A Premonition of Overwhelming Evil
I first met him in the 1990s, in a dusty bit of veld a little to the north of the farm.
The dry heat was palpable as I turned off the tar road onto a rutted dirt track leading to a run-down butchery, hoping to buy a cold bottle of Coke. Having found one, I bumped along sipping it, asking the people I passed where the rally was to be held.
I soon found the place. An old army tent had been erected for the lesser dignitaries. A little to the right of it was a platform with Dralon-covered chairs and with some more canvas over it. The ordinary people stood or sat in a large rough semicircle beneath the burning sky.
Apart from people from the nearby villages, numbers had been swelled with bussed-in school children in their white shirts and various coloured shorts and skirts. They were chattering away, their smiles flashing in the sunlight against their black skins.
I had been told by my boss, the president of the Commercial Farmers’ Union (CFU), to go to the event. It came with the job, attending political rallies. I knew what to expect by now: dusty, hot, thirsty days, mostly of waiting for enough people to turn up for it to be worthwhile for the politicians to address them. When the minister, or whoever the speaker was, finally arrived — invariably many hours late — it was always with a fresh flourish of authority, slogan chanting, and fist raising.
He arrived as if from nowhere. Suddenly he was right there, in the centre of a large group of security people and important dignitaries. There was a fantastic energy about him. He was walking so quickly. His face was animated and he was talking and gesticulating and moving on all at the same time. He acted like a man in his mid-fifties, not his mid-seventies. He was almost like a man possessed.
I remembered trying to fight a fire on the farm once when I was caught in the path of a dust devil. The fire had already burned through where I was standing and the ground was black and full of soot where the grass had been. As the dust devil hit, the whole world went black and I was suddenly engulfed in a blinding, swirling, dark confusion of choking debris, which settled as suddenly as it had arrived.
As Robert Mugabe moved unpredictably in different directions, the people around him moved too, just like the trees and leaves and other objects caught up in the path of a dust devil, leaning over, flying up, twirling around, and falling back down again. He was the centre. Whatever he did affected everything and everyone.
I had never seen him close up before. I was struck by how small he was and yet what tremendous energy emanated from that tiny frame. The little Hitler moustache and the elegantly tailored suit added to the aura of authority that surrounded him, to the confusion of all those around.
In the heat haze and the dust I could imagine bullets cracking as he spoke from the podium, his voice snapping and whispering, rising and falling, breaking from English to Shona and then back again. His fist always seemed to be upraised, as though anger had completely mastered him and even the veld was his enemy. I wondered whether the trees and golden swaying grasses all around recognized in what he was saying the haunting echo of his promise, years ago, at a different rally in the 1970s, when he proclaimed that bullets and the power of the gun barrel were the way forward for Zimbabwe. "We came to power through the barrel of a gun and that’s how we intend to keep it."
We were a small group of whites there in the army tent. Suddenly, in the middle of it all, I was asked to make a speech about the help that the CFU was giving to black farmers. I don’t know why we were asked, or, least of all, why I was asked. I was the youngest and the least senior of the white men present. I’d never made a speech in front of thousands of people before, and never in front of a president.
I was thrust forwards to the podium, not really knowing what I was going to say. I had to think quickly.
"Your Excellency," I began. "I'm sure that in the evening you and your wife, Comrade Grace, like to sit down and listen to the piano being played by a master musician. I’m sure you love the beauty of the notes as they harmonize together into a delightful tune." I went on speaking slowly and clearly into the microphone so that all the people could hear — and so that I had time to think.
"Your Excellency, on the piano there are black keys and there are white ones too. The pianist can’t play the harmony if he just uses the black keys and he can’t play the harmony if he just uses the white ones. The harmony happens when both the black and the white keys are played skilfully together. In Zimbabwe," I said, "we have black people and white people and we each have our role to play. We can make harmony together; or we can choose not to. The choice is ours. But disharmony will not be good for our nation, just as disharmony on the piano is not good for our ears."
There was a huge round of spontaneous applause from the thousands of people present. They were all black apart from the handful of white farmers who were with me.
I stopped speaking, stepped away from the microphone and walked instinctively toward Mugabe. He was sitting above me on the dais, about 1.5 metres from the ground. I approached him from his left and held my hand up to him. He looked ahead, away from me, toward the crowds who were clapping and cheering and ululating. But he was looking straight past them, toward the past. Toward the bullets. There was a pent-up storm of anger in his face, like a menacing black cloud hovering above me. I could feel hatred tearing him apart from the inside. His hand came down mechanically and I took it. The instant I touched it I knew it was unlike any hand I’d ever touched before. It was cold, despite the heat of the day, and it had a clammy softness to it. It also felt lifeless, as though the body that it came from was dead. I looked at his face and into his eyes but he couldn’t look at me. It was as though I had shaken hands with a reptile and not a warm- blooded human being.
I will carry the feeling of that touch to my grave. I can’t forget it. I had a premonition of overwhelming evil.
This excerpt from Ben Freeth's book Mugabe and the White African appears with the permission of Lion Hudson. Distributed in the U.S. by Trafalgar Square Publishing from IPG.