Robert Gabriel Mugabe: The reluctant messiah

By Louis E A Moyston / Jamaica Observer

It is so easy for some Western observers and associated media to portray Robert Gabriel Mugabe as a despotic tyrant. This line of thinking does great injustice to the man and his times. Though the perception appears to be the true picture, there is more to Mugabe than despotism.

On the contrary, men like Cecil Rhodes and the others who have led the British civilising mission by way of conquest were noted as prominent men of the Victorian era. They have etched their places in history by genocidal activities against untold numbers of Africans, as well as stole lands and natural resources. Mugabe embarked on a mission to retake what was stolen. His biography intersects with the modern history of Zimbabwe. In real terms, he was a complex man; there is a view that he was not a doctrinaire Marxist, but a traditional African nationalist. Tekere, one of his former associates, said he embraced the idea, but he was not a rigid Marxist, it was “just rhetoric” that did not help the emergence of a new vision. Lord Carrington charged that Mugabe did not practise what he preached — radical at Lancaster House and conservative in government. It is my thinking that Robert Gabriel Mugabe was a reluctant messiah and an inscrutable enigma. There is no excuse for his misdeeds, but his contribution to African liberation struggles is indelible. Jamaica ought to play a role within the context of the African Union (AU) movement to assist the peoples of Zimbabwe to recapture the meaning and purpose of revolution.

The man, the time and the place

It is important to present a comprehensive — as opposed to a reductionist — view of the man, the time, and the space (setting). Mugabe’s biography converged with the history of modern Zimbabwe. However, it is important to understand the a brief history of that area of Africa from about 1000 AD to the 16th century — form the early civilisations to the northward migration of the Ndebeles to Mashonaland; the Portuguese occupation and the weakening of the peoples of Zimbabwe making them amenable of British conquest by way of Cecil Rhodes and the British South African Company (BSAC).

The area known as Southern Rhodesia, named after Cecil Rhodes, achieved “responsible self-government” in the 1920s and Universal Declaration of Independence (UDI) in the very early 1960s. It was in the latter period Joshua Nkomo formed the first modern nationalist movement called the Southern Rhodesian African National congress (SRANC). Throughout the history of his development, this article observes the quality of a reluctant messiah in Mugabe; his erudite character, but had to be persuaded into the liberation movement. In later years he did not practise what he preached and failed to give meaning to the revolution for all the peoples of Zimbabwe. When he was invited to join the National Democratic Party (NDP) in 1960 he took on the task with vigour and dynamism, building that movement and its successor Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) into the modern liberation movement in Zimbabwe.

From ‘bush war’ to acts of destabilisation

After his role in the 1960 protest activities in the township of Harare, outside of Salisbury, he was arrested, tried and imprisoned in 1961 for about 11 years. He took control of the armed wing of Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA). Mugabe led the bush war in early 1970s and later brought Southern Rhodesia to the brink of defeat.

On the advice of the British and the South Africans, the white minority Government called for the Lancaster House Agreement of 1979. Mugabe was reluctant to join the agreement but was coerced by the Frontline States, with active participation of countries like Jamaica. After the agreement, Mugabe said that he felt cheated — and he was cheated. The imposition of democracy and conservative free market policies in Zimbabwe also contributed to the railroading of the revolution in Zimbabwe. The nation was destabilised by embargo in the tradition of Haiti, Cuba, and most recently Venezuela and Iran — a diplomatic strategy by the imperialist world to make the people suffer with a view to weaken their governments. Like Salvador Allende, Fidel Castro, and Norman Manley; and from Hugo Chavez to Nicolas Maduro, the imperialists destabilised and demonised the leaders of the revolution or progressive movements. In terms of reversals and crises in Zimbabwe, Mugabe is responsible in part, but the imperialist system ought to be blamed for that catastrophic failure.

The reluctant messiah

Mugabe grew up under strict tutelage of Roman Catholic Jesuits. He was a disciplined student with aloof tendencies. In his early years one Jesuit, Father O’Hea, introduced him to the issue of racism and also the Irish defeat against the British imperialists. He went to Fort Hare University in South Africa and was exposed to African nationalism activities as well as he encountered Marxism.

Prior to his departure to South Africa, there was a 1948 strike and demonstrations in Southern Rhodesia, but there was no evidence of his participation. There is a history of his reluctance to join the movement. He returned to Southern Rhodesia as a teacher in the 1950s and during his tour of duty he worked in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), where he lived at the home of Emmerson Mnangagwa who inspired and encouraged him to join the struggles. He left for Ghana, in the mid-1950s, where he wanted to experience living in an independent African country. In 1960 he returned to Southern Rhodesia with the intention of returning to Ghana with his wife, but they were persuaded to stay and join the resistance by his friend Leopold Takawira. He joined the resistance and gave major contribution to the emergence of the National Democratic Party, led by Joshua Nkomo in the 1960s. He mobilised the youth and women in the movement and when it was banned he assisted in the building of Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU).

Still fighting the ‘bush war’

When he joined the movement he never flinched and never looked backed. Was he reluctant in making the revolution real and meaningful for all the peoples of Zimbabwe? He tried his best, but it was not good enough. He was like a wounded lion, backed up in a corner, fighting back.

His seizure of lands was correct, but the consequences were grave. It is important to note that there was mass migration of whites from Zimbabwe in 1980; about one-tenth of the whites joined the fight from new Zimbabwe. He was still fighting the ‘bush war’ after 1980 and during his years to 2016. It did not help him. It created divisions in Mashonaland and deepened the divide with the Ndebeles.

The white backlash began from early 1980s from signs of South African-led acts of destabilisation, collaboration of that country with white guerilla groups, and later support to black “dissenters” from Matabeleland followed by severe violence, murders, and suffering. Some milestones of disasters were the Matabeleland massacre, the slum clearance programme, International Monetary Fund dictates, deepening of dictatorship, and route to one party state.

He was still in ‘bush war’ mode; distrustful and suspicious of every one. He was ousted in a coup d’état 2017 by the military in the name of saving the revolution and replaced by one of his mentors, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and voted for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the 2018 elections. He was good in the ‘bush war’ but not so effective in giving meaning and purpose to the new Zimbabwean revolution. As the ‘saviour’ he did not deliver.

One view states that “depending on who you listen to Mugabe is either one of the world’s great tyrants or a fearless nationalist who has incurred the wrath of the West”. He is regarded as the “grand old man” of the African liberation movement and a hero in many Third World countries.

Featured Photo: AFP