Robert Mugabe – A history of violence

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The ruthless violence with which Mugabe pursued his objectives after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980 has prompted biographers, analysts and critics to search for indications of this propensity in earlier years. Typically, generalised assumptions and allegations have been made, but supporting evidence has been scant. Such evidence does, indeed, exist – and in striking form – though it is not to be found in the places where most have looked.

WHEN it comes to examining Mugabe’s liberation roots, the focus has usually been on his role in the 1970s, when the war against white Rhodesia was at its hottest. His elevation to the presidency of the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) in 1973–4 is one episode that is frequently cited as an early indication of guile and cold-blooded ambition. At this juncture, most of the party’s leaders were imprisoned in Rhodesian jails, and the suggestion is that Mugabe, ever the schemer, engineered a “coup” against Zanu president Ndabaningi Sithole.
The real story is more bland. Ex officio, Mugabe had been ranked third in the Zanu hierarchy as secretary-general and he had moved into second place after the party’s vice president died in prison. By then, Sithole had lost the favour of his colleagues, having disavowed the armed struggle as part of a deal with white authorities. Mugabe assumed the presidency by default when Sithole was formally deposed.
Edgar Tekere, a founding member of Zanu who escaped with Mugabe to Mozambique in 1975, was among the best informed of Mugabe’s latter-day detractors. But even he was apparently unable to connect Mugabe to the planning or execution of acts of violence beyond the war itself – certainly nothing that compared with what occurred after 1980. In a 2007 autobiography, Tekere claimed only that Mugabe failed to intervene to commute the death sentence on Zanu rebels in 1978 (though he did not oppose Tekere’s proposal to do so) and that he told one of them who complained of being beaten that he should expect such treatment.
Based on the evidence presented in such accounts, as opposed to their unsubstantiated conclusions, Mugabe emerges as man who imbibed a culture of violence but was not a direct participant. His predilection for violence prior to independence appears more cerebral than experiential. And, at the time, many observers saw this not as foreboding but inspirational: he became known for his unwavering devotion to armed struggle as the only means of change, a consistency that impressed left-leaning Westerners in the later years of the war and was seen by them as an indication of principle and integrity.Advertisement

Writing of events during 1978, journalist David Caute disparaged Mugabe’s nationalist rival, Joshua Nkomo, as “a whale of a shopkeeper, all flesh and emotion”, comparing him with the “ice-cool professor”, Mugabe, who “magnetises the young reporters; he is the black Robespierre, pure, uncompromising and author of the terror sweeping eastern Rhodesia … He is a man who has stripped himself down to essentials, he is a distilled man … Impossible to imagine him wasting an hour in idle relaxation”.
Yet both Mugabe’s wartime admirers and post-independence critics have been mistaken, if for different reasons. Caute and those like him failed to see that violence was, for Mugabe, the most effective and gratifying means of dealing with adversaries of any complexion. This was not an aberration that developed after Zanu entered government – and to that extent Tekere and others were correct.
However, the primary evidence is not (as yet) to be found in the 1970s but in the four years between Mugabe’s joining of the struggle in 1960 and his incarceration in 1964. Documents from this earlier period reveal that his commitment to violence was already absolute, that it was directed against both whites and blacks, and that he was personally involved in its implementation.
In 1960, Mugabe was offered a position in the National Democratic Party (NDP), Rhodesia’s first true mass nationalist organisation, during what was meant to be a brief home visit halfway through a teaching contract in Ghana. He retained a role when the NDP was banned and a successor, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu), was formed.
It did not take him long to develop a reputation for ruthlessness. Even as a new and relatively unknown junior member of the NDP and Zapu executives, Mugabe quickly distinguished himself by his radical approach to the use of force. Michael Edden, a policeman who took part in a raid on the NDP offices in early July 1960, only weeks after Mugabe had joined the party, later recalled that the material copied by detectives showed that “Mugabe was fomenting violence through the youth”. He asserted that Mugabe had been given the role of secretary for publicity “with responsibilities towards the youth after his association with school children … Youthful violence was already endemic but he used his skills to foment it along more disciplined lines”.
Evidence from other sources is consistent with these recollections. Almost 50 years ago – and 18 years before he took power – Mugabe is shown to have had an utterly utilitarian and case-hardened attitude to the use of violence and intimidation for political ends.
In September 1962, following a surge in youth violence, the British high commissioner to Rhodesia, Cuthbert Alport, sent intelligence to London from an informant which disclosed that Mugabe was the prime mover behind this spike. The “present widespread intimidation by [the] ZAPU Youth Front was decided upon about a month ago and … one of the reasons for the adoption of this was a report provided by Mugabe (Publicity Secretary) to (the) ZAPU Executive which showed that 38% of Africans were then supporters of ZAPU, 22% were opponents and 40% were indifferent”. For Mugabe, who was identified as the “main advocate of violence”, the solution was self-evident:

