His Excellency Comrade Robert: How Mugabe's ZANU clique rose to power

By Stephen O’Brien

Towards the end of 1975 a movement of young radicals organised in the Zimbabwe People’s Army (ZIPA) took charge of Zimbabwe’s liberation war. ZIPA’s fusion of inclusive politics, transformational vision and military aggression dealt crippling blows to the white supremacist regime of Ian Smith. However, it’s success also paved the way for a faction of conservative nationalists led by Robert Mugabe to wrest control of the liberation movement for themselves.

The fact that Mugabe, a former rural school teacher, and his cronies would become the ruling capitalist elite of Zimbabwe by crushing a movement of young Chavista-style revolutionaries doesn’t sit well with their anti-imperialist self-image.

The ZIPA cadre emerged from the wave of young people who, experiencing oppression and discrimination in Rhodesia, decided to become liberation fighters in early 1970s. Unlike many of the first generation of fighters, they volunteered to join the respective military wings of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU)[i]

In 1975, key nationalist leaders -- such as Robert Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo, Ndabiginini Sithole, Jason Moyo, Herbert Chitepo, Abel Muzorewa, James Chikerema and Josiah Tongogara -- had become entangled in factional rivalry and long-running and fruitless peace talks with the Smith regime. The young recruits who would shortly form ZIPA sought to reinvigorate the struggle as the war stalled and as the old leaders became marginalised.

A group of ZANU officers based at training camps in Tanzania consulted widely among the liberation forces. They approached President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Samora Machel, soon to be president of newly liberated and independent Mozambique, for support to restart the war against Smith. Both Machel and Nyerere had initially supported peace negotiations and the resulting ceasefire with Rhodesia, but by October 1975 had lost patience with the whole process, and listened with sympathy to the ideas of the young officers.

ZIPA formed

The ZANU officers also sought unity with ZAPU, the long-standing rival organisation from which ZANU had split in 1963. ZAPU agreed and in November 1975 ZIPA was formed with a combined High Command composed of equal numbers from both ZAPU and ZANU. The alliance with ZAPU disintegrated after a few months partly because ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo had continued to negotiate with Smith. Nevertheless, it was an important attempt at unity which defied the prevailing trend of division.

ZIPA’s nominal head was Rex Nhongo (later known as Solomon Mujuru he would become head of the Zimbabwe Army under Mugabe), but strategic and tactical leadership came to be held by his young deputy, Wilfred Mhanda.

Wilfred Mhanda

Mhanda had been a typical recruit to ZANU and its military wing, the Zimbabwe National Liberation Army (ZANLA). He had been involved in school protests and on leaving his studies helped form a ZANU support group. Like many who were to become part of ZIPA, Mhanda had been influenced by the youth radicalisation of the 1960s. In 1971, with the special branch in pursuit, Mhanda’s group skipped the border into Botswana and joined ZANLA. He took the war name of Dzinashe Machingura. He was later sent for training in China and progressed through the ranks to became a military instructor, political commissar, commander of the Mgagao camp in Tanzania and then member of the High Command.[ii]

ZIPA theory, tactics

Theory influenced ZIPA’s tactics. Its fighters were not regarded as cannon fodder, lines of retreat and supply were secured, counter-offensives anticipated and strategic reserves made ready. Senior ZIPA commanders visited the front. ZIPA’s aims went beyond winning democracy, to the revolutionary transformation of Rhodesia’s social and economic relations. The previous conception of the old-guard nationalists had tended to regard armed struggle as a means to apply pressure for external intervention to end White minority rule.

The Zimbabwe People’s Army relocated its troops from Tanzania to Mozambique and in January 1976, 1000 guerrillas crossed into Rhodesia. The entire eastern border of Rhodesia became a war zone as the guerillas launched coordinated and well-planned attacks on mines, farms and communication routes, such as the new railway line to South Africa.

ZIPA established WampoaCollege to help institute its vision and ran Marxist-inspired courses in military instruction and mass mobilisation for its fighters. It educated its cadre against the sexual abuse of women and sought to win the support of the Zimbabwean peasantry through persuasion rather than coercion.

Historian David Moore’s study of ZIPA notes: ``The students made their political education directly relevant to the struggle, so that Marxism could better direct the war of liberation.’’[iii] ZIPA’s political approach lead to it becoming known as the Vashandi, a word which means worker in the Shona language, but which, according to Mhanda, took on a broader meaning as the revolutionary front of workers, students and peasants.

Smith’s regime reeled under the offensive. Repression was intensified, ``psychopathic’’ counter-insurgency units such as the Selous Scouts were deployed, so called ``protected villages’’ intensified control over the population and raids were launched against refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Rhodesia was forced to borrow 26 helicopters from apartheid South Africa, and in order to deploy 60% more troops, increased the military call-up for whites. In his memoirs, Ken Flower, head of the Central Intelligence Organisation under Smith (and later under Mugabe), recalls that by July 1976 ``Rhodesia was beginning to lose the war.[iv]

Geneva talks

Concerned about the growing influence of the young Marxists in Zimbabwe, Henry Kissinger, the United States’ Secretary of State, sought to resume the dormant negotiations by organising a round of talks in Geneva in October 1976.

