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Robert Mugabe: A Jacana Pocket Biography, a Review

03 May 2019 at 21:04hrs | Views
Book Review: Onslow, Sue & Plaut, Martin. 2018. Robert Mugabe: A Jacana Pocket Biography. Johannesburg: Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd. 208 pages. ISBN: 978-1-4314-2668-3. US$15.

The dramatic fall of Robert Mugabe will long be regarded as a pivotal moment in Zimbabwe's history, perhaps equal to 18 April, 1980, our Independence Day. There are remarkably few biographies about the complex man who ruled Zimbabwe for 37 years, while the modern histories of the country often choose to follow the enticing narrative of "a good man corrupted by absolute power." This is not an approach I have ever favoured when trying to analyse Robert Mugabe, the man, the leader, the autocrat and the contradiction. There is more to his life than simply power.

Onslow and Plaut have produced a brief biography that is simultaneously well-written and frustratingly simplistic. My impression of their book is that it was already in preparation before the coup, and was rushed to completion with an eye to perhaps cashing in on the immense global interest surrounding the extraordinary events of November 2017. Taking the approach that "Robert Mugabe's personal history is woven through that of his country" (p.18), the authors alternate between describing events in Mugabe's career, with the generally recognised significant political and economic upheavals of the mid-colonial period. The opening chapter usefully highlights Mugabe's youthful, intellectual coldness and general lack of empathy with a ruthless intolerance for dissent.

A narrative that is becoming increasingly common after Mugabe's removal from office is that his role in Zimbabwe's liberation struggle was initiated by accident and then owed more to the failings of his opponents rather than any particular set of skills in his possession. Onslow and Plaut do not overtly subscribe to this mantra, although they wryly note that Mugabe's "appointment as political leader of ZANU in August 1974 was the product of prison politics and profound disillusionment with the party leadership… But no one outside Que Que prison knew him" (p.52). I feel that there is an argument to be made for the idea that Mugabe's rise to power until this point is thus often due to other's perception of his abilities rather than his innate desires and actions.

Something the book brings out in good fashion is the brutal rivalry between Zanu and Zapu in the 1970s in all spheres, as well as the bloody intra-party conflicts. This is an aspect of the liberation struggle that has remained repressed, until quite recently. Robert Mugabe fully comes to power from 1977 when he begins to reorganise Zanu to focus all authority on him which exacerbated the already uneasy relationship with the military leaders, despite Mugabe's repeated insistence that the liberation war would only be won on the battlefield (p.65). It is a fallacy to assume that he was not in control of the party later on in the war. This partially explains his defiant attitude during the fraught constitutional negotiations at Lancaster House in 1979, that laid the groundwork for a peaceful transition of power.

This biography ably reveals the contagion of Zanu under Mugabe, who, post-Independence, encouraged the infiltration of the civil service with party loyalists who were directly administered by party members, thus bypassing the impartial oversight mechanisms inherited from the colonial era. This is most clear in the sections discussing the land question in Zimbabwe, where the authors make the usual cardinal sin of repeating the myths about the extent of white ownership of land in Zimbabwe, followed by an excellent analysis of the bastardisation of the entire process by Mugabe for his own narrow political ends and to also reward loyalists. The map on page 11, showing land apportionment pre-1979 is error strewn, not least because it fails to account for State Land and National Parks, which would significantly reduce the perception of the amount of  agricultural land actually owned by whites at that time.

In discussing South African President Thabo Mbeki's role in propping up Robert Mugabe's regime, the authors of this book, highlights the need for a deeper dive into this aspect of Zimbabwe's recent past. Mbeki must be held liable for fostering much of Zimbabwe's national injury through his ineffectual "soft-diplomacy" approach, which ultimately led to massive death and destruction in the country as those in office refused to let go and used every brutality at their disposal in the pursuit of power. Mugabe's capriciousness in supporting his allies in the country, from sections of the business elite to the rural peasantry and then liberation war veterans and impoverished youths, shines through in several sections of this book. All of the "operations" were perhaps only ever about maintaining control.

Ultimately it would be the party Mugabe re-created in his image that would remove him from office. "ZANU-PF has never formed a homogenous elite, and rival groups fought a bitter campaign in the corridors of power" (p.141) while "for Mugabe party unity consistently trumped principle" (p.142). The network of co-dependency he had spent decades building was undone by the vicious personal politics favoured by the upper echelons, coming to a head in the months before the coup. In a good summary of the events of the military intervention, the authors bring forth the complexities of this turbulent time that, in less than 12 months, has already been reinvented in many ways by the victors. Theirs is certainly a better summary and analysis of events than recent accounts published by journalists. The use of the phrase "democratising coup" (p.164) is perhaps unfortunate given that an open democracy remains a pipe dream for the foreseeable future as the military continue to tighten its grip on all aspects of society in Zimbabwe.

There are a few extraordinary claims in the book where the source of the information is not adequately referenced by the authors. This includes their allegation that Mugabe allowed Libyan-sponsored terrorist training camps on Zimbabwean soil (p.172) as well as the repeated references to so-called "Shona tribal allegiances" influencing state policy (e.g. p.12, p.155). The former is perhaps based on local rumour when Libya was a close ally of Zimbabwe in the 2000s and a vigorous internet search failed to provide context. While the latter is certainly played up by the foreign press and certain local publications with an agenda, to my mind its relevance to modern politics remains to be adequately demonstrated. The map on page 12 is iniquitous in this regard because it plays to such prejudices while ignoring changing voter mores, especially the rural-urban divide, and consistent massive voter intimidation by Zanu.

I did not like this book when I first read it. In part, that was because of my need to find something to explain the life of the man who had ruled Zimbabwe for my entire life. On a second, deeper reading, I grew to appreciate the insight and analysis offered here and will now heartily endorse this as a useful summary of the life of Robert Mugabe, offering a glimpse into the events and processes that created the modern nation of Zimbabwe. It has certainly superseded another recent biography, Life and Times of Robert Mugabe 1980-2017: Dream Betrayed by Ken Mufuka and Cyril Zenda (2018), as well as other books on the former President mentioned in the  book's references.

As mentioned on page 22 of the book, Robert Mugabe did not change, "it is the rest of the world which has moved on." Despite his exit from the political stage, Zimbabwe still waits for its chance to reform and grow with the rest of the world, while the corrupt political culture of self-interest created by the former president will take decades to reverse.


Inganu Books

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

Source - Inganu Books
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