“(Mugabe) went on to say that if (the) level of intimidation existing a month ago was reduced ZAPU support would fall by 25% and active opposition [would be] increased by 10%. He therefore advocated a campaign, primarily through (the) Youth Wing with which he has considerable personal influence, of violence with [the] object of intimidating the 22% who are actively opposed to ZAPU politically and coercing the 40% who are indifferent. The particular object of this campaign has been to terrorise the supporters of the main African opposition.”

Alport noted that there were “a number of remarkable defections” from the black opposition in the period that followed this meeting and that its leader, trade unionist Reuben Jamela, was “beaten up and badly hurt” and had his house bombed.
Rhodesian government sources also reveal Mugabe as the most forceful exponent of violence in Zapu and show that he was the creator of the Zimbabwe Liberation Army (ZLA), an underground organisation that was designed to be Zapu’s germinal armed wing in the event of a ban on the party. A Special Branch report stated that “Robert MUGABE is the individual behind the ZLA, which is described by one source as a well-organised group” and “it was he who was responsible for drafting a number of the (ZLA’s propaganda) circulars, purposely prepared in a semi-illiterate manner so as to draw a red herring across the path of police investigations”.
The report quoted from one of the circulars, which described the ZLA as the result of four months’ planning and declared that there was “one medicine only(:) to take this land by force, by fight. Stupid white man must be taught. We must drink their blood and not talk to imperialists. Zimbabwe is black man’s country. White man’s blood must flow like river.
Coinciding with the launch of the ZLA in early September 1962, riots in the towns of Umtali and Kariba allegedly occurred in the immediate aftermath of visits by Mugabe. A black protester was shot dead by security forces and police trucks were stoned during these disturbances. The kraal of Chief Jeremiah Chirau in the Zvimba reserve, Mugabe’s home area, was also firebombed.
Despite a growing sense in nationalist circles that an armed struggle against white rule was necessary, indiscriminate violence of the type favoured by Mugabe – which included the targeting of those the nationalists were meant to be liberating – caused dissension with more moderate colleagues. This unhappiness was mirrored among the wider black population, which generally supported the call for majority rule but was becoming increasingly fearful of the methods that were being used to pursue it.
When police arrested Zapu leaders in the wake of the party’s banning in mid-September 1962, a cache of explosives and detonators was found in Mugabe’s house in Zvimba. Alport, in his summation of the wider operation of which this was a part, implied that disagreement within Zapu over the use of violence may have contributed to Mugabe’s predicament:

“A good many Africans will be relieved to see action taken, for they are not particularly sympathetic to the intimidator and thug elements in ZAPU … There is no doubt there was … a split in the leadership of ZAPU and I have reason strongly to suspect that the effectiveness of the police action was due to co-operation from people in high places in the ZAPU hierarchy, who were quite happy to rid themselves of characters like Mugabe and co. I am sure that when charges of possessing explosives are brought against Mugabe, he will claim that these were planted and that he had been framed. I think this is possible, but equally I guess that the framers were not the police, but some of his ‘friends’ within his own movement.”