The legal basis for the talks centred around Rhodesia’s technical status as a British colony. Rhodesia had made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1965, partly to quell the nascent nationalist movement and to forestall any British demand that ``legal’’ independence include guarantees for equal rights for the black majority.

Kissinger’s proposals centered around a supposed timetable for a transition to black majority rule (these days they say ``road map’’) with the intention that the talks would provide an opportunity to sideline or eliminate the radicals.

ZIPA was opposed to negotiations. On numerous occasions, especially after Portuguese colonialism collapsed in 1974 and Frelimo started to take control of Mozambique, Smith had used talks to exploit divisions and ideological confusion in the nationalists’ ranks.

ZIPA leaders were also wary of the old leadership. When Samora Machel pressed them to nominate the political leader with whom they most closely identified, in a decision which was to have fateful consequences, they nominated Robert Mugabe. In his struggle to depose the ZANU president Ndanbiginini Sithole, Mugabe was careful to identify with the guerillas, unlike Sithole who unsuccessfully attempted to place them under his control. This influenced the ZIPA leaders and they thought that, although they did not support Mugabe, they could work with him.

Disunity had long plagued the nationalist movement. When ZANU had split from ZAPU in 1963 the acrimony turned violent in the townships at a certain point and Smith’s police stood by while it took its course. Since then, guerilla revolts against what were perceived to be incompetent leaders, such as ZAPU’s March 11 Movement (1971) and ZANU’s Nhari Rebellion (1974-1975), had been brutally suppressed.

It was during the fallout from the Nhari rebellion that Herbert Chitepo, the ZANU chair, was assassinated in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. In response, Kenneth Kaunda, the Zambian president, who had hosted the liberation forces in Zambia, banned Zimbabwean nationalist organisations and detained hundred of their leaders and supporters, including Josiah Tongogara, the ZANU military commander.

However, so that they could attend the Geneva talks, these leaders were subsequently released along with Mugabe, who had also been in detention. Mugabe had fled from Rhodesia to Mozambique in April 1975 after his release from ten years in Smith’s jails to participate in an earlier round of talks. Mozambique, along with other pro-liberation states, had initially regarded Mugabe with suspicion because of his opposition to Sithole and had placed him in open detention.

Other nationalist delegates to Geneva included Nkomo and Bishop Abel Muzorewa of the Rhodesian based United African National Congress. The ZIPA commanders treated the whole Geneva negotiations with suspicion and issued a statement which declared: ``None of the Zimbabwe delegations there represents ZIPA’’.[v]

Mhanda, who was in effect the central ZIPA figure, explains that ZIPA members regarded many of the old leaders as being out of touch. They thought that leaders such as Mugabe and Nkomo, having been in jail for many years, did not fully understand changes brought about by the youth radicalisation and the Vietnam War. Where the older generation was motivated by a desire to force negotiations that would usher in ``one man one vote’’, the ZIPA comrades were ``fighting for the total transformation of the Zimbabwean society’’.[vi]

Marxist ideas

Some of the young radicals had experienced and even sought out Marxist ideas during their training. Mhanda describes the delight he and a group of comrades felt when they discovered Marxist classics in the library at their training camp in Tanzania.[vii] Making the most of the opportunity they ran study classes on Marxist-Leninist philosophy, polemics and historical materialism. In contrast, while a few of the old guard had encountered communists, and even Trotskyists in South Africa,[viii] many of them had little direct experience with Marxism. The socialist tradition in Rhodesia was fleeting. During its brief existence, the Rhodesian Communist Party had been a tiny white enclave.

Britain was anxious that the ZIPA commanders attend Geneva, and thus be away from their troops. Recent research in British archives has revealed that Britain offered an interest-free loan of £15 million to Machel’s government to ensure that the ```young men’ controlling Mugabe attended Geneva’’.[ix]

Heavily dependent on the support of Machel for access to the supply lines and infiltration routes through Mozambique, the ZIPA leadership had little choice but to attend.

In Geneva, ZIPA unsuccessfully tried to unite the various nationalist delegations. They sought to create a united front against Smith and demand that the racists unconditionally surrender power. However, the various nationalist delegations were incapable of uniting and rejected this proposal.

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Mugabe, for his part, allied with the recently released military chief Tongogara, and Solomon Mujuru. The nominal head of ZIPA, Mujuru had never really shared the strategic vision of his deputy political commissar Mhanda. He also blocked with ZAPU’s Joshua Nkomo and his deputy Jason Moyo to create the Patriotic Front. This helped strengthen Mugabe against the right (Abel Muzorewa and Ndanbiginini Sithole) and against the left, the increasingly politically independent ZIPA.

