From rebel hero to brutal autocrat

Mugabe - Coming to Terms
September 27, 2002

As the crisis in Zimbabwe continues to make headline news in Britain, journalistic and academic books purporting to explain the conflict to an obviously interested public have proliferated. Journalist Martin Meredith's biography of Robert Mugabe is one of three to appear this year. Written for a popular audience in a racy style, Mugabe: Power and Plunder in Zimbabwe contributes to a genre that demonises Mugabe and seeks to explain all the country's current woes in terms of the failings of one man's trajectory from revolutionary hero to post-colonial tyrant. The questions asked on the dustjacket: "What happened in Zimbabwe? What turned an idealistic political visionary into a brutal autocrat?" are thus one and the same for Meredith.

Yet they are not the same, and, although this is one of the better recent popular books on Zimbabwe, it is a great pity that its readability is not always matched by balance and considered explanation. Those with an interest in academic debates about the failures of the post-colonial state in Africa should expect an irritating read.

Mugabe must undoubtedly bear much of the responsibility for the current crisis (as well as for the 1980s massacres in Matabeleland), but using the prism of his life and views as a means of exploring some episodes can be deeply misleading. Particularly with regard to the early nationalist struggle, the focus on Mugabe downplays the role of more important contemporary actors.

Furthermore, the movement from hero to villain occurs too early in the book. It took time for "a vast system of patronage" to develop: investigations of the public sector in the early 1990s pointed out rampant corruption in parastatals and creeping corruption elsewhere (as well as a range of other problems) but did not condemn the entire state bureaucracy and all civil servants, as Meredith does. If I were one of the many dedicated rural teachers or local government officials who had put so much effort into trying to make the expanding public sector work, I would be offended to read that by 1993 "no one could get papers or certificates without payment".

Equally, those white farmers who are still resisting eviction from their farms today would surely be surprised to read that "what lingering hopes there were for racial harmony gave way to mutual mistrust and suspicion" as early as 1981. And Meredith might have dwelt further on some of the successes of the early land-redistribution programme to balance his attention to its inadequacies, or pointed out that Britain did not deliver all the finance it had promised, and that white farmers did their bit to obstruct acquisition of their land, so as to balance his overwhelming emphasis on corruption.

The 1980s conflict in Matabeleland is quite rightly portrayed as a key episode for understanding the development of an authoritarian and repressive regime. This section draws upon Breaking the Silence - the excellent and widely read report on the conflict produced by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and the Legal Resources Foundation in Zimbabwe - as well as the book Violence and Memory , co-authored by Jocelyn Alexander, Terence Ranger and myself. (I was rather surprised to read unattributed excerpts from the interviews we conducted with Zipra war veterans in the mid 1990s, although this is the referencing style throughout.) But what of the book's treatment of the current crisis? Meredith must be congratulated for trying not to dwell only on white farmers, whose perspectives and interests continue to dominate much of the press reporting here. He makes some use of the voluminous documentation produced by Zimbabwean human rights organisations and the independent press to explore the fate of opposition activists, rural teachers and local government workers who have been tortured, harassed and chased from their jobs.

However, his point that black farm workers have borne the brunt of the crisis on the commercial farms is undermined by being given less space than white farmers' losses. Too much time is devoted to the feelings of one white farmer - Cathy Buckle - based on her own book about the loss of her farm. The reader is not given the chance to empathise in the same way with individual black farm workers. Finally, some crucial yet unemotive issues, such as the structural adjustment policies implemented over the 1990s, deserve much more attention.

If Meredith's highly readable account suffers from some imbalances, Richard Schwartz demonstrates neither a journalist's flair for readability nor an academic's concern for thoroughness and detail. His book appears to have originated in postgraduate research. It is not for those interested in Zimbabwe today as the narrative ends in 1994, and the author has not provided even an epilogue to bring the text up to date. Its bibliography includes nothing published after 1991. Partly because it is out of date, the book provides a useful reminder of Zimbabwe's international profile in the days before it achieved pariah status. Then, Mugabe was a respected leader of the frontline states against South African aggression. Even for those interested in revisiting the debates and events of an earlier era, however, Schwartz's book cannot be recommended as a good place to start.

Perhaps the most important issue for understanding the development of Zimbabwe's crisis is not Mugabe's unpopularity, but his adept manipulation of populist causes and nationalist sentiment, his expertise in demolishing internal opposition, and his ability to garner support from some sectors of society in Zimbabwe, as well as other African heads of state. This combination has, to date, been effective in undermining the Movement for Democratic Change and efforts to exert international pressure, though it appears increasingly unsustainable as food shortages mount. This is not, however, an issue that is adequately explained in either of these books.

JoAnn McGregor is lecturer in geography, University of Reading.

Mugabe: Power and Plunder in Zimbabwe

Author - Martin Meredith
ISBN - 1 903985 28 5
Publisher - Public Affairs Ltd
Price - £15.99
Pages - 243

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