Mugabe’s unswerving advocacy of violence was tied to another element that set him apart from his peers: a penetrating mind. Observers noted the superior intellectual capacities which ran alongside his ruthlessness – a dualism again conspicuously similar to that for which he was to become known decades later. With the doddering and nodding nonagenarian now the butt of many a joke, it is easy to forget that his acute intelligence was uniformly acknowledged by those who knew him during his long heyday in the 1980s and 1990s.
The same trait was obvious to both friend and foe when he was a virtual unknown in the early 1960s. Alport viewed Mugabe as not only the main proponent of violence but also “the directing force behind ZAPU in recent months”, and believed that the Southern Rhodesian government had been anxious “‘to keep (Nkomo) alive’ politically because his defects of character have rendered ZAPU less formidable than might be the case under a clever and ruthless man like Mugabe”.
Other members of the British High Commission shared this opinion. Writing in the margins of a minute of early 1963 that reported the dissatisfaction of “more militant members” with Nkomo and their preference for Mugabe, the deputy high commissioner, D.A. Scott, commented that Nkomo would “be no loss, but I suspect that Mr Mugabe would be much more difficult to deal with”.
Nkomo’s growing reputation for indecision, as opposed to Mugabe’s single-mindedness, was, in part, a function of the Zapu chief’s greater willingness to compromise. One of Scott’s subordinates, RAR Barltrop, recently arrived in Salisbury, wrote of his first encounter with the pair that Nkomo “was courteous and rather warmer than his lieutenant” and “unlike the other, he gave me the impression that he was not only prepared to listen to what one had to say but also to consider it”.
Mugabe’s hard-edged attitude to violence together with his intelligence was also remarked upon by associates within the party. Shortly before Zapu’s proscription, a member of the party’s Salisbury hierarchy “as good as admitted” to Barltrop that its “youth wing was responsible for much of the recent violence and arson” and said that “the wing had its own leaders, whose identities he could not divulge but who included educated men of considerable intelligence”. He continued that the “wing was often quite indiscriminate in its selection of targets” and “gave the impression that at least the more moderate ZAPU leaders like himself were concerned lest this present wave of violence … lose ZAPU and the African nationalist cause such sympathy as it at present enjoyed” among “liberal-minded people”.
The years of detention curtailed Mugabe’s direct involvement in political violence, but there were still glimpses of his belief that force was the true arbiter of both the personal and the political. When Zanu inmates had vehement disagreements, Mugabe encouraged them to fight it out physically and dissuaded those who wanted to mediate. His entrenched views on such matters were accompanied by a further hardening of the soul wrought by the prison system and by a war that became increasingly ferocious and unrestrained.
Mugabe’s reaction to the death of his only child, three years after he was incarcerated, is often recounted. He sobbed uncontrollably and later begged Rhodesian authorities to allow him to attend his son’s funeral in Ghana, promising to return as a matter of honour. The subsequent refusal, reportedly sanctioned by the Rhodesian Prime Minister, was received with disbelief. In Mozambique, Mugabe witnessed the aftermath of devastating Rhodesian raids on Zanu camps, when hundreds – including the relatives of party confidants – were unceremoniously buried in mass graves.
These were the experiences, both individual and collective, that cauterised men already subsumed in their own culture of aggression and brutality. By the end of the war, the point is less that Mugabe was different from his peers, but that he was similar. The atrocities that were to be meted out in independent Zimbabwe were possible only with the collusion of a large group who shared many of his values, experiences and decisions. His prejudices, aspirations and psychological reflexes had become commonplace within Zimbabwean nationalism, particularly in its progressively radicalised Zanuist form. To the extent that he was atypical, Mugabe was more capable than most of leading this group where it wanted to go.
This is an edited extract from Stuart Doran’s forthcoming book, Kingdom, power, glory: Mugabe, Zanu and the quest for supremacy, 1960–1987, to be published by Sithatha Media in May 2017. See