Historian David Moore has suggested that Mugabe was not really committed to the talks at Geneva as he first needed to deal with ZIPA and gain control the army before he entered serious negotiations. The talks adjourned indefinitely just before Christmas 1976.[x]

ZIPA suppressed

After the collapse of the talks, the ZIPA leaders were sidelined into undertaking solidarity duties in Europe. Mugabe, Tongogara and Mujuru rushed back to Mozambique. In January 1977, with Machel's support they started to impose their control. The radio and print media were taken over, Wampoa closed and ZIPA officers placed under arrest. When Mhanda and the rest of the ZIPA delegation returned from Geneva they were faced with a changed reality. Mhanda and other leaders who refused to be co-opted joined their comrades in prison.

Prosecution of the war took second place while Mugabe continued to impose control. Pawns, a novel about the war by Charles Samupindi, describes the new atmosphere:

The Vashandi, the young kids as …[Tongogara] …calls them, are now all safely behind bars in Frelimo prisons in Beira. But, he says, some of them are still among us. Some may be with us here at the parade. He wants to know who they are. Things are never the same again.[xi]

Until at least August 1977, there were mass denunciations, torture and beatings. Three-hundred junior Vashandi were executed.[xii]

When Machel enquired what had happened to the prosecution of the war, Mugabe was evasive and avoided Machel’s suggestion that the jailed leaders be allowed to fight.

With its most experienced commanders out of action, ZANLA failed to learn from previous lessons and Smith launched another devastating attack on the camps in Mozambique. On November 23, 1977, the ZANU base at Chimoio in Mozambique was razed leaving more than 1200 casualties.

After the suppression of the radicals, the old leaders maintained, and even stepped up, the left discourse popularised by ZIPA.

Mugabe `lays the line’

In August 1977, Mugabe felt strong enough to call a special ZANU congress and have himself appointed party president. In his congress speech, later published as ``Comrade Mugabe Lays the Line’’, Mugabe made it clear that henceforth the ``given leadership’’ was in control.[xiii]

The trappings of a personality cult started to emerge. One of his biographers writes that in his Maputo office, Mugabe’s ``subalterns …would click their heels or stamp a foot to attention when they went to see him’’.[xiv] Party documents were now embellished with the slogan ``Forward with Comrade President Robert Mugabe’’.[xv]

Undisciplined habits among ZANU apparatchiks, which had been a factor in the Nhari rebellion, re-emerged. Machel had to complain to Mugabe about the ``heavy drinking and the womanising that some senior ZANU men indulged in at the capital’s nightspots, like the Polana Hotel’’.[xvi]

Discipline weakened as the preoccupation with ``dissidents’’ meant that there was inadequate ideological and military training. Sexual abuse became common and even pro-ZANU historians mention the ``rampant raping’’ carried out by senior commanders.[xvii] During 1977 to 1979 some observers even expressed concerns that the deterioration of the guerillas’ behaviour in certain areas could cause a ``collapse of rural support’’.[xviii]

Astute leadership was especially needed when the political situation became confused. Smith took advantage of the disunity of the nationalists. He cut a deal with the conservative wing of the nationalists, represented by Ndabiginini Sithole, James Chikerema and Bishop Abel Muzorewa, to establish the puppet state of Rhodesia-Zimbabwe under nominal black majority rule.

Known as the ``internal settlement’’, the pact prolonged white domination by two more bloody years. During this time both Sithole and Muzorewa set up their own armies and fought ZANU and ZAPU, while white Rhodesians and mercenaries, especially in the Selous Scouts, massacred at will while masquerading as guerillas.

However, the weight of popular discontent, international presssure and ZANU and ZAPU’s military pressure eventually forced Smith, on behalf of the tiny white minority, to return to the negotiating table.

In December 1979, at the Lancaster House talks in Britain, Smith finally surrendered. In the elections held for the black seats the following February, ZANU won 57 seats, ZAPU 20 and Muzorewa’s United African National Council, three. While the end of white political domination was achieved, the radical transformation as conceived by ZIPA certainly wasn’t.

Origins of ZANU elitism

While ZANU formally adopted ``Marxism-Leninism-Mao TseTung thought’’ at its 1977 Chimoio Congress, this left talk ``was ultimately a disguise for classically authoritarian nationalism’’.[xix]

This orientation can be traced back to the intellectual formation of many members of the 1950s and 1960s generation of nationalists. At this time the vast mass of the people was restricted to the rural areas and had little access to education. A significant number of the first nationalists were educated at church and colonial schools which had been designed to create a tiny educated layer who would ``lead’’ the black masses on behalf of the white minority. They later found work in intellectual occupations such as teachers (Mugabe), preachers (Sithole and Muzorewa), journalists, clerks, social workers and trade union officials (Nkomo).

Many of them adopted the view that their role, and that of the black middle class, ``was to aid the government in its `civilizing’ programmes of development and industrialisation’’.[xx] This was reflected in the fact that trade union officials and the educated elite played an ambivalent role in such popular struggles as the general strike in 1948, the bus boycotts of 1956 and the mass protests which thwarted the undemocratic Anglo-Rhodesian settlement proposals of 1971.

