Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
April 28 2000 9:30 PM

Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe

The scheming survivor.

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Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has unleashed thousands of purported "war veterans" against Zimbabwe's 4,500 white farmers. He has allied himself with a rabble-rouser who calls himself "Hitler" (war vet commander Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi). He has labeled the farmers "enemies of the people" and has turned a blind eye while the occupiers execute white landowners, rape women, and ignore court orders to disband.

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This latest African nightmare, in short, looks like the handiwork of a Mobutu Sese Seko or an Idi Amin. But the 76-year-old Mugabe is a character more familiar and more disappointing than those carnivorous dictators. He does not wreak havoc out of evil, caprice, or lunacy. He does it out of cynicism. Mugabe, who liberated his nation from colonial oppression 20 years ago, is the father of his country. He is what would have happened if George Washington had turned out to be Richard Nixon.

The farm invasions represent pragmatic politics rather than blood lust. Whites, who comprise less than 1 percent of Zimbabwe's population of 12 million, own 50 percent of the arable land. Mugabe always promises land redistribution but never delivers it. He can't afford to: The white farms produce most of the nation's export income. So, instead of actually evicting white farmers, Mugabe uses them as punching bags when he needs to rally popular support. "His anti-white venom is totally political," says Robert Rotberg, director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict at Harvard's Kennedy School and an old acquaintance of Mugabe's. During the early '90s drought, Mugabe vowed to take white land. He did the same during a 1997 recession. Today he is encouraging it in order to win upcoming parliamentary elections. The farm invasions mobilize Mugabe's rural base. They also intimidate the rising opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, since Mugabe's mobs specifically target MDC supporters for rape and murder.

Meanwhile, the invasions distract Zimbabweans from the nation's real problems. Zimbabwe, the "Jewel of Africa," has been ruined during the last decade of Mugabe's misrule. Unemployment runs 50 percent. Inflation has surged to 60 percent. Mugabe is spending $1 million a day to fight a war in the Congo—a nation 1,200 miles away. Zimbabwe has run out of hard currency to pay for gas and cooking oil: Motorists wait all night in gas lines. HIV infects one-quarter of Zimbabweans. No treatment is available. The nation has 500,000 AIDS orphans. Life expectancy has plummeted from 59 to 42 years.

It was not supposed to be this way. Mugabe, the last great African liberator still in power, was supposed to be Southern Africa's savior. The son of a carpenter, he was radicalized to Marxism while studying at South Africa's black Fort Hare University, whose alumni include Nelson Mandela. In the early '60s, Mugabe joined Rhodesia's black resistance and was almost immediately jailed by the thuggish white government of Ian Smith. Released in 1975, Mugabe took command of one of Zimbabwe's two black guerrilla movements. In 1980, Rhodesia's 250,000 whites conceded defeat, negotiated peace, and accepted democracy. Mugabe was easily elected president.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

Zimbabwe was one of the richest nations in Africa, a cradle of fertile land and mineral deposits. And Mugabe was the smartest of the African revolutionaries. (He has earned six university degrees. Mugabe has an icy intelligence. He lacks the charismatic warmth you'd expect from a populist.) Mugabe soon built primary schools and health clinics that were the envy of Africa. He was nominally a socialist and a democrat, but it rapidly became clear those garments were lightly worn. "Comrade Bob" was principally a Mugabist. He cared only for cementing his power.

Mugabe quickly mastered brutality as a political tool. "He has not hesitated from using the iron hand, and it has always worked for him," says Steve Morrison, who runs the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Two years after taking power, Mugabe purged his chief rival, Joshua Nkomo. Then Mugabe dispatched his North-Korean-trained "Fifth Brigade" after Nkomo's supporters, who belonged to the minority Ndebele tribe. The Fifth Brigade slaughtered at least 10,000 Ndebele civilians and probably more like 60,000. The slaughter wasn't personal. It was business. It always is with Mugabe. The bloodshed vanquished the only serious political opposition to Mugabe, enabling him to establish a one-party state.

Mugabe did not neglect more traditional tools of politics. He amended the constitution to make a challenge virtually impossible: The president gets to appoint 20 percent of legislators; only the ruling party can spend government funds on campaigns; police officers, soldiers, and civil servants must join the ruling party, etc.

But the world tolerated, and even lionized, Mugabe during the '80s. The United States developed a "grudging respect for his pragmatism," says American University professor Peter Lewis. Despite occasional threats against landowners, Mugabe supported white farmers, bankers, and manufacturers. He was also inoculated against criticism by his vigorous opposition to South African apartheid.

The end of apartheid has crippled Mugabe and Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe lost the cachet of being the only harmoniously multiracial African nation. Capital flows to Zimbabwe dried up, as investors directed their millions to larger, richer South Africa. Most painfully, Mugabe found himself overshadowed by Nelson Mandela. Mugabe, who had been the leader of the continent, was not even the biggest kid in the neighborhood.

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