In her quest to decipher a pattern in the madness of Zimbabwe’s autocratic leader, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, author Heidi Holland, who has written extensively on the mother continent, speaks to a large number of people who’ve been close to the Zimbabwean President.
Her subjects include Mugabe’s own brother Donato, who died barefoot in 2007, former comrades like Edgar Tekere, the English-born Dennis Norman, who served Mugabe as a Minister, and ordinary folk like a hotel chef who prepared food for the freedom fighter turned tyrant.
Based on research that lasted just over two years, Dinner with Mugabe: The Untold Story of a Freedom Fighter who Became a Tyrant, published by Penguin in 2008, is as meticulous a book as only a writer of Holland’s caliber can churn out.
One common thread from these interviews is that of an excessively humble person who takes serious umbrage at the slightest show of dissent. With Mugabe, one is either with him or against him – the lines are not blurred.
He grew up in Kutama a very reserved boy who derived his joy and peace from books rather than playing with his peers. For this he was ceaselessly mocked, even by his older siblings, one of whom, Michael, died at 15.
Soon after Michael’s untimely death from “what he had eaten”, their father left home, forcing the young Robert, whose second name Gabriel was his father’s, to grow up quickly.
His mother, Bona, led the fickle boy into believing he was a special child, God’s chosen. Later in life, as he ran Zimbabwe into the ground, Mugabe would hold on to this delusion that if anybody had any messianic qualities to lead this southern African nation successfully out of the quagmire of colonialism, it was him.
He would brook no dissent, believing there was only one truth – his version.
Tekere and Jonathan Moyo, his former spin doctor, who lost his own father to the 1980’s Matabeleland massacre known as Gukurahundi, argue in the book that Mugabe was not cut out for politics. All he’d set out to do after his first degree – one of a string of seven – from Fort Hare, was to be a teacher. This much was evinced by his move to Ghana, where he met his first wife, Sally, his intellectual and political equal. He was thrust into the armed struggle by chance – his eloquence, not his political pedigree, they argue, hoisted him into the leadership of the liberation movement.
Surrounded by obsequious lackeys after the death of Josiah Tongogara and Hebert Cheitepo – the very men who should have led Zimbabwe, some argue, Mugabe quickly grew to believe in the lie of his childhood, that he was indeed something special.
Does he have blood on his hands? Evelyn Tongogara, Tongo’s wife, would not put this past him, as do the Ndebele who lost friends and family in the bloodletting led by Perence Shiri.
There’s a Jekyll and Hyde element to the persona of Robert Mugabe, if you read this psycho-analysis from Holland’s pen.
Punctual to a fault, he’d phone ahead if he was so much as five minutes late for an appointment, even with his tailor. He’s a doting father with infinite patience with his brood. His handshake, according to those who’ve had the pleasure, is soft and childlike.
But with the speed of a flip of a coin, Mugabe can morph into the monster that the world has come to know as Mad Bob.
When exactly did the shy God-fearing Jesuit boy lose his moral compass?
Mandela came out of 27 years of imprisonment free of hate and prejudice against his jailers. The South African could, without pretence, have tea with Betsie Verwoerd, now deceased – the widow of apartheid architect, Hendrik Verwoerd and Percy Yutar, also late – the prosecutor who wanted the death sentence for the Rivonia Trialists.
The 11 years in Rhodesia prisons had an adverse effect on Mugabe, try as he might to hide it.
The British reneging on the Lancaster House accord also brought out the worst in Mugabe, cracking open the veneer of cheerfulness about him.
But could all this hurt on his ego, including the whites not accepting the hand of friendship he extended to them after independence, have been the spark that would turn his against his own people, those he took to the bush to free from colonialism?
Operation Murambatsvina was an assault on his own virtual kith and kin, a fate Zimbabwe could have been spared had Mad Bob sought help for his irrational personal insecurities.
Three years after it came out, Dinner with Mugabe: The Untold Story of a Freedom Fighter who Became a Tyrant remains one of the most incisive books on Zimbabwe’s leader.