Mugabe himself had been involved in the liberal multi-class and multi-race organisation, the Capricorn Society.[xxi] He only joined a nationalist party in 1960 when he was 36 years old, after having worked and studied abroad. Mugabe maintained his liberal contacts and could call on them to support his wife while in exile in Britain and petition the British government to grant her residency.

Despite its numerical strength, at least half a million by 1948, the organised working class did not play a central role in the later stages of the liberation struggle.[xxii] As a result, there was no significant social counterweight to the educated intellectuals who came to dominate the leadership of the struggle.

Disunity and rivalry was common among the middle-class nationalists. By the time the young ZIPA radicals arrived on the scene the divisions in the nationalist ranks were deep. Divisions existed between those who had been in jail, those who had fled into neighbouring countries to direct the guerilla war, such as Chitepo and Moyo, younger party members who had studied abroad and the generally more conservative Rhodesia-based nationalists, such as Muzorewa, who had remained ``legal’’ and largely out of jail.

Differences were reflected in questions of tactics, such as when and how to apply military pressure and to what extent outside powers be allowed to broker talks. Opposition to white rule was one of the few things that they had in common, and even that was negotiable for some.

ZANU in power

Lacking a complete military victory, and subject to pressure from their war-weary allies, in particular Mozambique and Zambia, the nationalists made significant and arguably generous concessions during the Lancaster House negotiations. Responsibility was accepted for paying the foreign debt the Smith regime had accumulated buying arms and mercenaries in contravention of UN sanctions. Even today Zimbabwe continues to accept and pay debts for which it has no moral obligation.

After independence, rather than being dismantled and transformed, the white state was merely taken over as it was. The first government included former supporters of Smith who were willing to help apply many of the same economic policies.

One of their first acts was to demobilise the ZANU committees and support groups, which had helped the party organise the rural population. The new government suppressed a spontaneous strike wave unleashed by an increasingly confident working class.

Mugabe broke the Patriotic Front, his nominal alliance with Nkomo, shortly before the 1980 election and both ZANU and ZAPU went to the vote separately. The split with ZAPU was to have dire consequences.

Ex-ZAPU members were increasingly purged from senior positions in the army and from government ministries. The army, having been retrained by British military officers, ``embraced the ideas, training, organisation and forms of force of the Rhodesian settler army’’.[xxiii] It had absolute loyalty to Mugabe above all and regardless of any constitutional and democratic considerations.

A separate brigade, the Fifth, composed exclusively of Shona speakers and ZANU veterans, was established and trained by North Korea. The Fifth Brigade was to unleash a brutal war of terror on Ndebele people, who were assumed to be ZAPU supporters and therefore dissidents. In what became known as Gukurahundi, between 1983 and 1985, at least 5000 people died in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions of Zimbabwe. At Nkomo’s funeral in 1999, Mugabe himself was to refer to the experience as a ``moment of madness’’.

A paternalistic and authoritarian state kept the popular classes in their place. Significant spending on education and health in the early years of the government was matched by corporatist trade union structures. The cities were also kept under control and thousands of urban dwellers and squatters were regularly evicted from black townships. In the rural areas land reform was forever promised but not delivered, while rural wages were kept low to subsidise cheap food, and therefore lower wages, for the cities. As one commentator observed ``poverty was structural; all the post-independence state did was ‘humanise’ it’’.[xxiv]

By 1987, with the popular classes under control, ZAPU severely weakened, the old-time allies conveniently dead or purged (Tongogara had died in an accident on the eve of independence)[xxv] and with the armed forces and police under his control, Mugabe changed the constitution and appointed himself executive president.

With an increasing orientation to international capital, the country slipped further into corruption and debt. Nonetheless, ZANU continued to pretend that it sought ``to establish a socialist society in Zimbabwe on the guidance of Marxist-Leninist principles’’.[xxvi]

People started to realise that the fruits of the liberation struggle had been appropriated. In Echoing Silences, by Alexander Kanengoni, a war veteran suffering post-traumatic stress disorder has a dream in which Chitepo and Jason Moyo are discussing how the struggle has lost its way and wondering ``how the politics, wealth and the economy of the entire country was slowly becoming synonymous with the names of less than a dozen people’’.[xxvii]

Exhausted nationalism?

The Vashandi, according to Moore, had ``hoped that full electoral freedom would enable them to mount a radical challenge to Mugabe's empty nationalism’’.[xxviii] However, the patterns and tools of political repression, established with the suppression of ZIPA, were too well entrenched to make this a possibility.

The detained ZIPA members were only released from detention in Mozambique, and allowed to return to Zimbabwe, after independence. When former ZIPAs publicly advocated unity with ZAPU, they were promptly arrested again, and only freed on the intervention of Nkomo.

