In a similar vein, back in 2008, the renowned Ugandan scholar, Mahmood Mamdani pointed out in his controversial essay for the London Review of Books:
“It is hard to think of a figure more reviled in the West than Robert Mugabe. Liberal and conservative commentators alike portray him as a brutal dictator…. There is no denying Mugabe’s authoritarianism, or his willingness to tolerate and even encourage the violent behaviour of his supporters…. [but this] gives us little sense of how Mugabe has managed to survive. For he has ruled not only by coercion but by consent, and his land reform measures, however harsh, have won him considerable popularity, not just in Zimbabwe but throughout southern Africa. In any case, the preoccupation with his character does little to illuminate the socio-historical issues involved”.
Mugabe’s death reminded me of the screening of Simon Bright’s film, Robert Mugabe… What Happened? at Sussex some years ago.
An earlier blog observed that it is a powerful documentary, using fascinating archival footage, together with interviews with key figures in the opposition movement in Zimbabwe.
It tells a sympathetic, historically-informed, but still highly critical, story about the man. With Mugabe gone, it is well worth watching again.
It is considerably more nuanced than much of the mainstream commentary that has emerged following his death.
This typically follows the hero-to-villain storyline, often attached to the positive then evil influence of his two wives, Sally and Grace.
Land reform in 2000 is often marked as the turning point, with the story of land reform being given the usual, misinformed gloss of disaster, turning Zimbabwe from ‘breadbasket to basket case’, the result of party cronies being given the land, and poorly qualified poor farmers making matters worse.
I have largely ceased to engage with these narratives, coming from many who really should know much better by now, and I am not going to rehearse the argument again that these views are grossly misinformed here.
There are now 360 blogs on Zimbabweland, and many more research articles besides, which together give a more nuanced story.
Too often in mainstream accounts, the role of the British in the Mugabe story is glossed over. Yet the British government’s complicity – for example in the silence about the massacres by the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland in the 1980s – was significant.
The failure of the British to push a more complete settlement at Lancaster House in 1979, and of course the diplomatic gaffe of the infamous ‘Clare Short letter’ in 1997, are all part of the picture.
The resentments and hostility rose to a head in the late 1990s, as Mugabe and Blair locked horns. And, while commentaries are critical of white Rhodesia and Ian Smith’s UDI rule, they often do not explore the failure of a more complete reconciliation and integration of whites in the new Zimbabwe following Independence.
Continued next page