothing to redistribute land until he was challenged in the polls.

Suddenly Mugabe played the race card. He urged "war veterans" -- unemployed, demobilized guerrilla soldiers -- to occupy white farms. Ownership of many farms was simply transferred to Mugabe's cronies, who have proved to be either incapable of farming or totally disinterested in it. Most whites have left the country, sometimes invited to start over in neighboring Zambia or Mozambique. Thousands of black farmworkers lost their jobs, and agriculture has collapsed. Malnutrition is now widespread. Eighty percent of Zimbabweans are unemployed.

The whole country, now some 12 million people, has closed in upon itself, cut off from the rest of the world, trapped in its own private torment.

Empty shelves
Empty shelves

2002Parliament passes a law requiring all journalists to be licensed by a state-appointed commission.

2002 Tsvangirai, who is challenging Mugabe in the upcoming election, is charged with high treason for allegedly plotting to assassinate Mugabe. Mugabe wins a third term in this highly controversial election.

2002 A state of disaster is declared in Zimbabwe due to food shortages. The government blames drought, but international groups point to farm closures.

Descent into a One-Party State

Mugabe, now 82, has virtually achieved his one-party state. Zanu controls most of the seats in parliament. When Mugabe needs to, as in 2002, he rigs elections. His party, which only needs a 75 percent majority (which it has) to change the constitution, does so on a whim. He has silenced what used to be a robust and free press, jailing and torturing reporters. And he has become increasingly mercurial and brutal. Last year he launched his own version of slum clearance, called Operation Murambatsvina ("Clean the Filth"), evicting some 700,000 people from their homes in Harare and other cities -- mostly desperately poor people who, he feared, might support the opposition or stage food riots.

When condemned by the international community, Mugabe hisses back, claiming he is the target of a Western conspiracy. Paranoia has replaced the openness with which, 30 years ago, he solicited international support for his rebel cause.

All of this has caused me, and others, to wonder what exactly transformed Mugabe from a promising national hero to a tyrant. Is it simply that he has remained in power far too long? Or was there some other trigger?

2003 Government brutality against its own citizens escalates. MDC leader Tsvangirai is arrested twice, again charged with treason. He is eventually cleared of both charges.

Ian Smith, Mugabe's now-elderly enemy, has said he thinks Mugabe is simply "deranged." Mugabe's outbursts against homosexuals seem particularly bizarre, though perhaps this is political theater, aimed at tradition-bound, deeply conservative voters. Some speculate that Mugabe became unhinged after his wife, Sally, died in 1992. He subsequently married his secretary, who is some 40 years younger than he.

Others trying to fathom Mugabe's psyche look back further, to the horrors of the Rhodesian war and the emotional scars such a conflict can leave. There was one moment in particular during Mugabe's years in jail: His only son died and he was not allowed to attend the funeral. An extraordinary man like Nelson Mandela was able to rise above such torment and personal loss and went on to free his people and reconcile his nation. But few countries are fortunate enough to have a Mandela.

The Eclipse of that Early Promise

Long ago, Mugabe seemed to hold something of Mandela's promise. When I last spoke with him, on that rooftop in Maputo, he had come to a crossroads. His guerrilla army had taken the offensive, and he might, conceivably, have shot his way to power, but the toll in lives would have been high and it might have provoked a larger conflict, involving South Africa and perhaps even Britain and the United States. There was an apocalyptic mood back then, with South African apartheid leader P.W. Botha telling the BBC that World War III had already started in southern Africa between the West and the Soviet Union. At that moment, Mugabe had the good sense to accept a British offer to go to London and negotiate an end to the bitter conflict.

Poverty in Zimbabwe
Poverty in Zimbabwe

2005 The United States calls Zimbabwe one of the world’s six “outposts of tyranny.” Zimbabwe rejects the statement.

2005 Mugabe launches Operation Murambatsvina, a “cleanup” program that destroys tens of thousands of shanty dwellings and leaves about 700,000 people homeless.

2005 Zanu‑PF wins an overwhelming majority of seats in the newly created senate. The MDC splits over Tsvangirai’s decision to boycott the election.

The Lancaster House Agreement, which paved the way for majority rule in Zimbabwe, was signed just before Christmas in 1979. There would be no repeat of Angola, no spark for a third world war.

As a result, Mugabe entered office with a reputation for international statesmanship -- a reputation enhanced by his support, at some risk to his own country, for an end to apartheid in neighboring South Africa. The reluctance these days of African leaders to denounce Mugabe's human rights abuses is self-serving -- they don't want to call attention to their own shortcomings -- but it is also partly a legacy of respect for a man who was once a freedom fighter.

I have pondered the enigma of Robert Mugabe countless times -- and questioned my own naïveté in taking him at face value. It's unnerving when you misjudge someone so profoundly.

At the risk of sounding ridiculous, there is one thing that everyone notices but rarely mentions about Mugabe: his mustache. That small, distinctive streak of dark hair just under his nose is Hitleresque. Not a perfect match -- Hitler's was more of a square, Mugabe's is narrower -- but one can't help making the comparison, however unfair and stupid that might be. In fact, many political cartoonists who dislike Mugabe draw on the Hitler comparison. I never asked, but I can't help thinking: Is Mugabe being deliberately provocative? Or does his style of facial hair have no political symbolism whatsoever?

A pile of $50,000 bills
$50,000 bills

2006Inflation is higher than 1,000 percent. The national budget is depleted, government services have crumbled and there are shortages of nearly every basic commodity.

I can still remember my excitement at meeting Mugabe and filing my first radio story about him. This was history -- a man leading one of the last anticolonial struggles in Africa. He seemed to measure up -- a tough, university-educated African leader with British flourishes. When I asked him how he would describe U.S. policy toward Zimbabwe, he deadpanned, "A mixed grill."

What happened to the Mugabe I knew in the late 1970s still bewilders and disturbs me. Even if he lacked Mandela's transcendent humanity and compassion, Mugabe could have been an esteemed statesman and a popular president. Instead he has run his country into the ground, one more tyrant on a long-suffering continent, his people waiting for him to die.

For a different spin on the timeline feature, see the version that charts Zimbabwe’s conservation history: http://www.zimconservation.com/timeline.htm.

Sources: Harper’s Magazine; Prospect magazine; BBC ; CBC ; CIA World Fact Book; United Nations; allAfrica.com; Online NewsHour.

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