Mhanda was warned that his presence in Zimbabwe was dangerous and he was obliged to spend several years studying in Europe. The ZIPA movement was effectively dispersed. In 2000, along with other ex-combatants, Mhanda helped form the Zimbabwe Liberators’ Platform to organise and fight for the rights of the country’s genuine war veterans.

Mugabe had proven to be apt in suppressing the threat from the left and employing the language of people such as Mhanda's ``to practice the worst of Third World socialism – and then the worst of Third World neo-liberalism’’[xxix] essentially to allow his cronies to enrich themselves with the ``privileges and subsidies that white exploiters had enjoyed’’.[xxx]

However, even before the end of the first decade of independence, it was clear that Mugabe’s version of patriarchal nationalism had exhausted any progressive content and the first steps towards a political break between the people and the ZANU elite were developing.

Once again it was young people, university students who had grown up under independence, supported by a new general secretary of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Morgan Tsvangirai, who began to challenge the dominant system of inequality and repression and open up a new phase in Zimbabwe’s still unresolved struggle for national libereation.

[Stephen O'Brien is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, a Marxist tendency within the Socialist Alliance of Australia. He writes on Zimbawean politics for Green Left Weekly.]


[i] Up until the early 1970s nationalists had to forcibly conscript Zimbabwean youth to fight against Smith. See Chung, F. (2006) Re-living the second Chirumenga. Memories from Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle. Stockholm: The Nordic Africa Institute in cooperation with Weaver Press, p. 77

[ii] Mhanda, W. (2007) Interview with Wilfred Mhanda by Stephen O’Brien August 2007. Harare

[iii] Moore, D. (1990) The Contradictory construction of hegemony in Zimbabwe: Politics, ideology and class in the formation of a new AfricanState. PhD dissertation YorkUniversity, Toronto. p. 335.

[iv] Flower, K. (1987) Serving secretly. An intelligence chief on record: Rhodesia into Zimbabwe 1964-1981. London: John Murray. p. 131. Flower also admits that the Selous Scouts attracted ``psychopathic killers’’, p. 124.

[v]Moore, D. (1990) p. 359

[vi]Moore, D. (1990) p. 309

[vii] Julius Nyerere, the then leader of Tanzania, had close ties to China and pursued a Tanzanian version of socialism.

[viii] For example See Nyagumbo, M. (1980) With the people. Salisbury: The Graham Company. p. 78-86 and Bhebe, N. (2004) Simon Vengai Muzenda and the struggle for and liberation of Zimbabwe. Gweru, Zimbabwe: Mambo Press, p. 49-68

[ix]Moore, D. (2008) ``Todays' imperialists were those who nurtured Mugabe’’, Sunday Independent, 20 January.

[x] Moore (1990) p. 361 suggests that Mugabe deliberately stalled as Geneva as he needed to deal with ZIPA and gain control the army before he entered serious negotiations with Smith.

[xi] Samupindi, C. (1992) Pawns. Harare: Baobab Books, p. 97.

[xii] The figure of 300 executions is cited by Astrow, A. (1983) Zimbabwe, a revolution that lost its way?London; Totowa, N.J.: Zed Press, p. 107. For more information on the suppression of ZIPA see Moore (1990) p. 367 and Nhongo-Simbanegavi (2000) For Better or Worse: Women and Zanla in Zimbabwe’s Liberation Struggle. Harare : Weaver Press, p. 102.

[xiii]Moore, D. (1990) p. 400

[xiv] Smith, D., Simpson, C., & Davies, I. (1981) Mugabe. Salisbury: Pioneer Head, p. 99

[xv] Nhongo-Simbanegavi, J. (2000) p. 202

[xvi] Smith, D., Simpson, C., & Davies, I. (1981) p. 106

[xvii] See Bhebe, N. (2004) p. 224, Chung, (2006) p. 125-128. For women’s testimonies see Musengezi, C. (Ed.) (2000) Women of resilience. The voices of women ex-combatants. Harare: Zimbabwe Women Writers and Nhongo-Simbanegavi, (2000) and Tekere, E. (2007) A lifetime of struggle. Harare: SAPES Trust, p. 94.

[xviii] Kriger, N. J. (2002) Zimbabwe’s guerilla war peasant voices. Harare : Baobab Books. p. 128.

[xix] Bond, P. (1998) Uneven Zimbabwe A study of finance, development and underdevelopment (PDF version) Trenton: Africa World Press, p. 339.

[xx]Moore, D. (1990) p. 124

[xxi] Smith, D., Simpson, C., & Davies, I. (1981) p. 18

[xxii]Low wages, import substitution industries and sanctions busting during UDI helped further develop railways, mines, light manufacturing and agricultural processing and contribute to the growth of the working class.

