IF circumstances had been fair to him, Robert Mugabe would have gone down in history as one of the most respected leaders in the world, not only in Africa.

I do not say that lightly. If Mugabe had died in 1980, it would have been noted, to his credit, that: he had not immediately sought vengeance against Ian Smith, the white racist leader who had fought a bitter war against Mugabe and his colleagues of the Zimbabwe Patriotic Front. Instead, he had graciously “consulted” Ian Smith in private, on occasion, during the “transition” period immediately following independence in 1980, and afterwards.

Mugabe had also, in pursuit of “reconciliation”,  appointed a white farmer, Denis Norman, to be his Minister of Agriculture (from 1980 to 1985)! This was to reassure  the white farmers and land-owners of Zimbabwe to cultivate faith in the fairness of the process by which whites would voluntarily enter into agreements with blacks to  transfer ownership of white-owned lands and farms to blacks. The move, symbolised by the appointment of a white Minister of Agriculture, was  a highly controversial one, for the land issue had always been a highly emotional problem for both whites and blacks.

A lot of people thought at the time that it was very  brave of Mugabe to try and solve the land question the way he chose to, seeing that  the whites had originally been “given” lands seized by force from the blacks of Zimbabwe by the British colonialists. Indeed, some black Zimbabweans thought Mugabe was a “traitor” for allowing the whites to own lands at all, let alone be allowed to “sell” the stolen lands to their original owners, the blacks.

What had happened to the “fire-eating guerrilla”, Mugabe? He was  realistic enough to  realise, at   the Lancaster House talks in London in 1979, that for  Zimbabwe to become truly independent, it should be given time to stabilise black rule before a true land reform that would benefit the majority of Zimbabweans was pursued. A “willing seller willing buyer” process would benefit everyone, especially as  the British and the Americans had made their noises about compensation. After all,  it had been the Americans who  had eventually  forced apartheid South Africa to accept the idea of Zimbabwe’s independence. Once South Africa had cut the ground from under the feet of Ian Smith, Smith was a goner. And  Mugabe and his Zimbabwean colleagues urged their followers to accept the assurances of the Americans.

Now,  on the black political front, Mugabe had gone into alliance with some of the pre-independence rivals, such as the Rev. Canaan Banana and Joshua Nkomo (with whom Mugabe formed the “Patriotic Front” at the Geneva Independence talks, in 1976. ) So “moderate” policies were expected.

Asked when, and why, Mugabe “moved from a hero to a villain” Denis Norman, the aforementioned white Minister of Agriculture, said: “He was such a complex character who was very difficult to fully understand and analyse. He was a very intelligent man who ruthlessly pursued his goals and ambitions, which during his rise to power, must have injured many who were also competing for top positions.

“I have always maintained that his driving force was the desire to control and remain in power, and once achieved, to remain in that position.”

I think there is a clue to Mugabe’s personality in Mr Denis Norman’s comment on the “force” that “drove” Mugabe. After independence, he became understandably neurotic, for Southern Africa was full of intrigue. Look at this: in 1975, Mugabe’s own predecessor as leader of the Zimbabwe National Union (ZANU) Mr Herbert Chitepo, was blown up in his car in Lusaka. Then on the eve of independence, ZANU’s military commander, Josiah Tongogara, was killed in a road accident as he was driving from Mozambique to Harare. There were some people who suspected that Mugabe might have had a hand in these murders.

Now, wasn’t Mugabe’s survival in power  even more tenuous  if he had not been privy to these high-profile murders? Did they not suggest that whoever  obtained strong, a leadership role in Zimbabwe would be  living on borrowed time?

Does the fear of being unceremoniously bumped off  responsible for what has become known as the “Gukurahundi massacres” in 1982? It has been estimated that about 10-20,000 people, from the province of Matabeleland, were   annihilated under the auspices of Gukurahundi by Mugabe’s North-Korean-trained 4th Brigade. Joshua Nkomo was suspected of being behind a Matabalele uprising that would have replaced Mugabe with Nkomo.

Were the rumours true? Even if they were, was Mugabe’s reaction not excessive?

Once the Matabeleland massacres occurred, the writing was on the wall for Mugabe. ZANU’s blood-thirsty elements came to the fore in the party.  Mugabe lost his beloved Ghanaian wife, Sally, who was apparently responsible for his more and empathetic self.

The political  end came for Mugabe in November 2017, when after months of internecine party struggle, his Vice-President, Emerson Mnangagwa, led an army revolt against him, to prevent his wife Grace from seizing control of the Zanu political machinery and installing herself in power in place of her husband, who was then aged 93.

The debate about Mugabe will run and run. For he was the first-ever African freedom fighter to gain power after a struggle against a white minority that possessed an army and an Air Force that was capable of challenging the army and air force of a Great Power (the UK). Mugabe was also the first guerrilla leader to team up with a guerrilla leader from a neighbouring African country (Portuguese-ruled Mozambique) FRELIMO’S Samora  Machel, and work together to try and snatch power from  the oppressors of the two countries.

Once Mozambique and Zimbabwe were both free, the writing was on the wall for apartheid South Africa. And that’s exactly how it happened. Nelson Mandela became leader of black-ruled South Africa in 1994. And nobody can rule out  the fact that it was the psychological blow struck against white minority rule in Zimbabwe that made the whites in apartheid South Africa contemplate giving up power themselves. For that alone, Mugabe deserves a big place in world history. In African history, he will be a great hero. Yes, heroes often do make mistakes which are remembered after their deaths. But they remain heroes nevertheless. For their work is  often VISIBLE, and  speaks for them.


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