[xxiii]Campbell, H. (2003) Reclaiming Zimbabwe: The exhaustion of the patriarchal model of liberation.Trenton, NJ. Asmara, Eritrea: Africa World Press. p. 273

[xxiv] Tandon, Y. (2001) Trade unions and labour in the agricultural sector in Zimbabwe. In B. Raftopolous & L. Sachikonye (Eds.) Striking back: The labour movement and the post-colonial state in Zimbabwe 1980-2000 (pp. 221-249) Harare: Weaver Press, p. 229.

[xxv]Maurice Nyagumbo, Enos Nkala and Edgar Tekere, who had supported Mugabe in deposing Sithole, all fell out with Mugabe. Tekere (2007) p. 84, a key Mugabe henchman, was to later admit that ZIPA was ``absolutely correct’’. In 1978 a group of ZANU ``radicals’’, lead by Henry Hamadziripi and Rugare Gumbo, appearing to have had second thoughts about ZIPA, unsuccessfully tried to challenge the ZANU leadership. After being sentenced to death by ZANU they were detained by Mozambique.

[xxvi] The ZANU (PF) and PF ZAPU Agreement. Appendix 1. Cited in Sibanda, E. M. (2005) The Zimbabwe African People’s Union 1961-1987. A political history of insurgency in Southern Rhodesia. Trenton: Africa World Press.

[xxvii] Kanengoni, A. (2001) Echoing silences. Harare: Boabab Books. p. 87

[xxviii]Moore, D. (2001) How Mugabe came to power. London Review of Books, 5 April, p. 23.

[xxix]Moore, D. (2001) p. 23.

[xxx]Campbell, H. (2003) p. 272.


Robert’s rules of order

August 21. 2008 The National

Book Review

With Robert Mugabe’s iron hold on power finally starting to slip, Sean Jacobs

looks at a new biography of the nationalist rebel turned tyrant.

Dinner with Mugabe by Heidi Holland

Allen Lane


In 1957, Ghana became the first European colony in Africa south of the Sahara

to gain its political independence. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s new prime minister,

invited young Africans from countries still under colonial rule to move to

Ghana and help build the new country; a young schoolteacher from Rhodesia,

Robert Mugabe, was among them.

In 1960, during a visit home to his mother, Mugabe was invited to join a march

protesting the arrest of two nationalist leaders in the Rhodesian capital,

Salisbury. Facing police, the marchers stopped to hold an impromptu political

rally. Somehow Mugabe found himself hoisted onto the improvised stage

alongside other leaders like Joshua Nkomo, who headed the leading black

opposition group, the National Democratic Party. Mugabe gave a rousing speech

(“The nationalist movement will only succeed if it is based on a blending of

all classes of men”) and the nationalist leaders convinced him to remain in

Rhodesia and become publicity secretary of the NDP, which soon morphed into

the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU). Three years later, Mugabe

engineered a split within ZAPU to form the Zimbabwe African National Union. He

would dominate the country’s politics from that moment on.

Nothing about Mugabe’s earlier life portended his swift rise, the South

African journalist Heidi Holland notes in her “psychobiography” Dinner with

Mugabe. Born in 1924 in Kutama, in the central part of the country, Mugabe was

a shy, precocious child. When Robert was 10 years old, his father, a

carpenter, moved away to start a second family and broke off all contact.

Mugabe’s mother clung devotedly to the Catholic Church and to Robert. She told

him he was marked for greatness and sent him for a Jesuit education (Mugabe is

still a devoted Catholic.) Mugabe would go on to study in South Africa at the

University of Fort Hare, the alma mater of Nelson Mandela and other

nationalist leaders. He started teaching after graduation, and soon made his

way to Ghana.

The Rhodesia that Mugabe returned to in 1960 was a tense, violent country,

especially for its black population. The former British colony was governed by

a small, tightly-knit and mainly English-speaking white settler population who

had been granted “self-rule” by the British at the expense of the country’s

black majority. Whites had first arrived in Zimbabwe in the 19th century as

part of an aggressive British colonial expansion north from South Africa in

search of natural resources. The new arrivals, through a mixture of force and

cunning, eventually dispossessed the locals of their land. In 1896 blacks rose

up in what would come to be known as the “First Chimurenga”, or liberation

war. Though they fought valiantly, they lost and colonisation was formalised.

By the 1950s, nearly 80 per cent of the best agricultural land belonged to

whites. Most blacks were condemned to life on rural reserves, burdened by

heavy taxes that forced men to work on commercial farms and mines or move to

the ghettos of Salisbury or Rhodesia’s second city, Bulawayo, in search of

wage-work. The country’s whites gradually developed a distinctive political

identity and a reputation for unbending racism and prejudice.

In a 1960 speech in Cape Town the British prime minister Harold Macmillan told

South Africa’s white rulers that “the wind of change is blowing through this

continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national

consciousness is a political fact. We must all accept it as a fact, and our

national policies must take account of it.” The South Africans rejected

Macmillan’s advice, digging in for another three decades of undemocratic rule.

Five years later the Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith announced a

“Unilateral Declaration of Independence” from Britain, vowing that blacks

would not govern Rhodesia “in a thousand years.”

By this point Mugabe’s new movement, ZANU, had grown into the main opposition

force, largely due to its exploitation of ethnic differences. ZANU was

dominated by the majority Shona; Nkomo’s ZAPU became associated with the

minority Ndebele. In 1964, Mugabe was arrested, and he spent 10 years in

prison before he was released as part of an agreement between the Rhodesian

government and ZANU guerrillas, by now engaged in a full-scale civil war.

Mugabe’s only son died (at age three) during his prison term, and Smith

refused to allow him to attend the funeral; in Holland’s account, these

slights had a lasting effect on Mugabe.

Holland first met Mugabe in 1975 in Salisbury, where she worked as magazine

editor. She arranged for a lawyer friend to meet Mugabe secretly at her

suburban home. Over dinner Mugabe said little, but impressed Holland

nonetheless: driving Mugabe to the train station after the meeting (his ride

had failed to materialise), Holland left her small son asleep alone in the

house. The next day, Mugabe called to check that the child was OK.

Over the next 30 years Holland had no further contact with Mugabe, who went on

to lead a brutal guerrilla war that would eventually exhaust the government

and the appetite of white Rhodesians for segregation at all costs. In the late

1970s, the regime – stripped of British support and abandoned by South

Africa’s Apartheid rulers (and their backers in the US Republican Party) –

initiated negotiations with the black opposition.

But the war also bred elements of the political culture that independent

Zimbabwe would later inherit: the use of violence to settle political scores

and to obliterate opponents, disregard for human rights, slavish reverence for

authority, ideological rigidness and corruption.

ZANU won a majority in the first democratic elections in 1980, and Mugabe was

initially conciliatory to whites, guaranteeing them seats in the new

Parliament (one went to Smith) and appointing a white man as agriculture

minister. But barely two years into independence – under the pretext of

fighting an attempted coup by guerrillas loyal to Nkomo, who had become the

opposition leader – Mugabe unleashed a murderous, North Korean-trained army

unit in the ZAPU-dominated Matabeleland province, indiscriminately killing

civilians and guerrillas alike.

A report by the Catholic Bishops conference later estimated the total number

of murdered or disappeared at more than 20,000 people. But Mugabe achieved his

political aim: in 1987 he coerced a weak Nkomo into accepting a “Unity

Accord”, effectively swallowing ZAPU into the new ZANU-Patriotic Front. Not

long thereafter, Mugabe changed the constitution to make himself executive


One of the legacies of that time – and a testament of the power of the

nationalist narrative that African independence leaders embodied – is that few

if any of Mugabe’s present Western critics publicly denounced these murders.

Instead he received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 1994 and honorary

degrees from American universities. The economy was growing steadily even in

the hostile shadow of Apartheid South Africa and access to education and

health services markedly improved. As Lord Corrington, the British foreign

secretary during independence negotiations, tells Holland: “But other than the

killing of the Ndebele, it went tolerably well under Mugabe at first, didn’t

it? He wasn’t running a fascist state. He didn’t appear to be a bad dictator.”

In 1995, street riots erupted in the capital against rising prices and

unemployment. A mineworker, Morgan Tsvangirai, who would emerge as Mugabe’s

most formidable opponent, led the newly formed Zimbabwe Congress of Trade

Unions. Academics, human rights activists and lawyers would later join the

trade unions to form the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Their main

political focus, alongside protesting economic hardship, was reforming the

country’s constitution. Mugabe pushed back by announcing a referendum in 2000

to increase his powers and extend his tenure as president. Much to his

surprise, the referendum failed, and he was clearly stung by the result.

With parliamentary elections looming and an opposition buoyed by the

referendum, ZANU-PF unleashed what Mugabe termed the “Third Chimurenga”. (The

guerrilla war against the Rhodesian government had been the second.) This

involved an effort at land redistribution; the British were blamed for

abandoning promises to fund the acquisition of private commercial farms to

distribute to black farmers. Whites, who still owned much of the productive

land and who had reluctantly come to accept independence, also provided easy


Squatters identified as “war veterans” (among them were 18-year-olds who could

not have fought in the guerrilla war that ended before they were born) soon

invaded white farms. But it became clear that redistribution was in the eye of

the beholder: the best farms were parcelled out to Mugabe’s cabinet ministers

and senior army officers.

A few whites were brutally attacked, and their plight predictably became

front-page news in the West. In the British Parliament, members spoke once

again of “the people of Rhodesia”. Peter Godwin, a white journalist born in

Zimbabwe, later claimed that being white in post-independence Zimbabwe was

“starting to feel a bit like being a Jew in Poland in 1939.” What was not

apparent at first was that – just like in Smith’s Rhodesia – the bulk of the

victims were black: members of the opposition were murdered, tortured or

imprisoned. Journalists were harassed, newspaper offices closed or bombed and

people denied food if they failed to join ZANU.

In 2002 Mugabe was re-elected to another six year term in an election marred

by fraud and violence, and condemned as deeply flawed by both Zimbabwean and

foreign observers. Since then Zimbabwe’s economy has crashed – there is

large-scale poverty and the currency is essentially worthless. Thousands have

fled to neighbouring South Africa (whose president, Thabo Mbeki, remains a

loyal ally of Mugabe, though his party and the South African trade union

movement have backed the Zimbabwean opposition.)

During this period, Mugabe and his closest aides became more delusional and

their government took on a siege mentality. Holland’s account of Mugabe’s

political career is book ended with an account of her second meeting with

Mugabe in 2007. She describes a banner in his office proclaiming “Mugabe is

Right” and his insistence that Zimbabwe’s economy is a “hundred times better

than the average African economy.”

On March 29 of this year, Zimbabweans went to the polls again in presidential

elections. The opposition was again subjected to intimidation and violence by

ZANU paramilitaries; Morgan Tsvangirai was viciously assaulted by police.

However, as the first results arrived, it appeared Tsvangirai held a clear

lead. The next day the electoral commission, stuffed with government

sympathizers, announced that it would delay the results. A month later,

following announcements from the army and police that they would not serve an

MDC government, a final result was announced: Tsvangirai had won, but not by

enough. So an unprecedented second round was scheduled, and intimidation and

attacks on opposition candidates and supporters increased. Days before the

vote Tsvangirai – citing high levels of violence – withdrew, guaranteeing

Mugabe a hollow victory.

Southern African governments belatedly stepped in, forcing Mugabe to meet with

Tsvangirai to thrash out the details of a unity government. The best scenario

under the circumstances is for Mugabe to retain a ceremonial presidential post

while Tsvangirai serves as prime minister with a fair representation of MDC

leaders in key cabinet posts. But who occupies State House is not only the

issue to resolve.

Larger questions remain about Mugabe’s legacy – and Zimbabwe’s future. Mugabe

turned the security and civil services into affiliates of the ruling party,

rigged elections, encouraged paramilitaries and stifled public debate. Under

the cover of Third-Worldism he also mocked real political grievances – as

varied as land hunger and unequal global relations – to forward his own

selfish, violent agenda. In the West, he became an example of a supposedly

black and specifically African, political pathology. But those critics must

now come to terms with the fact that his regime is not an aberration, as

Holland depicts it: it is also a by-product of Zimbabwe’s violent colonial and

white minority past and the duplicity of the post-Cold War world.

Mugabe’s Zimbabwe demonstrates, among other things, that nationalism as a

political ideology is fundamentally flawed, despite its role in the successful

struggle for independence. The MDC clearly presents a rupture with the

predatory regimes of both Smith and Mugabe, and it bodes well that the MDC was

forged as a non-violent post-independence movement. But it remains to be seen

whether it can carve its own path between neoliberalism (as its boosters in

the West want) and appeals from its constituents inside Zimbabwe for more

substantive democracy, including a solution to the land question. But first

there’s the small matter of consigning Mugabe to history.

Sean Jacobs teaches African Studies and Media Studies at the University of

Michigan in Ann Arbor. He was born in South Africa.


But if the ZANU-PF government of President Robert Mugabe has its origins in the liberation struggle against the white supremacist Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith how did a government that emerged from a mass struggle for liberation degenerate into the dictatorship that exists today? I would be very grateful if you clear up this issue.


Dear Steve,
Your article is quite an eye-opener. It's taken me a while since the 'World at a Crossroads' conference to get access to it: I'm in the throes of upgrading my computer.

I must say, though, that I'm not completely comfortable with the view you present of African nationalism. We Marxists have always maintained that there is a polar difference between the nationalism of the oppressed and that of the oppressor. You seem to be saying that those African/Black nationalists in the liberation movement in Zimbabwe were somehow predisposed towards corruption or degeneration. Do correct me if I have misunderstood you. But if I do have it right, then how would you view the whole process of decolonisation in Africa post-World War Two, and the roles of revolutionary nationalists such as Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral, and possibly Kwame Nkrumah?

I was not convinced personally by the presentation of the ISO representative from Zimbabwe at the recent Sydney conference, where he referred disparagingly to the efforts of the generations of African liberation fighters that came before his. The Zimbabwean ISO is part of the International Socialist Tendency, and even although this organisation has taken its distance from the British SWP, its perspectives on such issues as support for national liberation struggles in the Third World are clearly as flawed as ever.

But I did enjoy reading your article, and it has modified my understanding of the history of Zimbabwe and of the fight to end white minority rule.

Best regards,

Graham Milner


Dear Steven,

In analysing Mugabes ascent to pwer you need to also bring into fore the the Nhari rebellion at Chifombo whic led to the first mass killings of first generation fighters and paved the way for the assination of Herbert Chitepo.

Zipa formation was much later towards the Geneva conference prior to tha, the two armies ZANLA and ZIRA had existed independently.

The Vashandi movement was motivated by the need to gain heavier soviet military arms.